From the Publisher: Suicide of the West

Robert Hugh Benson wrote Lord of the World in 1903. It is quite literally an apocalyptic novel about the end of the world, Armageddon, the second coming. Hooked as a boy on Benson’s recusant novels, I found this one more fascinating still, a theological thriller. Images of giant helicopters moving silently over London linger in the mind, as do the scenes in which the completely plausible Anti-Christ—his name is Julian Felsenburgh—figures. And one remembers the euthanasia parlors.

When for whatever reason one wearied of the world, one could repair to a parlor and, as a matter of right, shuffle off this mortal coil. But of course such Shakespearean allusions are inappropriate. Euthanasia was acceptable because there was nothing immortal around which the mortal body coiled. It seems to me in distant retrospect that it was the euthanasia parlors Benson featured as the most revealing symbol of those last decadent days.

In the wake of World War II, Albert Camus suggested in The Myth of Sisyphus that the first philosophical question is, Should I or should I not commit suicide? It is first because any other question presupposes a negative answer to it. He who lives to ask anything else has said Yes to life. And Jean Paul Sartre, arguing that if there is no God there are no objective constraints on our freedom, concluded that we are completely responsible for everything in our lives. But, you object, I did not choose to be born. Well, Sartre replies, so long as you do not commit suicide you are retroactively acquiescing in, and thus taking responsibility for, your coming to be.

Suicide has enjoyed a long run in philosophy. The Stoics were generally in favor of it, particularly if one were threatened with public disgrace. Nowadays, a group calling itself the Hemlock Society seems to be borrowing on that pagan past as well. Unfortunately for them, they have chosen badly. Who in thinking of hemlock would fail to think of Socrates? You remember that Socrates, unjustly condemned to death, awaits the arrival of a ceremonial ship when his sentence will be executed. He will be given hemlock to drink and, thanks to Plato, we are witnesses of his death, the death of “our comrade, who was, we may fairly say, of all those whom we knew in our time, the bravest and also the wisest and most upright man.”

As Socrates waits, his friends are allowed to visit him, and the Apology, Crito and Phaedo give us a sense of the great philosopher on death row. Plato was to call the philosopher a lover of death because he did not dread that event which would release him from this world into the better one from which his soul had come. Socrates’ friends suggest that he cheat the executioner, foil his enemies, take his own life without waiting for the official date. In short, take the hemlock as a free deed of his own.

In reply, Socrates exhibits the nobility of the human spirit even when it is unaided by revelation. I do not belong to myself, he says. I am the property of God. I have no right to dispose of God’s property simply as I might wish. At its best, Greek philosophy saw man as a part of an orderly universe, a cosmos, and one not under mere human control. The world requires a fashioner, moved movers are unintelligible unless there is a mover unmoved by anything else. Our sense of who we are involves an understanding of where we are and how we got here. Reality antedates us and it will survive our earthly life. But so will we. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle argued that the human spirit was not the sort of thing that could cease to be, wear out, run down, die.

This is the pagan philosophical outlook that the Hemlock Society unwisely invokes. That outlook stands in judgment on the silly notion that I own myself, that I can check out of the world at will, that I need not suffer the indignity of illness. Where were you when I made the world, God asks Job. The human mind is measured by reality; it is not the standard of what is and what is not. In acting, our minds must be guided by what is appropriate to who and what we are.

The Michigan pathologist who invented the suicide machine rightly sees the Catholic Church as the enemy of the assumptions of the Hemlock Society. He says Catholics have a closed mind. But any mind open to reality can see that we are not in complete command of our lives. Life itself is a gift, and that invites thoughts of a Giver, but for most of us it is our vulnerability to misfortune, to the unlooked-for reversal, that brings home to us that we are actors in a drama scarcely understood by us, save in its grand lines.

Those who work in medical ethics have devoted careful and sustained attention to the difference between killing and letting die. Bishop James McHugh has given a lucid account of the Church’s teaching in a recent issue of the newsletter of Catholics United for the Faith. Socrates accepted death, he accepted the state’s right to exact capital punishment, but he rejected the suggestion that he personally should cause his own death.

Humanae Vitae has proved to be a genuinely prophetic document. In 1968 it might have seemed rhetorical overkill to suggest that there is a link between contraception, extramarital sex, abortion, and euthanasia. Separating the unitive and procreative meanings of the conjugal act links contraception and extra- and pre-marital sex, and homosexuality, but what do abortion and euthanasia have to do with these? Is there a link between contraception and euthanasia?

Sometimes it is suggested by foes of Humanae Vitae that if the Church accepts Natural Family Planning, as She does, artificial contraception must also be accepted. The argument is that both aim at having coition without conception. Artificial contraception deliberately renders infertile the conjugal act but in the natural course of events there are periods of infertility. helps nature along, establishing by chemistry or barriers an infertile period. What’s the big deal?

One might just as well say that suicide is natural because death is natural and the retired pathologist is simply helping us help nature along. That is in fact what euthanasiasts say. I have heard it blasphemously suggested that Christ’s death is an instance of suicide since it was a “death he freely accepted.” But Socrates, too, freely accepted his death by execution while rejecting the suggestion that he commit suicide. There is that link at least between contraception and euthanasia: a failure to see the difference between accepting what is natural and trying to distort nature to our own selfish will.

The Greeks have provided us with great mythical figures of those who defied the gods, among them Sisyphus and Prometheus. But they are as nothing next to Satan whose “Non serviam!” echoes down the ages. You shall be as gods, he told our first parents. That is the lie which, believed, led on to the great drama of the fall and redemption. So, too, the euthanasiast, village atheist though he is, promises that we shall be as gods. But gods do not kill themselves. Nor do human beings when they recognize themselves as God’s creatures. Catholic propaganda? Tell it to Socrates. And please change the name of the Hemlock Society.

  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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