Julian Young on Schopenhauer on Suicide

In his concise introduction to SchopenhauerJulian Young notes he considered it “incumbent on any ‘ethical system’ to commit suicide.” Indeed, that Stoicism fails to do so, and indeed, even recommends it “in cases where  pain is intolerable”, is for Schopenhauer, proof of its “intellectual bankruptcy.”

Young rightly makes the obvious point: this seems like a strange view to be professed by someone who considers birth a terrible tragedy, existence a state of unmitigated misery. Wouldn’t such a conception our state of being entail a moral duty to bring this state of affairs to an end, to bring our consciousness to a merciful conclusion? (Yes, I know, this does sound a bit like Rust Cohle of True Detective.)

The problem is that the suicide is “ignorant of the truth of philosophical pessimism”; he has come to believe that his suffering is solitary; he has been picked out for a special dispensation of misery and pain; were he to be disabused of this notion and come to realize all around him are equally condemned, he would not count himself so unfortunate. As Schopenhauer pointed out:

We are not usually distressed at evils that are inescapably necessary and quite universal such as old age and death.

(On a related note, Montesquieu noted: “If we only wanted to be happy, it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, and that is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are.”)

Knowing the “universality of pain” makes a crucial difference: the potential suicide who is able to identify with the suffering of his fellow companions comes to realize  suicide is “futile”, an ineffectual attempt to cure an incurable affliction. More damagingly, as Young notes, it is “an act of extreme egoism, the most extreme failure of emotional identification with others, extreme lack of empathy. If I care equally about me and you…then my suicide is a complete irrelevance to solving the problem.”

Young then concludes:

There seems to me something insightful about this picture of the suicide as exceptionally self-obsessed; as someone who has become so isolated from the rest of the world that it seems to them that only their own pain matters, indeed that only their own pain exists. This is, I think, particularly true of men who commit suicide on account of business failures. The relative triviality of the motive requires that the suicide has become absolutely insensible to the vastly greater suffering of millions of others.

This condemnation of the act of suicide is interesting, of course, because the suicide’s death causes pain to others. Not just loved ones like fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, lovers, children, friends, but also those that might depend on him or her for aid and succor of all sorts: a doctor’s patients, a teacher’s students, a lawyer’s clients. The suicide might have realized all of this but perhaps have pressed on anyway, knowing his act will bring an end to the pain caused by this knowledge.

A broader point to be derived from this view of Schopenhauer (and Young) is also of interest: we are not isolated and alone, but inescapably linked to many others through a complex set of inter-relationships. We cannot coherently imagine our actions affect only ourselves; a diminution of us is a diminution of others.

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