The celebrated Du Verger de Hauranne, Abbè de St. Cyran, one of the founders of Port Royal, in the year 1608, wrote a treatise on suicide, which is become one of the scarcest books in Europe.
“The Decalogue,” says that author, “forbids us to commit murder; in which precept self-murder seems no less to be understood, than the murder of another: if, therefore, there be cases in which it is lawful to kill another, there may be cases also wherein suicide may be allowed. But a man ought not to attempt his own life, till after having consulted his reason. Public authority, which is the representative of God, may dispose of our lives. The reason of man may also represent that of the Deity, it being a ray of the eternal light.”
St. Cyran extends his argument to a great length, which after all is a mere sophism. But when he comes to exemplify, he is not quite so easily answered. “A man may kill himself,” says he, “for the good of his prince, for the good of his country, or for the good of his parents.”
It does not appear, that we could with justice condemn a Codrus, or a Curtius. What prince would dare to punish the family of a man who had sacrificed himself for his service? Or rather, is there any prince who would dare not to reward them. St. Thomas, before St. Cyran, said the same thing. But there was no need of either of Thomas, of Bonaventure, nor of Huranne, to inform us, that a man who dies for his country deserves our praise.
St. Cyran concludes, that it is lawful to do for one’s own sake, that which is praise-worthy if done for another. The arguments of Plutarch, of Seneca, of Montaigne, and a hundred others, are well known. I do not pretend to apologise for an action which the laws have condemned; but I do not recollect, that either the Old or New Testament forbid a man to relinquish his life, when it is no longer supportable. By the Roman laws, suicide was not forbidden; on the contrary, in a law of Mark Antony, which was never repealed, we find it thus written: “If your brother or your father, being convicted of no crime, hath put himself to death, either to avoid pain, or being weary of life, or from despair or madness, his will shall nevertheless be valid, or his heirs inherit according to law.”
Notwithstanding this humane law of our ancient masters, we ordain, that a stake shall be driven through the corps of the offender, and his memory becomes infamous. We do all in our power to dishonour his family. We punish a son for having lost a father, and a widow because she is deprived of her husband. We even confiscate the effects of the deceased, and rob the living of that which is justly their due. This custom, with many others, is derived from our canon law, which denies Christian burial to those who are guilty of suicide, concluding thence, that it is not lawful to inherit on earth from one who hath himself no inheritance in heaven. The cannon law assures us, that Judas committed a greater crime in hanging himself, than in betraying Jesus Christ.
SOURCE: MODIFIED FROM “AN ESSAY ON CRIMES AND PUNISHMENTS”-1872 EDITION -M. De VOLTAIRE.