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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Of Suicide, Redux

Below is another letter from Mr. Joseph Darlington, Esq. This time he seems to have a bit of a bee under his wig over my previous posting. (N.B. I have taken the trouble of providing translations to the Latin he tends to carelessly toss about -- the benefits of a classical education.)

* * *

March 11, 1755

I listen’d with Dismay, as you read it, to your latest Libel against the Dignity of Mankind (I refer to yours of March 10th). I have always worn the Badge of “Free-Thinker” with some Pride, but you, Sir, go too far. You use the atheistical Mr. SPINOSA’s philosophia spinosum [“Crabbed philosophy”. Darlington helps himself to a wretched pun, referring to Spinoza’s rather dry geometrical method of philosophizing -- Ed.] to play the advocatus diabolus [“devil’s advocate”] in pleading the Cause of the Angels, in Defense of the Dignity of Life and the Cowardice of Self-Murder. And then you go further in making the noble Adherents of the Stoick Sect to plead in favour of the Abomination of Suicide.

It is not so much, Sir, the Side you favour, for you seem to lack the Courage to favour either. Rather, how dare you, Sir, force me into the Circumstance of having to side with an errant Atheist of Spinosa’s Character, and against a Sect of which I have long profess’d myself an Admirer.

In his Essay of Suicide, Mr. HUME observes that if Self-Murder be a Crime against the Laws of Nature, it must be so for at least one of the following Reasons: either it is an Offense against the Deity; or it is a Crime against one’s Fellows and Society; or else it is a Crime against one’s self. Hume examines each in turn and finds Suicide to be no Crime. I am ashamed that I must disagree yet again with so ingenious an Author.

Upon the first Head, that Suicide is a Crime against the Deity, Hume says that it is no violation of His Providence, for otherwise the Deity in his Wisdom wou’d never have put the Power of disposing of his Life into the hands of Man. Nothing that happens in Nature can be contrary to that Nature, or to Providence. And, if it be solely in the Authority of GOD to dispose of a Man’s Life, then it were just as much a Crime for a Man to attempt to preserve that Life when it is in mortal Peril as it were to end it.

To which I answer, that the Deity hath in His Wisdom given Man many a Power, which He had no desire that Man shou’d exercise. I have the Power to murder another and perhaps, the Power to save him: Now who can doubt that I shou’d forebear exercising the first, but that I might have the positive Duty to exercise the second Power? GOD intended that we shou’d overcome the Temptation of doing certain things, through the exercise of Virtue.

Upon the second Head, that Suicide is a Crime against our Fellows or against Society. To this Mr. Hume wou’d have us believe that Suicide is merely the taking away of the Power to do Good to our Fellows; it is not to do them positive Ill.

This is, of course, patent Nonsense. If I have Dependents, I do them positive Ill by removing myself from the ability to support them. And to Society, I offer the Evil of vicious Example, in the form of Weakness and craven Cowardice, which Vices the Ignorant and Foolish Nature of fallen Man might be tempted to follow.

Upon the third Head, that Suicide is a Crime against one’s self, here the words of Hume himself are instructive, for “I believe,” he says, “that no Man ever threw away Life, while it was worth keeping.” Now, is this not too plainly absurd to require Refutation? How often do we do that which causes us to Repent of our Conduct? How often are we Enemies to ourselves? A melancholick Man may view his Life as a burthen, of which he would gladly be reliev’d, where some Company and some Activity might bring him 'round to a more proper View. As BURTON rightly admonishes us, in his Anatomie of Melancholie, “Be not solitary; be not idle.”

And, Sir, as for your using the Example of the noble CATO in defense of Suicide, what can such a singular Character tell us about the Duties of we lesser Mortals? Which of us has Cato’s Wisdom, his Virtue, or his Publick-spiritedness? Such a Man may properly be said to give the Law unto himself: secretosque pios, his dantem iura Catonem -- Verg. Aen. VIII.670 [“And far apart, the good, with Cato giving them laws.” Darlington has here made a rare error, and has mistaken the Elder for the Younger Cato -- Ed.]

Your servant, etc.

Jos. Darlington, Esq.
Darlington Close,
Horton-cum-Studley, Oxfordshire

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