G. K. Chesterton on Suicide and Martyrdom

Following on from my post of yesterday, in which was presented G. K. Chesterton’s view of the essential differences between Christianity and Buddhism – which differences can be summarised in saying that Buddhism is a philosophy that is anti-life or anti-world, whereas Christian thought is emphatically pro-life and pro-creation – I thought it would be apposite to add an addendum here, in the form of a presentation of Chesterton’s delineation of the differences between suicide and martyrdom. Just as many consider Christianity and Buddhism to be basically the same, minus one or two external differences, but they are actually profoundly at odds with respect to their views of reality, suicide and martyrdom are often collapsed into the same category of thing, usually as part of an attempt to impugn the Church’s condemnation of one and admiration for the other, but are actually representative of two very different outlooks.

Chesterton discusses this miscomprehension at two points in his ‘spiritual autobiography’ Orthodoxy. One instance of this is in the chapter entitled The Paradoxes of Christianity, where the two phenomena are mentioned as one of many seemingly opposed pairs that the Church has managed to affirm with vigour and consistency, distilling their true essence and clearing away the confused interpretations that the world has laid upon them – here he clears the ground with respect to suicide and martyrdom by examining the nature of human courage:

Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. “He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,” is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book…

…A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying.

Orthodoxy (1999), pp.134-135, Hodder and Stoughton.

                Just as Buddhism presents a philosophy of resignation, which, as Chesterton noted, is to all intents and purposes indistinguishable from a philosophy of despair, a way of giving up on the world, so does the suicide, in his or her act, reject life – they resign membership from the common lot of humanity. Clearly there are many other factors which we need to take into consideration when we observe the loss of someone’s life at their own hand – as the Catechism notes, ‘grave psychological disturbances, anguish or grave fear of hardship, suffering or torture can diminish responsibility…we should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance’ (CCC: 2282 – 2283). The point that Chesterton is making though, is that suicide is fundamentally an act wherein life is rejected, whereas martyrdom is death for and because of a value of life.

We see such a philosophy  of despair underpinning a great deal of modern-day atheism, in which there is an unspoken assumption that this world is so terrible that it would have been better for us never to have been born. Again, we can be thankful that most people who say such things are inconsistent and do not actually follow up on the logical conclusion of such a position – namely suicide. The flippancy with which such a position is espoused though, does speak of a deeply set in despair in our culture, and this is something Chesterton noted in another chapter, The Flag of the World, where he affirms his commitment to existence and laments the casual glee with which others speak of our ‘right’ to cut ourselves off from it:

Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world…

…The thief compliments the things he steals, if not the owner of them. But the suicide insults everything on earth by not stealing it. He defiles every flower by refusing to live for its sake. There is not a tiny creature in the cosmos at whom his death is not a sneer. When a man hangs himself on a tree, the leaves might fall off in anger and the birds fly away in fury: for each has received a personal affront.

ibid, p.102.

                The act of suicide has great symbolic power – it says to the world ‘I do not want you – I reject all that I have known and seen, as well as all that I might know and see; I prefer oblivion to any more of the vast array of things, good or bad, that the world might offer.’ It is a deeply symbolic act of negation and rejection of life, and is reflective of a despair that itself is, however one wishes to break it down, born out of pride – out of an overemphasis on the self, to the exclusion of the rest of reality. The eagerness with which our own culture increasingly lobbies for the right to decide when it is time to turn off the lights also bespeaks of a deeply inborn pride – we are a culture that has decided to see things solely in terms of what the individual can get out of it, and the resultant disappointment that we cannot completely mould the world according to our own whim has led us to an oppressive, if mostly unspoken, despair.

The martyr on the other hand, whilst making a choice that he or she knows will end in their own death, represents a completely different outlook – the results are the same, but, paradoxically, the rationale is completely different. The suicide embraces death because they have given up on life; the martyr embraces death in the very name of existence being a good thing:

About the same time I read a solemn flippancy by some free thinker: he said that a suicide was only the same as a martyr. The open fallacy of this helped to clear the question. Obviously a suicide is the opposite of a martyr. A martyr is a man who cares so much for something outside him, that he forgets his own personal life. A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything. One wants something to begin: the other wants everything to end. In other words, the martyr is noble, exactly because (however he renounces the world or execrates all humanity) he confesses this ultimate link with life; he sets his heart outside himself: he dies that something may live.

ibid, p.103.

                Herein lies another example of the fact that great truths do indeed lie in the midst of paradox – and this is no doubt the reason that Chesterton spent so much of his time writing about them. The world at large though, and now perhaps more than ever (living as we do in an age that, whilst considering itself advanced in every respect, is deeply lacking on the intellectual front and suffers from the illusion of depth of knowledge combined with an actual lack of it – how else could The God Delusion have sold so many copies?), tends to prefer the collapsing of such things into tidy boxes. Chesterton’s description of the difference between suicide and martyrdom thus not only offers a great amount of insight into the basic perspectives on life that the two positions are emblematic of (and so shines a lot on much of our own cultural malaise) but highlights the fact that, just like existence itself, truth is often stranger and richer than it may first appear.

The willingness of someone to die for truth, for love, for life, is testimony to something about our existence that not even the most bleak worldview can quash – the witness of the martyr (the two words ‘martyr’ and ‘witness’ indeed mean the same thing) is a reminder to us that some things are so important, and that life in general is such a tremendous gift, that they are more important than our very selves. Suicide represents an outlook on life which has, for whatever reason (the provisos from the Catechism are again very important to remember here), become so focussed in on the self and its suffering that it forgets the wants, woes and joys of everyone else, as well as the tremendous fact that anything exists at all. Martyrs however, honour a philosophy of life which places life first, even above the one experiencing it – that forgets the self precisely because it so values the gift of existence. As Chesterton himself wrote, clearly the two are complete opposites.

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3 thoughts on “G. K. Chesterton on Suicide and Martyrdom

  1. Interesting article as always. I think in our culture the reason for the lack of respect for life in all forms comes down essentially to the focus on the individual. In an individualistic society, similar the the philosophies of Buddhism you have mentioned, the primary concern is for one’s self. And this is not only prevalent in liberal, non-Christian or non-religious cultures but even within certain dynamics of Christianity wherein the goal becomes what one can achieve for themselves rather than to grow together in the Lord as a community.

    • Thank you – you make a very important point here; there is indeed a common thread linking these two issues, and it is our over-emphasis on the self and its concerns. What I have often found strange is the fact that our culture today both promotes individualistic, world-denying spiritualities AND is deeply materialistic at the same time (often one encounters people who embrace some kind of spirituality that is basically Gnostic in essence, whilst having a great concern with the ‘stuff’ that they own).

      Also, very true about ‘certain dynamics’ of Christianity that focus on individual salvation (‘getting saved’ etc) rather than the growth into the Mystical Body of Christ. I actually think a very good case can be made for our current issues with individualism and secularism having their roots in, if not the Protestant Reformation itself, then certainly the currents of thought that accompanied and, in part, caused it to occur.

  2. Pingback: From the Headlines; Some Thoughts | All Along the Watchtower

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