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Review of "History of Suicide"

By Georges Minois
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999
Review by Kathryn Walker on Feb 2nd 2001
History of SuicideThe History of Suicide by Georges Minois is a detailed, thorough study of suicide in Western Culture. The study, noting that the period between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries was a privileged time for reflection of suicide, concentrates and focuses on voluntary death from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. The study, enacted from many perspectives, philosophical, political, religious, historical and legal, presents a comprehensive account of suicide.

The History of Suicide opens with an account of the material particularities of suicide in the Middle Ages. It is shown that in the Middle Ages there was a bifurcated vision of suicide, in particular a bifurcation drawn along class divisions. In the case of lower class suicides, suicide was strongly condemned. In contrast, in the noble classes where suicidal tendencies could be sublimated, at least rhetorically, into religious chivalry, suicide was praised. It was also during the Middle Ages that philosophical narrative, in the writings of St. Augustine, Aquinas, the moralist Vincent de Beauvais and Dante, clearly differentiated itself from and positioned itself in opposition to the pagan position.

The Medieval Humanism of the fifteenth century with its return to paganism offered a challenge to the traditional Christian prohibition against suicide. While the philosophical position on suicide in the ancient world was far from unified, Plato and Aristotle both renounced suicide while the Stoics valued the right to suicide; the general position assumed by the ancient world was far more sympathetic to suicide than was the world of Medieval Christendom. It is with the recognition that throughout western civilization, whenever suicide was praised, the ancient world was positively invoked and whenever suicide was renounced the ancient world was negatively invoked, that Minois, presents an account of the pagan position on suicide.

Moving into the Early Renaissance, Minois, presents suicide as an enigma and shows that again there was no unified position. In literature, prose authors were spilt and often presented contradictory views on suicide. The Christian position, both Catholic and Protestant continued to strongly renounce suicide while developing bourgeois individualism and the humanist tradition allowed for a more positive position on suicide. While the Church demonized suicide, discourses of madness and insanity emerging out of the work of Sebastian Brant and Erasmus, offered an alternative.

The presentation of the Ancient, Medieval, and Early Renaissance positions on suicide, prepares the stage for the question, which lies at the heart of the History of Suicide, i.e. the Renaissance question 'To be or not to be?' It is in this question that the Minois locates a 'crisis of conscience', that is, a cultural uncertainty with respect to questions of morality, values, and life. The Renaissance is here understood as an age of change, innovation, instability, uncertainty and anxiety and the claim is made that the Renaissance's articulation of the question of suicide reflects a challenge to traditional values and a "malaise connected with the birth of modernity"[p326].

In the seventeenth century, Minois argues, the question of suicide became repressed and stifled by other questions. The anxiety of the Renaissance gave way to a return to classical rigor, to an era of political and religious authority, and to an intellectual climate of certainty and stability, and in this context suicide was to be staunchly condemned. In the religious arena the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation were both struggling to enact religious authority. Likewise politically, the seventeenth century, the infancy of modern statehood was an age in which political authority needed to be established and enacted. To the end of establishing authority, it was necessary that the question of suicide be repressed and that suicide itself be condemned.

In the eighteenth century, the heyday of the Enlightenment, the question of suicide was re-opened and was discussed in terms of its multifarious causes. In the Enlightenment, an era in which religion began to recede in the face of the increasing importance and influence of science, suicide was no longer demonized but was increasing understood in terms of a scientific discourse of madness and psychology. Where, previously suicide had been an "affair between the devil and the individual sinner"[p.300], in the eighteenth century suicide was conceptualized secularly in terms of the relationship between society and individual psychology.

In the nineteenth century the question of suicide was again closed. Suicide was understood not as an expression of individual freedom but rather in terms of a "mental, moral, physical and social ill"[p321]. Suicide, hitherto debated in terms of individual freedom, was in the nineteenth century understood as weakness, madness, perversion, and cowardice; suicide was no longer a question of individual liberty. Minois asserts that this position on suicide, unchallenged in the twentieth century, has endured.

Having presented a the changing shape of the interpretation and understanding of suicide in western culture, Minois, articulates this movement in terms of back-and-forth between a question asked and a question answered, between ages of moral crises and ages of moral rigidity. In eras, characterized by doubt, uncertainty and change, the question of suicide has been posed. On the other hand in eras of equilibrium and stability, the question of suicide has been answered.

The History of Suicide, pushing beyond a mere historical account of suicide, considers the relationship between politics and the discourse of suicide. The claim is made that political stability cannot allow for suicide, and that only a condemnation of suicide is favorable for political stability. On this point Minois writes, "One cannot command with doubts, only with certitudes. In the name of what else could society be regulated? How, in particular, can anyone rule people who are not even sure they should remain alive?"[p325]

In addition to providing a detail account of voluntary death in western culture, Minois also raises some highly provocative philosophical questions. The recognition that the actual phenomenon of suicide persists independent of changing intellectual narratives and ideological positions raises the question, what is the relationship between concrete phenomenon and cultural narratives?

Minois, moving between descriptions of actual events and a presentation of the changing ideological structures, presents a comprehensive history of suicide in western civilization, a history of intellectual thought, and history of culture. In addition, the History of Suicide, placing the question of suicide in a larger context, opens up a series of philosophical questions concerning the nature of the relationship between thoughts and events, between psychology and politics and between the individual and society.

    Kathryn Walker is a doctoral student in York University's Social and Political Thought program. Her work is focused on the relationship between moods, rationality and politics. Kathryn is also part of the j_spot editorial collective.

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