A History of Suicide Voluntary Death in Western Culture

A History of Suicide

Title: A History of Suicide: Voluntary Death in Western Culture

Author: Georges Minois, translated by Lydia Cochrane

Data: 420 pages, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999; $21.95

The powerful act of suicide, once a shameful family secret and still largely taboo in a society where newspaper obituaries regularly avoid its mention, continues to affect our lives and our public discourse. As Dr. Jack Kevorkian's crusade brings the debate into renewed focus, Georges Minois’s A History of Suicide: Voluntary Death in Western Culture, is especially relevant. It's also very useful.

While Minois's exhaustive work lacks a chronology of clinical psychology on the subject, this is a comprehensive history of the act and the philosophical views toward it. A History of Suicide shows that ending one's own life, whether a way out for the weak or an act of personal liberation, often mirrors the history of freedom.

Using Shakespeare's question, "to be or not to be," to express his theme, Minois observes that man "alone is capable of reflecting on his own existence and deciding to prolong life or put an end to it." The results may offer the benefit of a wider perspective to those whose lives have been affected by suicide. Minois meticulously traces the act of suicide throughout Western civilization and its mostly religious opposition.

One of the earliest recorded texts, a 13th century French municipal code, stipulated that corpses of suicidal men be dragged—women were to be burned—while suicidal priests were routinely granted reprieve from such laws. Minois's method allows the reader to explore the anatomy of an idea while holding a wider historical context. As Christianity spreads, its contradictions on the subject become deeper. Minois shows that, as self-interest and the role of volition gain favor during the Renaissance, so does the right to suicide.

That the acceptance of suicide correlates to acceptance of individual freedom comes as no surprise but is no less significant. As one Renaissance writer concluded: "The nature that is unique to humankind is reason, which distinguishes us from the animals. Therefore reason should enlighten us about what is good or bad for us. It might at times be more reasonable to kill oneself."

Not that Minois takes suicide lightly. He fully reports theological opposition and he cedes the oft-cited Marxist claim that a rise in suicide occurred during the Industrial Revolution, correctly pointing out that increased despair is often the byproduct of increased risks and competition, particularly in a culture unaccustomed to personal liberty.

Minois largely confines his study to Europe and he reveals in the last chapters that he is inclined to support the right to suicide. However, his work is hardly polemic; Minois offers an honest and thorough philosophical chronology of the widely misunderstood act of killing oneself. He writes, "Suicide inspires horror, but it remains the supreme solution to life's problems. It is within reach of all, and no law, no power in the world, has proven strong enough to prohibit it." Though opponents of suicide may dispute the implications, Minois's scholarly work illuminates the link between the spread of liberty and the acceptance of the right to suicide, and, therefore, establishes a solid historical foundation for future philosophers to prove that the right to life means the right to end one's life.

Originally published in the Dallas Morning News, Daily News of Los Angeles and Portland Oregonian in 1999.

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