"The Fatal Tendency of Civilized Society": Enrico Morselli's Suicide, Moral Statistics, and Positivism in Italy

Maria Teresa Brancaccio*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

10 Citations (Web of Science)


The study suicide: an essay on comparative moral statistics by the italian psychiatrist enrico agostino morselli (1852-1929) is generally considered a major contribution to the european debate on suicide of the late decades of the nineteenth century and an important statistical source for durkheim's own suicide. The rise of suicidology in nineteenth-century italy as well as the political and intellectual context from which morselli's work emerged, however, have remained largely unexplored. This article sets out to deal with statistical studies on suicide in nineteenth-century italy and, in particular, the political and intellectual context from which morselli's statistical work on suicide emerged. Until the second half of the nineteenth-century, suicide in the italian peninsula was an uncharted phenomenon. It became the object of statistical study in the troubled years that followed the unification of the country, within a wider context characterized by concerns for the country's cultural and economic fragmentation, and for the high rates of violent crime and illiteracy that relegated italy to the edge of civilized europe. Forged in the political crucible of the newly unified italian state, the determinism and evolutionist principles inherent in morselli's suicide explain much about contemporary perceptions of italy in particular, and notions of civilization, modernity and nationalism in general. Morselli's suicide remains a crucial element in the contextualization of suicidology as the direct antecedent to durkheim's own study of the same name.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)700-715
JournalJournal of Social History
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2013

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