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The Historical Library is provided for those doing research into the history of nontheism. It is not intended to be--and should not be used as--a source of modern, up-to-date information regarding atheistic issues. DO NOT CONTACT US ABOUT THESE DOCUMENTS. Please read the full Historical Library Disclaimer
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Suicide Sin

Robert Green Ingersoll


     These letters were published in the New York World, 1894.

                        IS SUICIDE A SIN?

                 Col. Ingersoll's First Letter.

     I do not know whether self-killing is on the increase or not.
If it is, then there must be, on the average, more trouble, more
sorrow, more failure, and, consequently, more people are driven to
despair. In civilized life there is a great struggle, great
competition, and many fail. To fail in a great city is like being
wrecked at sea. In the country a man has friends; he can get a
little credit, a little help, but in the city it is different. The
man is lost in the multitude. In the roar of the streets, his cry
is not heard. Death becomes his only friend. Death promises release
from want, from hunger and pain, and so the poor wretch lays down
his burden, dashes it from his shoulders and falls asleep.

     To me all this seems very natural. The wonder is that so many
endure and suffer to the natural end. that so many nurse the spark
of life in huts and prisons, keep it and guard it through years of
misery and want; support it by beggary, by eating the crust found
in the gutter, and to whom it only gives days of weariness and
nights of fear and dread. Why should the man, sitting amid the

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                  Box 926, Louisville, KY 40201
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                        IS SUICIDE A SIN?

wreck of all he had, the loved ones dead, friends lost, seek to
lengthen, to preserve his life? What can the future have for him?

     Under many circumstances a man has the right to kill himself.
When life is of no value to him, when he can be of no real
assistance to others, why should a man continue? When he is of no
benefit, when he is a burden to those he loves, why should he
remain? The old idea was that God made us and placed us here for a
purpose and that it was our duty to remain until he called us. The
world is outgrowing this absurdity. What pleasure can it give God
to see a man devoured by a cancer; to see the quivering flesh
slowly eaten; to see the nerves throbbing with pain? Is this a
festival for God? Why should the poor wretch stay and suffer? A
little morphine would give him sleep -- the agony would be
forgotten and he would pass unconsciously from happy dreams to
painless death.

     If God determines all births and deaths, of what use is
medicine and why should doctors defy with pills and powders, the
decrees of God? No one, except a few insane, act now according to
this childish superstition. Why should a man, surrounded by flames,
in the midst of a burning building, from which there is no escape,
hesitate to put a bullet through his brain or a dagger in his
heart? Would it give God pleasure to see him burn? When did the man
lose the right of self-defence?

     So, when a man has committed some awful crime, why should he
stay and ruin his family and friends? Why should he add to the
injury? Why should he live, filling his days and nights, and the
days and nights of others, with grief and pain, with agony and
tears?

     Why should a man sentenced to imprisonment for life hesitate
to still his heart? The grave is better than the cell. Sleep is
sweeter than the ache of toil. The dead have no masters.

     So the poor girl, betrayed and deserted, the door of home
closed against her, the faces of friends averted, no hand that will
help, no eye that will soften with pity, the future an abyss filled
with monstrous shapes of dread and fear, her mind racked by
fragments of thoughts like clouds broken by storm, pursued,
surrounded by the serpents of remorse, flying from horrors too
great to bear, rushes with joy through the welcome door of death.

     Undoubtedly there are many cases of perfectly justifiable
suicide -- cases in which not to end life would be a mistake,
sometimes almost a crime.

     As to the necessity of death, each must decide for himself.
And if a man honestly decides that death is best -- best for him
and others -- and acts upon the decision, why should he be blamed?

     Certainly the man who kills himself is not a physical coward.
He may have lacked moral courage, but not physical. It may be said
that some men fight duels because they are afraid to decline. They
are between two fires -- the chance of death and the certainty of
dishonor, and they take the chance of death. So the Christian

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                  Box 926, Louisville, KY 40201
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                        IS SUICIDE A SIN?

martyrs were, according to their belief, between two fires -- the
flames of the fagot that could burn but for a few moments, and the
fires of God, that were eternal. And they chose the flames of the
fagot.

     Men who fear death to that degree that they will bear all the
pains and pangs that nerves can feel, rather than die, cannot
afford to call the suicide a coward. It does not seem to me that
Brutus was a coward or that Seneca was. Surely Antony had nothing
left to live for. Cato was not a craven. He acted on his judgment.
So with hundreds of others who felt that they had reached the end
-- that the journey was done, the voyage was over, and, so feeling,
stopped. It seems certain that the man who commits suicide, who
"does the thing that ends all other deeds, that shackles accident
and bolts up change" is not lacking in physical courage.

     If men had the courage, they would not linger in prisons, in
almshouses, in hospitals; they would not bear the pangs of
incurable disease, the stains of dishonor; they would not live in
filth and want, in poverty and hunger, neither would they wear the
chain of slavery. All this can be accounted for only by the fear of
death or "of something after."

     Seneca, knowing that Nero intended to take his life, had no
fear. He knew that he could defeat the Emperor. He knew that "at
the bottom of every river, in the coil of every rope, on the point
of every dagger, Liberty sat and smiled." He knew that it was his
own fault if he allowed himself to be tortured to death by his
enemy. He said: "There is this blessing, that while life has but
one entrance, it has exits innumerable, and as I choose the house
in which I live, the ship in which I will sail, so will I choose
the time and manner of my death."

     To me this is not cowardly, but manly and noble.

     Under the Roman law persons found guilty of certain offence
were not only destroyed, but their blood was polluted and their
children became outcasts. If, however, they died before conviction
their children were saved. Many committed suicide to save their
babes. Certainly they were not cowards. Although guilty of great
crimes they had enough of honor, of manhood, left to save their
innocent children. This was not cowardice.

     Without doubt many suicides are caused by insanity. Men lose
their property. The fear of the future overpowers them. Things lose
proportion, they lose poise and balance, and in a flash, a gleam of
frenzy, kill themselves. The disappointed in love, broken in heart
-- the light fading from their lives -- seek the refuge of death.

     Those who take their lives in painful, barbarous ways -- who
mangle their throats with broken glass, dash themselves from towers
and roofs, take poisons that torture like the rack -- such persons
must be insane. But those who take the facts into account, who
weigh the arguments for and against, and who decide that death is
best -- the only good -- and then resort to reasonable means, may
be, so far as I can see, in full possession of their minds.

                         Bank of Wisdom
                  Box 926, Louisville, KY 40201
                                8

                        IS SUICIDE A SIN?

     Life is not the same to all -- to some a blessing, to some a
curse, to some not much in any way. Some leave it with unspeakable
regret, some with the keenest joy and some with indifference.

     Religion, or the decadence of religion, has a bearing upon the
number of suicides. The fear of God, of Judgment, of eternal pain
will stay the hand, and people so believing will suffer here until
relieved by natural death. A belief in eternal agony beyond the
grave will cause such believers to suffer the pangs of this life.
When there is no fear of the future, when death is believed to be
a dreamless sleep, men have less hesitation about ending their
lives. On the other hand, orthodox religion has driven millions to
insanity. It has caused parents to murder their children and many
thousands to destroy themselves and others.

     It seems probable that all real, genuine orthodox believers
who kill themselves must be insane, and to such a degree that their
belief is forgotten. God and hell are out of their minds.

     I am satisfied that many who commit suicide are insane, many
are in the twilight or dusk of insanity, and many are perfectly
sane.

     The law we have in this State making it a crime to attempt
suicide is cruel and absurd and calculated to increase the number
of successful suicides. When a man has suffered so much, when he
has been so persecuted and pursued by disaster that he seeks the
rest and sleep of death, why should the State add to the sufferings
of that man? A man seeking death, knowing that he will be punished
if he fails, will take extra pains and precautions to make death
certain.

     This law was born of superstition, passed by thoughtlessness
and enforced by ignorance and cruelty.

     When the house of life becomes a prison, when the horizon has
shrunk and narrowed to a cell, and when the convict longs for the
liberty of death, why should the effort to escape be regarded as a
crime?

     Of course, I regard life from a natural point of view. I do
not take gods, heavens or hells into account. My horizon is the
known, and my estimate of life is based upon what I know of life
here in this world. People should not suffer for the sake of
supernatural beings or for other worlds or the hopes and fears of
some future state. Our joys, our sufferings and our duties are
here.

     The law of New York about the attempt to commit suicide and
the law as to divorce are about equal. Both are idiotic. Law cannot
prevent suicide. Those who have lost all fear of death, care
nothing for law and its penalties. Death is liberty, absolute and
eternal.

     We should remember that nothing happens but the natural. Back
of every suicide and every attempt to commit suicide is the natural
and efficient cause. Nothing happens by chance. In this world the

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                  Box 926, Louisville, KY 40201
                                9

                        IS SUICIDE A SIN?

facts touch each other. There is no space between -- no room for
chance. Given a certain heart and brain, certain conditions, and
suicide is the necessary result. If we wish to prevent suicide we
must change conditions. We must by education, by invention, by art,
by civilization, add to the value of the average life. We must
cultivate the brain and heart -- do away with false pride and false
modesty. We must become generous enough to help our fellows without
degrading them. We must make industry -- useful work of all kinds
-- honorable. We must mingle a little affection with our charity --
a little fellowship. We should allow those who have sinned to
really reform. We should not think only of what the wicked have
done, but we should think of what we have wanted to do. People do
not hate the sick. Why should they despise the mentally weak -- the
diseased in brain?

     Our actions are the fruit, the result, of circumstances -- of
conditions -- and we do as we must. This great truth should fill
the heart with pity for the failures of our race.

     Sometimes I have wondered that Christians denounced the
suicide; that in olden times they buried him where the roads
crossed, drove a stake through his body, and then took his property
from his children and gave it to the State.

     If Christians would only think, they would see that orthodox
religion rests upon suicide -- that man was redeemed by suicide,
and that without suicide the whole world would have been lost.

     If Christ were God, then he had the power to protect himself
from death. But instead of using his power he allowed them to take
his life.

     If a strong man should allow a few little children to hack him
to death with knives when he could easily have brushed them aside,
would we not say that he committed suicide?

     There is no escape. If Christ were, in fact, God, and allowed
himself to be killed. then he consented to his own death --
refused, though perfectly able, to defend and protect himself, and
was, in fact, a suicide.

     We cannot reform the world by law or by superstition. As long
as there shall be pain and failure, want and sorrow, agony and
crime, men and women will untie life's knot and seek the peace of
death.

     To the hopelessly imprisoned -- to the dishonored and despised
-- to those who have failed, who have no future, no hope -- to the
abandoned, the brokenhearted, to those who are only remnants and
fragments of men and women -- how consoling, how enchanting is the
thought of death!

     And even to the most fortunate, death at last is a welcome
deliverer. Death is as natural and as merciful as life. When we
have journeyed long -- when we are weary -- when we wish for the
twilight, for the dusk, for the cool kisses of the night -- when
the senses are dull -- when the pulse is faint and low -- when the

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                  Box 926, Louisville, KY 40201
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                        IS SUICIDE A SIN?

mists gather on the mirror of memory -- when the past is almost
forgotten, the present hardly perceived -- when the future has but
empty hands -- death is as welcome as a strain of music.

     After all, death is not so terrible as Joyless life. Next to
eternal happiness is to sleep in the soft clasp of the cool earth,
disturbed by no dream, by no thought, by no pain, by no fear,
unconscious of all and forever.

     The wonder is that so many live, that in spite of rags and
want, in spite of tenement and gutter, of filth and pain, they limp
and stagger and crawl beneath their burdens to the natural end. The
wonder is that so few of the miserable are brave enough to die --
that so many are terrified by the "something after death" -- by the
specters and phantoms of superstition.

     Most people are in love with life. How they cling to it in the
arctic snows -- how they struggle in the waves and currents of the
sea -- how they linger in famine -- how they fight disaster and
despair! On the crumbling edge of death they keep the flag flying
and go down at last full of hope and courage.

     But many have not such natures. They cannot bear defeat. They
are disheartened by disaster. They lie down on the field of
conflict and give the earth their blood.

     They are our unfortunate brothers and sisters. We should not
curse or blame -- we should pity. On their pallid faces our tears
should fall.

     One of the best men I ever knew, with an affectionate wife, a
charming and loving daughter, committed suicide. He was a man of
generous impulses. His heart was loving and tender. He was
conscientious, and so sensitive that he blamed himself for having
done what at the time he thought was wise and best. He was the
victim of his virtues. Let us be merciful in our judgments.

     All we can say is that the good and the bad, the loving and
the malignant, the conscientious and the vicious, the educated and
the ignorant, actuated by many motives, urged and pushed by
circumstances and conditions -- sometimes in the calm of Judgment,
sometimes in passion's storm and stress, sometimes in whip and
tempest of insanity -- raise their hands against themselves and
desperately put out the light of life.

     Those who attempt suicide should not be punished. If they are
insane they should if possible be restored to reason; if sane, they
should be reasoned with, calmed and assisted.

                                          Robert G. Ingersoll.

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