During the past months I have been putting together a workshop on Suicide Prevention and Intervention in the Church. It is one of several workshops I have developed that aim to help us understand suicide and be better equipped to support vulnerable people through times of personal crisis.
One of the areas I looked at was tracking how attitudes to suicide had changed throughout the centuries. It was Robert Burton (1577 – 1640), Oxford clergyman and scholar, who stood out like a beacon. It was said of Burton that he was ‘an amusing companion when not depressed.’
Burton’s classic work The Anatomy of Melancholy (NYRB Classics S.) was first published in 1621. It was a ‘self help’ book on how to manage melancholy which expanded relentlessly in his lifetime, as he constantly reworked the text and added extra material to each new edition.
Burton had a modest view of his writing abilities. He said, “Everyman hath liberty to write, but few ability. Heretofore learning was graced by judicious scholars, but now noble sciences are vilified by base and illiterate scribblers…..”
Burton disagreed strongly with contemporary Church dogmas, actually asking whether a person who had taken his/her own life, would be condemned to hell.
He says, “Of their bodies we can dispose, but what shall become of their souls, God alone can tell …. God is merciful unto us all”
Burton knew what he was talking about. He battled depression throughout his life. His writing was one of the ways he managed his depression.
“I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy. There is no greater cause of melancholy than idleness, no better cure than busyness.”
Robert Burton was an insightful man with a sensitive nature. He spoke openly of his personal struggles and yet he was a man with a twinkle in his eye. I honour him for his honesty. I honour him for encouraging public discussion about depression. I honour him for his efforts to decriminalise suicide.