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Suicide in French Thought from Montesquieu to Cioran

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Zilla Gabrielle Cahn

Suicide stems in large part from the human condition and, as such, is not a problem that can be solved. Former draconian and punitive laws against it have in the main been eliminated, but it remains a stigma and a heartache. In the twentieth century, suicide has become a problem for sociologists, psychiatrists, and social policymakers to «solve.» In past centuries, however, suicide was a subject most fit for philosophers, theologians, writers, and, as the nineteenth century progressed, physicians. What establishes itself clearly throughout is that social attitudes and public policies toward suicide, as toward other important human issues, mirror the needs and peculiar circumstances of a culture. Yet sanctions against suicide, except in highly prescribed instances, transcend cultural specificity. To the question when, if ever, is suicide permissible, Western peoples and institutions, both secular and religious, reply, never. Duty to others, to God, to society, or to all of these, virtually always overrides personal desire or reasons to commit suicide.