Jung’s Statements About Suicide

Jung mentions suicide in his letters, often in response to specific questions regarding suicide from correspondents. It is here that we find Jung had quite specific notions of suicide and viewed the act as wasteful. Yet, the connection between his own clients and suicide goes unmentioned. Jung’s strongest statement is made to a “Mrs. N.”, a 47 year old woman concerned about the impact of her suicide attempt at age 21. This statement is contained in a letter dated 13 October 1951.

“It isn’t possible to kill part of your “self” unless you kill yourself first. If you ruin your conscious personality, the so-called ego-personality, you deprive the self of its real goal, namely to become real itself. The goal of life is the realization of the self. If you kill yourself you abolish that will of the self to become real, but it may arrest your personal development inasmuch it is not explained. You ought to realise that suicide is murder, since after suicide there remains a corpse exactly as with any ordinary murder. Only it is yourself that has been killed.” (Jung, 1975, p.25)

Two critical arguments appear in this wonderful paragraph. These are : that you can’t kill any part/aspect of the Self unless the body is killed; and, “The goal of life is the realization of the self.”

The first issue demonstrates Jung’s mature anti-empiricist view that the body/mind/soul is an indissoluble entity. This sidesteps the artificial bodymind split that the Cartesian model advocates. If we move deeper into his statement, we can understand that the psyche cannot be partially ‘dismembered’ in that all aspects exist contemporaneously as a unified whole.

Jung’s correspondent may well have asked if you could ‘kill’ an aspect of the ego, or of the body. This clarity of the wholistic view of the psyche does present difficulties when we attempt to tease out how the components of the psyche may self-destruct.

The second issue Jung refers to is that life is premised on a teleological path – realization of the Self. This is an enormous concept : how can one realise the Self unless the Self contains that which is to be realised? So, contained within the psyche is the eventual psychic position the individual is strivings towards.

To interrupt this prospective process is to frustrate this principle. If suicide is a possible eventual psychic position, then the Self contains this knowledge.

An earlier echo of this attitude is found in a letter Jung wrote dated 10 July, 1946, to a correspondent regarding suicide. He states:

“The idea of suicide, understandable as it is, does not seem commendable to me. We live in order to gain the greatest possible amount of spiritual development and self-awareness. As long as life is possible, even if only in a minimal degree, you should hang onto it, in order to scoop it up for the purpose of conscious development. To interrupt life before its time is to bring to a standstill an experiment which we have not set up. We have found ourselves in the midst of it and must carry it through to the end.” (Jung, 1973, p. 434)

Some fifteen days later, ( 25 July, 1946) Jung wrote a lengthy letter to Eleanor Bertine. A substantial portion of the letter concerned Kristine Mann’s death. He makes a clear case against euthanasia.

“It is really a question whether a person affected by such a terrible illness should or may end her life. It is my attitude in such cases not to interfere. I would let things happen as they were so, because I’m convinced that if anybody has it in himself to commit suicide, then practically the whole of his being is going that way. I have seen cases where it would have been something short of criminal to hinder the people because according to all rules it was in accordance with the tendency of their unconscious and thus the basic thing. So I think nothing is really gained by interfering with such an issue. It is presumably to be left to the free choice of the individual. Anything that seems to be wrong to us can be right under certain circumstances over which we have no control and then end of which we do not understand. If Kristine Mann had committed suicide under the stress of unbearable pain, I should have thought that this was the right thing. As it was not the case, I think it was in her stars to undergo such a cruel agony for reasons that escape out understanding. Our life is not made entirely by ourselves. The main bulk of it is brought into existence out of sources that are hidden to us. Even complexes can start a century or more before a man is born. There is something like karma.” (Jung, 1973, pp. 435-436)

In a letter dated 19 November 1955 to a terminally ill woman he states that suicide is not the answer to ending her suffering, but that she should rather hold on as long as she can as “The reason for such an “unreasonable” attitude with me is that I am not at all sure what will happen to me after death. I have good reasons to assume that things are not finished with death. Life seems to be an interlude in a long story.” (Jung, 1975, p. 279)

From these letters we are able to see that Jung had a definite attitude towards suicide. He appears to feel our lives are not ours to take; that there is something beyond this life on earth, and that the journey the psyche takes requires the totality of experience including the indignity and suffering of terminal illness, because this suffering is the stuff of the psyche. Without it, we cheat the psyche from attaining its eventual goal. Here, Jung is making a clear argument regarding the prospective and teleological aspect of the Self and the psyche. It is not “ours” to tinker with. He clearly felt that the Self cannot facilitate suicide, so our earlier question as to whether the Self contains knowledge of its end in suicide appears answered in the negative.

This an excerpt from the paper, Towards a Jungian Theory of Suicide by John D. Betts. The full version can be found here.

Comments (11):

  1. surreal2u

    April 21, 2006 at 2:17 pm

    I think this is very very interesting. I have some real strong feelings around this. I guess it is important to state the obvious in this situation. Jung was one sharp cookie. I am sure his legacy can attest to that. 🙂

    Reply
  2. surreal2u

    April 23, 2006 at 2:38 pm

    So, I’ve thought about this a little. I think we need a new sect of religion called psychospiritual as it is already much talked about by many other people. Except, I think the others need to revaluate the necessity of the science that goes behind the psychology as well. (I don’t know, Google search, don’t ask.)

    No, seriously. I think that Jung clearly states an arguement that is testimony to his genius. It takes a humble man to realise the forces greater than himself. It takes a genius to be able to articulate with his eloquency. However, doesn’t it take a clear mind to make rational decisions as well. Of sound mind and body would provide good rationale as to why his genius leaves little arguement to oppose. Without a clear state of mind we lack the tools necessary to do what is right. Perspective has many scales for what is right and wrong but if the lens is dirty we can justify anything to be the right thing. Of course we have a general guide line albeit religion, philosophy, science or just a set of simple set of moral and ethical principles. If we resolve that we could not hurt another, the same may not be said of ourselves. Why and how can we justify this? Sometimes, I guess we are just content with saying I don’t know, rather than because it’s the right thing to do. Now, stop and think, could you go and harm the one closest to you in an act of anger or otherwise and not feel regret? If you could, then your value of all life does not measure against the standard as it ‘should be’. So, if you can see the value of not harming those around you, maliciously, then you should also see the fault of taking your own life. The decision you make is an act of violence to others. Their guilt resides and their life continues. So, outside of faith, although the decision you make is your own its not your right to do so. We are bound by this physical shell and what we posses inside resides all within. Commit yourself to it in its entirety.

    Reply
  3. surreal2u

    April 23, 2006 at 2:42 pm

    My statements are not pertaining to terminally ill patients. I feel there are a different set of circumstances surrounds those types of decisions.

    Reply
  4. newlyanonymous

    May 9, 2006 at 2:01 am

    After working in a funeral home I discussed with my doctor the mixed emotions I had toward assisted suicide for the terminally ill. When she was a nurse practioner who did believe in euthenasia, she had the opportunity to home nurse one of her mentors and idols in life. He begged for it, but lived with his mother who was apparently quite a witch. She said she fought with the idea for many weeks, and finally told him she is assuming God was telling her it wasn’t her place. He eventually made peace with his mother after she accepted the inevitable, and within a day he was gone. I may be off the wall with this one, but her words changed my attitude quite a bit. Even at the end when there’s no hope, there may be business to finish to complete the story.

    Reply
  5. surreal2u

    May 9, 2006 at 8:58 pm

    I can see your perspective. I also feel that there are degrees of terminal past the point of begging which could be considered as torture not to have mercy be the end. The inability to communicate having gone through the process of decline but to still be aware of your surroundings in some sort of unplugged way. I guess my whole reason for feeling that way would be compassion. That decision to make is however not mine to make. It is just my perspective. 🙂

    Reply
  6. alessandro

    November 3, 2007 at 8:33 am

    Please can you send to me the book ” Towards a Jungian Theory of Suicide by John D. Betts.”
    It is unavailable from the location indicated

    My email is : 283494@studenti.unito.it

    Thanks Alessandro

    Reply
  7. Matthew

    November 6, 2007 at 2:44 am

    You can download it from the internet archive, here.

    Reply
  8. Ryan

    December 26, 2009 at 5:39 pm

    Psycho-analytic theories basically amount to this: there are forces of good and evil inside of us and we must learn to control them. Why not do it with something that seems to work like buddhism or any other religion that is much more successful at dealing with self-control, etc.? Instead you turn to a pseudo-scientific theory that sounds a lot like religion (superego/id, good/evil, god/devil), which was developed by a man who denied religion. These are the old religious attitudes disguised as science in order to be seen as credible. The self? The ego? what are these things really? Are they anything more than the constructs of a scientific and rational society that must come up with a pseudo-science in order to explain man but ends up feeding us the same crap we’ve been eating for thousands of years, only couched in new terms.

    Reply
  9. lewis Lafontaine

    May 5, 2013 at 7:55 am

    The link to the “full version” of a Jungian Theory of Suicide by John D. Betts is not working.

    Could you provide a good link?

    Thank you

    Reply
    • Matthew Clapp

      May 7, 2013 at 7:24 pm

      You can download it from the internet archive, here.

      Reply
  10. Ray

    September 8, 2014 at 12:04 am

    Among all my patients in the 2nd half of life…..is the beginning of famous Jungian statement concerning mental illness and a religious out look on life in order to achieve healing. So his writings are not merely a fancy way of expressing how we as humans function per the psyche. But a comprehensive way of seeing how left to our own personal devices (ego), we can become very ill, to the point of suicide. So that though he didn’t subscribe to a religion, he did allude to a higher power/God as necessary in order achieve integration…a fragmented psyche is the illness, too one side to the ego.

    Reply

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