Emile Durkheim, The concept of anomie

In this not very easy passage from Il suicide (1897), his fundamental work and one of the most important text in the history of sociology, Emile Durkheim presents the concept of anomy, on the basis of which, excluding other causes and other factors, he interprets the phenomenon of high number of suicides in contemporary societies. Suicide is the result of a general confusion, due to the fact that society, in times of transition and great changes, is no longer able to offer a regulatory rule; in this way the needs and desires, no longer held back by society, grow madly, without ever being able to satisfy them. Hence a state of constant restlessness, which often leads to the extreme decision to take one’s life.

It is characteristic of man to be subject to a brake that is not physical, but moral, that is, social. He does not receive his law from a material environment that is brutally imposed, but from a conscience superior to his own and of which he feels the superiority. Precisely because the greater and better part of his life transcends the body, he escapes the yoke of the body to undergo that of society.
However, when society is shaken, either by a painful crisis or by sudden, though happy, transformations, it is temporarily unable to exercise this action. Hence the sudden ascents of the suicide curve, the existence of which we have already established.
In fact, in cases of economic disasters there is a downgrading that pushes certain individuals into a situation lower than that occupied until then. They must thus reduce their own needs, restrict their needs, learn to contain themselves more. As far as they are concerned, all the fruits of social action are lost and their moral education has to be redone. Now, it is not that society can bend them in an instant to this new life and immediately teach them to exert on themselves a surplus of constraints which they are not accustomed to. It follows for them an unfitness to the supervening condition of which the mere prospect is almost intolerable for them. Hence the suffering that detaches them from a diminished life before they have even experienced it.

Nor does it otherwise happen when the crisis originates from a sudden increase in power and luck. In this case too, once the conditions of life have changed, the scale on which needs were regulated cannot remain the same, but must vary with social resources, so that it can roughly determine the part destined for each category of producers. The graduation was shocked and one cannot improvise another sitting on the spot. It takes some time for men and things to be classified again in the public consciousness. Until the social forces, thus liberated, find their balance, their respective value remains indeterminate and, therefore, for a certain time, all discipline is lacking. We no longer know what is possible and what is not, what is right and what is not right, what are the legitimate claims and hopes, what are those that go beyond the measure. However shallow it may be, this upheaval also reaches the principles that govern the division of citizens into various jobs, because as the relationships between the different parts of society are necessarily modified, even the ideas that express those relationships cannot remain the same. That class that the crisis has favored in a special way is no longer willing to resign and, in return, the spectacle of its greatest fortune arouses all sorts of greed around it and from below. Thus, not contained by a bewildered opinion, the appetites no longer know what the limits are not to be exceeded. On the other hand, precisely because the general vitality is more intense, they are in a state of natural ereticism: with the growth of prosperity, desires are enhanced. The offer of richer prey stimulates them, makes them more demanding, more intolerant of the rules when the rules have lost their authority. The state of non-regulation or anomie is therefore strengthened because the passions are less disciplined precisely when they are most in need of strong discipline.
The same needs make it impossible to satisfy them. The over-excited ambitions always go beyond the results obtained, whatever they are, because they are not aware of not having to go further. Nothing can satisfy them and the agitation recharges itself, without ever being able to subside. The effort therefore becomes more considerable precisely in the most unproductive moment: in these conditions, how could the will to live fail?
The explanation is confirmed by the singular immunity enjoyed by poor countries. If poverty protects against suicide, it is a sign that it is in itself a brake. Whatever one does, desires are forced, to some extent, to deal with the means available and what one has, partly serves as a point of reference for determining what one would like. Therefore, the less you have, the less you are led to broaden the circle of needs without limits. Impotence, forcing us to moderation, accustoms us to it without counting that nothing can arouse desire where mediocrity is general. Instead, the wealth with the powers it confers gives us the illusion of relying exclusively on ourselves and by decreasing the resistance that things oppose us, it leads us to think that they can be conquered indefinitely. The less we feel limited, the more unbearable every limitation appears to us. It is not without reason that many religions have celebrated the benefits and moral value of poverty, which is, in fact, the best school for teaching man to contain himself. By forcing us to exercise constant discipline on ourselves, it trains us to accept collective discipline docilely, while wealth, exalting the individual, always risks awakening that spirit of rebellion which is the very source of immorality. This, of course, is not a reason to prevent humanity from improving its material condition. But if the mortal danger that any increase in wealth entails is not without remedy, it is also necessary not to lose sight of it.

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