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  • The Politics of Suicide: Historical Perspectives on Suicidology before Durkheim. An Introduction
  • Maria Teresa Brancaccio, Eric J. Engstrom, and David Lederer

Historically, suicide is a Western neologism. Unknown to Greco-Roman civilization, suicidium might as well have meant “swine-slaying” to a Latin speaker.1 The warrior culture of Germanic successor states glorified heroic self-sacrifice, celebrated in medieval literature as chansons de geste. If St. Augustine condemned Donatism for actively promoting martyrdom during the persecutions, then in part for fear of its potential to rob the early Christian movement of much-needed membership. Medieval Christians unanimously reviled the desperate act of self-killing until Renaissance humanists and artists recalled the political defiance of Cato, Seneca and, most especially, Lucretia, the original struggle of republicanism with tyranny manifest in the dagger through her heart. With their novel emphasis on the modification of human behavior, religious reformers turned their attention to the human soul and the inner temptation to self-murder.

It fell to the Enlightenment to turn the activity of self-killing into a subject for scientific analysis: Suicide. Suicide became a moral affliction that was to be attended to not just by the police, but also by physicians and, subsequently, mental health care professionals. As representatives of the state, they produced actionable bureaucratic data. In a scramble to establish its scientific credentials, the emergent discipline of social physics (later to become sociology) latched on to official reports as indicators of a modern social dilemma. Hence, suicidology was born. With the expressed goals of measuring human behavior and tackling practical social issues, the earliest practitioners of social physics identified and prioritized suicide as a dramatic, but potentially soluble public health problem. For social physicists, suicide manifested a moral malaise as sensational as perhaps no other human behavior.

Aptly named, moral statistics became their primary analytical tool. Two pioneering criminologists, André-Michel Guerry (who analyzed criminal data for the Parisian justice administration) and the Belgian mathematician Adolphe Quételet laid the foundations for moral statistics by studying immoral behaviors in the 1820s, with suicide chief among them. Auguste Comte harnessed social physics into a strategic theory of historical development employed to ground notions of modernity.2 The translator of Comte’s Positive Philosophy (London, 1853), Harriet Martineau, subsequently wed his scientific positivism with the [End Page 607] moral statistics of Guerry and Quételet in her own work on English suicide. Martineau’s claim that suicide rates were both indicators of social well-being and proof of the power of sociology to treat practical social ills, though tautological, reflected the views of many contemporary social theorists in mid-nineteenth century Europe.3

What differed from scholar to scholar was the spirit in which comparative moral statistics were employed. Some, like Martineau, adopted a humanist stance, while other more fatalistic commentators worried about the collapse of Christian morals. Nationalists instrumentalized moral statistics to vent their suspicions about dangerous foreign influences, while social Darwinists read them as signs of society’s “natural” abilities to purge itself of misfits. Such divergent and ethically loaded interpretations went hand-in-hand with the growing interest of nation states in promoting the collection and comparison of moral statistics, thus placing suicide on the cusp of transnational debate and even international rivalry. Willingly or not, medical and legal experts often faced the practical task of interpreting and implementing state policies designed to achieve larger strategic aims, be they rational, esoteric, or even obscurantist.

It is no coincidence that Émile Durkheim turned to suicide in his attempt to enshrine sociology within academia.4 In 1897, he published the first and now classic case study of sociology, Le Suicide, in which he set out to establish the existence of social facts verifiable through objective scientific means. Two of the most enduring social facts that he sought to demonstrate were 1) a proclivity for higher rates of suicide for Protestants than Catholics, which he attributed to higher levels of social control and integration among Catholics, and 2) higher rates of suicide among men than women. But like Comte, Durkheim was a system-builder rather than a statistician, and much, if not all of his data derived from the work of other...


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