Academic journal article The Journal of Psychohistory

Liberty versus Life: Suicide in the Writings of Montesquieu

Academic journal article The Journal of Psychohistory

Liberty versus Life: Suicide in the Writings of Montesquieu

Article excerpt

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Bréde et de Montesquieu (16891755) is more of a monument than a man to most people. Most educated people respect him for his contributions to modern government- especially the theory of the separation of powers-but take little more interest in him, not even inquiring into his full name. Yet he was a very human, complex and fascinating individual, who wrote pornography as well as political treatises. And he has one all-important distinction. Perhaps no one in modern Western history before the advent of dissident psychiatrist Thomas Szasz ever made such eloquent and persuasive arguments in favor of suicide as a reaction to desperate circumstances. Such arguments appear in every one of his three major works. To be sure, John Donne wrote a treatise, Biathanatos, and David Hume an essay, "On Suicide", taking similar positions, but they did not have the courage to publish them in their own lives. Montesquieu's views were published in an atmosphere of the most unremitting hostility. After all, he lived in a Catholic country, and suicide under any circumstances is now and was then entirely contrary to Catholic teachings. Furthermore, Montesquieu, though a trailblazer for the Enlightenment, was no flaming radical. Indeed, he believed that Roman Catholicism was the appropriate religion for France (though not for more northerly nations with different cultures and histories, such as England). To say anything positive about suicide was to risk retaliation by ecclesiastical authorities, and more than once Montesquieu had to back down, removing sentences or adding disclaimers to later editions of his works in response to such pressure. Yet he could not keep away from the subject, which seems to have fascinated him, and which he kept raising again and again (M. Waddicor, 1970, p. 120)

Montesquieu's sympathetic attitude toward suicide in certain circumstances has been noted by a number of scholars (for instance F. Neumann in his Introduction to T. Nugent's translation of The Spirit of the Laws, 1949, pp. xviii; M. Waddicor, 1970, pp. 120-124; J. Shklar, 1987, pp. 4041; and Z. G. Cahn, 1998, pp. 51-71). However, there has been little sustained analysis of how and why Montesquieu's views on this subject differed from those of his contemporaries. Such analysis is particularly needed now, when the Culture of Life Foundation's Bradford William Short is maintaining that Montesquieu opposed suicide and is using him to buttress his position that assisted suicide should be declared unconstitutional (Short, 2010). It is the purpose of this paper to provide such analysis, showing that Montesquieu's support for suicide is inextricably associated with the love of liberty for which he is most celebrated, and has the potential to radically transform the way we look at suicide and suicidal ideation today.

THE PERSIAN LETTERS

Montesquieu was born a member of the nobility of the robe, whose parlements or courts of law enjoyed the unique and hereditary distinction of being able to block a king's edicts by declaring them contrary to the fundamental laws of the kingdom, somewhat in the manner that the U.S. Supreme Court can declare laws unconstitutional. They had not dared to exercise this right during the long reign of Louis XIV, which was as oppressive in the realms of politics and religion as it was magnificent in the realm of cultural achievement. The death of the old king in 1715 allowed the natural French joie de vivre, curiosity and propensity toward intellectual debate to burst forth once again, and the young Montesquieu took full advantage. Having inherited the position of Président á Mortier of the Bordeaux Parlement along with his name from his uncle, he could have pursued a distinguished legal career, but he preferred the scintillating atmosphere of Paris. When he discovered that he could write books that enthralled his fellow Frenchmen, he sold his office to become one of the many men of letters frequenting the salons of that city. …

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