Chesterton and the tragic mystery of suicide

by Gary Furnell

Present-day society has developed a disturbing ambivalence to suicide – on the one hand, abhorring it as a tragedy and calling for preventative measures; on the other, promoting it by the legalisation of euthanasia. Gary Furnell, whose work as a funeral director has exposed him to the frequency of suicides, especially of young men, looks to Chesterton’s wisdom as he wrestles with the philosophical and religious changes that have led to these ambivalent attitudes. Please note: some readers may find the discussion of suicide distressing. 

One of the sad surprises that confronted me as an undertaker’s assistant—working with the police at the start of the coronial process—was the frequency of suicide, especially male suicide.

Men typically use surer methods of suicide: hanging, gunshot, jumping from buildings and cliffs, and exsanguination by deeply cutting multiple blood vessels.  Women more often choose to overdose on medicines; a few will hang themselves.

Whatever the method, the tragic truth is that suicide may be much more common than we think.  The expectation of mental health experts has been that it would increase as a result of the social isolation of Covid-19 lockdowns.

Without question, attitudes to suicide reflect the frequently bi-polar nature of our society.  In our state parliaments, assisted-suicide proponents push for euthanasia to be legalised, or if it’s already legal made more widely available, while the same parliaments—sometimes the same politicians—lament the frequency of suicide and demand more action (i.e. spending more taxpayer’s money, never their own) to address the sad scourge.

The mixed message appears to be: killing yourself with professional assistance in a dedicated facility is a liberal, brave choice; killing yourself alone at home (or elsewhere) is a desperate and ignoble tragedy.

This inconsistency results from the absence of a commonly accepted philosophy or religion.  If G.K. Chesterton, in the early years of the 20th century, correctly identified modernity, not as a new idea or the development of an idea, but the abandonment of an idea—the idea of Western Christendom, and with it the meaning and hope it gave to human life and death—then we in post-modern times are seeing the acceleration of this abandonment, and the dissolution of the meaning and hope that had been infused by the idea of Western Christendom.

Chesterton also noted that Christianity’s supernatural explanation of everything had been rejected by many people, but no natural explanation had arisen to take its place.

He understood that we live in a confused and confusing time, and that it’s confused to promote and lament suicide at the same time, as many would-be leaders in our society are doing.  Logic and consistency are neglected in many debates about end-of-life issues.  As Chesterton put it:

“The best reason for the revival of philosophy is that unless a man has a philosophy certain horrible things will happen to him. He will be practical; he will be progressive; he will cultivate efficiency; he will trust in evolution; he will do the work that lies nearest; he will devote himself to deeds, not words. Thus struck down by blow after blow of blind stupidity and random fate, he will stagger on to a miserable death with no comfort but a series of catchwords; such as those I have catalogued above.

“Those things are simply substitutes for thoughts.  In some cases they are the tags and tail-ends of somebody else’s thinking. That means that a man who refuses to have his own philosophy will not even have the advantages of a brute beast, and be left to his own instincts. He will only have the used-up scraps of somebody else’s philosophy; which the beasts do not have to inherit; hence their happiness.   Men have always one of two things: either a complete and conscious philosophy or the unconscious acceptance of the broken bits of some incomplete and shattered and often discredited philosophy.” (“The Revival of Philosophy – Why?” The Common Man, 1950)

The dilemma: embracing both justice and mercy

Last year, at a graveside service at which I was an attendant, the new-age celebrant and the funeral director lamented—while waiting for the family to arrive—the old-fashioned Catholic policy that forbade suicides being buried in consecrated ground.

How heartless it seemed!   And yet Catholicism has the virtue of at least being unambiguous about suicide, regarding it objectively as a mortal sin; a rejection of the goodness, hope and sovereignty of God.  Further, it ignores the commandment to love oneself.  It negates the possibility of the person attaining spiritual maturity, and fulfilling their life-long vocation.

Obviously, pastoral sensitivity is required and we are reminded by the Scriptures “not to judge anything before its time,” and that “the Lord know those that are His.”  It is God who passes the ultimate judgment on our lives; we may be wiser in our judgments to give the suffering—now deceased—individual the benefit of any doubt, while giving due care and attention to those people hurt, angry or confused by a friend or family member’s suicide.

Nonetheless, a difficult question remains.  When the Christianised culture presented an unambiguous belief about suicide, that it was a terrible denial of life, would people contemplating such a step have been deterred in some instances – and encouraged to look for other ways of coping with their extreme distress?

In his novel The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky defined Christian love in a way that appealed to people as different as Dorothy Day and Flannery O’Connor:

“Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”

Love is not just compassionate and helpful – and this conviction of “a harsh and dreadful love” ratified and reinforced the taboo by denying to those who had committed suicide the right to be buried in consecrated graveyards, in the hope that anyone tempted, in the midst of despair, might fight their moment of weakness, and constrain their harmful emotions.

Chesterton wrote that most suicides result when people lose sight of all the goodness, beauty and wonder of the world, and focus instead on their own present bad feelings.

Certainly Chesterton’s judgment was offered in a different era from our own.  The euthanasia movement has introduced a newly positive attitude to suicide, which challenges in the deepest and most poignant way our judgment of the value of life – and death.

And yet, Chesterton is right, especially about many young people’s suicides.  If only they’d waited until the grief over a cheating boyfriend or girlfriend had passed; if only they’d allowed time to provide perspective on the shame of an embarrassing episode at high school; if only they’d sorted out access arrangements so they could see their children.

Tribulations will pass, however hard this may be to realise at the time.  A concert of voices and consistent teaching that suicide was wrong would have saved many lives. They won’t get this unequivocal teaching from society.  The Church at least must maintain its historic teaching about suicide if it wants to save some lives.

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, a reverent man blest with acuity, observed a link between a person’s spirit and their emotions. He said that if a person neglects their spirit, it continues to demand attention, but its demands are expressed negatively through anger, depression or a generalised anxiety.

Obviously, when Darwin, Freud, Marx and contemporary scientism have declared human spirituality a delusion, or proclaimed its irrelevance, and many people have accepted this perspective, then anxiety, anger and depression resulting from man’s repressed and denied spirit will dominate many of those same lives.

Chesterton, speaking again about the need for a logical, consistent philosophy that would guide us in a good, life-enriching direction, also said:

“Religion might approximately be defined as the power which makes us joyful about the things that matter.  Fashionable frivolity might, with a parallel propriety, be defined as the power which makes us sad about the things that do not matter.” (“The Frivolous Man,” The Common Man, 1950).

Gary Furnell is Secretary-Treasurer of the Australian Chesterton Society, and this article appeared in the Society’s quarterly newsletter, The Defendant (Autumn 2021). It is available on the Society’s website – The full version of the piece will be published in News Weekly, June 14 issue.