Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Suicide

In a recent article about the terribly difficult subject of suicide, Gretchen Winter and Gillian Mohney write, “the suicide rate went up 24 percent between 1999 and 2014 … according to the CDC.” [1] The article notes that one particular group, middle-aged women, saw a huge uptick in suicides: 63%. Among males, the middle-aged also saw a large increase, some 43%. The authors go on to quote Jane Pearson, chair of the Suicide Research Consortium at the National Institute of Mental Health: “We don’t know why. We would like to know why. Knowing it’s going up, we are concerned, but we are not surprised because we have seen this trend happening.” Pearson, who in the article suggests stress is a root cause, added that more research is needed, especially because suicide is currently the tenth leading reason for death in the United States.

Another person consulted in the article, Dr. Russell Rothman, who serves as Assistant Vice Chancellor for health research at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, noted that this particular increase comes even after numerous public health initiatives targeting suicide in particular. He, too, is quoted: “The fact that we’re seeing increasing rates particularly among women—it’s probably multifactorially related to economic pressure, social pressure, our culture around acceptance of suicide.”

I can brook the facile and probably only partially accurate assumptions about economic pressures and social pressures (whatever those might be), I can even pass over Jane Pearson’s surprising lack of surprise at the rise in rates, but this last bit, the “acceptance of suicide” is what jumped out at me. It must have jumped out, too, at the authors of the article, for they took the liberty of adding in square brackets [and stigma] before “of suicide.” Yet that is apparently not what Assistant Vice Chancellor Rothman said.

G. K. Chesterton

It struck me precisely because I found myself wondering how it is that suicide has become acceptable. It hasn’t always been so. For the great Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton, suicide is “the sin … the ultimate and absolute evil.”[2] He expands on this somewhat unsympathetically, viewing it as “the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men.”[3]

By citing Chesterton’s indictment of the overarching notion of suicide, I do not wish to suggest that we, who in terms of greater knowledge of mental health issues have the advantage of living several generations after Chesterton, should fail to acknowledge the complexity of the issue or in any way lack sympathy for someone who struggles with depression or other manifestations of mental illness that sadly can lead to suicide. What, a la seventeenth-century scholar Robert Burton,[4] might have been deemed by Chesterton merely a bout of melancholy is now correctly recognized as depression, bipolar disorder, or some other serious struggle with mental illness or even a physical illness that may cause mental problems. As a tragic and famous example of the latter, one may take the case of Robin Williams, whose death was the result of his struggle with Lewy-Body Syndrome. It is very likely the case not merely that he was depressed because of his illness and thus decided to end it all but rather that a manifestation of one of the frightening hallucinations associated with the disease compelled him to take his own life.[5] This example and others like it reveal that what we call suicide is not a monolithic black-and-white issue but, like many things, once studied closely proves to be highly complicated.

Martin Luther
Statue of Martin Luther, Cathedral of Gotha

Martin Luther understood as much. Luther’s view, recorded in 1532 in his Tischreden, was no doubt regarded at that time by the Church and the non-church alike as one more heterodox link in a long chain of heresies: “I am not of the opinion that those who kill themselves must be in our minds considered ‘damned.’ My reasoning is based on the idea that they do not kill themselves of their own volition but are simply overcome by the power of the Devil.”[6] Luther’s view perhaps summarizes best in theological terms what I am trying to convey here in human terms. Indeed, as portrayed in perhaps the most poignant moment in the film Luther, Luther’s assessment, put into practice, is decidedly humane. If you haven’t seen the movie and this topic is one close to your heart, I would urge you to click on this link.

Yet even though Luther’s interpretation of suicide is gentle and reveals how complicated the issue is, that does not mean the concept or idea of suicide—Plato’s word for “form” is idea—can be viewed merely as an alternative or a choice. And thus, what Dr. Rothman seems to regard as modern society’s de-stigmatization of suicide, might be an aspect or result of the way that suicide has been promoted as an alternative to pain. One thinks of the late Dr. Jack Kervorkian who even though he helped end human life—or rather precisely because he did so—is held as a hero by so many. Laws in many states now allow physician-assisted suicide. Such a way to escape pain has of late been touted as a reasonable alternative to living a life deemed less than worth living.

While there is certainly no single source for the shift in modern posture toward suicide, some discussions of it undoubtedly have been more influential than others. A few years before Kervorkian, in the late 1970s, Peter Singer, then a professor of Ethics at Monash University and now the Ira. W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics, University Center for Human Values at Princeton University, took on the issue of the taking of human life. By virtue of his exalted status consisting of an endowed professorship at an Ivy League university, it might not be an overreach to say that Dr. Singer could be viewed as “America’s ethicist.” In the academic world, his ideas, perhaps more than any other individual scholar, have shaped the current American ethos, the American moral climate. (I have corresponded with him a time or two by e-mail.)

Peter Singer
Peter Singer

On the topic of suicide, Dr. Singer is in favor not just of suicide, but even the taking of one human life by another to alleviate pain. I haven’t time to rehears all of Dr. Singer’s arguments here; they are easily found online. At bottom, Singer’s views come down to a kind of practical hedonism.[7] Why are Dr. Singer’s views so widely held today? Why has America (and much of the West) shifted away from the notion of life being sacred to pleasure being sacred? In part, it has to do with mere pragmatism. Most of it, though, has to do with this: we have allowed ourselves to become removed from any sense of story, any sense that we are part of a larger narrative, a saga that has meaning the way a joke has a punch-line or story has a moral. When we remove ourselves from that way of viewing life, there can be no morality that isn’t merely practical: hence, the title of Dr. Singer’s most famous book, Practical Ethics. Such ethics are situation driven, based on practical outcomes. Singer’s position is that of moral pragmatism in the extreme. If pain can be eliminated by one’s taking one’s own life, then suicide is acceptable.

Let’s look at a bit more of Chesterton’s rant against suicide for just one moment: “The Christian attitude to the martyr and the suicide was not what is so often affirmed in modern morals. It was not a matter of degree. It was not that a line must be drawn somewhere, and that the self-slayer in exaltation fell within the line, the self-slayer in sadness just beyond it. The Christian feeling evidently was not merely that the suicide was carrying martyrdom too far. The Christian feeling was furiously for one and furiously against the other: these two things that looked so much alike were at opposite ends of heaven and hell.” And thus Dante’s seventh circle. Yet perhaps Chesterton might better have said that there is simply meaning in suffering and that avoiding it at all cost is to deny that meaning.

Martin Luther’s gentle response is surely more humane than Chesterton’s harsh condemnation. Chesterton’s observation, if unlikely to help the person struggling with mental illness, nevertheless may usefully address those who prefer to sit back and theorize, who find acceptable the current acceptance of suicide that Singer’s 1979 book precipitated or at least anticipated. Can’t we find a better way than death, even if that better way should prove to be less “practical”? If we wish to do so, we shall, at some point, have to acknowledge that there is meaning in suffering; that suffering itself is not simply to be avoided at all cost; and finally, that we most certainly are a part of a grander narrative that gives meaning to our individual stories. Here’s to a proper ending to a wonderful story, the wonderful story that tells a tale of and for each and every one of us!champagne glasses


[2] Orthodoxy, ch. 5; my italics.

[3] Orthodoxy, ch. 5; my italics.

[4] Robert Burton’s famous work, The Anatomy of Melancholy, enjoyed wide-ranging influence.

[5] I know this from firsthand experience, as Elaine Jakes died from this disease. Her hallucinations varied from the frightening—so frightening that already in her mid-50s she was being awoken by them from her deep sleep—to the benign. As an example of the latter, in the months before she moved in with us, she frequently thought she saw “the admiral” wandering about her house, which was then just across the street from our own; the admiral came with her and made frequent visits to our home, where she died roughly five years later.

[6] Ego non sum in ea sententia, ut penitus damnandos eos censeam, qui se ipsos occidunt; ratio est quia sie thun es nit gern, sed superantur Diaboli potentia …” [my translation of lemma 222, 7 April 1532].

[7] In all fairness, Professor Singer and/or his followers might dispute what I regard as a hedonistic impulse implicit in his work. It might be fairer to qualify that impulse as one particular manifestation of hedonism (nowadays associated with a refined palate), namely Epicureanism. While the modern idea of being an “epicure” is not an aspect of Practical Ethics, the notion central to Epicureanism’s historical teaching, specifically the avoidance of pain, is very much an aspect of Singer’s work.