All I Survey/Essay XXVIII

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Essay XXVII All I Survey
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XXIX

Essay XXVIII: On Suicide: North and South

IN a recent discussion on Suicide, an interesting comparison was made between what is loosely called the Latin culture and what is still more loosely, and less consistently, called the Nordic or Teutonic or Germanic, according to the foreign policy at the moment. A learned writer pointed out, very truly, that for some reason or other Nordic men are more liable to kill themselves than are the men of the Mediterranean. The men of the Mediterranean are more likely to relieve their feelings by killing somebody else. And in this, I grieve to say, they have a certain half-involuntary support in my sympathies. I admit that murder must be classed among acts distinctly improper and, indeed, morally wrong. But suicide seems to me the supreme blasphemy against God and man and beast and vegetables; the attack not upon a life, but upon life itself; the murder of the universe. But that is another question, which I do not debate here. What interests me about the criticism of the two cultures is this. The critic who was sufficiently acute to notice that Latins are less prone than Teutons to this particular sort of depression and despair, naturally cast about for a cause or an explanation. And, being a modern critic, he was at once tempted to be a materialist. There is something strange in the modern mind, by which a material cause always seems more like a real cause. In the science of the nineteenth century, the material cause was generally found in physical heredity; that is to say, in Race. But Race has been rather blown upon lately; like most of the science of the nineteenth century. The critic whom I criticize took the other alternative materialistic cause; the same that has generally been favoured by Mr. Bernard Shaw. He said that most or much of the difference was due to Climate.

Now, I believe material causes count for much less in history than is now supposed. I believe that moral causes count for much more than is now supposed. I believe that the supreme factor is not even the bodily framework, or the framework of environment, but the frame of mind. I could ask for no better case, for my own argument, than this case of the suicides of all nations. It was raised on this occasion in connexion with the sad end of two famous financiers or capitalists; but that aspect need not concern us now; except, perhaps, upon one particular point. I should have thought that if there was one person to whom the argument about Climate does not apply, it is a modern millionaire. The most Nordic millionaire has no need to live in the North. An American plutocrat could live as easily in Florida as in Maine, or pay a permanent visit to Naples instead of to Niagara. The very fact that no amount of sunshine could make him sunny, is sufficient evidence that the dark cloud was within. This, however, is a personal and even painful matter, which is no part of my argument, and with which I had not intended to deal. The point is that the critic attributes the suicide statistics to a difference of climate; and I attribute them to a difference of culture.

And it strikes me that there is a very simple test. Compare the number of suicides when the Latin world was Pagan with the number of suicides after it became Christian. The same sun shone on Brutus falling on his sword; the same blue sea smiled on Cato stabbing himself to avoid capture; the same glittering landscape of the olive and the vine was the background to the ten thousand tragedies of self-inflicted death that end the stories of the heroes of Pagan antiquity. There is no doubt that the life of those flowery lands always led to a more florid external gaiety and grace. Cleopatra blazed with blossoms and gems, and smiles, but that did not prevent her from finding an asp among the flowers. But the same fact is obvious about people considerably more respectable than Cleopatra. Those who have seen any adequate reproduction of _Julius Cæsar_ will have been reminded of that sublime but alien atmosphere of the Stoic and the Republican which the imagination of Shakspere, though captive in the courtly world of the Tudors, could manage to reconstruct from the ruins of Plutarch. These Pagans of the old Latin world committed suicide not because they were prone to it as a vice, but because they were proud of it as a virtue. To explain their view of it, it would be necessary to analyse the whole tendency of their heathen mythology and philosophy. They killed themselves partly because they had too much, as the modern world has too little, of the notion of personal dignity. They killed themselves partly because they had a vaguer or more negative notion about the future life. They killed themselves because of a sort of hard despair that lies in the heart even of the heroism of the Stoic. But, anyhow, they did not kill themselves because the sun was shining or the grapes growing in clusters on the vine. Whatever is the cause of the change, it is not to be found in the climate which has not changed.

No; the test of the contrast between modern Latins and modern Teutons is exactly like the test of the contrast between modern Latins and ancient Latins. It is to be found in a frame of mind. Ever since Christianity came into the world, the Latins have been in a fighting frame of mind. Indeed, they have been, and still are, engaged in a fight; a fight about whether Christianity shall continue or no; a fight that has its ups and downs, as in the Vatican City or the secularization of Spain. But there is something in the atmosphere of the affirmation itself, even for those who prefer the denial, which has made everybody too keen on killing the enemy to retire to their tents and kill themselves. In the whole Mediterranean civilization there is a _positive_ spirit. Men are either confident that they can be content with this world, or else confident that they can be convinced about the other world. Both these certainties result in relative cheerfulness and a resolve to hang on for the duration of the war. Now, in the Germanies, and generally in the northern Continental countries, the whole mental atmosphere is different. It is an atmosphere of introspective melancholy and a sort of spiritual sulks. It is exactly described in a phrase used by Mr. Augustine Birrell about Hazlitt: in the midst of the mind a black pool of metaphysics. It is a world in which men are not so much fighting religion as wandering away from it, into wildernesses of subjective speculation. It is full of scepticism, but it is not without sentimentalism; and the combination produces pessimism. It is not surprising that the pessimism sometimes produces suicide. It is the world of isolated sages, not of anti-clerical mobs or clerical congregations. From the North come the Nietzsches and the Schopenhauers, and all who, in defiance of the old name of natural philosophy, insist on inventing an unnatural philosophy. That unnatural philosophy is a third thing, quite different from natural Paganism or supernatural Christianity. It is a mood, a somewhat morbid mood, but it is the result of certain ideas in the mind; and an Eskimo does not become a suicidal maniac because he lives in the north, nor a negro a Provençal troubadour because he has a place in the sun.