Saturday, December 7, 2013

Jennifer Michael Hecht's "Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It"

Jennifer Michael Hecht is the author of four history books, including the best-selling Doubt: A History, and three volumes of poetry. Her work has won major awards in intellectual history and in poetry. Hecht teaches in the Creative Writing Program at New York University and The Graduate Writing Program of The New School University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, and reported the following:
I like page 99, it is about a person I enjoyed getting to know in my research, a guy named John Henley. Henley published a book called Cato Condemned in 1730, in which he argued that the famed Roman statesman Cato was wrong to kill himself. My page 99 shows that Henley knew – better than many people today – that though the ancient world sometimes celebrated a particular suicide, mostly the ancients rejected suicide. One line I enjoy a lot says “…for Henley suicide represents not courage but cowardice or desperation, not honor but shame, and not liberty but slavery to one’s passions.” Many people today speak of suicide as the ultimate act of liberty, so I like that Henley reminds his reader that one can also be a slave to one’s own passions. Page 99 doesn’t reveal the whole book, in that the book contains many powerful arguments against suicide, and it reminds us of the good we do for the world simply by staying in it, by rejecting suicide. Then again, for every twenty people who thank me for offering a conceptual barrier against suicide, there are one or two who fiercely defend their right to leave life whenever they want. So Henley is a nice way to represent the book because he had to take some heat for his position. He was writing at a time when the Church was cruelly punishing attempted suicides, and torturing the corpses of completed suicides, and he despised that, but he still wanted to encourage people to live. The progressive thinkers around him often took the opposing side, and called in the ancient philosophers as witnesses for their side, but Henley knew better. In our culture today there is no secular argument against suicide, and like Henley, I’d like to make sure people are aware that such arguments exist. Culture can lend us strength and courage, but only if we know about it.
Learn more about the book and author at Jennifer Michael Hecht's website.

--Marshal Zeringue