Overview:

In 18th-century England, philosopher David Hume cleverly undermined the key idea that made suicide a sin and a crime.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

David Hume lived in Great Britain in the middle of the 18th century and is said to have been the greatest philosopher writing in the English language.

Hume bears a lot of the credit for the resuscitation of ancient classical skepticism about religion. Although he had to be cautious, it is clear from his various books that he wrote between the lines to quietly disclose to his attentive readers that he did not believe in God. 

Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is arguably the best book ever written on the philosophy of religion. And his Natural History of Religion is equally important as a work of religious history. Note the word ‘natural’ in both titles. Religion is not super natural.

Much of Hume’s writing was radical, and some of it was so radical that he chose not to publish it in his lifetime, perhaps due to threats on his livelihood or threats on his life if he chose to publish such things.

One such example was his work “Of Suicide.”

Suicide was considered the quintessence of lawlessness and sinfulness in the European Christian arena, a taboo topic not in any way to be defended. (Although early Christian martyrs placed themselves in harm’s way in order to be killed and to become martyrs, which is a species of suicide.)

Hume’s approach to prohibitions against suicide was that suicide was among the many “false crimes” arising from a religious morality that caused “men endowed with the strongest capacity for business and affairs [to] have all their lives crouched under slavery to the grossest superstition.”

And so Hume opposed Christian reasons against suicide. He started by saying there was no prohibition on suicide in the Bible, notwithstanding the commandment not to kill. But Christian antagonism toward suicide was not (and is not) really Bible-oriented; it’s based on the notion that death is an area of the natural world that can only be administered by God. Humans must not “play God” and fiddle with nature and presume to do the things that only God is permitted to do via nature. Humans have no right to arrogate to themselves a power over death because death is God’s terrain. 

Let’s hear Hume’s clever opposition to such thinking:

Were the disposal of human life so much reserved as the peculiar province of the almighty that it were an encroachment on [God’s] right for man to dispose of their own lives, it would be equally criminal to act for the preservation of life as for its destruction. If I turn aside a stone that is falling upon my head, I disturb the course of nature and I invade the peculiar province of the almighty by lengthening out my life beyond the period which, by the general laws of matter and motion, he had assigned to it. [The falling rock was meant for your head. To step out of the way of the rock was to interfere with God’s prerogative to kill you by natural means.]

It would be no crime in me to divert the Nile or Danube from [their] course were I able to effect such purposes. Where then is the crime of turning a few ounces of blood from their natural channels?” [We already fiddle with nature and alter the natural world in many ways.]

When I fall on my sword I receive my death equally from the hands of the deity, as if it had proceeded from a lion, a precipice, or a fever.” [Humans are also ‘nature,’ and our own actions may be an instance of God using nature to kill us.]

No one is pro-suicide, and neither was David Hume. Hume meant only to question the typical religious morality that was opposed to desperate measures by desperate people. Hume died naturally at age 65, but he was sympathetic to the person who wished to put a period to a wretched life. Hume said those committing suicide are “tired of life and hunted by pain and misery, [and they] bravely overcome all the natural terrors of death and make their escape from this cruel scene.”

Suicide may be many things. It may be egoistic and devoid of feeling for survivors. It may be punitive, seeking to punish survivors. It may be the slip of a disordered mind. Or it may be a humane way out. Whatever suicide is, suicide is not, and has never been, a sin, or even a crime.

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J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of religion since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic journals and the LA Times, Huffington...