I want to consider the question of suicide and I think a good place to begin is with a quote from the French writer Albert Camus. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus writes, “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 is right. It is not that the suicide wants to die. It is rather that the suicide despairs of finding a reason for living. What can philosophy offer him by way of reply?
Before we answer this question in the affirmative, it would be wise to consider further why the suicide despairs of finding a reason for living where the reason, it should be added, is of the kind that the suicide can live, one, that is, that resonates in a strong ‘vitalist’ key.
The first claim the suicide can make is that the world is not and cannot be a home. The claim cannot be that he does not belong here (say, in New York), for if that were the case, then he would do well to move to, e.g., Boston or Vermont. Nor can the claim be that he does not belong to this family or workplace or social group for a similar reason: namely, because another more suitable family or workplace or social group might very well be suitable. Rather, the claim has to be that he cannot dwell in the world because the world, in some deep phenomenological sense, cannot be a home in which he can find his fit and dwell, in which he can belong, can just let be.
Let’s call this a “phenomenological claim” concerning one’s ill-at-homedness.
The second claim the suicide can make would be that he wants to lead a worthwhile life but no such life is possible full stop or possible for him. In the former case, the suicide adopts philosophical pessimism, the view according to which none of us has any reason for living and certainly no reason for reproducing. In the latter case, he makes an exception for himself, exempting himself from the human fold. That is, the fact that it is possible for others to lead fulfilling lives but not so for him may suggest to the suicide that there is something deeply the matter with him. Consequently, assuring him that this is not the case would hardly provide him with the consolation he needs since he is already convinced that others are so unlike him as to be living, effectively, in another moral universe and we happen to occupy the world from which he is estranged.
Let’s call this a “teleological claim,” a claim according to which there is and can be no final end toward which his life could be directed.
In light of either the suicide’s ill-at-homedness or his profound teleological pessimism, the only humane conclusion, it would seem, would be to appeal to medicine in general and to psychiatry in particular as the institutions of last resort. We must act on his behalf in order to save him from immediate harm. What good, after all, could reasoning with him do?
This will depend on whether the suicide is capable of self-reflection. If he is, then there is hope of the kind to be found in and offered by the philosophical life.
First of all, it must be impressed upon him that human life is the kind of thing that asks, as it were, to be brought into question. To claim this much is to claim that the lives of conscious beings–that is to say, of those beings who are capable of regarding their lives in the form of a question–is just the kind of activity we should undertake if we hope to live well in the first place. The oddity, we will want to inform him, is not that his life has been brought into question but that others have gone on as if living were the kind of thing best taken for granted. I do not say, the philosopher Robert Nozick relates, that the unexamined life is not worth living. I say only that the examined life is lived more fully. Yes, dear Robert, this is true.
Provided the suicide can learn to see life becoming a question in nobler terms, i.e., in terms of the grand epic of conscious human existence, it still befalls us to provide the rudiments of an answer to that question. For surely ours would be a tragic fate if our lot were to be only that of asking questions to which there could not possibly any reasonable answers. Absurdity indeed! Far better, it would be said, to remain bovine than to be an inquirer. Far better also to be a nihilist who says, muttering beneath his breath, “Well, why fucking bother then?”
It is here that a second logical point may open the suicide to further inquiry. The point here would be that the inference from the claim that this way of life is not suitable (in general or for him but doubtless the first) to the conclusion that life in general is not suitable is clearly invalid. From the claim that this way of life is unsuitable and from the claim that other ways of life (still) exist, it follows that some other way of life may be suitable.
The onus now falls on the philosopher to show that the suicide could live out some conception of a good life, i.e., a way of life that would be suitable for any good human life whatever. It seems to me that armchair reasoning has now reached its limits. For the suicide who acknowledges that life can be an object of inquiry and who also grants that some way of life could conceivably accommodate him is now hungry to be shown that this is so. It will not be enough, and rightly so, to grant that logical possibilities exist.
Perhaps only an exemplar could perform this lived demonstration and then too only by virtue of actually embodying a radiant way of being. The last may be misunderstood as saying that it is enough for the suicide to bear witness to the one who is, in his presence, leading a radiant life. But that may only make him feel as if he were the moon and the other the sun. The truth is that he wants to live, not merely to look on and experience secondhand. He does not want to be a hand-me-down, so to speak. Understood rightly, however, the philosopher, being radiant himself, is tasked with leading forth the suicide, with drawing him into a radiant way of life: yet drawing him not in a way that would run contrary to his will or his desires but in a way that would go according to the way. Furthermore, “leading him forth” does not imply “doing such and such for him” but bringing him walkingly alongside.
The suicide, in the presence of the philosopher, is learning about being radiant by participating fully in a radiant way of being. To be sure, it may seem ‘dim’ to him initially what exactly he is doing or why exactly he is doing this rather than that. Yet, if he is wisely guided, then he begins to feel an intimation that this way of life is not “out there” well and ever beyond his grasp but with him, within him, him, the best self that emerges as he learns to inquire further, as he continues to participate and partake and contribute more fully to a way of life into which he fits and in which he flourishes.
It is as if he has found himself for the first time such that the phenomenological sense of not-being-at-home and the teleological skepticism of not having a final aim have gone away, having receded slowly, having lost their shape and grip and fraughtness. They have gone away and are now visible far off in the distance, identifiable now as questions that are well at home in a previous way of life that has passed out of existence.
Indeed, one day it shall dawn on him that he is living an answer to the question of why one should live, and in so doing he is giving the only answer that could possibly be given. And that answer, just because it is so radiant, makes the question he once raised with such fervor come, from within this way of life, to seem almost silly. Once he arrives here with us, he and I and we spend quite a bit of time meditating and being silent and giggling.