Choosing Death: Suicide and Calvinism in Early Modern Geneva

Choosing Death: Suicide and Calvinism in Early Modern Geneva

Choosing Death: Suicide and Calvinism in Early Modern Geneva

Choosing Death: Suicide and Calvinism in Early Modern Geneva

Synopsis

Taking the Republic of Geneva as a case study, Watt (history, U. of Mississippi) argues that the early modern era marked a decisive change in the history of suicide. During the 16th and early 17th centuries, he finds, suicide was conventionally attributed to possession by demons, and the self-murderer's body, family, and estate were punished. He contrasts the 18th century, in which philosophers defended people's right to take their own lives, and most people attributed suicide to mental illness. Some of the material has appeared as journal articles. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

Excerpt

Throughout history many great minds have pondered the issue of suicide. In the ancient Greco-Roman world, suicide caught the attention of the great philosophers, playwrights, and statesmen. Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca, among others, all considered whether it was licit to end one’s life voluntarily. With the appearance of Christianity, theologians discussed the legitimacy of “self-murder” (one can hardly say “debated,” given the lack of disagreement on the issue). In their respective eras, Augustine, Aquinas, and, as we shall see, John Calvin, all considered whether suicide was right or wrong. From ancient Rome into the modern era, jurists and legal scholars argued about what, if any, penalties should be inflicted upon the estates or bodies of suicides. The philosophes of the eighteenth century discussed at length whether suicide was ever permissible and whether legal traditions toward it were just.

Modern scholarship has shifted away from the ethics of taking one’s life, concentrating on the causes of suicide. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the work on suicide that has garnered the most attention has largely been the scholarship of two sorts of researchers: psychiatrists and psychologists, on the one hand; sociologists, on the other. Of the former, one of the first scholars to examine suicide from the point of view of physiology was Etienne Esquirol, who believed that all suicides were mentally ill, a belief that grew out of the views on suicide of the eighteenth-century philosophes. In 1838 Esquirol wrote in his Maladies mentales that people attempt to take their lives only when delirious and that all suicides are “alienated.” The

Etienne Esquirol, Des maladies mentales: Considerées sous les rapports médical, hygiénique, et médico
légal
, 3 vols. (Paris: J. S. Chaude, 1838). See also Henry Romilly Fedden, Suicide: A Social and Historical
Study
(New York: Benjamin Blom, 1972), 309; Georges Minois, Histoire du suicide: La société occidentale
face à la mort volontaire
(Paris: Fayard, 1995), 369.

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