The killing fields

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The word “euthanasia” was designed from the beginning as a euphemism—as an attempt to draw the happy face over a profoundly ugly thing, and thereby slide over the moral depths—in the pioneering days of eugenics. The purpose of euphemism is to decorate a lie.

“Self-murder” was the word for killing yourself in several European languages (in German, for instance, Selbstmord); and in English and the Romance languages the word “suicide” is just self-murder from the Latin (sui+caedere).

Of course, killing someone else is not suicide. That is murder, plain and simple, in all European languages—or at best “accessory to murder” in legalese, which was punished as murder until (figuratively) the day before yesterday. It didn’t matter if he wanted to die.

That suicide is the ultimate subjective act, and thus, in effect, the final act of narcissism, was among the striking observations of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk. He was the 20th-century Czech thinker and statesman whose 1881 book, Suicide and the Meaning of Civilization, laid the foundation for much later social thought.

It was Masaryk’s thesis that suicide rates, already at historical highs, and climbing, in the more industrially advanced parts of Europe by the 1880s, would continue to rise through the decades ahead, with decreasing religiosity and increasing modernization. He predicted that this trend would spread to regions yet untouched, as the symptoms of modernity reached them.

This was not so much a question of religious denomination, as of religious practice. There would be a rough, inverse correlation between church attendance and the suicide rate. Later statistical studies have borne this out, and Masaryk thus stands among the few sociologists whose work retains any empirical value.

Masaryk grasped the difference between depression and hopelessness, which we like to slur over today. Depression only makes one accident-prone; the real self-killer is the absence of hope for the future. This is a distinction that has been vindicated in psychiatric studies of the dying; it points directly to a dimension of human life that is irreducibly moral and religious.

Masaryk’s book is much deeper and more comprehensive than Le suicide (1897), by Emile Durkheim—still presented as the standard classic on its subject to sociology majors, who will never hear of Masaryk. This is partly because of Masaryk’s “unmodern” audacity, in showing that the phenomena of suicide are moral and religious, as opposed to natural. People kill themselves for all sorts of stated reasons, but what goads one man to suicide goads another to renewed life, and the only sound predictor is religious formation.

Loss of religious belief, and what is more significant, religious practice—for beliefs mean little when not put into practice; words mean little without deeds—was the true common factor. Life lost meaning once religion was abandoned.

We have lost our historical sense as well as our religion, and it is hard for us to appreciate today the longer historical trends that Masaryk was examining. We have the impression that the Christian religion was still going strong in the 1950s, and that something happened in the 1960s—the sexual revolution, or whatever—to change all that. No.

To a longer view there is not much to choose between those decades. In the English-speaking world, the outward “loss of faith” is an event that began among Victorian liberal elites. That in turn was preceded by the religious desiccation of the 18th-century; which had its roots in the Protestant Reformation, etc. History does not arrange itself in hermetic periods.

We face today not a continuing revolution in morals and manners, dating from the 1960s, but the last wharks of a revolution wrought centuries ago. Masaryk was looking at the fallout from “the Enlightenment,” in the broadest possible sense. He foresaw much by penetrating beneath shorter-term trends, and by wrestling directly with core moral and philosophical concepts.

The many symptoms of civilizational decay that lay partly concealed beneath the surface of society only recently came into full view, in the open pornography, the open nihilism, the despairing flippancy, visible throughout our contemporary public life. But the pond was long draining, and it is only now we see fish flopping in the mud.

Euthanasia is the final “life issue,” the clincher for what the last pope called “the culture of death.” Even when legalizing abortion, we agreed only to the slaughter of human beings we could not see. It was still possible to look away, to pretend we were not killing “real people,” only “potential people.” But when we embrace so-called “mercy killing,” we embrace slaughter not only for the sick and old, but ultimately, the “option” of easy suicide for ourselves. It will be hard to go lower.

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