Suicide in French Thought From Montesquieu to Cioran

Dissertation, University of Colorado at Boulder (1996)
This study traces suicide in French thought from c. 1700, when Montesquieu began to write, to c. 1960, the year of Albert Camus's death. ;After an introductory chapter that traces the roots of Western attitudes toward suicide to Hebrew and Greek sources, Chapter Two opens the modern discussion with an analysis of Montesquieu's treatment of suicide in The Persian Letters , which ends with the heroine Roxana's suicide. The theme of this chapter revolves around suicide as a problem of situational ethics, a theme revisited especially in Chapter Four's discussion of the Romantic poet Gerard de Nerval's suicide, and again in Camus's and Cioran's philosophical treatment in Chapter Eight. Chapter Three traces the fight to reform the draconian, pre-Revolutionary, laws on suicide, a fight initiated by Montesquieu and carried forward by Voltaire, who would unfortunately not live to witness the fruits of his labor, the passage in 1791 of laws decriminalizing suicide in France. Chapter Five introduces the nineteenth-century scientific element to the suicide discussion, creating a new stream to run alongside the romantic/artistic one. Much of the nineteenth-century scientific discourse on suicide came from the medical profession, which attempted, with more or less success, and with more or less good faith, to break with old prejudices. ;As industrialism grew, the medical approach seemed increasingly inadequate to satisfactorily address what had come to be labeled the 'suicide problem' in France, leading, as the century progressed, to an increasing application of the statistical method as a means to understand emerging social problems. In time this led to the belief that suicide was less a problem of personal psychology than a problem arising out of social malaise, a belief that grew after France's humiliating defeat by Prussia in 1870. By viewing suicide a social problem, by lifting it out of the dark, still inaccessible recesses of the human mind, it could be better understood and more easily addressed through social policy. Emile Durkheim's study Le Suicide , I argue in Chapter Six, became an extreme example of this effort as he forced his evidence to comply with a pre-set, sociological, agenda. ;The post-Romantic artistic stream is the subject of Chapter Seven, which describes the philosophical shift that took place between Romanticism, for which suicide had symbolised the great dramatic gesture of heroic rebellion, and its disillusioned successors, who turned inward as they came to recognize the vacuousness of this gesture in an increasingly depersonalized social milieu. ;Since suicide touches upon all aspects of human life, my sources were necessarily numerous and wide-ranging, derived from literature, law, medicine, psychiatry, sociology, physiology, and philosophy. I arrived at the conclusion that the differences between the religious and secular views on suicide are less important than their similarities. Virtually everyone who has expressed an opinion on the matter, from the most orthodox to the most libertarian, agree that duty to something outside of the self must be the prime consideration when contemplating suicide
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