5 Hume on suicide
5.1 The reception of Hume's views
‘Of suicide’ was received with the same degree of public hostility as his essay on immortality. Here is what an anonymous reviewer of the 1777 posthumous edition of both essays had to say in the Monthly Review (1784, vol. 70, pp. 427–8):
Were a drunken libertine to throw out such nauseous stuff in the presence of his Bacchanalian companions, there might be some excuse for him; but were any man to advance such doctrines in the company of sober citizens, men of plain sense and decent manners, no person, we apprehend, would think him entitled to a serious reply, but would hear him with silent contempt.
This reviewer, unfortunately, is true to her or his word and does not provide a serious reply to Hume, preferring instead to hold up one or two statements in the essays and jeer:
Mr Hume affirms that it is as clear as any purpose of nature can be that the whole scope and intention of man's creation is limited to the present life, and that those who inculcate the doctrine of a future state have no other motive but to gain a livelihood and to acquire power and riches in this world … The life of a man, he says, is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster. It would be no crime, we are told, in any man, to divert the Nile or Danube from their courses, were he able to effect such purpose. Where then is the crime, Mr Hume asks, of turning a few ounces of blood from their natural channel?
The first sentence of this passage alludes to remarks made in ‘Of the immortality of the soul’ (paragraph 9), remarks that in fact play a relatively marginal role in the essay. The remainder of the passage cites claims in ‘Of suicide’ that are similarly peripheral.
Other commentators were equally disrespectful towards Hume the person, but more respectful of the need to respond at greater length to Hume's reasoning. In his lengthy tome, A Full Inquiry into the Subject of Suicide, Charles Moore describes Hume as ‘a more pernicious and destructive member of society than even the profligate and abandoned liver’ (1790, vol. 2, p. 54). In The Dreadful Sin of Suicide: A Sermon, George Clayton calls him a ‘source of incalculable evil’ (1812, p. 48n).
In the essay Hume claims that the act of taking one's own life should be ‘free from every imputation of guilt or blame’ (paragraph 4). Suicide, he argues, can be morally unobjectionable or even admirable. As the reviews suggest, this was a controversial claim: to commit suicide was generally regarded as sinful, and to attempt suicide was a criminal act. What was peculiarly unsettling about Hume's perspective was that he did not bother to reject the core religious assumptions from which hostility to suicide more commonly sprang. Hume was, we know, an agnostic, but his agnosticism does not figure in this essay. His claim is that suicide can be shown to be morally permissible even after granting God's existence. In this respect the present essay resembles the one we have already studied: admitting suicide to be morally permissible, like rejecting the doctrine of immortality, will not depend on denying the existence of God.
The essay does not have explicitly numbered sections as did the previous essay. This does not mean it lacks a structure. Rather, the structure is something for us to uncover as we study it. As before, we will be working through the essay stage by stage. You will then be asked to read it through as a whole.