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Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Worldwide, more people die by suicide than by murder, and many more are left behind to grieve. Despite distressing statistics that show suicide rates rising, the subject, long a taboo, is infrequently talked about. In this sweeping intellectual and cultural history, poet and historian Jennifer Michael Hecht channels her grief for two friends lost to suicide into a search for history's most persuasive arguments against the irretrievable act, arguments she hopes to bring back into public consciousness.

    From the Stoics and the Bible to Dante, Shakespeare, Wittgenstein, and such twentieth-century writers as John Berryman, Hecht recasts the narrative of our "secular age" in new terms. She shows how religious prohibitions against self-killing were replaced by the Enlightenment's insistence on the rights of the individual, even when those rights had troubling applications. This transition, she movingly argues, resulted in a profound cultural and moral loss: the loss of shared, secular, logical arguments against suicide. By examining how people in other times have found powerful reasons to stay alive when suicide seems a tempting choice, she makes a persuasive intellectual and moral case against suicide.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18709-0
    Subjects: Psychology, Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    Ancient Roman history begins with a suicide. The virtuous and lovely Lucretia lived in the late sixth century b.c.e. A married woman and the daughter of a man of distinction, she was known for her industry and faithfulness. The boot of Italy was ruled in ancient times by Etruscan kings, but its people already called themselves Roman. Noble Roman families supported Etruscan kings, but there were considerable tensions. Then one night, as the story is told, a group of Etruscan and Roman men were drinking and got into a discussion comparing the character of their wives. Lucretia’s husband boasted about...

  6. 1 The Ancient World
    (pp. 15-44)

    The tale of Samson, in the book of Judges, is one of the most famous biblical stories of someone engineering his own death. Samson was special from before birth. His mother said that during her pregnancy she was visited by an angel and told that as long as the infant followed Nazirite vows he would have special strength from God. These included refraining from all alcohol—the mother-to-be also had to stop drinking—and never cutting his hair. He grew up in an Israel controlled by the Philistines, and when he became an adult, his strength against them was legendary,...

  7. 2 Religion Rejects Suicide
    (pp. 45-62)

    The ancient Roman world in which Christianity emerged prized manly honor and female purity above all else, certainly above longevity. There was no reason for early Christians, at first a sect of Judaism, to suddenly imagine suicide a sin. Judas is the only suicide in the Christian New Testament—there are conflicting accounts, but in Matthew 27 he hangs himself. Many have claimed that Jesus was a suicide as well, including the early bishop of Hippo, Augustine; the later theologian Thomas Aquinas; and the Elizabethan poet John Donne (about whom more later). Jesus certainly fits the criteria of clearly accepting...

  8. 3 To Be or Not to Be: New Questions in the Rise of Modernism
    (pp. 63-89)

    The Middle Ages have traditionally been characterized as a period of religious domination, when the arts, science, philosophy, and politics largely stagnated. That assessment has undergone a number of revisions as historians have discovered innovation in those years and connections between the period and the one that followed it, the Renaissance. Still, the Renaissance represents a dramatic efflorescence in almost every aspect of human ingenuity. The painter Giorgio Vasari, looking back in 1550 at the previous two hundred years of Italian art, first termed the period a “rebirth” of culture and of ancient ways of thinking, writing, and making art....

  9. 4 Secular Philosophy Defends Suicide
    (pp. 90-115)

    One of the main points of this book is to tell the story of how philosophy in Western culture got its reputation for tolerating suicide. We have seen that ancient philosophers wrote against suicide, but that some celebrated suicides nonetheless were praised as having been virtuous and philosophically sound. We have seen that in the Middle Ages, religion regulated against suicide and Christian thinkers like Augustine and Dante condemned the celebrated “philosophical” suicides of antiquity. Because religion set itself so firmly against suicide, and because it did so expressly in opposition to these renowned ancient suicides, from early on Western...

  10. 5 The Argument of Community
    (pp. 116-148)

    It is paradoxical that Plato gave us Socratesʾ famous death scene, history’s most praised image of a suicide, and yet within that very dialogue, thePhaedo, Socrates categorically states that suicide is not right.¹ We have been proceeding chronologically so far, looking at the history of suicide from beginning of recorded history on—discovering the relatively tolerant attitude toward suicide in the ancient world and how that changed in the Middle Ages and in the eras that followed. In this chapter we double back to the start of our story in order to tease out a particular kind of thinking...

  11. 6 Modern Social Science on Community and Influence
    (pp. 149-174)

    It has long been suggested that one person’s suicide is destructive for other people and that suicides sometimes come in clusters. Recall, for instance, that the young women of Miletus suddenly started killing themselves at an alarming rate several hundred years before Plutarch wrote about the story in the first century b.c.e. These suicides have commonly been understood as a chain of influence.

    A few early attempts to examine suicidal influence in scientific terms came in the nineteenth century. In 1845 Amariah Brigham, the first editor of theAmerican Journal of Insanity, approvingly cited the medical statistician William Farr’s finding...

  12. 7 Hope for Our Future Selves
    (pp. 175-192)

    In July 67 c.e. the man who would become the great Jewish and Roman historian Titus Flavius Josephus was trapped in a cave with forty fellow soldiers. Josephus was a Jewish commander in the first Jewish-Roman war when the Romans burst into his garrison and slaughtered thousands. In hiding, Josephus and his companions discussed the situation and agreed that all was lost; they decided that instead of allowing the Romans to kill them, they would commit suicide. Their method was similar to the one used at Masada: they drew lots to establish the order in which each man would kill...

  13. 8 The Twentieth Century’s Two Major Voices on Suicide
    (pp. 193-208)

    Emile Durkheim and Albert Camus were the two towering figures in thinking about suicide in the twentieth century. Both are remembered as having deeply considered suicide in light of modern ideas about our place in the universe, but it is less well known that each took a decided stance against it. How they came to this conclusion is the subject of this chapter.

    In the social sciences, Durkheim was easily the most significant interpreter of suicide of the twentieth century. His bookSuicidewas published in 1897, and because it relied on statistics, it is generally considered to be the...

  14. 9 Suffering and Happiness
    (pp. 209-223)

    So what do we do with the pain of living? Many people who have questioned religion have rejected the religious advice that one should just accept and be reconciled with suffering. Secular thinkers have pointedly accused religion of being a cult of pain. Judaism became a new kind of religion during the Babylonian captivity when the Israelites in their sorrow began blaming themselves instead of their God for their misfortune. When the Jews met with adversity again throughout history, often they blamed themselves and tried to make amends with God. The Buddhist way of embracing suffering is very different, and...

  15. 10 Modern Philosophical Conversations
    (pp. 224-230)

    It is not uncommon today to hear someone express the idea that everyone has a right to suicide. Sometimes the speaker is thinking primarily of the terrible pain and decrepitude of fatal illnesses. As I noted in my introduction, for someone in agony because of a fatal disease, it may be inappropriate to think of self-administered death as suicide; rather we might think of it as the way that person has chosen to manage the death that cancer, for instance, had made inevitable. That is not what this book has been about. This is an important difference to keep in...

  16. Conclusion
    (pp. 231-234)

    As we have seen, suicide has captured the attention of most of the finest thinkers in Western civilization. The story of suicide, as fact and as idea, runs through Socrates and Aristotle, Cleopatra and Cicero, Judas and Jesus, Augustine and Aquinas, Dante and Maimonides, Chaucer and Shakespeare, Voltaire and Wittgenstein. The history of Western philosophy and religion is, among many other things, one long dialogue on the propriety of taking your own life.

    This history reveals that even in the intensely personal matter of choosing whether or not to go on living, the ideas and beliefs of others can be...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 235-252)
  18. Index
    (pp. 253-264)