There Is But One Truly Serious Philosophical Problem

As a species with the apparently rare gift of being able to contemplate life and death, being able to choose our own end should we desire it, we are endowed, unavoidably, with the problem of suicide.

”There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” –Camus

Let’s start by acknowledging that it is a serious question, a serious problem. The answer is not simple. We cannot get away from this issue by blanket affirmations against suicide because it is cowardly or because it is hurtful to others. These things may be true, but they do not answer the question.

Those with the benefit of an airtight faith in some religion or creed that prohibits suicide may seem to escape the problem; but only because they never really address it. To eschew consideration of suicide because it is against the laws of a god or against the imperatives of a philosophical system is to have already given up the reigns of your own life to an outside authority. Rather than face the question yourself, it is side-stepped; in removing that one threat to your life, you have given up claim to that very life.

No, we must deal with the question head-on, on its own terms, for and by ourselves.

“Should I go on playing bridge and dining, going in the same old monotonous circle? It’s easy that way, but it’s a sort of suicide, too.” –Antoinette Perry

We must recognize that there are multiple forms of suicide. You can release your claim to life by means of a rope, a gun, a tall building, or a bottle of pills. But you can also do it by more mundane means: by letting your life get stuck in a loop of repeated, shallow days, like a skipping record stuck on a boring track. In letting your future days become mere faded copies of your past days, you may not physiologically die, but you certainly cease to live. Some methods of suicide are just slower and less deliberate than others, but in that way perhaps they smack even more of cowardice.

We must take care not to assume that by shunning suicide we have thus chosen life. To truly choose life, having faced the ultimate question, is an action, whereas to merely not die is an inaction.

So we see that the question is not whether or not to cease eating and breathing. The question is whether or not to do something beyond mere eating and breathing. That is the choice we face; that is the problem of suicide, the fundamental question of philosophy: can my life be something more than that of a bacteria or tree or hollow zombie of a man? If the answer to that question is negative, then suicide is nothing more than the redistribution of molecules, or as Georg Lichtenberg put it:

“Here take back the stuff that I am, nature, knead it back into the dough of being, make of me a bush, a cloud, whatever you will, even a man, only no longer make me.”

There are plenty of other shapes my molecules could take, and there are plenty of other people both now and to come. If my life is no different from the rest of them, why care about my life, why value it? Life in general, life as a phenomenon, will go on without me; and if I am gone, there will be others to take my place. If we have no active reason to want to be around, then we may as well give back our body’s dough to nature.

So what is the answer to the question of suicide? It’s not a yes or a no, but a why. And it won’t be the same for every person; indeed it couldn’t be, for when we truly face the question ourselves, we face our own personal question. But maybe the act, the wholehearted, soul-shivering act of facing the question, naked in front of it, can paradoxically bring meaning into a life, whatever that meaning may be. For some, serious contemplations of suicide may be a much-needed jolt out of the shallow complacency of a redundant life.

“Anyone desperate enough for suicide should be desperate enough to go to creative extremes to solve problems: elope at midnight, stow away on the boat to New Zealand and start over, do whatever they always wanted to do but were afraid to try.” –Richard Bach

xkcd adventure

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21 Responses to There Is But One Truly Serious Philosophical Problem

  1. Great post. To find significance in living, knowing one’s mortality, is to be a human being.

    “We are alienated if we either experience our lives as meaningless or ourselves as worthless, or else are capable of sustaining a sense of meaning and self-worth only with the help of illusions about ourselves or our condition” (Allen Wood, “Karl Marx”)

    And self-immolation need not be that of the body. And it may be that what I seek in pain and alienation is “my” oblivion, as a separated and forever lonely entity, without knowing it.

    “Thus the search for meaning amidst the debris of the much-vaunted human hopes and dreams and schemes has come to its timely end. With the end of both ‘I’ and ‘me’, the distance or separation between both ‘I’ and ‘me’ and these sense organs – and thus the external world – disappears. To be living as the senses is to live a clear and clean awareness – apperception – a pure consciousness experience of the world as-it-is. Because there is no ‘I’ as a thinker (a little person inside one’s head) or a ‘me’ as a feeler (a little person in one’s heart) – to have sensations happen to them, I am the sensations. The entire affective faculty vanishes … blind nature’s software package of instinctual passions is deleted. There is nothing except the series of sensations which happen … not happening to an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ but just happening … moment by moment … one after another. To live life as these sensations, as distinct from having them, engenders the most astonishing sense of freedom and magic. Consequently, I am living in peace and tranquillity; a meaningful peace and tranquillity. Life is intrinsically purposeful, the reason for existence lies openly all around. Being in this very air I live in, I am constantly aware of it; I breathe it in and out; I see it, I hear it, I taste it, I smell it, I touch it, all of the time. It never goes away – nor has it ever been away – it was just that ‘I’/‘me’ was standing in the way of the meaning of life being apparent.

    Life is not a vale of tears.” (Richard, )

  2. Pingback: Suicide: The One Truly Serious Philosophical Problem » Lone Gunman

  3. LL says:

    I live in New Zealand, and I’d like to stow away on a boat to start over somewhere else. But then again, Richard Bach had a thing about seagulls, so I guess he’d like it here.

  4. Pingback: Is Suicide Painless? « The Amateur’s Guide To Life

  5. lxz says:

    Inspiring article. I like it a great deal but there’s a typo that drives me crazy every time I see it. Sadly, it appears increasingly common these days.

    …given up the reigns of your own life

    reigns -> reins

  6. Mary says:

    Excellent post! I’ve experienced that paradoxical renewal of meaning that you write about, and you articulated its causes beautifully. I also appreciate the reminder about not letting life slip into a slow suicide. Thanks for writing this.

  7. SpGNo says:

    Wow. That’s maybe the greatest blog post I have ever read, and for sure the best commentary on suicide I’ve ever seen.

    Among other things, anyone considering suicide or stuck in a pointless cycle should read it.

  8. Nihilizo says:

    @ Number one, indeed, it is not so much the question of IF life is worth living, but rather, is there anyone there to live it?

  9. Alex says:

    Just wanted to take the opportunity to quote Jacob Bernoulli(1654-1705) who discovered the properties of self-reproduction in equiangular spirals.

    “Eadem mutata resurgo”

    Translated -“I shall arise the same, though changed”, something he later had engraved on his tomb-stone together with a representation of equiangular curve =)

  10. Cam Abyss says:

    I have contemplated this myself, and after staring into the Total Perspective Vortex that is an undeniable truth found in philosophy and physics, my solution is passion. At least, it was the solution to me lacking such.
    The passion in my life is always wanting to find out what happens next. I don’t want to imagine my life, or to remember it or to know it… I want to live every second as it goes.

    And that’s what, I think, the comic at the end of this piece is about: So what? The universe is mathematical,predictable and ‘heartless’. So what? We’re isolated machines of chemical and charge, who run in the same circles continuously, pushing each-other away in an emotional hypocrisy. But it’s still all you’ve got, so enjoy it while it lasts.

    Of course, there are upsides. There is pleasure and communication, there is truth and hope. The universe could only seem so heartless from the perspective of an observer who has so much heart.

  11. kurt berube says:

    A man who survived a concentration camp wrote a book about mans search for meaning, its what separates us from all other living creatures,its my opinion that a purpose in life gives us that, for good or bad, constuctive or destructive, at some point we make a choice about morality and what we value as important in our lives. It is from these choices that the meaning of our lives is decided!!!!!Did we give in to our animal desires for pleasure and comfort or did we listen to our concience and do the right thing when it was not the easy out!!!!!

  12. Zazbob Mcfarkle says:

    I have come up with two reasons, personally- one more well reasoned, the other residing as a motto, or perhaps a creed: 1) If I kill myself, I will have wasted all the pain my mother endured at my birth, all the food I have eaten that could have saved someone else, all the clean oxygen and water i’ve consumed, and all the love given to me by my friends and relatives. I have an obligation to ensure that all those things were not given in vain. 2) As long as the sun rises, so shall I.

  13. There are a couple leaps of logic that are unexplained here. 1. Why assume someone who is religious has already given up claim to their life? 2. Why assume someone living a monotonous life is figuratively dead?Angela P. says:

    There are a couple leaps of logic that are unexplained here. 1. Why assume someone who is religious has already given up claim to their life? 2. Why assume someone living a monotonous life is figuratively dead?

  14. Zack says:

    If life seems not worth living, then live like there is no tomorrow.

  15. Geoff says:

    I also find gaps in logic here. You sort of condemn the religious for giving up their own autonomy of life, while on the other hand you imply that there is an intrinsic or inherent value to life; a decidedly Western point of view that reflects the Christian perspective (which admittedly was influenced by the Classical perspective) and do not reconcile your previous condemnation. You try to present the typical existential relativist copout of “finding personal meaning” while adding the element of enlightenment apotheosis as a direction to move toward to validate existence. How is that any more founded in reality than a deity-deterministic fatalism? If there is no reality outside our own perception (or at least no meaning beyond our own), then the qualification we give our own days is the perfect justification FOR suicide, if we deem that the bad outweighs the good, which obviously some of the successfully suicided people must have thought was the case. Unless you’re addressing a group of optimistic, opportunistic, nihilists (how could such a thing exist?), then I fail to see a logical, non-self-defeating terminus to the logical progression of your argument. However, I did enjoy your thought-provoking presentation and appreciate that you addressed the topic as robustly and directly as you did.

  16. Jim says:

    I will address only the opening suppositions made in this interesting, but most errant, essay simply because if you begin “wrong” you will surely end “wrong”. First, we humans don’t have a “rare gift of being able to contemplate life and death” – we have the “only gift” to do so. Cows do not congregate to discuss, debate, organize, pray, or worship. Second, Camus’ quote arises from his philosophy of Absurdism which, if noted, would have better placed it within its own context rather than letting it just stand on its own isolated from its own meaning. Third, suicide is a serious question – no doubt. To then affirm, in a back-handed way, that it is wrong because of overly cliquish & simplistic catch-words like “cowardice” or “hurtfulness” negates the assertion of its seriousness. The reality, if the author had done any research at all on suicide, is that the vast majority (upwards of 90%) of those who take their lives have been clinically diagnosed with a significant mental illness that they have struggled with for years. Fourth, there is no such thing as perfect “airtight faith” or complete turning over “the reigns” of one’s “own life to an outside authority”. Every single human, without exception, lives in fleshly, bloody bodies that are very far removed from any kind of non-corporeal, pristine spirituality. The distance between “bodies of clay” & “bodies of non-clay” is a vast expanse that is neither recognized nor understood thereby establishing a very fragile “straw man” easily dismissed.

  17. john says:

    I read through the comments and thought ahh, I have found the smart people, the intellectuals and true idealists. Folks, suicide while perplexing does not require so much introspection. People are unhappy and at there wits end and obviously see no other option for the lives they inhabit. Be it mental illness or overwhelming grief it matters not. Well, not to them. They simply accelerated the inevitable process of life. Death. We will get there soon enough and the volumes of experiential information we will have amassed in the interim will be of little significance in the “long run” Ultimately it is the most selfish of acts. Have we all thought about it? Knowing we have that option? Even briefly? Then decided that life as a gift was to important to waste. Well, some did not get that far. That was the end. Why vacillate over it. Live and decide to live fully, graciously and with purpose or off yourself in a really messy way so that others have to clean it up and try to make some sense of your stupid actions in an essay like this.

  18. Carlos says:

    I found the article very provoking and I think that is the most important part, but I have to say that reading the comments, I was also blown away from some of the insight and the way they were written! “The universe could only seem so heartless from the perspective of an observer who has so much heart.” from Cam Abyss.What a powerful and significant phrase! and I have to say thank you to all who wrote, I really enjoyed reading your comments.

    I do believe that it is a question of realizing the perfect and divine coincidence that we call reality, when even the “most mundane” event and endless repetition, carries something completely different, and how every single moment is unique and unrepeatable, how the chances of every single one of us existing are practically 0, there is no logical reason for it and yet we all give a glimpse into how incredible is the universe and existence! How free will and determinism are appearently molded into the same outcome and reason for everything. And indeed… there is always adventure, the next moment, the loss of security, the risk of dying doing what we most love, yet making every single moment of our lives worth getting to it for how alive, perfect and in the moment we may feel.

  19. Katie Jo says:

    Your views concerning the choice of life, compelling. I believe you have grasped a great amount of Camus, theory surrounding suicide. If you look into Camus argument that suicide is the “one truly serious philosophical problem”, I think you will find much of his thoughts are similar to yours. Camus found that the absurd nature of the world and the angst that we have fighting it contributes immensely with those who contemplate life or death. Everyone is in search of self acclimation, or the purpose for living. Camus saw that each of us face an imminent death, and there is no true meaning to life. This revelation I believes to the two thoughts that you have concentrated on; letting the absurd nature of the world take over and trigger you to commit suicide, or living a life worth living despite the absurd. Everyone has these options, and it is my belief that Camus saw suicide as a philosophical issue, because people were not looking at the circumstances presented before them. Rather than seeing the optimism many commit to an eternity of nothingness through suicide. I agree with you that we all face our own personal questions, and it is my belief, with support from Camus, that it is these questions that gives our lives purpose.

    • George Carson says:

      In response to your post, I think you have really delved into some philosophical issues surrounding suicide. Not only have your comments on Camus opened my eyes to a bigger question, but you have influenced me to look more into Camus. In my reading I found some essays that you may also find intriguing. Check out his book The Plague, you may find his opinions here interesting as well.
      – GC

  20. Xri says:

    No, if God did not exist, then there is no reason for me to stay alive.

    The thing is that most people don’t seem to live horrible or even super-horrible lives, but some do — including myself.

    Mental illness and anxiety disorders alone can make life hell, and add to that being fat and a fuck-ugly hunchback with an average IQ who will never amount to something.

    The comic is from xkcd? Pardon, but give me a break, that guy is above average, has a Ph.D in physics, has an audience and whatnot. If I killed myself, who’d care? My immediate family, sure. But soon it’s forgotten.

    Again, atheists are lying and dishonest because they themselves need their crutches, like alcohol, drugs, women (one of the biggest drugs), work and “advancing their career”, attending paper mills, thinking they are “progressing” in life or so.

    It’s just that most of these crutches suck or aren’t even in my and most peoples’s reach.

    I’d say that from all non-Christian artificial constructs of meaning, children and family are at least noble, since there is some sacrifice there on behalf of the children.

    Faith, on the other hand, is available to anyone who humbly asks for it. And my faith in God and trust in Christ is what keeps me alive, keeps me going. I don’t support or suggest suicide, but suicide and antinatalism is the _rational_ outcome of atheism. (To those who know: No, eastern spirituality, enlightenment and especially the”QRS” are deluded.)

    Reinhold Schneider was a German poet and Catholic who wrote a great essay against suicide — he himself struggled with this urge and with his melancholy his whole life (he died aged 55); he survived an attempt aged 18, became a Christian around the age of 35, I think.

    I’d say that in the past, most average people simply believed in God and worked themselves to death, so there was little room for speculating about the meaning of it.

    I’ll end with a few aphorisms by the grear Colombian Catholic Nicolás Gómez Dávila:

    “Believe in God, trust in Christ, look with suspicion.”

    “If one does not believe in God, the only honest alternative is vulgar utilitarianism.
    The rest is rhetoric.”

    “The irreplaceability of the individual is the teaching of Christianity and the postulate of historiography.”

    “Because we know that God cares about the individual, let us not forget that He seems to care little about humanity.”

    “For God there are only individuals.”

    “Only for God are we irreplaceable.”

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