Suicide

Life for many people is clearly not worth living,examples range from the elderly person wishing for euthanasia to the AIDS infected children of Romania.The situation of many alive today was mirrored by the situation founded by many in post-war Europe,where men ended up in a desolate landscape - where God is not only dead but buried.Men werre without hope that a better world would result from their efforts.The additional responsibility of forming a new society was neither wanted nor chosen- so the question 'why is life worth living - why not end it?' assumes a most important status. A.Camus captured this mood in his essay 'The myth of Sisyphus'.Here [F1] Sisyphus was condemned (as perhaps we all are) to do an useless and absurd task for all eternity(viz.rolling a stone up a mountain,at the summit the stone rolls back down,Sisyphus must roll it back up ad finitum).Sisyphus,like most of us(including I suspect politicians) will not make the world a better place nor will he make himself happy or even self-fulfilled.Camus suggests that this mirrors the human condition - it is pointless,absurd and cannot be justified in either religious or humanist terms.Camus suggestion as to why life is worth living is that it is in the recognition and willed acceptance of his absurd fate that this is itself transcended. I have mentioned the absurd - Camus has an interesting distinction to make [F2],that between feeling of the absurd and the notion of the absurd. The feeling of the absurd arises in many ways,the indifference of nature to human life(eg.Armenian earth-quake),the realisation of death,the pointlessness of daily life and its monotonous routine-all of which reveal the iuselessness of daily life.This feeling of the absurd is different to the notion of the absurd although it is its foundation - the conviction of the absurd belongs to the sphere of clear consciousness,which is essential to the very existence of the absurd.The absurd does not exist in the human mind alone, nor alone in the extra-mental world but in their presence to one another- destroy one of these terms and the absurd is destroyed.The absurd ends with death.The absurd cannot exist apart from man,it is through him it originates- the world is simply irrational.One can say that to Camus,the world and human life appear to be absurd once therir irrational and meaningless char acter is clearly perceived. To say, as Camus does[F3],that suicide is the only really serious philosophical problem,is I feel,certainly on the face of it an rather odd conception of the subject.However the pressuppostion upon which this assertion is based is not as odd-man desperately seeks meaning both in the world and in life and history which would form a basisi for his ideas and values.He needs reassurance that his life is part of a process which is directed to an ideal goal.The great religious and metaphysical systems of the world have tried to supply this need,these however cannot stand up to criticism(result of a lack of faith or verificationism).The end result is that the world is revealed without meaning.The world simply is.Some philosophers understand the absurd,but pursue a policy of escapicism eg. K.Jaspers[F4] leaps from human belongings to the transcendental.The man who is able to look the absurdity of human existence in the face,who sees the meaning of life disappear is still faced by the question of suicide.Camus believes[F5] that suicide is not an adequate response to the feeling of the absurd.Suicide supresses one of the two poles which produce the absurd i.e. the human being,the other being the world.Suicide is an admission of incapacity and this is incosistent with human pride,to which Camus openly appeals.According to Nagel[F6],arguments for absurdity insist that the reasons which are available within life are incomplete,from this it is suggested that all reasons which come to an end are incomplete- which makes it impossible to give any reasons at all.Life is not a series of actions,which each action having its purpose revealed by a later member of the sequence. Their points of justification will come repeatably to an end withing a person's life.The process on a broader universal scale has no bearing on the finality of thses end points.There is no need for a larger context to prevent these acts from being pointless,justifications have to come to an end somewhere. If there is to be a philosophical sense of the absurd,it has to arise from something which is universally perceived.This condition is supplied between the different viewpoints viz.the seriousness with which we regard our lives and the perceptual possiblity of regarding everything which we are serious as arbitrary.Absurdity results when the two viewpoints collide.It is absurd as we deliberately choose to ignore all the doubts which cannot be settled,we take our lives seriously despite the absurd.Nagel despite asserting that arguments usually used for absurdity are inadequate,does believe that such reasons are trying to express something which is diffficult to state but is fundamentally correct.Nagel[F7] does require defence on two counts,he has to show that seriousness is unavoidable,and that doubt is inescapable.Despite our aims,no matter how humble,in life we take ourselves and other people seriously and devote most of our energy and time to the pursuit of our lives. Because we are human we have the capacity to take a step back and reflect on this process,it is the result of self-consciousness.We have the capacity to step back and survey ourselves with the capacity for detachment with which we can watch the struggle of an ant. The crucial backward step is not taken by looking for another justification and failing to get it,as we have already seen justifications come to an end somewhere.Our absurdity lies not in the external view which can be taken of us,but in that we ourselves can take such a view without the extinction of being the person we are viewing.A person could attempt to escape from this position by seeking aims nroad enough to make this stepping back impossible (e.g. service to state,religion,even to the revolution)- the idea behind this is that absurdity resluts when what we take seriously is small, insignificant and individual.One problem with this is that the larger role must be itself significant,in order for significant be conferred,and this larger role can be doubted in the same way as the life of the individual. It would seem that once this fundamental doubt has been started,it cannot be stopped. Nagel[F8] is critical of Camus in that the world might satisfy Camus's quest dor meaning if it was in some way different,unfortunately this is impossible.Doubt would occur in any conceivable world which contains things capable of self-consciousness,consequently the absurd arises in opposition to Camus from a collision of viewpoints within ourselves. An objection to Nagel[F9] would be that his viewpoint does not exist,this is however to misconceive the nature of the backward step.Its purpose is not to give us an understanding of what is really significant,thus revealing the absurdity of our lives.Normally we judge a situation to be absurd when we are conscious of some standards of seriousness with which the absurd can be contrasted.This contrast is not implied by philosophical judgement ,as such judgement is dependent on another contrast which makes it a natural extension from more ordinary cases. Nagel[F10] then contrasts the absurd with epistemological skepticism. There are four parallels between the two,first the final doubt is not contrasted with any unchallenged certainties;our limitations is combined with a capacity to transcend those limitations in thought,both can be reached via initial doubts raised within systems of evidence and justification;both influence the attitude to our beliefs,they change in that they are now coloured with irony(this colouration offers no escape from the absurd). Something more basic the reason and action sustains us- we continue to live our lives when we have no reasons.If we relied entirely on reason our lives and beliefs would collapse.When we take the backward step as we become the ineffectual spectators of ouw own lives-ineffectual as we continue to live them just as before,we devote ourselves to that we view as an curiosity. This explains why the sense of absurdity finds its natural expression in the bad arguments used by Camus and others.They act as an metaphorial expression of the backward step.By taking this step we illustrate the capacity to see ourselves without presuppositions,as arbitrary,one of the countless forms of life.Only humans have the capacity for the sense of absurdity,as only man as the capacity of self-conscious. Is it possible to avoid a sense of absurdity by trying to avoid the backward step? There are four alternatives[F11]. First one would have to avoid any of the self consciousness involved(as we cannot consciously refuse to do that, he would be aware of the position we were refusing to adopt) by neither attaining it or forgetting it,both of which are impossible by will power. Second,the other component of the absurd can be destroyed by renouncing ones earthly life in order to identify as closely as possible with the universal viewpoint(this is the aim of the atheistic buddhist religion).If you are successful your superior awareness will not have to be carried though the grind of mundane life -absurdity will be diminished.This result is often the result of many years exertion of will power,which means that you must take yourself seriously,the danger here is that you might undermine the aim of unworldliness by pursuing it to vigourously. Third,one could allow ones animal nature to drift,only responsive to impulse, without making the pursuit of its needs a central conscious aim.Here at a considerable disassocative cost less absurdity in life might result,although such a life would be meaningless.Here a transcendental awareness is not needed(this is the main condition of absurdity - the forcing of a unconvinced transcendental consciousness into the service of a very limited enterprise viz.human life). Lastly, there is suicide.Camus approaches the absurd as some sort of problem which is waiting for a solution which must be found.Camus rejects suicide and urges defiance as a solution,although this does not reduce absurdity it does lent it a certain nobility.Nagel believes that this response is both romantic(in a derogative sense) and slightly self-pitying.It is an over reaction as absurdity warrants neither as much lamination nor defiance as Camus suggests. The sense of the absurd need not be a matter for all this emotion unless we make it so.A dramatic attempt of defiance betrays a failure to understand the cosmic unimportance of the situation.If there is no reason to believe that anything matters then absurdity itself does no matter,our approach to our absurd life is one of irony not despair. In this essay I have tried to show how two differing conceptions of the absurd arises and how one can react differently.On the whole,I agree with Nagel,however I feel one's reaction to the absurd will differ with one's mood and circumstances and thus there should be room for defiance.

* Footnotes *

[F1] Page 107-111 in The Myth of Sisyphus (penguin,London 1955) by A.Camus

[F2] Page 32,op.cit.

[F3] Page 11,op.cit.

[F4] Page 516, The Philosophy of K.Jaspers(LOLP,Tudor press,N.Y.)

[F5] Page 53-55 Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus

[F6] Page 12,in Mortal Questions(Cambridge Universirty Press,Cambridge 1979) by T.Nagel

[F7] Page 14, Nagel op.cit.

[F8] Page 17,op.cit.

[F9] Page 17,op.cit.

[F10] Page 18,op.cit.

[F11] Page 21,op.cit.

N.B. There is no bibliography.

© Ian Jordan (1990)

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