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November 14, 2007

Comments

steven d. smith

I agree that Chesterton's judgment is exaggerated and unfair if taken as an argument for moral condemnation of persons who choose suicide (which to be sure is how Chesterton presents his point). For that, it would be necessary to be more attentive to the actual subjective condition of the person, which is likely to be more like what Nathan describes. Still, there seems to me to be an important and intriguing point in Chesterton's rather florid account. In what I might reluctantly call an "objective" sense, it's not true that the suicide has "no reason to live." Chesterton seems to be saying that if we had the eyes to see it, there is a whole world of beauty and goodness even in such small things as the flowers around us. Usually (and especially for the person contemplating suicide) our vision is clouded, so we don't see this, but the beauty and goodness are there, and we can always live in hope of having better vision. This point seems relevant to judging the act of suicide, even if it's less relevant to judging persons who choose suicide. Or it may be that Chesterton's point is really more germane to issues of theodicy than suicide.

Nato

If we take Chesterson literally, his moral analysis would also condemn sacrificing one's life for some great good - because no great good is as great as *all* good.

Nathan Smith

Wow, thanks. There does seem to be another level of meaning there. To distinguish judging the act from judging the person committing the act is very interesting intellectual move. It steps beyond a certain kind of mundane moral judgment... this is of course the old Christian theme of "hate the sin but love the sinner"... The act may be objectively evil, without the person having exactly intended the kind or degree of objective evil that he has wrought.

This relates to another thought I had about suicide: something about it feels intensely *shameful.* I don't remember whether I thought this, but I can imagine myself thinking 'Think how they would talk about me afterwards...' and being deterred by that thought. Of course, in Japan the samurai used to take pride in being the kind of people who would commit hara-kiri without the least reluctance, should honor demand it. But the *should honor demand it* makes all the difference, so I don't know that that's a real violation of the rule of the shamefulness of suicide (although it is a very striking example of moral differences among cultures nonetheless).

Joyless Moralist

"If we take Chesterson literally, his moral analysis would also condemn sacrificing one's life for some great good - because no great good is as great as *all* good."

Only if we take Chesterton to be a utilitarian... which we shouldn't. The suicide relinquishes life for the very sake of relinquishing life. He seeks death for death's sake. Someone who allows his life to be taken for some other good reason (to save his family, his country, or what have you) is merey following through with a commitment to something he loves, and death is just an unfortunate result of that love. So he really doesn't *choose* to forego life's other great goods.

That, at any rate, is how Chesterton would have seen it.

steven d. smith

"To distinguish judging the act from judging the person committing the act is very interesting intellectual move." There may be a quiet suggestion here that this is also a dubious intellectual move-- "interesting" being a polite term for "dubious" (or maybe "untenable," or "absurd"). If so, I would say that I myself am uncertain and a bit nervous about the distinction. Still, it is a distinction we make all the time, and one that seems often to be necessary. Thus, we ask whether "stealing" or "murder" or "cheating" or "tax evasion" are "morally wrong," and we may answer that they are; but we still recognize that a particular person who commits one of those wrong acts might not be culpable or deserving of condemnation. Maybe he acted under an excusable delusion. Maybe the judgment that the act is wrong depends on some fairly difficult concept or rational progression that he couldn't be blamed for not understanding. In these cases, we might say that "what he did was wrong, but he isn't really blameworthy for doing it." So it does seem that the distinction between act and person is familiar and sometimes necessary.

Nathan Smith

re: "To distinguish judging the act from judging the person committing the act is very interesting intellectual move." There may be a quiet suggestion here that this is also a dubious intellectual move-- "interesting" being a polite term for "dubious" (or maybe "untenable," or "absurd").

No, no, there was no quiet suggestion of that kind. I just meant that it's one that struck me when I read the comment, that seemed to have a lot of meaning or even profundity, but that was hard to think through to the end.

steven d. smith

Joyless moralist is no doubt correct in describing how Chesterton would have understood these questions. But the issues also show how tenuous that sort of "double effect" thinking is, don't they?

Suppose I'm captured by terrorists and tortured, but I have a cyanide pill. In one situation (a), I fear excrutiating pain and so take the pill. In another situation (b), I fear that I will break down and tell the terrorists information that will jeopardize the nation, so I take the pill. In (c), the terrorists tell me, credibly, that unless I am dead within the hour, they will detonate nuclear bombs in LA, NY, and Idaho Falls Idaho. I don't want that, so I take the pill.

Are these cases morally different? In each case, it would be natural to say that I chose to die-- albeit as a means to avoid some looming evil. Or in each case it would be possible-- but pretty strained, maybe-- to say that I chose to take measures to avoid an evil, knowing death would be a side effect.

I suspect that Chesterton would choose the first description in (a), but maybe not in (c). I'm not sure about (b). If he didn't say this in (a)-- i.e., if he said in (a) that I chose to avoid pain, with death as a side consequence-- then he would be authorizing suicide in lots of cases, because lots of suicides no doubt are acting to avoid pain or suffering, physical or emotional. But to me the second description actually seems more plausible in (a) than in (c). In (a) I really do want to avoid pain, not to die. In (c) I really do want and intend to die, albeit as a means to a good end. You could try to avoid this by saying that in (c) I only intend to convince the terrorists that I'm dead, not actually to die. But this seems hopelessly strained. They have monitors on me; they know whether I'm dead or not; so the only way to convince them is actually to make myself dead.

Or maybe Chesterton would say I'm wrong to take the pill in any of these cases? Then I think Nato's question reappears.

Nathan Smith

Chesterton's remarks on courage elsewhere in *Orthodoxy* might be relevant to the discussion:

"Let us follow for a moment the clue of the martyr and the suicide; and take the case of courage. No quality has ever so much addled the brains and tangled the definitions of merely rational sages. Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. "He that will lose his life, the same shall save it," is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or quite brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice.

He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying. And it has held up ever since above the European lances the banner of the mystery of chivalry: the Christian courage, which is a disdain of death; not the Chinese courage, which is a disdain of life."

Nathan Smith

Chesterton's remarks on courage elsewhere in *Orthodoxy* might be relevant to the discussion:

"Let us follow for a moment the clue of the martyr and the suicide; and take the case of courage. No quality has ever so much addled the brains and tangled the definitions of merely rational sages. Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. "He that will lose his life, the same shall save it," is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or quite brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice.

He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying. And it has held up ever since above the European lances the banner of the mystery of chivalry: the Christian courage, which is a disdain of death; not the Chinese courage, which is a disdain of life."

Nato

"Chinese courage"? I've tried to find a reference for this dubious term of art and have failed. In any case, I tend to doubt that the veridical Chinese of Chesterson's era would see the life and death opposition in the same terms.

I wonder - if I may be excused for momentarily not practicing the principle of academic charity - if Chesterson is something of a Christian romantic counterpart to Neitzsche: overflowing with interesting ideas but not to be taken too literally or systematically.

Joyless Moralist

Nietzsche a romantic? Can't say I've ever heard that before! But no, if you mean that both are fond of hyperbole, you're certainly right, Nato. And it's also quite true that Chesterton is not at all a systematic thinker. He is interesting, witty, insightful, and in his own way quite deep, but you do have to take some of it with a grain of salt. He was the sort of man who was sometimes willing to sacrifice strict accurcy for the sake of entertaining or making an impact.

I don't want to get too deeply into double effect questions, partly because they're just difficult, but also because I don't think the harder ones are necessarily very pertinent to Chesterton's point. I think the hard cases probably do show that not *all* suicides express the sort of "rejection of all good things" that Chesterton talks about. The suicide in case C, for example, certainly doesn't seem to evidence such a rejection, and if it is wrong, you'd need a more precise treatment of the question to explain why. With case A I might like a little more information. Do I expect to be tortured *to death* or do I think there's a reasonable chance that I might still make it out alive after the torture? If I'm pretty sure that I'll be dead tomorrow one way or another, and I just want to prevent it from happening in a horribly, painful way, then again, my suicide doesn't seem to evidence a rejection of everything good, because I don't *want* to die at all. If I think there's a decent chance of surviving in the long run, then we might call the suicide a kind of cowardice, or a partial-rejection of life. I don't exactly want to die, but I don't want to live badly enough that I'm willing to suffer in order to preserve my life.

But I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that most suicides are *not* in a situation quite like that -- that is, a situation where they know they will have to endure something terrible in the near future, but that the suffering will then end and be followed by a happier future. In most cases, I think suicides feel an overwhelming sense of despair *about their lives as a whole.* They don't really believe that things will get better, and that's what makes their lives seem so unendurable. They feel they have nothing to live for. And when a person who is surrounded by good things -- the beauties of nature, loving friends or family, opportunities to do good -- decides to kill himself, isn't there a sense in which this is a rejection of all those goods?

I'm sure Nathan is right that the idea "I'm insulting women, flowers, oatmeal cookies, etc." never enters the suicide's head, and would probably seem absurd to him if it did. But I might think of it as a kind of culpable neglect. This makes more sense if you forget about flowers for the moment, and think instead about the person's family or friends. I guess there may be a few people (in the spirit of Simon and Garfunkel's "Most Peculiar Man" song) who are so reclusive that there really isn't anybody who knows or cares much about them, or so depraved that even their close relatives can't feel much affection for them, but surely those are rare cases. Most people are loved by somebody, probably by multiple other people, who definitely don't want them dead. The suicide generally isn't *looking* to end those relationships by taking his own life... but he surely knows, if he thinks about it at all, that this will be the result.

Now, obviously, the death of any beloved person is always very sad, but I think it's widely recognized that suicide tends to cause a more intense grief than would follow in the wake of most other kinds of death. It seems plausible to me that this relates to feelings of both rejection and failure on the part of surviving friends and family. That is: we're saddened by the death of anyone we love because we know that that person will now be permanently absent from our life. But in the case of the suicide, the hurt is much deeper, because the suicide *chooses* to end the relationship. He may not have specifically wanted to reject the love of his friends or family, but anyway it wasn't valuable enough to him to be worth living for. Hence the feeling of rejection (that the deceased didn't love us enough to want to stay with us) and failure (that we didn't love him well enough.) And even if the person didn't think about these things much at all during his last moments of life, it's something he should have been able to predict, and I think we might reasonably consider him culpably negligent for *not* thinking about it. I'm not denying, certainly, that there are lots of factors that might lessen the culpability, or perhaps even eliminate it entirely. But the general idea seems right to me.

And in a broader sense, if you think of other goods in life as gifts from God, you can see how suicide (in many or most cases, anyway) would seem like a rejection of these goods, and an insult to them.

Nathan Smith

Joyless Moralist would make a great suicide counselor. Her case against suicide is highly persuasive, more so probably than Chesterton's. Bravo!

But there's another side that needs mentioning: no doubt there are, in most cases, some people in a suicide's life who love him, but there may also be others to whom he is an inconvenience or an object of contempt or hatred, and he could regard his suicide as a service to them. If I consider myself very worthless and vile, I might think that the world would be a better place without me in it. In that case, the motivation for suicide might be altruistic. "You would not live to wrong your brothers..."

Nato

I think Nathan's "altruistic" suicide motivation is actually quite common. I have no idea *how* common, but of the half dozen or so people I've known with suicidal thoughts, at least half were this way.

Joyless Moralist

There are some hard cases, to be sure. And this might especially be hard for people who pose a serious financial burden, or burden of care, on their family because of some serious illness or other medical problem.

I suspect, however, that for some people "they'll be better off without me" is just a noble lie they tell themselves as a measure of self-justification (and even on a lesser scale, anyone who's ever excused themselves from a gathering to sulk alone knows the masochistic pleasure of wallowing in this kind of self-pity.) Others may believe it to some degree, but I doubt whether it's almost ever true. A suicide itself is almost certain to cause intense pain, even to people who didn't really like the deceased very much, and especially to people who loved him. Some people, undoubtedly, are genuinely burdensome to their friends and family, but I think a reformed life would almost always be a better option for one's nearest and dearest than suicide.

Nato

Well, I'll certainly agree with that, JM. In all cases, I at least liked the person, and in most cases loved them deeply.

Nathan Smith

I agree that a suicide will almost never bring happiness. But I think it's more likely that some suicides sincerely think so. Though that wasn't the case for me. In my case, I wasn't thinking primarily about the happiness of others, certainly. I may have wanted revenge, but I think the strongest reason was simply that I was in agony beyond anything I felt I could endure. If you had told me that the world is good and with time I would come to have appreciate that, it would have been salt in the wound, because of the words "with time." Time was the enemy. I was dreaming of knives-- of bullets and poisons too, perhaps, but I remember mostly thoughts of knives; perhaps it was because there were knives in the kitchen, and to think of procuring a gun or a poison brought me to thoughts of preparation and thus to the unbearable thought of *time*-- and every moment that I denied myself the relief of the knife took an act of heroic will. And yet I could do it, moment by moment; I was strong enough for that. The trouble was, if I succeeded in not committing suicide *this* moment, then another moment would succeed it: I would have to perform the act of self-denial, the rejection of the knife, over and over again, *ad infinitum.* One became intensely aware that time is not only *extensively* but *intensively* infinite: one can sub-divide it and sub-divide it into more and more moments, so that five minutes can seem like an eternity.

Kevin Jones

Hello,

When reading GKC on suicide, you ought to keep in mind the man himself was severely tempted to suicide as a young man. A chapter or two in his autobiography covers that dark period.

Chestertonrules

I believe Chesterton accurately describes the evil of suicide.

Whether a person considers the ramifications of his act of suicide has nothing to do with their validity.


Chesterton's view leads to life, Housman's to death, and possibly Hell.

Jason

A Ballade of Suicide

The gallows in my garden, people say,
Is new and neat and adequately tall;
I tie the noose on in a knowing way
As one that knots his necktie for a ball;
But just as all the neighbours--on the wall--
Are drawing a long breath to shout "Hurray!"
The strangest whim has seized me. . . . After all
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

To-morrow is the time I get my pay--
My uncle's sword is hanging in the hall--
I see a little cloud all pink and grey--
Perhaps the rector's mother will not call-- I fancy that I heard from Mr. Gall
That mushrooms could be cooked another way--
I never read the works of Juvenal--
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

The world will have another washing-day;
The decadents decay; the pedants pall;
And H.G. Wells has found that children play,
And Bernard Shaw discovered that they squall,
Rationalists are growing rational--
And through thick woods one finds a stream astray
So secret that the very sky seems small--
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

Envoi

Prince, I can hear the trumpet of Germinal,
The tumbrils toiling up the terrible way;
Even to-day your royal head may fall,
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton

torrey

In honor of Chesterton i will try to keep my comment short and simple.
You are mishearing Chesterton. He is arguing that because such beauty exists such as flowers or women, it would be a terrible sin to cause purposeful death on yourself for any reason because you are rejecting all of God's creation. EG "He defiles every flower by refusing to live for its sake."

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