Stay by Jennifer Michael Hecht: a history of suicide that brings awareness on the social impact of the gesture and pleads for life

Jennifer Michael Hecht, Stay. A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It

Published 2013 by Yale University Press, 280p


In the month following Marilyn Monroe’s death there was a 12% increase in suicides in America. 46 years after Sylvia Plath had killed herself in the kitchen while her children were sleeping in the next room, her son took his own life. In the Hemingway family there were five suicides across four generations. These examples prove that suicide may be contagious and imitation is one of the major sources.

Parent suicides are easily the most dramatic and damaging influence, but there are examples in other communities, such as workplace, school, and neighbourhood, as well as suicide clusters centered on popular culture. Media reporting on suicide can also result in suicides.

Considering the fact that suicide is among Americans’ top ten causes of death and the rates are rising, Hecht (historian, poet, philosopher) who had lost herself two friends to suicide, decided to plead for life and demonstrate that across history there were more thinkers that brought arguments against suicide than the ones who contemplated and praised it. Engaging herself in a meticulous research, Hecht tried to find answers from intellectual companions she could quote during her lobby for life.

Ancient Roman history begins with a suicide – virtuous Lucretia killes herself to protect her honour when threatened by the son of the Etruscan king. As the ancient Jewish, Greek and Roman worlds celebrated suicide committed in the name of shame, loss, love or altruism, Lucretia became an immortal figure of heroism. The Sphinx killed herself when Oedipus solved her riddle and the suicide of Jocasta, Oedipus’s mother, is one of the greatest suicides in the ancient world. Cato, Cleopatra, Marc Anthony, Socrates took their lives.

Clearly in the ancient world, for a person who had been defiled or humiliated, or was threatened with the live, killing oneself might sometimes be a praiseworthy response. These suicides were not seen as exacerbating their crime or failure, they were not called cowards for escaping punishment, but rather seemed to be partially absolved, as if the act were a self-punishment that could assuage the stigma of bad luck and redeem earlier wrongs.

During medieval times the perspective on suicide changed as people were needed alive. Seen as the devil’s work, the suicide was forbidden and the deceased were punished postmortem to avoid their return and to prevent the phenomenon in the community. Hecht cites Thomas Aquinas who agreed that Jesus had taken his own life but Christians should not follow his example as it is contrary to self-love and injures the community.

The Renaissance coincided with the rediscovery of Lucretia and the appeal of the intellectuals for the man’s right to take his life, although some supported the idea that people are born not only for themselves but also for the community (Michel Montaigne).An atheist, Hecht condemns religion for its attitude against people’s will and for not having valued the individual enough.

Approaching nowadays, Hecht proves that modernity brought more concern for the individual and despite the fact that secular philosophy defends suicide she tries to explain that a society becomes extinct if its members choose to kill themselves. She quotes Kant, Rousseau, Herman Melville, Victor Hugo and Herman Hesse:

As Rousseau and others suggested, if you have energy at all for participating in this world, perhaps live now only for those small kindness and consolations you can render. Perhaps seek to help those equally burdened by sadness. Confess your own sadness to those in sorrow. Your ability to console may be profound. The texts urge human beings to try to know that they are needed and loved. We all deserve each other’s gratitude for whatever optimism and joy we can hustle into this strange life by sheer force of personality, even by that most basic contribution, staying alive.

Honestly, I don’t think a depressed person who is about to commit suicide will choose to read a book instead of progressing with his or her intentions but I do believe that this kind of books, based on cultural and intellectual researches, that harmoniously combine facts with literary ingenuity, can change thoughts and maybe prevent fatal decisions or at least convince the ones in need to look for help.

As Schopenhauer said, life gets its complexity from happiness and unhappiness and Hecht believes that we should embrace the despair as well, as we owe our own life to the universe, to the community and mainly to our future self.

To put the matter in another way, we are complex beings who feel very differently at different times, such that the ‘you’ in any given moment should not have the authority to end life for the many yous of many other moments.

Stay is not a medical study but a cultural, poetical and humanist case that invites to living and life. Complement it with Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving, a beautiful perspective on love and human nature.


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