Jennifer Michael Hecht

Award-winning Poet & Nonfiction Writer
Historian, Philosopher & Commentator

Readings & Lecture Topics

  • The History of Doubt
  • Hope is Reasonable, Because Reason has Hope
  • Poetic Atheism
  • Stay, and the Secular Argument Against Suicide
  • Moral Ideas and the Argument Against Suicide
  • Doubt and Certainty in Turbulent Times


“Jennifer Michael Hecht has forever changed the way I will think about history – religious or otherwise.” — Krista Tippett

“Jennifer Michael Hecht writes delightfully tricky poems that wildly bend the sense of our language.”—Billy Collins

Jennifer Michael Hecht is a poet, intellectual historian, philosopher, and commentator. She is the author of four books of nonfiction and three poetry collections. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Vox, Quartz, and The American Scholar; her 2013 article in Politico, on atheism and politics, was one of their most-read articles of the year. Her poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, American Poet, Poetry, The New Republic, McSweeney’s, and many others. Hecht’s books have been translated into many languages.

In her bestselling book Doubt: A History (2010) Hecht examines religious and philosophical doubt all over the world, throughout history. She champions doubt and questioning as one of the great and noble, if unheralded, intellectual traditions that distinguish the Western mind. Publishers Weekly calls it, “A magisterial book” saying, “Hecht’s poetical prose beautifully dramatizes the struggle between belief and denial…The breadth of this work is stunning…Hecht draws the reader toward personal reflection on some of the most timeless questions ever posed.” The Happiness Myth (2009) brings a historical eye to modern wisdom about how to lead a good life. The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism, and Anthropology in France won Phi Beta Kappa’s 2004 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award for “scholarly studies that contribute significantly to interpretations of the intellectual and cultural condition of humanity.”

Hecht’s most recent book of nonfiction is Stay: A History of Suicide and the Arguments Against It (Yale University Press, 2013). After Hecht was featured on Krista Tippett’s radio program On Being, Tippett wrote: “Stay. That’s the message that philosopher, poet, and historian Jennifer Michael Hecht puts at the center of her unusual writing about suicide. She’s traced how the history of Western civilization has, at times, demonized those who commit suicide, and, at times, celebrated it as a moral freedom. She has struggled with suicidal places in her life and lost friends to it. As a scholar, she’s now proposing a new cultural reckoning with suicide, based not on morality or on rights but on our essential need for each other.”

She is currently at work on a prose book to be published by about poetry and the secular sacred, entitled The Wonder Paradox, a guide to using poetry to find meaning, invoke awe, and rest in some clarity of mind. It will be published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Hecht’s poetry is also critically celebrated and widely popular. With her customary wit and erudition, her poems often draws on her work as an intellectual historian. Her first book of poetry, The Next Ancient World mixes contemporary and ancient worldviews, histories, myths, and ideas; the collection won three national awards, including the Poetry Society of America’s First Book award for 2001. Publisher’s Weekly called her poetry book, Funny, “One of the most original and entertaining books of the year.” Her newest collection, Who Said, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2013. The Believer said, “Hecht’s rhymes are irregular, gymnastic, pointed, and fun; she’s found what so many would-be populists seek, an idiom entirely conversational yet able to sustain unexpected ideas.”

Hecht has also published in many peer-reviewed journals, including The Journal of the History of Ideas; Isis: Journal of the History of Science Society; French Historical Studies; and The Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. She has delivered invited lectures at Harvard, Yale, MIT, Cal Tech, Columbia University as well as The Zen Mountain Monastery, Temple Israel of Omaha, The New York Ethical Culture Society, Saint Bart’s Episcopal Church, and other institutions of learning and introspection. She is an active member of the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University. Hecht has appeared on Hardball on MSNBC, the Discovery Channel, The Morning Show, and Huffington Post Live.

Jennifer Michael Hecht holds a Ph.D. in the History of Science/European Cultural History from Columbia University (1995) and has taught at several universities, including in graduate programs at Columbia University and the New School.

Thank you so much for your brilliant presentation and workshop at The Gathering. It was one of our best yet! The feedback from our audience was personal and moving: ‘Such depth of knowledge and beautiful synthesis of thought,’ ‘I felt like she was speaking directly to me,’ ‘the power of poetry linking history and science – Wow!’ You really did blow us away.” – Keystone College, The Gathering

Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Website 


Jennifer Michael Hecht is a poet, intellectual historian, and commentator. She has published three award-winning books of poetry, including Who Said and Funny; and four books of nonfiction history and philosophy including the bestseller, Doubt a history of unbelief all over the world, through history, and Stay, a history of suicide and a secular argument against it. She is writing a new prose book about poetry and the secular sacred, The Wonder Paradox. Hecht has been a featured guest of many NPR shows, including multiple appearances on the Brian Lehrer Show and On Being, and some television, such as Hardball MSNBC and Huffington Post Live. She lectures widely and has blogged for a decade or so at the Best American Poetry.


STAY: A HISTORY OF SUICIDE AND THE PHILOSOPHIES AGAINST IT (Nonfiction, 2016)

“Stay has inspired me more than anything I’ve read in a very long time. I cannot praise it highly enough.” — Bel Mooney

Worldwide, more people die by suicide than by murder, and many more are left behind to grieve. Despite distressing statistics that show suicide rates rising, the subject, long a taboo, is infrequently talked about. In this sweeping intellectual and cultural history, poet and historian Jennifer Michael Hecht channels her grief for two friends lost to suicide into a search for history’s most persuasive arguments against the irretrievable act, arguments she hopes to bring back into public consciousness. From the Stoics and the Bible to Dante, Shakespeare, Wittgenstein, and such 20th-century writers as John Berryman, Hecht recasts the narrative of our “secular age” in new terms. She shows how religious prohibitions against self-killing were replaced by the Enlightenment’s insistence on the rights of the individual, even when those rights had troubling applications. This transition, she movingly argues, resulted in a profound cultural and moral loss: the loss of shared, secular, logical arguments against suicide. By examining how people in other times have found powerful reasons to stay alive when suicide seems a tempting choice, she makes a persuasive intellectual and moral case against suicide.

WHO SAID (Poetry, 2013)

“Hecht’s rhymes are irregular, gymnastic, pointed, and fun; she’s found what so many would-be populists seek, an idiom entirely conversational yet able to sustain unexpected ideas.” —The Believer

Who Said is a meditation on life’s profound questions told through playful engagement with iconic poems and lyrics. Jennifer Michael Hecht’s book is a magic echo chamber wherein great poems come back to us, altered to fit the concerns of our moment. This wildly interpretive treatment of Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and the rock band Nirvana is original, occasionally hilarious, and always moving.

THE END OF THE SOUL: MODERNITY, ATHEISM, AND ANTHROPOLOGY IN FRANCE (Nonfiction, 2012)
On October 19, 1876 a group of leading French citizens, both men and women included, joined together to form an unusual group, The Society of Mutual Autopsy, with the aim of proving that souls do not exist. The idea was that, after death, they would dissect one another and (hopefully) show a direct relationship between brain shapes and sizes and the character, abilities and intelligence of individuals. This strange scientific pact, and indeed what we have come to think of as anthropology, which the group’s members helped to develop, had its genesis in aggressive, evangelical atheism. With this group as its focus, The End of the Soul is a study of science and atheism in France in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It shows that anthropology grew in the context of an impassioned struggle between the forces of tradition, especially the Catholic faith, and those of a more freethinking modernism, and moreover that it became for many a secular religion. Among the adherents of this new faith discussed here are the novelist Emile Zola, the great statesman Leon Gambetta, the American birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, and Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes embodied the triumph of ratiocination over credulity. Boldly argued, full of colorful characters and often bizarre battles over science and faith, this book represents a major contribution to the history of science and European intellectual history.

DOUBT: A HISTORY: THE GREATEST DOUBTERS AND THEIR LEGACY OF INNOVATION…(Nonfiction, 2010)

“Doubt: A History, is a bold and brilliant work and (lucky us) highly readable, thanks to the elegant and witty author. It’s the World Religions course you wish you’d had in college, a history of faith told from the outside. Jennifer Michael Hecht is a strong swimmer. —Garrsion Keillor 

In the tradition of grand sweeping histories such as From Dawn To Decadence, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and A History of God, Hecht champions doubt and questioning as one of the great and noble, if unheralded, intellectual traditions that distinguish the Western mind especially-from Socrates to Galileo and Darwin to Wittgenstein and Hawking. This is an account of the world’s greatest ‘intellectual virtuosos,’ who are also humanity’s greatest doubters and disbelievers, from the ancient Greek philosophers, Jesus, and the Eastern religions, to modern secular equivalents Marx, Freud and Darwin—and their attempts to reconcile the seeming meaninglessness of the universe with the human need for meaning. This remarkable book ranges from the early Greeks, Hebrew figures such as Job and Ecclesiastes, Eastern critical wisdom, Roman stoicism, Jesus as a man of doubt, Gnosticism and Christian mystics, medieval Islamic, Jewish and Christian skeptics, secularism, the rise of science, modern and contemporary critical thinkers such as Schopenhauer, Darwin, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, the existentialists.

THE HAPPINESS MYTH: AN EXPOSE (Nonfiction, 2009)
Jennifer Michael Hecht explodes the myths about happiness, liberating us from the message that there’s only one way to care for our hearts, minds, and bodies.

FUNNY (Poetry, 2005)

“One of the most original and entertaining books of the year.” —Publishers Weekly

A tour de force, Funny is a masterpiece of poetic, as well as philosophic and comic, invention. It creates a musing world, where the issues are philosophical but the focus is always on people, on our most private ways of balancing our accounts. The poems are psychological; tender and humane, and somehow ruthless. This is poetry that swarms with ideas, that revels in rhythmic intricacy and literary references, but is also clear as a bell, and tells marvelous stories.

THE NEXT ANCIENT WORLD (Poetry, 2001)
What Jennifer Michael Hecht manages to accomplish, in poems that demonstrate a mastery of craft and a uniquely voiced understanding buoyed with an air of brilliance, is astonishing. Her introduction explains – in her endlessly appealing half-outrageous, half-conspiratorial voice – her purpose: to offer a guidebook for those that come after. We are the next ancient world, and Hecht chronicles our motivations, our interactions, our dreams and half-remembered thoughts with wit, aching romance and savvy intuition. Out of the quotidian, Hecht manufactures something mythic. It is an unparalleled view that confers on the human condition an aspect of the eternal, that locates the momentous in every moment. In short, one cannot read one of her poems without an equal measure of relish and envy. The Next Ancient World offers a unique voice and vision, informed with full measures of play, wisdom, and the sheer joy of invention.


On The Past Denied

A lot like pushing a rope,
or shove-budging the earth–
it’s tough to ditch a shadow
–by means of bob and jerk.

We are–where we–were.
We’re–one–time-lapse–blur.
Our past with sweet derision
We–cannot–inter.

The thing we hide returns
–just as it turns–to leave
and speaks a hope–that doubts
as–fervently–as it believes.

At last I land–on ground
uniform–to balance theft and duty.
I reckon flesh–and history–
as real as truth and beauty.

– from Who Said

DOUBT (excerpt)

Great believers and great doubters seem like opposites, but they are more similar to each other than to the mass of relatively disinterested or acquiescent men and women. This is because they are both awake to the fact that the we live between two divergent realities: On one side, there is a world in our heads–and in our lives, so long as we are not contradicted by death and disaster–and that is a world of reasons and plans, love, and purpose. On the other side, there is the world beyond our human life–an equally real world in which there is no sign of caring or value, planning or judgment, love or joy. We live in meaning-rupture because we are human and the universe is not.

Great doubters, like great believers, have been people occupied with this problem, trying to figure out whether the universe actually has a hidden version of humanness, or whether humanness is the error and people would be better off weaning themselves from their sense of narrative, justice, and love, thereby solving the schism by becoming more like the universe in which they are stuck. Cosmology can be stunning in this context.

***

The history of doubt is not only a history of the denial of God; it is also a history of those who have grappled with the religious questions and found the possibility of other answers.

***

Prayer is based on the remote possibility that someone is actually listening; but so is a lot of conversation. If the former seems far-fetched, consider the latter: even if someone is listening to your story, and really hearing, that person will disappear from existence in the blink of a cosmic eye, so why bother to tell this perhaps illusory and possibly un-listening person something he or she is unlikely to truly understand, just before the two of you blip back out of existence? We like to talk to people who answer us, intelligently if possible, but we do talk without needing response or expecting comprehension. Sometimes, the event is the word, the act of speaking. Once we pull that apart a bit, the action of talking becomes more important than the question of whether the talking is working-because we know, going in, that the talking is not working. That said, one might as well pray.

STAY (excerpt)

None of us can truly know what we mean to other people, and none of us can know what our future self will experience. History and philosophy ask us to remember these mysteries, to look around at friends, family, humanity, at the surprises life brings — the endless possibilities that living offers — and to persevere. There is love and insight to live for, bright moments to cherish, and even the possibility of happiness, and the chance of helping someone else through his or her own troubles. Know that people, through history and today, understand how much courage it takes to stay. Bear witness to the night side of being human and the bravery it entails, and wait for the sun. If we meditate on the record of human wisdom we may find there reason enough to persist and find our way back to happiness. The first step is to consider the arguments and evidence and choose to stay. After that, anything may happen. First, choose to stay.

***

Some people argue for a right to suicide because having the option to end their lives gives them solace. Nietzsche wrote that the thought of suicide got him through many a bad night. Sometimes when a person is feeling very bad and perhaps very scared, it can be a comfort to know that if she ever comes to a place where the pain is too much, she would have an out. I have no wish to deprive anyone of consolation, especially since most people whom the option would comfort are unlikely ever to follow through with the act. If a person is faced with a terrible fear–of losing a child, say, or of being brutalized in a particular way–that person might take solace from thinking, “I can dismiss worrying over this unlikely suffering because should it come to pass, I will end my life.” Maybe such thoughts are harmless, but maybe they are not. Would it not be better, and more useful, for that fearful person to comfort herself by remembering that the intelligence and strength that got her through past trials are apt to get her through further trials as well? It is crucial to see that deciding against the principle of suicide creates its own practical strengths: it commits one to the human project and to one’s own life in a way that gives rise to solidarity and resilience. And when one speaks of such commitment to living, others may be encouraged to live and to find the resources to survive pain.

THE HAPPINESS MYTH (excerpt)

Aurelius says that one reason it doesn’t matter how long you live is that this is not theatre, that the whole is not the thing. Each moment is the thing. “The soul obtains its own end, wherever the limit of life may be fixed. Not as…in a play…where the whole action is incomplete if anything cuts it short; but in every part and wherever it be stopped, it makes what has been set before it full and complete, so that it can say, ‘I have what is my own.