“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.” 1
Albert Camus’ opening sentence to his work The Myth of Sisyphus, unmistakably emphasising the eminence of the topic at hand, is a fitting start to the thoughts and considerations to follow. For this sentence imbues the reader with an ethical dilemma: it confines suicide to the philosophical realm, thereby negating manifold alternate reasons which necessitate its rumination. How does one decide how to act if one’s reasoning is philosophically incoherent yet psychologically lucid? Or philosophically incoherent yet circumstantially logical?
In this essay I seek to trace the lines of suicide through small excerpts of literature from the past century which grasp the zeitgeist of post-war peace; a century in which individualism, elsewhere favourably labelled self-determinism, has been reproachfully dismissed as the crude fetish of several generations. Finally, in assembling the loose ends, I will seek to rethink suicide in times of technological advancement, consequently liberating it, as an autonomous act by a self-determined agent, from philosophical, moral and medical chains of restraint. Herein I will come to a different conclusion to Camus, and ultimately reject his call to refuse suicide2 on the basis of revolt: an individual’s perpetual confrontation with their own absurdity, which is in essence an eternal, futile search for clarity and worldly meaning of the human condition.3
“Consciousness and revolt, these rejections are the contrary of renunciation. Everything that is indomitable and passionate in a human heart quickens them, on the contrary, with its own life. It is essential to die unreconciled and not of one’s own free will. Suicide is a repudiation. The absurd man can only drain everything to the bitter end, and deplete himself. The absurd is his extreme tension which he maintains constantly by solitary effort, for he knows that in that consciousness and in that day-to-day revolt he gives proof of his only truth which is defiance […] One of the only coherent philosophical positions is thus revolt […] Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences which are my revolt, my freedom and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death — and I refuse suicide.” 4
Contemporary discussions on suicide are often limited to assisted suicide or euthanasia: (assisting in) ending the life of an individual suffering from a terminal somatic illness. It is commonly accepted that such a somatic illness liberates the individual from upholding the aforementioned responsibility — what difference do a few more weeks make? Envisioning a bedridden person gasping for breath and wincing with discomfort, I believe many will be able to identify with the words of Wolfgang Herrndorf, a German author diagnosed with glioblastoma (a very aggressive, incurable brain tumour) in 2010. He documented his last years on a blog:
“What I need is an exit strategy. With Cornelius I had already begun, but that was in times of mania, where I was completely sure that it could only be a weapon […] to be able to put it behind me not in a moment of desperation, but euphoria — and without problems. The condition was that no more than a tenth of a second could lie between decision and execution. Even a hand grenade wouldn’t have been possible. The fear of that three-second delay would have killed me. Likewise pills, with their protracted procedure of swallowing and waiting. For at no point did I want to die, nor do I want to die now. But the assurance of having it in my own hands was an essential part of my mental hygiene from the start. I find googling unspeakably difficult, a practical know-how nowhere to be found. Friends be informed: in case anyone knows of ways and means or is in possession of such things — the first MRI is on 21st June. By then I need something here. Whether I have the discipline to actually go through with it at the end is a different question entirely. But as I said, it is a matter of mental hygiene. I need to know that I am the master in my own house. Nothing more.
[…] Meanwhile, the solved exit strategy has such a resoundingly calming effect on me that it is unclear why my health insurance doesn’t pay for it. Globulins yes, bazooka no. Idiots.” (tr. MR) 5
Three years later Herrndorf decided to act upon this exit strategy. The epilogue to his blog was concluded with the following:
“Wolfgang Herrndorf did it how it should be done. At around 23:15 on Monday 26th August (2013) he shot himself in the head with a revolver on the bank of the Hohenzollern canal. He aimed at the brain stem through his mouth. The weapon’s calibre was 9 mm. Herrndorf’s personality had not changed as a result of the illness, but his coordination and spatial orientation were impaired towards the end. It was probably one of the last days on which he was capable of the act.” (tr. MR) 6
Suicide as a means to ending chronic suffering due to terminal somatic illness merely scratches at the surface of the discourse to follow. Yet even here, in the shallow waters of debate, public outcry against suicide is not uncommon. Arguments range from fears for the social climate — in that the acceptance of suicide initiates a ‘slippery slope’ for greater pressure on those not seeking to end their life, despite individual circumstances which may be deemed unworthy of continued life by others — to a cardinal opposition to anything besides natural, non-induced death. The latter can be traced back to the Christian doctrine of life as something that is given, datum, “over which we have the right of use, usus, but not governance, dominion.”7 These tensions shine a different light on Herrndorf’s plight. Do the arguments against suicide in the case of a terminal somatic illness such as glioblastoma constitute a universal philosophical, if not moral opposition to his act?8 An act which did not just alleviate his suffering in the final instance, but served as a pivotal aspect of his mental hygiene in his final years of life?
And Herrndorf’s case leads to another consideration: No matter how one may judge his decision, what about those suffering from an equally chronic and incurable, yet by no means terminal somatic illness? Or an illness not primarily somatic, but psychological? Or, extending the argument to the other extreme, an individual not suffering from an illness at all, but merely voicing a wish to die; a wish to be in control of oneself as a self-determined agent? There are no simple, universal answers to these questions. To inhabit this void the immanent nature of suicide requires reflection. Consider this passage from Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf:
“As every strength may become a weakness (and under some circumstances must) so, on the contrary, may the typical suicidal person find a strength and support in his apparent weakness; indeed, does so extraordinarily often. The case of Harry, the Steppenwolf, is one of these. As thousands of his kind do he found consolation and support, and not merely the melancholy play of juvenile fantasy, in the idea that the path to death was always open to him. It is true, as with all men of his kind, that every shock, every pain, every unfavourable predicament at once gave rise in him the wish to withdraw himself through death. Out of this tendency, however, he gradually fashioned himself a philosophy that was actually conducive to life. He gained strength from the idea’s familiarity that the emergency exit stood always open; it made him curious to savour his suffering and dire circumstances, and if he felt miserable he would sometimes experience, with a grim, malicious pleasure: ‘I am curious to see all the same just how much a person can endure! If the limit of what is bearable is reached, I have only to open the door to escape.’ There are many suicidal people onto whom this thought imparts an exceptional strength.” 9
Hesse’s protagonist inverts the negative connotation habitually associated with suicidality. In doing so, he liberates it from a long-standing societal taboo. Proceeding along these lines: is it not the very capacity for suicide that makes us human? Building upon ideas of Jean Améry, Edouard Levé and E. M. Cioran, Simon Critchley highlights the following:
“To be human is to have the capacity, at each and every moment, of killing oneself. Incarceration, humiliation, disappointment, disease — the world can do all of this to us, but it cannot remove the possibility of suicide. For as long as we keep this power in our hands, then we are, in some minimal but real sense, free.” 10
This capacity, this freedom, of autonomy’s jurisdiction to extend to the outermost seconds of life, namely death, is an innate part of humanity and thus consciousness. At this point it seems instructive to divert from a discussion solely on suicide as an inducer of death, to likewise consider death as such. In his seminal work Being and Time, Martin Heidegger reflects on ‘Dasein’ as Being-towards-death:
“The more authentically Dasein resolves — and this means that in anticipating death it understands itself unambiguously in terms of its ownmost distinctive possibility — the more unequivocally does it choose and find the possibility of its existence, and the less does it do so by accident. Only by the anticipation of death is every accidental and ‘provisional’ possibility driven out. Only Being-free for death, gives Dasein its goal outright and pushes existence into its finitude. Once one has grasped the finitude of one’s existence, it snatches one back from the endless multiplicity of possibilities which offer themselves as closest to one — those of comfortableness, shirking, and taking things lightly — and brings Dasein into the simplicity of its fate […] If Dasein, by anticipation, lets death become powerful in itself, then, as free for death, Dasein understands itself in its own superior power, the power of its finite freedom, so that in this freedom, which ‘is’ only in its having chosen to make such a choice, it can take over the powerlessness of abandonment to its having done so, and can thus come to have a clear vision for the accidents of the Situation that has been disclosed.” 11
Heidegger’s understanding of death brings the discussion of suicide as an inducer of death full circle.12 Accepting death as a possibility embraces the finitude of our existence. Thus Heidegger propagates a way of living in relation to the conscious prospect of the certainty of death, while simultaneously accepting an indefiniteness of its time point. Herein lies the meaning of the phrase anticipation of death. The value of this is highlighted by Heidegger’s use of the term ownmost possibility: In anticipating and ultimately accepting indefinite death, and thereafter, in light of this prospect, Being-towards-death, the integrity of an individual’s life is initially tangible. Death is the one aspect of life that cannot be delegated. For the same reason, it is the one aspect of life in which the totality of all of my possibilities and consequent undertakings can be given a finitude of meaning by myself; it is the one aspect in which I may appropriate the public meanings of all of my actions in an integrated and coherent way.13 This one aspect of life cannot be delegated to another individual. Consequently, as Heidegger claims, death individualises Dasein.
Being and Time was published almost a century ago in 1927. In this past century humankind has been obsessed with the overarching aim of technological advance. As a result we are now the first biological (organic) species that populates the face of the earth capable of creating a technological (inorganic) civilisation — and appear determined to do so.14 Regardless of whether this postulate is realistic or far-fetched, whether it arouses fear or excitement of the unknown; the constituents and conditions for life, and in particular death, are changing, with unprecedented consequences for suicide. Yuval Noah Harari briefly foreshadows this development in Sapiens:
“[According to the myth] when the gods created man, Gilgamesh had learned, they set death as man’s inevitable destiny, and man must learn to live with it […] Disciples of progress do not share this defeatist attitude. For men of science, death is not an inevitable destiny, but merely a technical problem. People die not because the gods decreed it, but due to various technical failures — a heart attack, cancer, an infection. And every technical problem has a technical solution […] True, at present we cannot solve all technical problems. But we are working on them. Our best minds are not wasting their time trying to give meaning to death. Instead, they are busy investigating the physiological, hormonal and genetic systems responsible for disease and old age. They are developing new medicines, revolutionary treatments and artificial organs that will lengthen our lives and might one day vanquish [death…] The leading project of the Scientific Revolution is to give humankind eternal life […] How long will the quest for immortality take to complete? A hundred years? Five hundred years? A thousand years? […] Nanotechnology experts are developing a bionic immune system composed of millions of nano-robots, who would inhabit our bodies, open blocked blood vessels, fight viruses and bacteria, eliminate cancerous cells and even reverse ageing processes. A few serious scholars suggest that by 2050, some humans will become a-mortal (not immortal, because they could still die of some accident, but a-mortal, meaning that in the absence of fatal trauma their lives could be extended indefinitely).” 15
The premise introduced through Harari’s discussion of the quest for eternal life engenders a paradigm shift with a bleak outlook: What if we are heading towards a future in which we must all choose the time and place for our own death? A future in which Camus’ demands ironically require infinite revolt ad absurdum; a future in which the Heideggerian anticipation of death is no longer innate, and thus fails to serve as a liberator from the ‘they’ 16 in favour of the eminent possibility of oneself as an individual — of one’s ownmost being. Hence, a future in which suicide is the only path to the ‘natural’ end17 of life, that has remained as the limiting constant for all of humanity’s biological past thus far, and is only now, in the potential wake of a technological civilisation, conceivably blocked. Must we oppose suicide? Or rather embrace it as our final freedom; as the last inducer of death?
The title of this essay is hereby acknowledged. If death’s certainty as a ‘naturally’ attainable end disintegrates, then an individual is no longer Being-towards-death. Yet if death remains the desirable, natural end to life, then this may only be reached for an individual Being-towards-suicide.
To conclude, the argument being made is not one which holds only if the premise of a-mortality is perceivable. Rather, it is the deliberation which this premise necessitates that is primarily of use, for it rescinds the aforementioned anticipation of death. By consequently distancing ourselves from the obsession around naturalis — death pertaining to nature — as the only point of reference for a legitimate inducer of the natural end to life, self-determination shifts into focus. Thus it is not a matter of finding a philosophically or otherwise coherent answer to the fundamental question of whether life is or is not worth living. It is another question that must be answered: Does the state have a right to override an individual’s basic convictions about the meaning and facticity of life and death?
I believe that the only point of relevance is the personal and autonomous wish to accept or else induce death at any given time. I sympathise with Herrndorf’s need for mental hygiene and the Steppenwolf’s utilisation of suicide as a personal aide imparting strength. Further, I agree with Critchley’s belief that the capacity for suicide is inherently human. This does not make suicide a necessity, for one is always free to choose, but legitimises it as an individual recourse. For any remaining doubt, let me conclude with this comment by Ronald Dworkin:
“Making someone die in a way that others approve, but he believes a horrifying contradiction of his life, is a devastating, odious form of tyranny.” 18
- Albert Camus — The Myth of Sisyphus (Penguin Modern Classics, 2000, translation by Justin O’Brien, p. 5) ↩
- Camus distinguishes between physical suicide, i.e., clinical death, and philosophical suicide, i.e., a ‘leap of faith’ embracing religious or other metaphysical ideas and hopes. I am referring to both forms here. ↩
- This is a stark simplification of Camus’ ideas, sufficing for the purposes of this essay. For a more detailed exposition I recommend both The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel as primary literature, or David E. Cooper — Existentialism: A Reconstruction (2nd Edition, Blackwell Publishing, 1999, pp. 139-144) and Introduction to Camus: The Absurd, Revolt, and Rebellion as secondary literature. ↩
- Albert Camus — The Myth of Sisyphus (Penguin Modern Classics, 2000, translation by Justin O’Brien, pp. 40-48) ↩
- Wolfgang Herrndorf — Arbeit und Struktur (Rowohlt Berlin, 2013, pp. 50, 79) ↩
- Ibid. p. 445 ↩
- Simon Critchley — Notes on Suicide (Fitzcarraldo Editions, London, 2015, p. 21) ↩
- In addition to the legal formalities which make a dignified suicide very difficult. ↩
- Hermann Hesse — Der Steppenwolf (Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt a. M., 1975, pp. 53-56). Note: the translation by Basil Creighton and Joseph Mileck has been used as a template here, although I have slightly altered certain parts for better readability. ↩
- Simon Critchley — Notes on Suicide (Fitzcarraldo Editions, London, 2015, p. 72) ↩
- Martin Heidegger — Sein und Zeit (Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen, 2006, p. 384). Note: the english translation by J. Macquarrie and J. Robinson has been used here (Blackwell, 1962) ↩
- For a detailed discussion of these concepts see David E. Cooper — Existentialism: A Reconstruction (2nd Edition, Blackwell Publishing, 1999, pp. 112-116 and 133-139) ↩
- Ibid. pp. 137-138. Here Cooper also quotes from Charles Guignon. ↩
- I discuss this in an earlier entry on isolatarium.org (1/2018 — ‘On the perils of an artificial superintelligent species’). ↩
- Yuval Noah Harari — Sapiens (Vintage, London, 2015, pp. 297-302) ↩
- The ‘they’: anonymous, communal character of society; the political and social conditions, the ready-made, widespread schemes of beliefs and values prevailing in societies, exerting power over an individual. See David E. Cooper — Existentialism: A Reconstruction (2nd Edition, Blackwell Publishing, 1999, pp. 109-116). ↩
- Disregarding the discussion on the possibility of afterlife for this essay. ↩
- Ronal Dworkin — Life’s Dominion: an argument about abortion, euthanasia, and individual freedom (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1993, p. 217) ↩
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.