Cover image for History of suicide : voluntary death in Western culture
History of suicide : voluntary death in Western culture
Minois, Georges, 1946-
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Histoire du suicide. English
Publication Information:
Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
387 pages ; 24 cm.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
RC569 .M55 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



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.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Suicide, or "self murder," was viewed as an honorable death in ancient times. By the high Middle Ages, however, the corpses of suicides were mutilated and buried in unconsecrated grounds. Now, of course, terms like Kevorkian (sometimes used as a verb!) and assisted death have become part of an ongoing national debate. Minois, the author of numerous books on religious attitudes and relations with secular society, has provided a timely chronicle tracing the evolution of societal attitudes toward suicide. He utilizes such diverse sources as St. Augustine, Shakespeare, and Camus. 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. --Jay Freeman

Choice Review

Based on a variety of sources from religious and philosophical texts to judicial proceedings and personal journals, Minois' illuminating study shows that Western culture's attitude toward voluntary death has been contradictory and highly ambivalent, fluctuating between Greco-Roman acceptance of suicide and strong condemnation, first voiced by Christianity. Thomas Aquinas's arguments that "self-murder" is an offense against nature, society, and God are reiterated in other times, including the present. Minois discusses how the debate on suicide began with Shakespeare's Hamlet, in a time of doubt and conflicting values. It continued until the 19th century, when new hostility arose and those in power silenced the debate, seeing suicide as an "accusation" against society for being incapable of guaranteeing the happiness of its members. Minois describes suicide historically as a class phenomenon: suicides among the elite were fewer in number but tolerated by society, which saw them as done for nobler reasons (e.g., honor and love); among the common people suicide resulted from excessive physical, moral, and emotional suffering and remained stable but subject to "judicial savagery." Minois provides an excellent foundation for the contemporary continuation of the debate. Recommended for undergraduate and graduate collections. J. A. Kegley California State University, Bakersfield

Table of Contents

Part I Tradition: A Repressed Question
Chapter 1 Suicide in the Middle Ages: Nuances
Chapter 2 The Legacy of the Middle Ages: Between Madness and Despair
Chapter 3 The Classical Heritage: Perfecting the Timely Exit
Part II The Renaissance: A Question Raised, Then Stifled
Chapter 4 The Early Renaissance: Rediscovery of the Enigma of Suicide
Chapter 5 To Be or Not To Be: The First Crisis of Conscience in Europe
Chapter 6 The Seventeenth Century: Reaction and Repression
Chapter 7 Substitutes for Suicide in the Seventeenth Century
Part III The Enlightenment: Suicide Updated and Guilt-Free
Chapter 8 The Birth of the English Malady, 1680-1720
Chapter 9 The Debate on Suicide in the Enlightenment: From Morality to Medicine
Chapter 10 The Elite: From Philosophical Suicide to Romantic Suicide
Chapter 11 The Common People: The Persistence of Ordinary Suicide
Epilogue: From the French Revolution to the Twentieth Century, or, From Free Debate to Silence