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Robert Ingersoll Reply To Critics Suicide

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Reply To Critics Suicide

Robert Green Ingersoll


In the article written by me about suicide the ground was
taken that "under many circumstances a man has the right to kill

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This has been attacked with great fury by clergymen, editors
and the writers of letters. These people contend that the right of
self-destruction does not and cannot exist. They insist that life
is the gift of God, and that he only has the right to end the days
of men; that it is our duty to bear the sorrows that he sends with
grateful patience. Some have denounced suicide as the worst of
crimes -- worse than the murder of another.

The first question, then, is:

Has a man under any circumstances the right to kill himself?

A man is being slowly devoured by a cancer -- his agony is
intense -- his suffering all that nerves can feel. His life is
slowly being taken. Is this the work of the good God? Did the
compassionate God create the cancer so that it might feed on the
quivering flesh of this victim?

This man, suffering agonies beyond the imagination to
conceive, is of no use to himself. His life is but a succession of
pangs. He is of no use to his wife, his children, his friends or
society. Day after day he is rendered unconscious by drugs that
numb the nerves and put the brain to sleep.

Has he the right to render himself unconscious? Is it proper
for him to take refuge in sleep?

If there be a good God I cannot believe that he takes pleasure
in the sufferings of men -- that he gloats over the agonies of his
children. If there be a good God, he will, to the extent of his
power, lessen the evils of life.

So I insist that the man being eaten by the cancer -- a burden
to himself and others, useless in every way -- has the right to end
his pain and pass through happy sleep to dreamless rest.

But those who have answered me would say to this man: "It is
your duty to be devoured. The good God wishes you to suffer. Your
life is the gift of God. You hold it in trust and you have no right
to end it. The cancer is the creation of God and it is your duty to
furnish it with food."

Take another case: A man is on a burning ship, the crew and
the rest of the passengers have escaped -- gone in the lifeboats --
and he is left alone. In the wide horizon there is no sail, no sign
of help. He cannot swim. If he leaps into the sea he drowns, if he
remains on the ship he burns. In any event he can live but a few

Those who have answered me, those who insist that under no
circumstances a man has the right to take his life, would say to
this man on the deck, "Remain where you are. It is the desire of
your loving, heavenly Father that you be clothed in flame -- that
you slowly roast -- that your eyes be scorched to blindness and
that you die insane with pain, your life is not your own, only the
agony is yours.

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I would say to this man: Do as you wish. If you prefer
drowning to burning, leap into the sea. Between inevitable evils
you have the right of choice. You can help no one, not even God, by
allowing yourself to be burned, and you can injure no one, not even
God, by choosing the easier death.

Let us suppose another case:

A man has been captured by savages in Central Africa. He is
about to be tortured to dead. His captors are going to thrust
splinters of pine into his flesh and then set them on fire. He
watches them as they make the preparations. He knows what they are
about to do and what he is about to suffer. There is no hope of
rescue, of help. He has a vial of poison. He knows that he can take
it and in one moment pass beyond their power, leaving to them only
the dead body.

Is this man under obligation to keep his life because God gave
it, until the savages by torture take it? Are the savages the
agents of the good God? Are they the servants of the Infinite? Is
it the duty of this man to allow them to wrap his body in a garment
of flame? Has he no right to defend himself? Is it the will of God
that he die by torture? What would any man of ordinary intelligence
do in a case like this? Is there room for discussion?

If the man took the poison, shortened his life a few moments,
escaped the tortures of the savages, is it possible that he would
in another world be tortured forever by an infinite savage?

Suppose another case: In the good old days, when the
Inquisition flourished, when men loved their enemies and murdered
their friends, many frightful and ingenious ways were devised to
touch the nerves of pain.

Those who loved God, who had been "born twice," would take a
fellow-man who had been convicted of "heresy," lay him upon the
floor of a dungeon, secure his arms and legs with chains, fasten
him to the earth so that he could not move, put an iron vessel, the
opening downward, on his stomach, place in the vessel several rats,
then tie it securely to his body. Then these worshipers of God
would wait until the rats, seeking food and liberty, would gnaw
through the body of the victim.

Now, if a man about to be subjected to this torture, had
within his hand a dagger, would it excite the wrath of the "good
God," if with one quick stroke he found the protection of death?

To this question there can be but one answer.

In the cases I have supposed it seems to me that each person
would have the right to destroy himself. It does not seem possible
that the man was under obligation to be devoured by a cancer; to
remain upon the ship and perish in flame; to throw away the poison
and be tortured to death by savages; to drop the dagger and endure
the "mercies" of the church.

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If, in the cases I have supposed, men would have the right to
take their lives, then I was right when I said that "under many
circumstances a man has a right to kill himself."

Second. -- I denied that persons who killed themselves were
physical cowards. They may lack moral courage; they may exaggerate
their misfortunes, lose the sense of proportion, but the man who
plunges the dagger in his heart, who sends the bullet through his
brain, who leaps from some roof and dashes himself against the
stones beneath, is not and cannot be a physical coward.

The basis of cowardice is the fear of injury or the fear of
death, and when that fear is not only gone, but in its place is the
desire to die, no matter by what means, it is impossible that
cowardice should exist. The suicide wants the very thing that a
coward fears. He seeks the very thing that cowardice endeavors to
escape. So, the man, forced to a choice of evils, choosing the less
is not a coward, but a reasonable man.

It must be admitted that the suicide is honest with himself.
He is to bear the injury; if it be one. Certainly there is no
hypocrisy, and just as certainly there is no physical cowardice.

Is the man who takes morphine rather than be eaten to death by
a cancer a coward?

Is the man who leaps into the sea rather than be burned a
coward? Is the man that takes poison rather than be tortured to
death by savages or "Christians" a coward?

Third. -- I also took the position that some suicides were
sane; that they acted on their best judgment, and that they were in
full possession of their minds. Now, if under some circumstances,
a man has the right to take his life, and, if, under such
circumstances, he does take his life, then it cannot be said that
he was insane.

Most of the persons who have tried to answer me have taken the
ground that suicide is not only a crime, but some of them have said
that it is the greatest of crimes. Now, if it be a crime, then the
suicide must have been sane. So all persons who denounce the
suicide as a criminal admit that he was sane. Under the law, an
insane person is incapable of committing a crime. All the clergymen
who have answered me, and who have passionately asserted that
suicide is a crime, have by that assertion admitted that those who
killed themselves were sane.

They agree with me, and not only admit, but assert that "some
who have committed suicide were sane and in the full possession of
their minds."

It seems to me that these three propositions have been
demonstrated to be true: First, that under some circumstances a man
has the right to take his life; second, that the man who commits
suicide is not a physical coward, and, third, that some who have
committed suicide were at the time sane and in full possession of
their minds.

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Fourth. -- I insisted, and still insist, that suicide was and
is the foundation of the Christian religion. I still insist that if
Christ were God he had the power to protect himself without
injuring his assailants -- that having that power it was his duty
to use it, and that failing to use it he consented to his own death
and was guilty of suicide.

To this the clergy answer that it was self-sacrifice for the
redemption of man, that he made an atonement for the sins of
believers. These ideas about redemption and atonement are born of
a belief in the "fall of man, on account of the sins of our first
"parents," and of the declaration that "without the shedding of
blood there is no remission of sin." The foundation has crumbled.
No intelligent person now believes in the "fall of man" -- that our
first parents were perfect, and that their descendants grew worse
and worse, at least until the coming of Christ.

Intelligent men now believe that ages and ages before the dawn
of history, man was a poor, naked, cruel, ignorant and degraded
savage, whose language consisted of a few sounds of terror, of
hatred and delight; that he devoured his fellow-man, having all the
vices, but not all the virtues of the beasts; that the journey from
the den to the home, the palace, has been long and painful, through
many centuries of suffering, of cruelty and war; through many ages
of discovery, invention, self-sacrifice and thought.

Redemption and atonement are left without a fact on which to
rest. The idea that an infinite God, creator of all worlds, came to
this grain of sand, learned the trade of a carpenter, discussed
with Pharisees and scribes, and allowed a few infuriated Hebrews to
put him to death that he might atone for the sins of men and redeem
a few believers from the consequences of his own wrath, can find no
lodgment in a good and natural brain.

In no mythology can anything more monstrously unbelievable be

But if Christ were a man and attacked the religion of his
times because it was cruel and absurd; if he endeavored to found a
religion of kindness, of good deeds, to take the place of
heartlessness and ceremony, and if, rather than to deny what he
believed to be right and true, he suffered death, then he was a
noble man -- a benefactor of his race. But if he were God there was
no need of this. The Jews did not wish to kill God. If he had only
made himself known all knees would have touched the ground. If he
were God it required no heroism to die. He knew that what we call
death is but the opening of the gates of eternal life. If he were
God there was no self-sacrifice. He had no need to suffer pain. He
could have changed the crucifixion to a joy.

Even the editors of religious weeklies see that there is no
escape from these conclusions -- from these arguments -- and so,
instead of attacking the arguments, they attack the man who makes

Fifth. -- I denounced the law of New York that makes an
attempt to commit suicide a crime.

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It seems to me that one who has suffered so much that he
passionately longs for death, should be pitied, instead of punished
-- helped rather than imprisoned.

A despairing woman who had vainly sought for leave to toil, a
woman without home, without friends, without bread, with clasped
hands, with tear-filled eyes, with broken words of prayer, in the
darkness of night leaps from the dock, hoping, longing for the
tearless sleep of death. She is rescued by a kind, courageous man,
handed over to the authorities, indicted, tried, convicted. clothed
in a convict's garb and locked in a felon's cell.

To me this law seems barbarous and absurd, a law that only
savages would enforce.

Sixth. -- In this discussion a curious thing has happened. For
several centuries the clergy have declared that while infidelity is
a very good thing to live by, it is a bad support, a wretched
consolation, in the hour of death. They have in spite of the truth,
declared that all the great unbelievers died trembling with fear,
asking God for mercy, surrounded by fiends, in the torments of
despair. Think of the thousands and thousands of clergymen who have
described the last agonies of Voltaire, who died as peacefully as
a happy child smilingly passes from play to slumber; the final
anguish of Hume, who fell into his last sleep as serenely as a
river, running between green and shaded banks, reaches the sea; the
despair of Thomas Paine, one of the bravest, one of the noblest
men, who met the night of death untroubled as a star that meets the

At the same time these ministers admitted that the average
murderer could meet death on the scaffold with perfect serenity,
and could smilingly ask the people who had gathered to see him
killed to meet him in heaven.

But the honest man who had expressed his honest thoughts
against the creed of the church in power could not die in peace.
God would see to it that his last moments should be filled with the
insanity of fear -- that with his last breath he should utter the
shriek of remorse, the cry for pardon.

This has all changed, and now the clergy, in their sermons
answering me, declare that the atheists, the freethinkers, have no
fear of death -- that to avoid some little annoyance, a passing
inconvenience, they gladly and cheerfully put out the light of
life. It is now said that infidels believe that death is the end --
that it is a dreamless sleep -- that it is without pain -- that
therefore they have no fear, care nothing for gods, or heavens or
hells, nothing for the threats of the pulpit, nothing for the day
of judgment, and that when life becomes a burden they carelessly
throw it down.

The infidels are so afraid of death that they commit suicide.

This certainly is a great change, and I congratulate myself on
having forced the clergy to contradict themselves.

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Seventh. -- The clergy take the position that the atheist, the
unbeliever, has no standard of morality -- that he can have no real
conception of right and wrong. They are of the opinion that it is
impossible for one to be moral or good unless he believes in some
Being far above himself.

In this connection we might ask how God can be moral or good
unless he believes in some Being superior to himself?

What is morality? It is the best thing to do under the
circumstances. What is the best thing to do under the
circumstances? That which will increase the sum of human happiness
-- or lessen it the least. Happiness in its highest, noblest form
is the only good; that which increases or preserves or creates
happiness is moral -- that which decreases it, or puts it in peril,
is immoral.

It is not hard for an atheist -- for an unbeliever -- to keep
his hands out of the fire. He knows that burning his hands will not
increase his well-being, and he is moral enough to keep them out of
the flames.

So it may be said that each man acts according to his
intelligence -- so far as where he considers his own good is
concerned. Sometimes he is swayed by passion, by prejudice, by
ignorance -- but when he is really intelligent, master of himself,
he docs what he believes is best for him. If he is intelligent
enough he knows that what is really good for him is good for others
-- for all the world.

It is impossible for me to see why any belief in the
supernatural is necessary to have a keen perception of right and
wrong. Every man who has the capacity to suffer and enjoy, and has
imagination enough to give the same capacity to others, has within
himself the natural basis of all morality. The idea of morality was
born here, in this world, of the experience, the intelligence of
mankind. Morality is not of supernatural origin. It did not fall
from the clouds, and it needs no belief in the supernatural, no
supernatural promises or threats, no supernatural heavens or hells
to give it force and life. Subjects who are governed by the threats
and promises of a king are merely slaves. They are not governed by
the ideal, by noble views of right and wrong. They are obedient
cowards, controlled by fear, or beggars governed by rewards -- by

Right and wrong exist in the nature of things. Murder was just
as criminal before as after the promulgation of the Ten

Eighth. -- Many of the clergy, some editors and some writers
of letters who have answered me, have said that suicide is the
worst of crimes -- that a man had better murder somebody else than
himself. One clergyman gives as a reason for this statement that
the suicide dies in an act of sin, and therefore he had better kill
another person. Probably he would commit a less crime if he would
murder his wife or mother.

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I do not see that it is any worse to die than to live in sin.
To say that it is not as wicked to murder another as yourself seems
absurd. The man about to kill himself wishes to die. Why is it
better for him to kill another man, who wishes to live?

To my mind it seems clear that you had better injure yourself
than another. Better be a spendthrift than a thief. Better throw
away your own money than steal the money of another -- better kill
yourself if you wish to die than murder one whose life is full of

The clergy tell us that God is everywhere, and that it is one
of the greatest possible crimes to rush into his presence. It is
wonderful how much they know about God and how little about their
fellowmen. Wonderful the amount of their information about other
worlds and how limited their knowledge is of this.

There may or may not be an infinite Being. I neither affirm
nor deny. I am honest enough to say that I do not know. I am candid
enough to admit that the question is beyond the limitations of my
mind. Yet I think I know as much on that subject as any human being
knows or ever knew, and that is -- nothing. I do not say that there
is not another world, another life; neither do I say that there is.
I say that I do not know. It seems to me that every sane and honest
man must say the same. But if there is an infinitely good God and
another world, then the infinitely good God will be just as good to
us in that world as he is in this. If this infinitely good God
loves his children in this world, he will love them in another. If
he loves a man when he is alive, he will not hate him the instant
he is dead.

If we are the children of an infinitely wise and powerful God,
he knew exactly what we would do -- the temptations that we could
and could not withstand -- knew exactly the effect that everything
would have upon us, knew under what circumstances we would take our
lives -- and produced such circumstances himself. It is perfectly
apparent that there are many people incapable by nature of bearing
the burdens of life, incapable of preserving their mental poise in
stress and strain of disaster, disease and loss, and who by
failure, by misfortune and want, are driven to despair and
insanity, in whose darkened minds there comes like a flash of
lightning in the night, the thought of death, a thought so strong,
so vivid, that all fear is lost, all ties broken, all duties, all
obligations, all hopes forgotten, and naught remains except a
fierce and wild desire to die. Thousands and thousands become
moody, melancholy, brood upon loss of money, of position, of
friends, until reason abdicates and frenzy takes possession of the
soul. If there be an infinitely wise and powerful God, all this was
known to him from the beginning. and he so created things,
established relations, put in operation causes and effects, that
all that has happened was the necessary result of his own acts.

Ninth. -- Nearly all who have tried to answer what I said have
been exceedingly careful to misquote me, and then answer something
that I never uttered. They have declared that I have advised people
who were in trouble, somewhat annoyed, to kill themselves; that I
have told men who have lost their money, who had failed in

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business, who were not good in health, to kill themselves at once,
without taking into consideration any duty that they owed to wives,
children, friends, or society.

No man has a right to leave his wife to fight the battle alone
if he is able to help. No man has a right to desert his children if
he can possibly be of use. As long as he can add to the comfort of
those he loves, as long as he can stand between wife and misery,
between child and want, as long as he can be of any use, it is his
duty to remain.

I believe in the cheerful view, in looking at the sunny side
of things, in bearing with fortitude the evils of life, in
struggling against adversity, in finding the fuel of laughter even
in disaster, in having confidence in to-morrow, in finding the
pearl of joy among the flints and shards, and in changing by the
alchemy of patience even evil things to good. I believe in the
gospel of cheerfulness, of courage and good nature.

Of the future I have no fear. My fate is the fate of the world
-- of all that live. My anxieties are about this life, this world.
About the phantoms called gods and their impossible hells, I have
no care, no fear.

The existence of God I neither affirm nor deny, I wait. The
immortality of the soul I neither affirm nor deny. I hope -- hope
for all of the children of men. I have never denied the existence
of another world, nor the immortality of the soul. For many years
I have said that the idea of immortality, that like a sea has ebbed
and flowed in the human heart, with its countless waves of hope and
fear beating against the shores and rocks of time and fate, was not
born of any book, nor of any creed, nor of any religion. It was
born of human affection, and it will continue to ebb and flow
beneath the mists and clouds of doubt and darkness as long as love
kisses the lips of death.

What I deny is the immortality of pain, the eternity of

After all, the instinct of self-preservation is strong. People
do not kill themselves on the advice of friends or enemies. All
wish to be happy, to enjoy life; all wish for food and roof and
raiment, for friends, and as long as life gives joy, the idea of
self-destruction never enters the human mind.

The oppressors, the tyrants, those who trample on the rights
of others, the robbers of the poor, those who put wages below the
living point, the ministers who make people insane by preaching the
dogma of eternal pain; these are the men who drive the weak, the
suffering and the helpless down to death.

It will not do to say that God has appointed a time for each
to die. Of this there is, and there can be, no evidence. There is
no evidence that any god takes any interest in the affairs of men
-- that any sides with the right or helps the weak, protects the
innocent or rescues the oppressed. Even the clergy admit that their
God, through all ages, has allowed his friends, his worshipers, to

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be imprisoned, tortured and murdered by his enemies. Such is the
protection of God. Billions of prayers have been uttered; has one
been answered? Who sends plague, pestilence and famine? Who bids
the earthquake devour and the volcano to overwhelm?

Tenth. -- Again, I say that it is wonderful to me that so many
men, so many women endure and carry their burdens to the natural
end; that so many, in spite of "age, ache and penury," guard with
trembling hands the spark of life; that prisoners for life toil and
suffer to the last; that the helpless wretches in poorhouses and
asylums cling to life; that the exiles in Siberia, loaded with
chains, scarred with the knout, live on; that the incurables. whose
every breath is a pang, and for whom the future has only pain,
should fear the merciful touch and clasp of death.

It is but a few steps at most from the cradle to the grave: a
short journey. The suicide hastens, shortens the path, loses the
afternoon, the twilight, the dusk of life's day; loses what he does
not want, what he cannot bear. In the tempest of despair, in the
blind fury of madness, or in the calm of thought and choice, the
beleaguered soul finds the serenity of death.

Let us leave the dead where nature leaves them. We know
nothing of any realm that lies beyond the horizon of the known,
beyond the end of life. Let us be honest with ourselves and others.
Let us pity the suffering, the despairing, the men and women hunted
and pursued by grief and shame, by misery and want, by chance and
fate until their only friend is death.

Robert G. Ingersoll.

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