Suicide, meaning and the now

If there is any philosopher who is famous for contemplating suicide, it’s the French philosopher Albert Camus, who proposed that, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.”

Which could be translate to something like; the answer you give to the question why you don’t commit suicide, must be that which gives your life meaning.

Simone de Beauvoir, another French philosopher, who was much less famous for her views on suicide than Camus, gives a more active interpretation: “Change your life today. Don’t gamble on the future, act now, without delay,” implying that we might only get one life, so let’s treat it as a gift and make the most of it.

Both Camus and Beauvoir show that their existential answers aren’t so far removed from the Stoics– a fascinating case of philosophical convergence, two millennia apart. The existentialists and Stoics are notorious for being at loggerheads on many issues. Yet on this point they seem to meet.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus provides a more direct answer. Suicide is ethically acceptable, but only under extreme circumstances. He uses a famous analogy, with a house on fire, full of smoke: “Don’t believe your situation is genuinely bad – no one can make you do that. Is there smoke in the house? If it’s not suffocating, I will stay indoors; if it proves too much, I’ll leave. Always remember – the door is open.”

The choice is up to you: if you truly think the situation is unbearable, the door is open. But if you stay, you accept the responsibility of doing whatever it takes to live a life worth living.

In book II of the Discourses, Epictetus is told that a friend is starving himself to death, a common form of suicide in ancient times. He rushes to him and offers support, but discovers that the friend is letting himself die for no good reason at all.

Meaningfully, Epictetus then says: “If your decision is justified, look, here we are at your side and ready to help you on your way; but if your decision is unreasonable, you ought to change it.”

And what counts as a reasonable decision? The Stoics, practical philosophers that they are, tell us by example. Zeno, the founder of the school, let himself die of starvation because he was too old, fragile and dependent on others to be able to contribute any more to society; Cato the Younger, the archenemy of Julius Caesar, committed suicide in order not to be used as a political pawn by the tyrant; and Seneca tells us of an unnamed slave, captured after a battle, who decided that death was preferable to slavery.

“No one knows when our time is up. But precisely because we don’t know when life is going to end, the Stoics say that we should live every moment to the fullest, engaging our life in the here and now.”

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross a Swiss-American psychiatrist, a pioneer in near-death studies and the author of the groundbreaking book On Death and Dying, agrees on this point with the Stoics, “It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth – and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up, we will then begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.”

But there is a positive flip side to this coin: what makes a life worth living is being useful to others, trying to make the world a better place, our relationships with people we love, and our freedom as moral agents.

So long as we have those things, even in limited measure, we stay. And the very fact that there is an open door is a guarantee of freedom for the Stoics. It’s the reassuring knowledge that, if things are really unbearable, you can walk out. As Seneca put it, liberty is as close as your wrists.

No one knows when our time is up. But precisely because we don’t know when life is going to end, the Stoics say that we should live every moment to the fullest, engaging our life in the here and now.

If we do things that we don’t enjoy, or are not important, we are wasting the only resource for which people cannot possibly pay us back: time. As Seneca puts it: “Hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon tomorrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by.”

Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor, agrees: “A limit of time is fixed for you, which if you do not use for clearing away the clouds from your mind, it will go and you will go, and it will never return.”

So, the answer to Camus’ question is the one given by Epictetus: no, you shouldn’t commit suicide so long as you are up to do what Marcus called the job of a human being.

That which the Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, in his ‘The Emperor’s Three Questions’, writes: “Remember that there is only one important time and it is Now. The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion. The most important person is always the person with whom you are, who is right before you, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future? The most important pursuit is making that person, the one standing at your side, happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life.”

Stoics and existentialists agree that meaning in life does not come from the outside; it is constructed by you as the creator of your own meaning. Therefore, the decision as to whether to commit suicide or embrace your life as worth living, is entirely yours.

Joseph Campbell, agrees with this understanding, “Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it. The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be. Being alive is the meaning.” And Viktor E. Frankl expands on this, “For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”