Leonardo Tondo: Brief History of Suicide in the Western World

Hector Warnes’ comments


            Professor Tondo gives us  an outstanding historical view of suicide in the Western world. It is a striking view of the darkest hour of a compelling wish to  end one's life to escape adversity, shame, painful illness,  rejection, estrangement, regrets or social condemnation.  When life is no longer worth living suicide becomes a viable alternative to end one's misery and hopelessness.  It has been reported that world-wide, up to 1 million people commit suicide every year. 

           There are usually motives for suicidal behavior:  cultural, social, psychological, biological and moral factors are listed among those who chose self-murder or suicide. Alcoholism and drug addiction have also taken the lead among the most common factors. There may be in the minority of cases a rational motive and in most cases a psychiatric disorder (non compos mentis) after ruling out neurological, medical or genetic factors.  

           Emile Durkhein (1897) published the first sociological study of suicide and classified it into  four types: egoistic, altruistic, anomic and fatalistic. Fitzpatrick (2014) attempted to tackle the moral dilemma of suicide analyzing four dimensions:

1.      the temporal, which includes the historical, biographical and cosmic or cyclical, all embedded in the growth and decline of human nature;

2.      the relational aspect, which has become the source of so much distress in our midst;

3.      the existential and ontological views, according to Fitzpatrick, are included  in the construction of meaning and togetherness;

4.      and the linguistic metaphors  which hopefully would rescue us  from falling into the absurdity, emptiness, and aloneness well depicted by Samuel Beckett (1954). 

           Martin Buber (1958) was able to distinguish the type of interaction between human beings into two realms: the I-Thou and the I-It.  There is no doubt that man is a social being and that we are all interdependent or interconnected since birth.  We are aware that for the existential view authenticity is at the core of being (being versus seeming) and during critical periods of our lives a shaking of our very identity or our foundations bring us closer to being ship-wrecked. Buber provides a far-reaching analysis of  what happens during a human encounter that leads to conflict and Vergegnung (mismeeting, mismatching, alienation). 

           Belinda Jack (2014) has reminded us of the social impact of Goethe's The Sorrows of  Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werther), the story of a romantic infatuation that ended in suicide. Goethe's book was widely read and apparently triggered many contemporaries to emulate Werther’s thanatophilia.   Broken-hearted or grieving people are more prone to imagine  ways of ending their life. William Shakespeare has written   with a profound psychological sense of the suicide of some of his characters; Seneca spoke on the "proper time to slip the cable." David Hume (2008) wrote an excellent article, “Essays On Suicide And The Immortality Of The Soul,”  as did John Donne, 200 years earlier, in his essay Biathanatos (1608). Donne’s book actually  has a long title: "Biathanatos. A declaration of that Paradox, or thesis, that self-homicide is not so naturally Sinne, that it may never be otherwise." Spanish writer Carlos Janin wrote an excellent book titled Diccionario del suicidio (2009); and another profound book on suicide is one written by Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus (1955). 

           One might be tempted to think that the suicidal proneness is related to an artistic temperament more than to a scientific one. Ludwig Boltzmann and Alan Turing, just to name a couple of great scientists, committed suicide. There seem to be a correlation between bipolarity and creativity as shown by Kay Redfield Jamison in her book “Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament” (1993). Great writers who ended their life by suicide included Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Wolf (both bipolar disorders) and poets like Silvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Cesare Pavese, as well as the wonderful painter Vincent Van Gogh.

           Finally, I would like to quote a poem written by Peruvian César Vallejo (2007) which, if  carefully read, is the quintessential aspect of  the suicidal Stimmung (mood).


The Black Heralds


There are in life such hard blows . . . I don't know!

Blows seemingly from God's wrath; as if before them

the undertow of all our sufferings

is embedded in our souls . . . I don't know!


There are few; but are . . . opening dark furrows

in the fiercest of faces and the strongest of loins,

They are perhaps the colts of barbaric Attilas

or the dark heralds Death sends us.


They are the deep falls of the Christ of the soul,

of some adorable one that Destiny Blasphemes.

Those bloody blows are the crepitation

of some bread getting burned on us by the oven's door


And the man . . . poor . . . poor!

He turns his eyes around, like

when patting calls us upon our shoulder;

he turns his crazed maddened eyes,

and all of life's experiences become stagnant, like a puddle of guilt, in a daze.


There are such hard blows in life. I don't know




Beckett S. Waiting for Godot: Tragicomedy in 2 Acts. New York: Grove Press; 1954.

Biathanatos DJ. A declaration of that paradoxe, or thesis, that self-homicide is not so naturally sinne, that it may never be otherwise. London: Humphrey Mosely; 1648.

Buber M. I-Thou. Translated by R.G. Smith. New York: Schocken Books; 1958.

Camus A. The Myth of Sisyphus. Translated by Justin O'Brien. London: Hamish Hamilton;1955.

Fitzpatrick SJ. Re-moralizing the suicide debate. Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 2014; 11: 223-32.

Durkheim E. Le suicide. Paris: G Bailliere; 1897.

Hume D. Essays on suicide and the immortality of the soul. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan; 2008.

Jack B. Goethe's Werther and its effects. The Lancet Psychiatry 2014; 1: 18-9..

Jamison KR. Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. New York: Free Press; 1993.

Janin C. Diccionario del suicidio. Pamplona: Editorial Laetoli; 2009.

Seneca LA.  Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium. Londion: Penguin Books; 2015.

Tillich PJ. The Courage to Be. New Haven: Yale University Press; 1952.

Vallejo C. The Black Heralds. Edited and translated by Michael Smith and V. Gianuzzi. Exeter: Shearsman Books, Exeter; 2007.


June 13, 2019