You are here: Controversies / Leonardo Tondo: Brief History of Suicide in Western Cultures / Edward Shorter’s comment
Monday, 17.01.2022

Leonardo Tondo: Brief History of Suicide in the Western Cultures

Edward Shorter’s comment


          Dr. Leonardo Tondo’s fluent account, which might better be called “A History of Attitudes Toward Suicide” rather than “A History of Suicide,” convinces us that in the remote past suicide was considered a crime and a sin — and that it was hardily rebuked. Dr. Tondo also points out that latterly suicide has been classed as a form of mental illness, diminishing the stigma.  It is his right, of course, to stop in the 19th century, just as things start to get interesting.  Nonetheless, this choice of chronology leaves two big questions unanswered:

1.     How frequent was suicide actually in the Ancien Régime?  He creates the impression that it must have been not uncommon, yet is this true?  My own work has convinced me that peasant suicide was virtually unheard of, though in cities such as Zurich, as the excellent monograph by Markus Schär (1985) demonstrates, it may have been more frequent (possessing, moreover, a heavy genetic bias). Accounts based on anecdotes must be treated with caution, for in a large population there always will be anecdotes of suicide.  But as a mass phenomenon?

2.       Why is suicide on the increase? Today, suicide is close to being a mass phenomenon.  It appears to have undergone over the last century a large increase; the recent rise since the 1990s has been quite dramatic.  From 1999 to 2017, the age-adjusted suicide rate in the United States, according to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), “increased 33% from 10.5 to 14.0 per 100,000” (Hedegaard, Curtin and Warner 2018).    This is a stunning increase.  Dr. Tondo leaves us in historic times, yet in the history of suicide as a phenomenon this is the principal phenomenon to be explained.

          One looks forward to comments from other members on this subject, which has as yet received no satisfactory scholarly treatment.



Hedegaard H, Curtin SC, Warner M. Suicide Mortality in the United States, 1999-2017. NCHS Data Brief No. 330, Nov 2018.

Schär M. Seelennöte der Untertanen: Selbstmord, Melancholie und Religion im alten Zürich 1500-1800 (Suicide, Melancholy and Religion in Old Zurich, 1500-1800). Zurich: Chronos, 1985.


August 1, 2019