The Anatomy of Suicide
Library of Alexandria
Human actions are more under the influence of example than precept; consequently, suicide has often been justified by an appeal to the laws and customs of past ages. An undue reverence for the authority of antiquity induces us to rely more upon what has been said or done in former times, than upon the dictates of our own feelings and judgement. Many have formed the most extravagant notions of honour, liberty, and courage, and, under the impression that they were imitating the noble example of some ancient hero, have sacrificed their lives. They urge in their defence that suicide has been enjoined by positive laws, and allowed by ancient custom; that the greatest and bravest nation in the world practised it; and that the most wise and virtuous sect of philosophers taught that it was an evidence of courage, magnanimity, and virtue. There is no mode of reasoning so fallacious as that which is constantly appealing to examples. A man who has made up his mind to the adoption of a particular course can easily discover reasons to justify himself in carrying out his preconceived opinions. If a contemplated action, abstractedly considered, be good, cases may be of service in illustrating it. There must be some test by which to form a correct estimate of the justness or lawfulness of human actions; and until we are agreed as to what ought to constitute that standard, examples are perfectly useless. No inferences deduced from the consideration of the suicides of antiquity can be logically applied to modern instances. We live under a Christian dispensation. Our notions of death, of honour, and of courage, are, in many respects, so dissimilar from those which the ancients entertained, that the subject of suicide is placed entirely on a different basis. In the early periods of history, self-destruction was considered as an evidence of courage; death was preferred to dishonour. These principles were inculcated by celebrated philosophers, who exercised a great influence over the minds of the people; and, in many instances, the act of self-immolation constituted a part of their religion. Is it, then, to be wondered at, that so many men, eminent for their genius, and renowned for their valour, should, under such circumstances, have sacrificed themselves?