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A HISTORY OF SUICIDE by Georges Minois

A HISTORY OF SUICIDE

Voluntary Death in Western Culture

By Georges Minois

Pub Date: Jan. 5th, 1999
ISBN: 0-8018-5919-0
Publisher: Johns Hopkins Univ.

Minois’s book follows the religious, philosophical, literary, and judicial debate for and against self-murder from antiquity to the end of the Enlightenment, demonstrating the close connection between political power, religious authority, social status, and the freedom to die. Minois, an independent scholar and author of 14 books, begins with the change in public attitudes toward suicide in Rome, in the face of military exigencies and a barbarian onslaught. The Epicurean ideal of the “perfect exit” was rejected by a state desperate to increase the number of taxpayers and soldiers at its disposal. Suicide was punished by confiscation of the deceased’s estate and destruction of the corpse. After the rise of Christendom, church leaders incorporated prohibitions on suicide into religious doctrine, in part through the philosophical translation of Thomas Aquinas. Medieval law followed suit, prescribing torture, hanging, public display, and ignominious disposal of the corpses of suicides. Not until the advent of scientific inquiry in the Renaissance were these rules challenged, but by then there was a double standard: commoners who hanged or drowned themselves were punished, while nobles who took their own lives with cold steel or pistols escaped “justice” through insanity rulings and purposely botched investigations. Most interesting is the link between power and suicide; whenever the political and religious establishment experienced weakening authority, official opposition to suicide increased. The Reformation, Enlightenment, and French Revolution all saw intensified propaganda against self-murder. The conclusion is clear, as is Minois’s sympathy: suicide is the last refuge of the free man. Death, after all, is not only a land of no return, it is the line delimiting the power of state and church. Minois’s study is detailed and thorough, though he rarely leaves France and England for examples. It may be too thorough for the casual reader, but gory anecdotes and effective reference to overarching intellectual trends make the book edifying and morbidly enjoyable.