Against Suicide: On Meaning and Suicide—Why Suicides Demonstrate that Life Has Meaning

“Romeo killed himself because he could not have Juliet. The meaning of life for him was to possess that woman.”[1]

Vladimir Solovyov

We sometimes hear people lament that life has no inherent meaning. After an anguished display of profound sadness, some such individuals commit suicide. One day they lament, the next day their blood is oozing, filling the voids of an un-vacuumed carpet. What once held life and meaning is now an empty token demonstrating empirically that no such meaning exists (or has ever existed). This seems to be the train of thought most depressed and suicidal individuals follow. They move from living a life of meaning to living a life of meaninglessness. And then they commit suicide. But is this really how things are? Do not people commit suicide precisely because they have discovered meaning? While this may, initially, not appear to be obvious, I think it is.

For years, I’ve read some of the most depressing and suicidal literature in the history of humankind. I’m talking about the writings of that melancholic Dane, Søren Kierkegaard. Moreover, I’ve also read Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. I’ve amused myself with the musings of Jean-Paul Sartre, Dostovesky’s characters in Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, and Immanuel Kant. Excepting the suicide-inducing characters of Dostoevsky, none of these philosophers have been able to really make an argument against suicide. What I mean to say is that I have not read anything that made me think: “Wow, I’ve never thought that before. I now want to live!” Usually, you read attacks on suicide and come away more depressed than ever.

Allow me to talk about Immanuel Kant’s views. Kant argued that human beings are bound to categorical imperatives. One such imperative, commonly known as the thought-experiment The Kingdom of Ends, articulates the idea that human beings are not “things” and cannot be treated as a means to an end. By committing suicide, a human individual is treating himself as a means to an end (i.e., a thing) and is also, by implication, willing for his action to become a universal maxim.

“He who contemplates suicide should ask himself whether his action can be consistent with the idea of humanity as an end in itself. If he destroys himself in order to escape from painful circumstances, he uses a person merely as a mean to maintain a tolerable condition up to the end of life. But a man is not a thing, that is to say, something which can be used merely as means, but must in all his actions be always considered as an end in himself.”[2]

While Kant is right, to an extent, his views make most sense in a perfect world. In a wretched place such as Earth, it is hard to find many suicidal people (if any) who would find his argument existentially convincing. Theoretically speaking, if I were ever suicidal, do me a favor and please do not read Kant to me!

And so, after years of reading literature on suicide, I’ve recently run into a lone-wolf philosopher who has written something (finally!) meaningful. And I hope that you, too, would share my sympathies. Vladimir Solovyov argued that those who commit suicide actually prove that life has meaning. How so? Well, the person committing suicide is, in retrospect, deeming his life meaningless due to a loss of meaning. The suicidal individual is actually the only individual who acutely knows and feels what it is like to live a meaningful life. Those who are suicidal are acutely aware of their loss of meaning. But in order for an individual to lose meaning one must have had meaning. A loss presupposes past possession. Given this state of affairs, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that suicidal people are some of the most meaning-driven people inhabiting our planet. These are individuals who seek meaning. In fact, they crave meaning so obsessively that they lose sight of meaning’s ever-changing reappearances. Meaning is something that reintroduces itself throughout the course of one’s life.

As a child, meaning (the noun) was identified with sucking on a lollipop. A few years later, meaning took the shape of another human being—be it a friend, girlfriend, or boyfriend. Years later, meaning took on another form. In old age, meaning can be rocking in a chair reading Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

In suicide, meaning is suspended. It is prevented from evolving. Meaning becomes static; it becomes frozen in time. Meaning is reduced to a non-evolving entity. It becomes a means to an end. It ceases to be something that changes, something that grows old with you. In essence, meaning becomes crucified.

Those of us who are suicidal have discovered just one form of meaning. Those who commit suicide due to a loss of a family member have crystallized meaning in the Other. Those who are suicidal have actually come to the epitome of meaning. They have come to a point in their lives where meaning becomes inextricably linked and made static in the Other. This is why Romeo’s suicide makes so much sense. Romeo lived because he had found meaning. He died because he lost that meaning.

And so, we now come to Solovyov’s point:

“Pessimists who are in earnest and commit suicide also involuntarily prove that life has a meaning. I am thinking of conscious and self-possessed suicides, who kill themselves because of disappointment or despair. They supposed that life had a certain meaning which made it worth living, but became convinced that that meaning did not hold good. Unwilling to submit passively and unconsciously—as the theoretical pessimists do—to a different and unknown meaning, they take their own life.”[3]

What is suicide, then? Suicidal thinking is the acute experience of an individual who has found—and then proceeded to lose—life’s meaning. It is the association made between meaning and some (possibly) external object taking on an unnecessarily static form. Once the object is frozen in space and time, loss of the object correlates to loss of meaning. However, if meaning is seen as an ever-changing “thing,” suicidal thinking becomes unnecessary. This is not to say that suicide is never an option; however, it is to say that many (if not all) suicides only serve to prove that life has meaning.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Vladimir Solovyov, preface to The Justification of the Good: An Essay on Moral Philosophy, trans. Nathalie A. Duddington (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005), xviii.

[2] Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Ethics, trans. Thomas Kingsmill Abbott, 2nd ed. (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1900), 56-7. Italics original.

[3] Solovyov, preface, xvii.

5 thoughts on “Against Suicide: On Meaning and Suicide—Why Suicides Demonstrate that Life Has Meaning

  1. I love this approach ❤ Wish depression wasn’t such a demon though.. So many people seem to lose all meaning after contracting this awful illness.. Almost makes it seem like making the choice to commit suicide is beyond their control. I work a lot with suicidal people and it seems to me ,more often then not suicide isn’t even their own idea, but rather something “the voices ” tell them to do. It’s so interesting too because normally people don’t commit suicide in their right mind.. It’s like a spit second, a crucial moment that they seem to loose control of everything. Something I would want to focus more on would be depression and why that happens..

    • There do indeed seem to be different types of suicide, with very different dynamics. The author points out one such type, a sudden or gradual loss of that which gave life meaning, leading to the taking of one’s own life because the meaning THAT WAS THERE had become so ossified that a new or different source of meaning became impossible to conceive.

      But the clinical depression-induced suicide seems to be another animal, one with which I have had too much experience. The trigger here is loss of self, loss of all ground upon which the ego might stand, which then turns into self-loathing, a desperate drive to destroy this hateful thing that one sees oneself having become, something TOTALLY UNWORTHY TO BE.

      Kierkegaard explores both types of suicide in Sickness Unto Death. The problem he sees in all attempted self-destruction is that the self, being a relationship with an essential eternal component, cannot die, cannot evaporate, but must inevitably return, willingly or unwillingly, to “the power that posited it.”

      Or as the bard put it: “To sleep…perchance to dream. Aye, there’s the rub.”

      • What you say about clinical induced depression is really interesting.. People that can fight through that kind of thing each day, are in my opinion, some of the strongest heros this world knows. What do you think about the idea of depression as a spiritual battle? I have heard that quite a bit from people but have mixed feelings. How much of depression do you think is mental, physical and spiritual?

  2. These are very deep questions, and I can only offer personal opinions that scratch the surface. I don’t think that clinical depression has a spiritual cause, It’s more likely, I believe, to be a genuine form of mental illness. Interesting, isn’t it, how we try to distinguish mental illness from physical illness. Take something as simple as pain, for example. Whether it’s caused by degenerative disc disease or MS or depression or PTSD, it’s ALL mental, an experience of the mind, a subjective sensation. Yet we try so desperately to divide pain into physical or mental categories and come up with very different treatment plans depending on how we categorize it. Medicines routinely used to treat “physical” pain are absolutely taboo in treating “mental” pain. The spiritual aspect of depression is as I think you have stated it, the heroic battle to merely be, to make it to the next day…or the next hour. It’s hard for most people to imagine unless they’ve been there or been very close to someone who has been there.There one is, lying in bed, unable to summon the strength and will to even brush one’s teeth and get dressed…wishing, hoping, praying to God that He in His mercy will take you from this relentless world of perpetual failure, unending weakness, self-loathing, where nothing can bring even the faintest glimmer of happiness, of hope, of dignity.The psychiatrists won’t tell us this, but they know the truth: a diagnosis of severe clinical depression, bipolar or uni-polar, is often the diagnosis of a disease as fatal as inoperable cancer.

  3. Yeah, holistic medicine is pretty much extinct in American culture but seems to be an integral part of less industrialized countries. I hate that it is often seen inferior to the “real”, ” scientific ” approach to medicine… I have never thought of pain in that way. Subjective?? I guess we humans like categories and labels to put things into which is why we separate mental and physical illness. It’s stupid though, the way there is so much stigma attached to being mentally ill. Is this because of religion?!
    I may be a bit too optimistic, but I hope you’re wrong about things like that being fatal and inoperable. We have got to be able to do something to help. Espessialy with the diagnoses for bipoler or depression on the rise like they are. Too many people hurting too much.

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