Is Suicide a Crime?
Theosophist, November, 1882
Letter by “Inquirer” | Reply by H.P.B.
The writer in the London Spiritualist for November, who calls the “Fragments of Occult Truth” speculation-spinning, can hardly, I think, apply that epithet to Fragment No. 3, so cautiously is the hypothesis concerning suicide advanced therein. Viewed in its general aspect, the hypothesis seems sound enough, satisfies our instincts of the Moral Law of the Universe, and fits in with our ordinary ideas as well as with those we have derived from science. The inference drawn from the two cases cited, viz., that of the selfish suicide on the one hand, and of the unselfish suicide on the other, is that, although the after-states may vary, the result is invariably bad, the variation consisting only in the degree of punishment. It appears to me that, in arriving at this conclusion, the writer could not have had in his mind’s eye all the possible cases of suicide, which do or may occur. For I maintain that in some cases self-sacrifice is not only justifiable, but also morally desirable, and that the result of such self-sacrifice cannot possibly be bad. I will put one case, perhaps the rarest of all rare cases, but not necessarily on that account a purely hypothetical one, for I KNOW at least one man, in whom I am interested, who is actuated with feelings, not dissimilar to these I shall now describe, and who would be deeply thankful for any additional light that could be thrown on this darkly mysterious subject.—( See Editor’s Note 1).
Suppose, then, that an individual, whom I shall call M., takes to thinking long and deep on the vexed questions of the mysteries of earthly existence, its aims, and the highest duties of man. To assist his thoughts, he turns to philosophical works: notably those dealing with the sublime teachings of Buddha. Ultimately he arrives at the conclusion that the FIRST and ONLY aim of existence is to be useful to our fellow men; that failure in this constitutes his own worthlessness as a sentient human being, and that by continuing a life of worthlessness he simply dissipates the energy which he holds in trust, and which, so holding, he has no right to fritter away. He tries to be useful, but—miserably and deplorably fails. What, then, is his remedy? Remember there is here “no sea of troubles” to “take arms against,” no outraged human law to dread, no deserved earthly punishment to escape; in fact, there is no moral cowardice whatever involved in the self-sacrifice. M. simply puts an end to an existence which is useless, and which therefore fails of its own primary purpose. Is his act not justifiable? Or must he also be the victim of that transformation into spook and pisacha, against which Fragment No. 3 utters its dread warning? (2.)
Perhaps, M. may secure at the next birth more favourable conditions, and thus be better able to work out the purpose of Being. Well, he can scarcely be worse; for, in addition to his being inspired by a laudable motive to make way for one who might be more serviceable, he has not, in this particular case, been guilty of any moral turpitude. (3.)
But I have not done. I go a step further and say that M. is not only useless, but positively mischievous. To his incapacity to do good, he finds that he adds a somewhat restless disposition which is perpetually urging him on to make an effort to do good. M. makes the effort—he would be utterly unworthy the name of man if he did not make it—and discovers that his incapacity most generally leads him into errors which convert the possible good into actual evil; that, on account of his nature, birth, and education, a very large number of men become involved in the effects of his mistaken zeal, and that the world at large suffers more from his existence than otherwise. Now, if, after arriving at such results, M. seeks to carry out their logical conclusions, viz., that being morally bound to diminish the woes to which sentient beings on earth are subject, he should destroy himself, and by that means do the only good he is capable of; is there, I ask, any moral guilt involved in the act of anticipating death in such a case? I, for one, should certainly say not. Nay, more, I maintain, subject of course to correction by superior knowledge, that M. is not only justified in making away with himself, but that he would be a villain if he did not, at once and unhesitatingly, put an end to a life, not only useless, but positively pernicious. (4.)
M. may be in error; but supposing he dies cherishing the happy delusion that in death is all the good, in life all the evil he is capable of, are there in his case no extenuating circumstances to plead strongly in his favour, and help to avert a fall into that horrible abyss with which your readers have been frightened? (5.)
M.’s, I repeat, is no hypothetical case. History teems with instances of worthless and pernicious lives, carried on tot he bitter end to the ruin of nations. Look at the authors of the French Revolution, burning with as ardent a love for their fellowmen as ever fired the human breast; look at them crimson with innocent blood, bringing unutterable disasters on their country in Liberty’s sacred name! apparently how strong! in reality how pitifully weak! What a woeful result of incapacity has been theirs? Could they but have seen with M.’s eyes, would they not have been his prototype? Blessed, indeed, had it been for France, if they had anticipated M.?
Again, look at George III. of England, a well-meaning, yet an incapable Sovereign, who, after reigning for a number of years, left his country distracted and impoverished by foreign wars, torn by internal discussions, and separated from a kindred race across the Atlantic, with the liberties of his subjects trampled under foot, and virtue prostituted in the Cabinet, in Parliament and on the Hastings. His correspondence with Lord North and others abundantly proves that to his self-sufficiency, well-meaning though it be, must be traced the calamities of Great Britain and Ireland, calamities from the effects of which the United Kingdom has not yet fully recovered. Happy had it been for England if this ruler had, like M., seent he uselessness of his life and nipped it, as M. might do, in the bud of its pernicious career!—AN INQUIRER.
(1.) “Inquirer” is not an Occultist, hence his assertion that in some cases suicide “is not only justifiable, but also morally desirable.” No more than murder, is it ever justifiable, however desirable it may sometimes appear. The Occultist, who looks at the origin and the ultimate end of things, teaches that the individual, who affirms that any man, under whatsoever circumstances, is called to put an end to his life, is guilty of as great an offence and of as pernicious a piece of sophistry, as the nation that assumes a right to kill in war thousands of innocent people under the pretext of avenging the wrong done to one. All such reasonings are the fruits of Avidya mistaken for philosophy and wisdom. Our friend is certainly wrong in thinking that the writer of “Fragments” arrived at his conclusions only because he failed to keep before his mind’s eye all the possible cases of suicides. The result, in one sense, is certainly invariable; and there is but one general law or rule for all suicides. But, it is just because “the after-states” vary ad infinitum, that it is erroneous to infer that this variation consists only in the degree of punishment. If the result will be in every case the necessity of living out the appointed period of sentient existence, we do not see whence “Inquirer” has derived his notion that “the result is invariably bad.” The result is full of dangers; but there is hope for certain suicides, and even in many cases A REWARD, if LIFE WAS SACRIFICED TO SAVE OTHER LIVES and that there was no other alternative for it. Let him read paragraph 7, page 313, in the September THEOSOPHIST, and reflect. Of course, the question is simply generalized by the writer. To treat exhaustively of all and every case of suicide and their after-states would require a shelf of volumes from the British Museum’s Library, not our Fragments.
(2.) No man, we repeat, has a right to put an end to his existence simply because it is useless. As well argue the necessity of inciting to suicide all the incurable invalids and cripples who are a constant source of misery to their families; and preach the moral beauty of that law among some of the savage tribes of the South Sea Islanders, in obedience to which they put to death, with warlike honours, their old men and women. The instance chosen by “Inquirer” is not a happy one. There is a vast difference between the man who parts with his life in sheer disgust at constant failure to do good, out of despair of ever being useful, or even out of dread to do injury to his fellow men by remaining alive; and one who gives it up voluntarily to save the lives either committed to his charge or dear to him. One is a half-insane misanthrope—the other, a hero and a martyr. One takes away his life, the other offers it in sacrifice to philanthropy and to his duty. The captain who remains alone on board of a sinking ship; the man who gives up his place in a boat that will not hold all, in favour of younger and weaker beings; the physician, the sister of charity and nurse who stir not from the bedside of patients dying of an infectious fever; the man of science who wastes his life in brain work and fatigue and knows he is so wasting it and yet is offering it day after day and night after night in order to discover some great law of the universe, the discovery of which may bring in its results some great boon to mankind; the mother who throws herself before the wild beast that attacks her children to screen and give them the time to flee; all these are not suicides. The impulse which prompts them thus to contravene the first great law of animated nature—the first instinctive impulse of which is to preserve life—is grand and noble. And, though all these will have to live in the Kama Loka their appointed life term, they are yet admired by all, and their memory will live honoured among the living for a still longer period. We all wish that, upon similar occasions, we may have courage so to die. Not so, surely in the case of the man instanced by “Inquirer.” Notwithstanding his assertion that “there is no moral cowardice whatever involved” in such self-sacrifice—we call it decidedly “moral cowardice” and refuse it the name of sacrifice.
(3 and 4.) There is far more courage to live than to die in most cases. If “M.” feels that he is “positively mischievous,” let him retire to a jungle, a desert island; or, what is still better, to a cave or hut near some big city; and then, while living the life of a hermit, a life which would preclude the very possibility of doing mischief to anyone, work, in one way or the other, for the poor, the starving, the afflicted. If he does that, no one can “become involved in the effects of his mistaken zeal,” whereas, if he has the slightest talent, he can benefit many by simple manual labour carried on in as complete a solitude and silence as can be commanded under the circumstances. Anything is better—even being called a crazy philanthropist—than committing suicide, the most dastardly and cowardly of all actions, unless the felo de se is resorted to in a fit of insanity.
(5.) “Inquirer” asks whether his “M.” must also be victim of that transformation into spook and pisacha! Judging by the delineation given of his character by his friend, we should say that, of all suicides, he is the most likely to become a seance-room spook. Guiltless “of any moral turpitude,” he may well be. But, since he is afflicted with a “restless disposition which is perpetually urging him on to make an effort to do good”—here, on earth, there is no reason we know of, why he should lose that unfortunate disposition (unfortunate because of the constant failure)—in the Kama-Loka. A “mistaken zeal” is sure to lead him on toward various mediums. Attracted by the strong magnetic desire of sensitives and spiritualists, “M.” will probably feel “morally bound to diminish the woes to which these sentient beings (mediums and believers) are subject on earth,” and shall once more destroy not only himself, but his “affinities,” the mediums.
[Note: the above elicited a response by the “Inquirer” in The Theosophist, January, 1883, in which HPB included the following footnote:]
Though the editorial note in reply to my queries has cleared some difficulties, I can by no means pretend that it is satisfactory. It is argued that a man has as much right to put an end to his existence—simply because it is useless—as he has to incite to suicide all the incurable invalids and cripples who are a constant source of misery to their families. This may or may not be the case; but this much I shall certainly affirm that an incurable invalid, who finds himself powerless for good in this world, has no right to exist.1 . . .
1. And the affirmation—with a very, very few exceptions—will be as vehemently denied by every occultist, spiritualist, and philosopher, on grounds quite the reverse of those brought forward by Christians. In “godless” Buddhism suicide is as hateful and absurd, since no one can escape rebirth by taking his life.—Ed. [H.P.B.]