Saturday, 25 January 2014

How to save an atheist philosopher from suicide?

How do you save an atheist philosopher (AP) from suicide? Here’s how.

AP: Are you here to dissuade me from taking my life?

Me: No. Not really. I am actually here to know why.

AP: Why? You mean why I want to die?

Me: Yes, why? Tell me what led you to this day.

AP: That’s a strange question. I can’t escape today you know. It will come anyway. I can’t skip it, go around it or hide from it. So what led me to this day I guess is chronological inevitability.

Me: Erm…I know today as a day is inevitable. But what made you choose today as the day you take your own life?

AP: Well, it might as well be today rather than any other day because yesterday would be too soon and tomorrow too late.

Me: What gives then?

AP: Life, my friend, life gave up on me.

Me: Life gave up on you today?

AP: Yes, it did. I don’t see how I can live another day considering how life has given up on me.

Me: Wow, that’s profound. Tell me more.

AP: Do you know pain, my friend?

Me: (quiet)

AP: Pain of existence, the hollow experience, shallow and superficial. I have lived for long enough to know that all that is meaningless. It is a rut, a labor of futility, a drifting with no anchorage, a ghost without hope. So life walked out on me. It just left.

Me: So what’s next?

AP: End of life of course. End of what is causing so much pain. You end life, you end the pain.

Me: But isn’t that a permanent solution to a temporary problem?

AP: Ha! That’s a permanent solution to a permanent problem!

Me: But have you not experienced the other side of life? The joy, the love, the success, the hope?

AP: Are you for real? Are you deluded? Don’t you know that joy exists as a slave to sorrow, love is a prisoner of betrayal, success is a mirage for failure and hope is the drug that deluded being like you take to live another day so that you can be tortured again for another day.

Me: Wow, you make it sound like living is hell and death is heaven.

AP: Ahh…heaven. For now heaven to me is non-existence. That’s heaven!

Me: But isn’t non-existence non-existence?

AP: (squints)

Me: I mean why choose non-existence over existence when not existing means never knowing about knowing, never learning about learning, and never feeling about feeling. Doesn’t that make living more bearable? At least in living, you live. You know. You learn. You feel. In dying, you are nothing. Full stop. And please tell me the basis for your comparison between what you perceive as hell in living and heaven in dying? How do you tell the difference? You have not died before right?

AP: Mm…I see where you are going with all this. But still living is pain. Can you understand that? Now, it is not about the mindless tragedy or meaningless suffering in this world so much as it is about the pain of mere existence. This pain is intimately felt and very much subjective. It is what I’d call the beholder’s eye. The pain is in the eye of the beholder. You get it?

Me: Kind of get it. I recall a philosopher once said, “To be born in imbecility, in the midst of pain and crisis: to be the plaything of ignorance, error, need, sickness, wickedness, and passions…never to know where you come from, why you come and where you are going.” All that is life. You agree?

AP: Ahh…Diderot. You quoted him well…quite timely too. That pretty much sums up my sentiments about life. And I like the part about the plaything of ignorance, error, need, sickness, wickedness and passions. We are but puppets in their hands. The illusion of free will is itself an illusion to keep us always believing but never in control. Life plays with us the same way Hitler played with his generals or Stalin played with his ministers. And the greatest puppet master of them all is none other than that grand old man in the sky. He plays with us incessantly, unceasingly, ungenerously and he has all eternity to do it. 

Me: Well, I don’t think this is a time to talk about him right?

AP: Yes, yes, he might just tip the scale for me right here and right now.

Me: I see. But if religion of the divine is the cause of your ire, can I interest you with the religion of the community or humanity then?

AP: You mean John Donne’s no man is an island? Well, you do know that hell is other people too right?

Me: Jean-Paul Sarte…

AP: (nods and smiles)

Me: Yes, but the bell tolls for all of us, right? Death seeks and calls us all out. And time works with death in a deadlock of two intertwining barb wire to make sure that when it’s time, it’s time right?

AP: Mm…your point?

Me: What if, just what if, you go and your bell has yet to toll for you? What if you thought it tolls for you and you take it as your cue when it’s not? Wouldn’t that make it one ring and two deaths?

AP: Interesting…but strange. You do know that you are taking this metaphor too far? Anyway, let’s play along then. How do you know for whom the bell tolls? For all you know, it might be for me, exclusively, and I would be a damn fool to miss it.

Me: Well, aren’t we all fools to die in our own hands?

AP: I concede that. But living is no less foolish either, my friend. And tell me about the bell thing since you have made it ring in my soul. How do you know it’s not for me? What makes you so sure it tolls for another? This would be interesting. And I assure you this, if you can answer this, and answer it well, you might just save a life today…at least for now.

Me: But that’s not the point. The bell tolls for all. It rings after a death and not before. As such, the dead will not be hearing it. So it’s not about you or me. It is merely reminding us about death while we are still living. It is not calling us to take our own life. It is actually telling us to live and not die. If you hear the bell tolls, then you are still alive and someone’s dead. So, it never tolls for us at the time it is ringing. It is merely informing us that death has occurred. But it is not yours. Not ours.

AP: Mm…red herring my boy. You misled me with that bell tolling thing. John Donne would be turning in his grave. But I am beginning to see your point. I am closer to the guardrail now, away from the plunge. Tell me about the religion of humanity bit. Stoke my mortal candle in this silent, deathly wind.

Me: Let’s go back to Diderot then. You know that he rejected suicide right? He believed in choosing life notwithstanding its misery.

AP:  Well, he died in the hands of nature by a medical condition. That much I know.

Me: Yes, he said that death is an unnatural act. It is contrary to nature. He said that suicide is a rejection of our roles and responsibility in society. It is also a rejection of the duty to ourselves.

AP: To ourselves? What duty do we owe to ourselves except to make sure that we are reasonably happy. Didn’t Baron d’Holbach say that “suicide was so gleeful it was almost a giddy paean to the grave?” And how about David Hume who openly endorsed suicide when life becomes unbearable. To that, he said, “Tis the only way that we can then be useful to society, by setting an example, which if imitated, would preserve to every one his chance for happiness in life, and would effectually free him from all danger of misery.” Death is to be welcome my friend, for it is written, “To him who is fearless of death, there is no evil without a remedy.”

Me: But isn’t death the greater evil? What remedy then do we have against death?

AP: Death is the remedy!

Me: Death is the remedy to life but what is the remedy to death?

AP: Life I guess. But that’s all philosophical hogwash, semantic bull. Why would I even bother with life if it is death that I seek as the only way out? 

Me: What’s your hurry? Is death as an option ever going to be denied from you? Does it make any difference if you should exercise that option tomorrow or the day after tomorrow? And let these words by Herman Hesse be the cause of your procrastination, “All suicides have the responsibility of fighting against the temptation of suicide. Every one of them knows very well in some corner of his soul that suicide, through a way out, is rather a mean and shabby one, and that it is nobler and finer to be conquered by life than to fall by one’s own hand.”

AP: I have done my part in the conquest of life. I have fought it as valiantly as I could possibly fight it. In the end, I have come to a point of my struggle to lean on the side of death rather than life. So, maybe it is true that suicide is a rather mean and shabby way to die, but life is no less mean.

Me: Sir, you are not casting the net wide enough. How about your duty to humanity? It was Kant who said, “The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world.”

AP: Kant….ahh….Kant. That categorical imperative idealist. Most times, he casts a broken net. I think humanity owes me a duty to let me die.

Me: How about Chesterton? You heard of him right?

AP: He’s a brute of a man. A Christian apologist, a formidable one, and very fierce in logic. Minces no words I heard.

Me: Yes, he said that suicide is not a sin but the sin. It is the absolute evil, for refusing to take an interest in existence. He puts it better here, “When a man hangs himself on a tree, the leaves might fall off in anger and the birds fly away in fury: for each has received a personal affront.

AP: Mm…I recall a man once hung himself on a tree too. Didn’t Jesus commit suicide? For he said, “No man taketh my life from me, but I lay it down of myself.” Isn’t that a voluntary death? How do you preach to him then?

Me: Are you taking this path again? Do you want to talk about religion? You and I know very well why he chose death for life.

AP: Well, at least I know it was quite delusional. Even so, what if I tell you that I too have my reasons…although god knows, it is not about him. Or maybe it is…(musing)

Me: (shaking my head)

AP: Okay, I was just playing with you. It’s call the plaything of irony. Now, let’s go back to a religion of another kind, humanity.

Me:  You are a philosopher right? Surely you must respect Aristotle, Plato’s most enlightened student.

AP: (nods)

Me: He too rejected suicide. He wrote that suicide is an injustice to society since it is a form of larceny. It is stealing yourself away from others.

AP: Ha…you can’t steal something that is not worth stealing. There’s no crime in taking away discarded waste. What worth am I to this so called society who is more deluded than I am? Like Hume said, I will be setting an example here for the society. A very good one since you need to excise a cancerous growth before it mutates further and infects the rest of the organs.

Me:  Are all philosopher this grim? Or are you being morbidly sarcastic?

AP: (laughs) No, only the dying ones.

Me: Have you thought about your future self then?

AP: Future? My future was yesterday.

Me: Have you heard of Titus Flavius Josephus?

AP: Yes, that historian during Christ’s time. Quite great actually.

Me: Yes, he was a Jewish commander who had to face the Romans in July 67 C.E. The onslaught left thousands dead and Josephus and his men retreated into a cave and formed a pact…a suicide pact. One by one, they drew lots to establish who was to kill who first. This went on until two were left, Josephus and another. At this point, they decided to surrender to the Romans and the rest is history, written history. Josephus became an adviser to the Roman emperor, wrote many books, married several times and fathered many children. So, if Josephus’s life ended in the cave, that would be a most unfortunate end to a most illustrious and very productive future.

AP: (sigh) What is there left for me here? I am still in my cave…with you. Are we the symbolic two to walk out of this cave? (laughs)

Me: (chuckles) You know Ecclesiastes said, “Sadness hath killed many, and there is no profit in it.

AP: Mm…profit is very much a matter of perspective my friend. (thinking) But you may have push the right buttons with that future self thing…for now at least. Either that, or talking to you is tiring and I am preferring sleep now to death. Let’s hope I don’t sleep dreaming about it. Anyway, I guess there is such thing as what John Keats once pointed out, “the vale of soul making”.

Me: Vale of soul making?

AP: Yes, he explained that “we become something greater than ourselves if we live through difficulties.” That’s the vale of soul making.

Me: And Robert Frost did remind us that “the only way around is through.” And living through anguish can give a person uncommon depth.

AP: Well I don’t really know anything about uncommon depth. But talking to you can be quite uncommonly disturbing (pause). Here, I recall a line from King Lear, “Ripeness in all.” Maybe that’s what it is all about. Every circumstance we face is a crucible for growth. And pain is inevitable in this crucible but not death. In fact, in all things, life should be the default option. But still, the dread of living is no less dreadful. I fear that this momentary alleviation I feel is only momentary. Tomorrow, the dread will make sure I do it right and possibly without you.

Me: (smile) Have you heard of Sisyphus then?

AP: Yes, that poor man who offended Zeus and was punished to roll up a huge stone only to have it rolled down near the top of the hill and to have it rolled up and down again and again and again. That pretty much sums up the story of my life.

Me: Yes, but Sisyphus persevered nevertheless. He resisted suicide.

AP: He’s a myth my friend. In that screwed up world, they can do anything and still enjoy it, especially that sex-depraved, power drunk king of gods, Zeus. It kind of remind me of Hollywood.

Me: Yes, but you do know that that is not the point. Every myth uncovers a lesson right?

AP: Do I sense a Camus coming my way?

Me: Mm… (clears throat) he was the one who said that “suicide tempts us with the illusory promise of freedom, but the only real freedom is to embrace the absurdity.

AP: Embrace the absurdity?

Me: Yes, Camus encouraged us to imagine Sisyphus happy.

AP: Happy? All that meaningless ups and downs.

Me: I thought that was a myth?

AP: (squints)

Me: It is not so much about the task at hand but what fills a man’s heart. Camus writes that Sisyphus “is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.” That’s what it is all about. Are you stronger than your rock? Are we stronger than our rock?

AP: Sounds a tad too machismo for an old man like me.

Me: Isn’t the absurd man the master of his fate?

AP: Maybe. He is also insane and possibly a slave to it.

Me: You know what is insanity? Let me flesh it all out for you. This is how Schopenhauer describes life. This is rather long but really good. Bear with me. Here goes. “Many million, united into nations, strive for the common good, each individual on account of his own; but many thousands fall as a sacrifice for it. Now senseless delusion, now intriguing politics, excite them to wars with each other; then the sweat and the blood of the great multitude must flow, to carry out the ideas of individuals, or to expiate their faults. In peace, industry and trade are active, inventions work miracles, delicacies are called from all ends of the world, the waves engulf thousands. All strive, some planning, some acting; the tumult is indescribable. But the ultimate aim of it all – what is it? To sustain ephemeral and tormented individuals through a short span of life, in the most fortunate case with endurable want and comparative freedom from pain, which, however, is at once attended with ennui; then the reproduction of this race and its striving.

AP: Wow, an impressive summary of life, or of humanity as a whole.

Me: How’s that for a big rock of humanity? Is there anything more absurd than that?

AP: (gentle smile) Since you put it that way, maybe my rock is a little less insane than that.

Me: So, can we imagine Sisyphus happy? Even for that brief moment when he reaches near the summit, takes in the cool air, and then let it all go down in one swift, careless motion. In its descent, as he watches the rock roll down and crash onto the ground, he savors a moment of victory. And in that moment, in that brevity of time, he is happy. He’s happy to be alive. He’s happy that he’s not crushed by the rock. He’s happy to have done the job, for now. He’s happy to have embraced absurdity. He’s just happy.

AP: Mm…(chuckles). Embrace the absurdity...easy said. But not impossible I guess. (pause) Young lad, have you the time for a drink? Tell me about yourself. Do you believe in god? Now how does that work for you?


* Source: Stay by Jennifer Michael Hecht

* Image from

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