Philosophical Reflection on Suicide

Courage to Be Even When Life is Unbearable

By Yeremias Jena, M.Hum

If there were truly serious philosophical problem to be addressed, it must be suicide, at least for Albert Camus. Writing on the book of On Suicide, Albert Camus put it blatantly, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question in philosophy” (as quoted in Georgia Noon, “On Suicide”, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 39, No. 3, Jul. – Sept., 1978, p. 371). Although pre-existing stage of life where the soul enjoyed its immaterial state before being prisoner in the body is seen as an ideal state of being, decision to liberate one’s soul through suicide is denied by Plato as an ideal exit of the soul. The question whether the life is or not worth living has been confirmed by Plato, by saying that continue or not to live in “prison” (soul in the body) is not an individual prerogative decision. Just as a slave was a possession of his master, man was a possession of God (Zeus). Man has to please God as a slave pleases his master. Suicide is seen as a prodigal act where the slave or the prisoner open the door himself and run away from his master. Prior to drinking the fatal hemlock prescribed by his judges, Socrates says to his friends, “A man should wait, and not take his own life until God summons him, as he is now summoning me” (Plato, Phaedo, 62).

Whereas Plato had justified voluntary suicide under mitigating circumstances, Aristotle rejected any exceptions. If not ordained by the state, suicide was an unjust, cowardly act of disrespect and social irresponsibility. It was a sin against the state. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle asserted, “He who through anger involuntarily stabs himself does this contrary to the right rule of life, and this the law does not allow; therefore he is acting unjustly. But towards whom? Surely towards the state, not towards himself. . . . This is also the reason why the state punishes; a certain loss of civil rights attaches to the man who destroys himself, on the grounds that he is treating the state unjustly” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. V, Ch. 11, in The Works of Aristotle II, trans. W.D. Ross, Great of the Western World, 9 [Chicago, 1952], p. 386).

Again the question whether life is or not worth living was answered affirmatively, one by referring it back to God as the source of life, and another put it in the context of quasi-organic and natural process of the development of a city state as a “guarantor” to achieve happiness given the fact that the process of forming a village or a state is an urgency of any rational and political being (Aristotle, The Politics, Ch. 1/1252a1-Ch. 2/1253140). But how if escaping one’s life from oneself is not seen as a prodigal act? How would you argue if it is occurred in a community or state where people suicide himself for the reason of his freedom or rationality? Aristotle seemed to provide limited answer other than the original condition that suicide destroy the whole project of attaining good life.

Jean-Paul Sartre forced us to think the theme very seriously when he illustrate the concept of existential choice with an image of a man posed on the edge of a cliff, looking down into a dizzying abyss. Without bothering himself with the anxiety of the result of his deeds, man has to decide for him, to jump and perish or to go in living. Man has to pass through this cathartic experience where at the end he find himself recite the credo of existentialists: “He is free to be or not to be” (Georgia Noon: 1978, p. 371). Consequently, suicide for existentialists represent the ultimate liberty. It is a private act when a person decides what to do to his own life in a most liberal way.

Suicide as a private rational and liberal act as perceived by Sartre somehow has echoed ethical stand of stoic philosophers. Stoicism aimed at teaching human being to be virtuous in term of living a rational life according to nature, be it the affinity to the rationally ordered of the universe or live a life in accordance with one’s nature. In the context of affinity both to one’s nature and the nature of the universe and a free willing decision to avoid vices, a virtuous man will not bother himself either from evil (vices as corruption of reason) or indifferent element that neither contribute nor attract him from a happy life. In a society where rational life has been denied or where evil is reign, virtuous man may find a real obstacle to be virtuous in such a way that suicide would be considered as a rational way out to liberate one’s life from this fate is suicide. Since suicide for stoic philosophers belong to indifferent element, it is not morally unjust or evil; on the contrary, it provided an honorable exit for a virtuous man faced with intolerable circumstances.

Epictetus, one of the proponent of stoicism, once gave counsels to those who complain against the hardship of life, wrote, “Remember this: the door is open; be not more timid than little children, but as they say, when the thing does not please them, ‘I will play no longer,’ so do you, when things seem to you of such a kind, say ‘I will no longer play,’ and begone: but if you stay, do not complain” (Epictetus, Discourses, Bk. I, Ch. 24, trans. George Long, in the Discourses of Epictetus, Great Books of the Western World, 12 [Chicago, 1952], p. 129). Marcus Aurelius made it more thrilling when he said, “If the house is smoky … quit it. Why dost thou think that this is any trouble?” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Bk. V. 29, in Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, trans. George Long, in the Great Books of Western World, 12 [Chicago, 1952], p. 273). Or more cool and stoical, Aurelius said, “A cucumber is bitter.—Throw it away. … If thou art pain by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs thee, but thy own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now” (Ibid, pg. 289). Continued Aurelius, “Depart at once from life, not in passion, but with simplicity and freedom and modesty, after doing this one laudable thing at least in this life, to have gone out of this thus” (Ibid, p. 298).

***

The question whether life is or not worth living is being addressed by positioned man in his radical freedom to treat his own life. We can smelt the odor of the death at the hand of the stoics, but it was unimportant. For them, the most important thing is the way of dying, which is “decently, rationally, and with dignity” (Georgia Noon, “On Suicide”, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 39, No. 3, Jul. – Sept., 1978, p. 375). Stoic philosophers had made an existential choice as Sartre imagined for. They chose to jump into a dizzying abyss; they have chosen to end the life in simplicity, freedom, and modesty. They had proven themselves as virtuous men, lived a life without passion, and in one’s arrogance, desired to foster happiness and to avoid pain even into the kingdom of death.

Liberalist thinkers or stoic philosophers might think to undressed the hysteria and thrilling face of suicide. But even when the criticism against suicide has been liberated from Christians’ notion of the Divine authority of God, existentialist or stoic’s imagination of suicide is still problematic. Three counter arguments could be provided here. First, in line with Kantian approach, if suicide were considered as rational and ethical decision, it should be meant as a maxim for the whole rational being. But in fact it will never goes beyond a personal choice which is not free in itself. I totally agree with Kant to consider suicide as an abuse of free will is such a way that responsibility to one’s own body as necessary condition is denied as if it is not an important element to achieve good life. Stoics and liberal thinkers denied the very fact that body or better corporeal dimension of human being is not only sufficient but necessary condition to realize happiness, and part of it is to accept body’s or circumstances’ calamities and misfortune while trying to look for its improvement. (Kant wrote it beautifully in Kant Lectures on Ethics, “…our life is entirely conditioned by our body, so that we cannot conceive of a life not mediated by the body and we cannot make use of our freedom except through the body” Quoted from the Course Material of Master of Bioethics, 2011).

Second, suicide as a way out to liberate one’s life from certain circumstances where affinity of will and act to universal law and order is impossible should not be considered as a liberation as such. Except for those who imagine that suicide is an exit in order to enter into a “new life” where the body and the soul are united to pursue and to realize happiness—which is impossible outside the context of Christian parousia—rest of us will still consider it as irresponsible act, not only to one’s own life, but also to the family and society. As Christian (Catholic), I would value my life as a “gift” in which the freedom and free will being granted by the Giver of Life enables me to live my life responsibly. Part of my responsibility is to build the world justly and not to flight from it as did the stoics. And part of my responsibility is also to exercise my free will not in a unending tension between “to be or not to be” as perceived by Sartre, but rather a “courage to be” as understood by Paul Tillich (through his book entitled The Courage to Be, 1952, Tillich tried to addressed the anxiety about death, moral finitude, and existential finitude, where courage to be based on Christian faith may help one to cope with his unbearable life). After all, my life will be colored by my courage to be, even when the circumstances is unbearable, since there is always light of hope to liberation.

Third, after all life is too precious to be sacrificed for any project of reason. The fact that common people value their life and preserve it from destruction and death more than being indifferent has shown its preciousness at the first hand. It is more natural and fit to our common sense than the imagination of suicide. Even if I were posed on the edge of a cliff and looking down into a dizzying abyss, I would not jump because I love my life, I am still a free man who is willing to chose to continue to live rather than ending it, and by continue to live, I accept my corporeality and circumstances as necessary condition to realize my potentiality. Happiness comes when my potentiality has been realized, never at once, but as unending process towards death.[]

REFERENCE

Georgia Noon, “On Suicide”, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 39, No. 3, Jul. – Sept., 1978.

W.D. Ross (trans.), Great of the Western World, 9, Chicago: 1952.

George Long (trans.), Discourses of Epictetus, Great Books of the Western World, 12, Chicago: 1952.

Thomas Joiner, Why People Die by Suicide, Harvard University Press, USA: 2005.

(Nijmegen, Netherlands, 17 Januari 2011. Yeremias Jena, M.Hum, Lecturer at Atma Jaya School of Medicine, Jakarta, Indonesia. Email: yeremias.jena@gmail.com)

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