Front Page Titles (by Subject) SUICIDE. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters)
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SUICIDE. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. XIX.
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Philip Mordaunt, cousin–german to the famous earl of Peterborough, who was so well known in all the courts of Europe, and who made his boast that he had seen more postilions, and more crowned heads, than any other man in the world; this Philip Mordaunt, I say, was a young man about twenty–seven, handsome, well made, rich, of an illustrious family, and one who might pretend to anything; and, what was more than all the rest, he was passionately beloved by his mistress. However, this man took a distaste to life, discharged all that he owed, wrote to his friends to take leave of them, and even composed some verses upon the occasion, which concluded thus, that “though opium might be some relief to a wise man, if disgusted with the world, yet in his opinion a pistol, and a little resolution, were much more effectual remedies.” His behavior was suitable to his principles; and he despatched himself with a pistol, without giving any other reason for it than that his soul was weary of his body, and that when we dislike our house we ought to quit it. One would imagine he chose to die because he was weary of being happy.
One Richard Smith has lately exhibited a most extraordinary instance of this nature to the world. This Smith was tired of being really unhappy; he had been rich, and was reduced to poverty; he had been healthy, and had become infirm; he had a wife, to whom he had nothing to give but a share in his misfortunes; and an infant in the cradle was the only thing he had left. Richard Smith and his wife, Bridget, then, after having affectionately embraced, and given each a formal kiss to their child, first cut the poor little creature’s throat, and then hanged themselves at the foot of their bed. I do not remember to have heard anywhere of such a scene of horrors committed in cold blood; but the letter which these unhappy wretches wrote to their cousin, Mr. Brindley, before their death, is as remarkable as the manner of their death. “We are certain,” said they, “of meeting with forgiveness from God. . . . . We put an end to our lives because we were miserable, without any prospect of relief; and we have done our child that service to put it out of life, for fear it should have been as miserable as ourselves. . . It is to be observed that these people, after having murdered their child out of their paternal affection, wrote to a friend, recommending their dog and cat to his care. They thought, probably, that it was easier to make their dog and cat happy in this world than their child, and that keeping them would not be any great expense to their friend.1
The earl of Scarborough has lately quitted life with the same indifference as he did his place of master of the horse. Having been told in the house of lords that he sided with the court, on account of the profitable post he held in it, “My lords,” said he, “to convince you that my opinion is not influenced by any such consideration, I will instantly resign.” He afterward found himself perplexed between a mistress he was fond of, but to whom he was under no engagements, and a woman whom he esteemed, and to whom he had made a promise of marriage. My lord Scarborough, therefore, killed himself to get rid of difficulty.
The many tragical stories of this nature, with which the English newspapers abound, have made the greater part of Europe imagine that the English are fonder of killing themselves than any other people; and yet I question much whether there are not as many madmen at Paris as at London; and if our newspapers were to keep an exact register of those who have either had the folly, or unhappy resolution to destroy themselves, we might in this respect be found to vie with the English. But our compilers of news are more prudent; the adventures of private persons are never set forth to public scandal in any of the papers licenced by the government; however, I believe I may venture to affirm that this rage of suicide will never become epidemic. Nature has sufficiently guarded against it, and hope and fear are the powerful curbs she makes use of to stop the hand of the wretch uplifted to be his own executioner.
I know it may be said, that there have been countries where a council was established to give licence to the people to kill themselves, when they could give sufficient reasons for doing it. To this I answer, that either the fact is false, or that such council found very little employment.
There is one thing indeed which may cause some surprise, and which I think deserves to be seriously discussed, which is, that almost all the great heroes among the Romans, during the civil wars, killed themselves when they lost a battle, and that we do not find an instance of a single leader, or great man, in the disputes of the League, the Fronde, or during the troubles of Italy and Germany, who put end to his life with his own hand. It is true, that these latter were Christians, and that there is great difference between a Christian soldier and a Pagan; and yet, how comes it that those very men who were so easily withheld by Christianity, from putting an end to their own lives, should be restrained either by that or any other consideration, when they had a mind to poison, assassinate, or publicly execute a vanquished enemy? Does not the Christian religion forbid this manner of taking away the life of a fellow–creature, if possible more than our own? The advocates for suicide tell us that it is very allowable to quit our house when we are weary of it. Agreed: but most men had rather lie in a bad house than sleep in the open fields.
I one day received a circular letter from an Englishman, in which he proposes a premium to the person who should the most clearly demonstrate that it was allowable for a man to kill himself. I made him no answer, for I had nothing to prove to him, and he had only to examine within himself if he preferred death to life.
But then let us ask why Cato, Brutus, Cassius, Antony, Otho, and so many others gave themselves death with so much resolution, and that our leaders of parties suffered themselves to be taken alive by their enemies, or waste the remains of a wretched old age in a dungeon? Some refined wits pretend to say that the ancients had no real courage; that Cato acted like a coward in putting an end to his own life: and that he would have showed more greatness of soul in crouching beneath the victorious Cæsar. This may be very well in an ode, or as a figure in rhetoric; but it is very certain there must be some courage to resign a life coolly by the edge of a sword, some strength of mind thus to overcome the most powerful instinct of nature; in a word, that such an act shows a greater share of ferocity than weakness. When a sick man is in a frenzy, we cannot say he has no strength, though we may say it is the strength of a madman.
Self–murder was forbidden by the Pagan as well as by the Christian religion. There was even a place allotted in hell to those who put an end to their own lives. Witness these lines of the poet.
This was the religion of the heathens; and notwithstanding the torments they were to endure in the other world, it was esteemed an honor to quit this by giving themselves death by their own hands: so contradictory are the manners of men! Is not the custom of duelling still unhappily accounted honorable among us, though prohibited by reason, by religion, and by all laws, divine and human? If Cato and Cæsar, Antony and Augustus did not challenge each other to a duel, it was not that they were less brave than ourselves. If the duke of Montmorency, Marshal Marillac, de Thou, Cinq–Mars, and many others, rather chose to be dragged to execution like the vilest miscreants, than put an end to their own lives like Cato and Brutus, it was not that they had less courage than those Romans; the true reason is, that it was not then the fashion at Paris to kill oneself on such occasions; whereas it was an established custom with the Romans.
The women on the Malabar coast throw themselves alive into the flames, in which the bodies of their dead husbands are burning. Is it because they have more resolution than Cornelia? No; but the custom of the country is for wives to burn themselves.
[1 ]Richard Smith was a bookbinder, and a prisoner for debt within the liberty of the King’s Bench; and this shocking tragedy was acted in 1732. Smith and his wife had been always industrious and frugal, invincibly honest, and remarkable for conjugal affection.