History of Suicide
Voluntary Death in Western Culture
In this compact and illuminating history, Georges Minois examines how a culture's attitudes about suicide reflect its larger beliefs and values—attitudes toward life and death, duty and honor, pain and pleasure. Minois begins his survey with classical Greece and Rome, where suicide was acceptable—even heroic—under some circumstances. With the rise of Christianity, however, suicide was unequivocally condemned as self-murder and an insult to God. With the Renaissance and its renewed interest in classical culture, suicide reemerged as a philosophical issue. Minois finds examples of changing attitudes in key Renaissance texts by Bacon, Montaigne, Sidney, Donne, and Shakespeare.
By 1700, the term suicide had replaced self-murder and the subject began to interest the emerging scientific disciplines. Minois follows the ongoing evaluation of suicide through the Enlightenment and the Romantic periods, and he examines attitudes that emerge in nineteenth- and twentieth-century science, law, philosophy, and literature. Minois concludes with comments on the most recent turn in this long and complex history—the emotional debate over euthanasia, assisted suicide, and the right to die.
About the Authors
Georges Minois is the author of fourteen books on topics as diverse as the church and science, the church and war, Henry VIII, and the history of Europe. Lydia G. Cochrane has translated many works, including Roger Chartier's On the Edge of the Cliff for Johns Hopkins.
"This book, lucidly translated, makes compulsive reading."
"Minois's book follows the religious, philosophical, literary, and judicial debate for and against self-murder from antiquity to the end of the Enlightenment, demonstrating the close connection between political power, religious authority, social status, and the freedom to die... Minois's study is detailed and thorough... Gory anecdotes and effective reference to overarching intellectual trends make the book edifying and morbidly enjoyable."
"Minois... has provided a timely chronicle tracing the evolution of societal attitudes toward suicide... Minois writes in an unadorned, concise prose that aids him in treating a serious subject in a serious manner. Although his own convictions on the issue are clear, Minois treats both sides of our current debate with objectivity, understanding, and compassion."
"The History of suicide has come of age. After a century of sociological inquiry, historians over the last decade have now embraced this all-too-human act and have produced remarkable results."
"Minois has succeeded in pulling together a wide range of materials, and in reminding us how elite attitudes to suicide shifted, and that those shifts may well serve as pointers to some more general developments in the intellectual history of Europe."
"A broad and thought-provoking discussion of the complexities of suicide. Continually reminding us that the legalities and theoretical discussions of suicide often do not coincide with the reality of suicide, Minois focuses his discussion around Hamlet's famous question, 'to be or not to be,' and this proves to be an effective way to organize and present the large and dense amount of material... This book provides a useful and impressive collection of data and an absorbing discussion of attitudes toward voluntary death."
"A comprehensive and intriguing study of the grim commingling of resolve and mystery that has characterized the act of and reaction to suicide since the Roman Empire gave way to the Middle Ages in Europe... Balanced, engaging and sufficiently detailed with dark truths to keep the extramural reader interested."
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