From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia


  THERE are few subjects upon which it is more difficult either to write or to legislate with effect, than that of Suicide. It is difficult to a writer, because a man does not resolve upon the act until he baa first become steeled to some of the most powerful motives than can be urged upon the human mind; and to the legislator, because he can inflict no penalty upon the offending party.

  It is to be feared that there is little probability of diminishing the frequency of this miserable offence by urging the considerations which philosophy suggests. The voice of nature is louder and stronger than the voice of philosophy; and as nature speaks to the suicide in vain, what is the hope that philosophy will be regarded?—There appears to be but one efficient means by which the mind can be armed against the temptations to suicide, because there is but one that can support it against every evil of life,—practical religion,—belief in the providence of God, confidence in his wisdom,—hope in his goodness. The only anchor that can hold us in safety, is that which is fixed “within the vail.” He upon whom religion possesses its proper influence, finds that it enables him to endure, with resigned patience, every calamity of life. When patience thus fulfils its perfect work, suicide, which is the result of impatience, cannot be committed. He who is surrounded, by whatever means, with pain or misery, should remember that the present existence is strictly probationary,—a scene upon which we are to be exercised, and tried, and tempted; and in which we are to manifest whether we are willing firmly to endure. The good or evil of the present life is of importance chiefly as it influences our allotment in futurity: sufferings are permitted for our advantage: they are designed to purify and rectify the heart. The universal Father “scourgeth every son whom he receiveth;” and the suffering, the scourging, is of little account in comparison with the prospects of another world. It is not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall follow,—that glory of which an exceeding and eternal weight is the reward of a “patient continuance in well-doing.”—To him who thus regards misery, not as an evil but as a good; not as the unrestrained assault of chance or malice, but as the beneficent discipline of a Father; to him who remembers that the time is approaching in which he will be able most feelingly to say, “For all I bless Thee, most for the severe,”—every affliction is accompanied with its proper alleviation: the present hour may distress but it does not overwhelm him; he may be perplexed, but is not in despair: he sees the darkness, and feels the storm; but he knows that light will again arise, and that the storm will eventually be hushed with an efficacious, Peace, be still so that there shall be a great calm.

  Compared with these motives to avoid the first promptings to suicide, others are likely to be of little effect; and yet they are neither inconsiderable nor few. It is more dignified, more worthy an enlightened and manly understanding, to meet and endure an inevitable evil than to sink beneath it. The case of him who feels prompted to suicide is something like that of the duellist as it was illustrated in the preceding chapter. Each sacrifices his life to his fears. The suicide balances between opposing objects of dread (for dreadful self-destruction must be supposed to be), and chooses the alternative which he fears least. If his courage, his firmness, his manliness, were greater, he who chooses the alternative of suicide, like him who chooses the duel, would endure the evil rather than avoid it in a manner which dignity and religion forbid. The lesson too which the self-destroyer teaches to his connexions, of sinking in despair under the evils of life, is one of the most pernicious which a man can bequeath. The power of the example is also great. Every act of suicide tacitly conveys the sanction of one more judgment in its favour: frequency of repetition diminishes the sensation of abhorrence, and makes succeeding sufferers resort to it with less reluctance. “Besides which general reasons, each case will be aggravated by its own proper and particular consequences; by the duties that are deserted; by the claims that are defrauded; by the loss, affliction, or disgrace which our death, or the manner of it, causes our family, kindred, or friends; by the occasion we give to many to suspect the sincerity of our moral and religious professions, and, together with ours, those of all others;”1 and lastly, by the scandal which we bring upon religion itself, by declaring, practically, that it is not able to support man under the calamities of life.

  Some men say that the New Testament contains no prohibition of suicide. H this were true, it would avail nothing, because there are many things which it does not forbid, but which every one knows to be wicked. But in reality it does forbid it. Every exhortation which it gives to be patient, every encouragement to trust in God, every consideration which it urges as a support under affliction and distress, is a virtual prohibition of suicide; because, if a man commits suicide, he rejects every such advice and encouragement, and disregards every such motive.

  To him who believes either in revealed or natural religion there is a certain folly in the commission of suicide; for from what does he fly? From his present sufferings; while death, for aught that he has reason to expect, or at any rate for aught that he knows, may only be the portal to sufferings more intense. Natural religion, I think, gives no countenance to the supposition that suicide can be approved by the Deity, because it proceeds upon the belief that in another state of existence, he will compensate good men for the sufferings of the present. At the best, and under either religion, it is a desperate stake. He that commits murder may repent, and, we hope, be forgiven; but he that destroys himself, while he incurs a load of guilt, cuts off, by the act, the power of repentance.

  Not every act of suicide is to be attributed to excess of misery. Some shoot themselves or throw themselves into a river in rage or revenge, in order to inflict pain and remorse upon those who have ill used them. Such, it is to be suspected, is sometimes a motive to self-destruction in disappointed love. The unhappy person leaves behind some message or letter, in the hope of exciting that affection and commiseration by the catastrophe which he could not excite when alive. Perhaps such persons hope, too, that the world will sigh over their early fate, tell of the fidelity of their loves, and throw a romantic melancholy over their story. This needs not to be a subject of wonder: unnumbered multitudes have embraced death in other forms from kindred motives. We hear continually of the fidelity of those who die for the sake of glory. This is but another phantom, and the less amiable phantom of the two. It is just as reasonable to die in order that the world may admire our true love as in order that it may admire our bravery. And the lover’s hope is the better founded. There are too many aspirants for glory for each to get even his “peppercorn of praise.” But the lover may hope for higher honours; a paragraph may record his fate through the existence of a weekly paper; he may be talked of through half a county; and some kindred spirit may inscribe a tributary sonnet in a lady’s album.


  To legislate efficiently upon the crime of suicide is difficult, if it is not impossible. As the legislator cannot inflict a penalty upon the offender, the act must pass with impunity unless the penalty is made to fall upon the innocent. I say the penalty; for such it would actually be, whatever were the provision of the law,—whether, for instance, confiscation of property or indignity to the remains of the dead. One would make a family poor, and the other perhaps unhappy. It does not appear just or reasonable that these should suffer for an offence which they could not prevent, and by which they, above all others, are already injured and distressed.

  One thing appears to be clear, that it is not for a legislature to attempt any interference of which the people do not approve. This is evident from the experience in our own country, where coroners’ juries prefer perjuring themselves to pronouncing a verdict of felo de se, by which the remains would be subjected to barbarous indignities. Coroners’ inquests seem to proceed rather upon the pre-supposition that he who destroys himself is insane, than upon the evidence which is brought before them; and thus, while the law is evaded, perjury, it is to be feared, is very frequent. That the public mind disapproves the existing law is a good reason for altering it, but it is not a good reason why coroners’ juries should violate their oaths, and give encouragement to the suicide by telling him that disgrace will be warded off from his memory and from his family by a generous verdict of insanity. It has been said that it is a common thing for a suicide’s friends to fee the coroner in order to induce him to prevent a verdict of felo de se. If this be true, it is indeed time that the arm of the law should be vigorously extended. What punishment is due to the man who accepts a purse as a reward for inducing twelve persona to commit perjury? It is probable, too, that half a dozen just verdicts, by which the law was allowed to take its course, would occasion the abolition of the disgusting statute;2 for the public would not bear that it should be acted upon.

  The great object is to associate with the act of suicide ideas of guilt and horror in the public mind. This association would be likely to preclude, in individuals, that first complacent contemplation of the act which probably precedes, by a long interval, the act itself. The anxiety which the surviving friends manifest for a verdict of “insanity” is a proof how great is the power of imagination, and how much they are in dread of public opinion. They are anxious that the disgrace and reproach of conscious self-murder should not cling to their family. This is precisely that anxiety of which the legislator should avail himself, by enactments that would require satisfactory proof of insanity, and which, in default of such proof, would leave to its full force the stigma and the pain, and excite a sense of horror of the act and a perception of its wickedness in the public mind. The point for the exercise of legislative wisdom is, to devise such an ultimate procedure as shall call forth these feelings, but as shall not become nugatory by being more dreadful than the public will endure. What that procedure should be I pretend not to describe; but it may be observed that the simple circumstance of pronouncing a public verdict of conscious self-murder, would, among a people of good feelings, go far towards the production of the desired effect.—As the law now exists, and as it is now violated, the tendency is exactly the contrary of what it ought to be. By the almost universal custom which it generates of declaring suicides to have been insane, it effectually diminishes that pain to individuals, and that horror in the public, which the crime itself would naturally occasion.

1 Mor. and Pol. Phil. b. 4, c. 3.
2 This statute has been repealed; and the law now simply requires, when a verdict of felo de se is returned, that the body shall be interred privately, at night, and without the funeral service.—ED.

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