Albert Camus was a stoic

operations: Article - 11/4/06

A really serious philosophical problem

Ralf Stoecker

Philosophical reflections on suicide.

From: procedure number 175, (issue 2/2006), pp. 4-23

"There is only one really serious philosophical problem: suicide." Albert Camus' book "The Myth of Sisyphus" begins with this sentence, "Everything else - whether the world has three dimensions and the mind has nine or twelve categories - comes later." 1
Camus is right that it is important to think about suicide philosophically, more importantly than about the dimensions of the world or the categories of the mind. What he is wrong, however, is that suicide is a really serious philosophical problem. As the following text will show, the possibility of killing oneself raises a number of philosophical problems.
Since this article was originally about my inaugural lecture at the University of Potsdam, the text is less of a summary than of a programmatic character. He is concerned with questions and difficulties that require a philosophical preoccupation with suicide, not so much with the corresponding answers

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Philosophical inquiries usually begin with words. Unlike Camus' translator, I'm talking about "suicide", not "suicide". The word “suicide” is, as the philosophers say, a “thick concept”, a thick term that not only has a descriptive side, but also an evaluative one. Just as a 'lie' is not just an untrue statement, but one to which something can be criticized, it is also a murder and accordingly a suicide, not just any act of killing, but a reprehensible act of killing. But since the question of the reprehensibility of suicide is precisely one of the philosophically controversial topics, one should not prejudice it by the choice of words. The same applies to the word “suicide”, which goes back to Nietzsche, only that here the judgmental connotation is positive. The expression “suicide”, which is a modern word creation from the Latin sui cedere, to kill oneself, avoids this valuation, it only describes the act without judging it.
However, not every suicide should be labeled a suicide. Someone who eats a toadstool without knowing it and dies from it, or who is electrocuted while tinkering with an electrical outlet, does not commit suicide. Even someone who consciously takes the risk of being killed does not commit suicide. Rather, suicide involves the intention to take one's own life through the act. Suicide is intentional suicide.
The fact that someone kills himself on purpose does not mean, however, that death itself has to be the aim of the action, that which is important to the person. One can also intend one's own death as a means to an end, for example to spare oneself pain, to save other people, to avoid shame, to take revenge on enemies, to stir up the public, etc. They are correspondingly diverse Suicides themselves: starting, for example, with colleagues, neighbors, relatives who suddenly take their own life, through those severely disabled by an accident or illness who no longer want to go on living, the terminally ill who want to spare themselves the suffering of the last phase of death , the honorable one who kills himself to save face, the partisan who bites the cyanide capsule before he is captured, the political prosecutor who wants to set a beacon with his death, the gunman who ends up doing it himself judges himself, the kamikaze aviator or suicide bomber, for whom it is important to drag others with him to their death, up to the martyr who gives his life for a Change people, his beliefs or some other good cause. They all fall under the definition of suicide.
It's a good, interesting question if they all have more in common than just the fact of suicide. In the following, however, I will mainly focus on those suicides that we think of spontaneously when we hear the topic and that most of us probably know from relatives or friends, people who take their own lives because they no longer want to go on .
Such a suicide is a problem in many ways. It is a problem for other people, because usually there are relatives who mourn the dead, who are unhappy that he is no longer there, who may also wonder whether they could have done anything about it, whether they did something wrong who blame each other. Some suicides were also receiving psychological or psychiatric treatment; so that therapists can also wonder if they have failed.
Suicides are also seen as a problem at the social, state and intergovernmental level, for example there is an international day of suicide prevention, a European Network for Suicidology. Doctors, psychologists and social researchers deal intensively with suicide, its frequency, the risk factors, correlations with psychological and physical characteristics and, of course, with the possibilities of reducing the individual suicide tendency. Forensic doctors and statisticians are looking for ways to differentiate suicides from crimes or accidents, etc. 3
So suicide is a problem in many ways - but how is it a philosophical problem? That is the question I want to address in my post. It will first show that at least four different philosophical questions about suicide can be asked, which can be put in a somewhat striking form:
1. Do you have to commit suicide?
2. Is it allowed to commit suicide?
3. Do you want to commit suicide?
4. Can you commit suicide?
In the main part of my text, I will introduce and explain these four questions one after the other, some of which may seem strange at first glance. In the end, I would then like to try to say something about the possibilities and directions as to how they could be further explored.

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Philosophical inquiries usually begin not only with words but also with a look into the past, for most philosophical problems have a long history behind them when we address them. This also applies to the philosophical preoccupation with suicide. 4
Historically, however, suicide was initially not a problem, but a solution. He allowed people to honorably save themselves from otherwise shameful situations. Even the first prominent suicide in our Greco-Roman tradition was of this kind. Ajax, the most powerful warrior of the Greeks before Troy behind Achilles, had made a fool of himself in the competition for the weapons of the slain Achilles. When he noticed this, he threw himself on his sword and thus saved his honor. Ajax ’death stands for a multitude of other suicides in Greek and Roman antiquity, which were by no means portrayed as contemptible, but often presented as exemplary. The female counterpart to Ajax was the Roman Lucretia, who stabbed herself out of shame about being raped. Another outstanding example, which was also mentioned again and again, was the exemplary Roman Senator Cato, who had fought for a long time against Caesar, finally lost and then killed himself with the sword, incidentally only after reading a little in Plato's dialogue Phaedo .
So there was a highly stylized image of dignified, honorable suicides in Greco-Roman antiquity, in which the suicide represented the appropriate, even the only appropriate reaction to certain dramatic life situations. Theoretically, this image found its echo in the philosophy of the Stoics. There are already impressive suicide stories about the early Greek founding fathers of the Stoa. Zenon is said to have taken a broken finger as an opportunity to kill himself completely, and Kleanthes allegedly continued a fasting diet that was initially due to illness until he died of starvation. The later Roman Stoics, above all Lucius Annaeus Seneca, had the greatest influence on the history of suicide.
Death and suicide are common themes in Seneca's writings. In a lesson letter to a friend he wrote, for example: "To die faster or slower is irrelevant, to die decently or shabbily is essential" (Ad Lucilium, ep. 70.6) .5 For the Stoics it was not important that one lives, but rather how to live. And from their point of view there were circumstances under which only the death of one's own choosing could save one from a shoddy life. Therefore Seneca writes a little later in the same text:
“You will also find teachers of philosophy who deny that one should do violence to one's own life and declare it blasphemous to become one's own murderer [] Whoever says this does not see that he is closing the way to freedom. The eternal law has done us nothing better than that it has given us a single entrance into life, many exits. Should I wait for a cruelty or a human illness, although I am able to go outside through the torments and push aside repulsive things? That is the only thing about which we cannot complain about life: no one can hold it ”(ibid. 70.14-15).
As is well known, Seneca himself chose this route into the open at the end of his life, albeit not entirely voluntarily, but on the orders of Nero, who suspected him of a conspiracy and therefore ordered him to kill himself. And he did not succeed in it quite as quickly and easily as he had repeatedly propagated in his writings. Only after opening his wrists and swallowing poison in vain did he finally suffocate himself in the steam room.
The stoic thesis that suicide is an essential element of human freedom because it allows us in principle to get out of an unpleasant or humiliating existence at any time, continues through further philosophical reflection on suicide to this day. For example, at the end of the 16th century, Michel de Montaigne took Seneca's thoughts almost verbatim when he wrote in one of his essays:
“[] It is said that [] the gracious gift of nature, which removes any reason to complain about our lot, is that it has given us the key to the way out into the open. It provided only one entrance into life, but a hundred thousand exits ”(Montaigne, Essais 2,3) .6
Friedrich Nietzsche put it three hundred years later:
“And everyone who wants to have fame has to say goodbye to honor at times and practice the difficult art of going at the right time.” (Thus spoke Zarathustra, “Of free death”) 7
From this perspective, suicide is a topic of anthropology, which describes human characteristics, peculiarities, skills and relates them to the possibilities of a good, successful life. Just as one can think about the importance of thinking, feeling and loving for human existence, one can also ask about the importance of the possibility in principle of putting an end to one's own life. And the answer in the Stoic tradition is: This possibility allows a person to hold on to the dignity of his life in practically every case. Suicide is, so to speak, the wild card that saves us when our life threatens to become too miserable.
The next question arises, when is the right time to play the joker. When is it better to die than to go on living? That is a question that still predominates in the euthanasia debate to this day. When it is said that a terminally ill patient should die with dignity, then both the advocates of active euthanasia and those in favor of hospice and terminal care associate ideas of dignified as opposed to shameful existence - only that some think that one should Killing patients precisely because that is the only chance for a dignified end, while the others insist that there is still a dignified life for dying patients, so that death is not necessary as a way out.
In the history of philosophy, the question of when the right time had come to preserve one's own honor through suicide led, but initially in a completely different direction. It combined with the widespread philosophical pessimism about human existence. If you combine the pessimistic assumption that life as a whole is perhaps meaningless and therefore not worth living, with the stoic recommendation to leave a life not worth living behind without hesitation, then you end up with so-called logical suicide only logical consequence from the insight into the absurdity of the world. If all our striving and aspirations are just ridiculous in the face of the ruthlessly senseless world, then there seems to be only one honorable way out: to leave this world with our heads held high, so to speak.
This, in turn, is the background for the first of the four philosophical questions about suicide, the question of whether one does not really have to commit suicide - as with the Stoics, as a means, one's own honor, human pride, like Camus it calls to preserve.
Dostoevsky has described the figure of the logical suicide several times, in the person of Kirillow in the novel "The Demons" and also in a newspaper column with the telling title "A Death Sentence". He comes to the conclusion:
"The result is clear: that after the loss of the immortality idea, suicide becomes an inevitable, unconditional necessity for everyone who is even a little above the animal in their development." (Dostojewski, "Tagebuch eines Schriftstellers", Munich, Zurich2 2001, p. 269)
For Dostoevsky it was clear: a thinking person only has the choice of either believing in the immortal soul (like Dostoevsky himself) and thus in a meaning of his existence, or just: to commit suicide.
This logical suicide is also what Camus meant when he described suicide as the only real serious philosophical problem. The problem, as he says, is whether there is any logic “until death” (p. 18). Camu's own answer was negative, however, because he did not hold the conclusion from the futility of the world to the necessity of suicide to be valid. In an absurd world, according to Camus, this way out is also blocked, because if nothing makes sense, then suicide has no sense either. Therefore it is not a question of killing oneself, but rather of continuing to live and ultimately "dying unreconciled and not of free will" (74). Rebellion, revolt, is the only honorable way of facing the world. Camus describes this attitude full of pathos: “For a person without blinkers there is no more beautiful spectacle than intelligence in conflict with a reality that transcends him. The spectacle of human pride is incomparable ”(74).
However, there is also an alternative that Camus did not consider: the alternative of seeing suicide as not a logical consequence, but instead also an act of pride and rebellion. This conception is represented by a thinker who, unlike Camus, was confronted not only from the outside, but on his own body, so to speak, with the question of whether he should commit suicide - and who then ultimately followed this path, Jean Amery. In his book "Hand an sich sich" Amery distinguishes between the logic of life - which is simply practical reason - and the logic of death, which the suicide finally surrenders. Another American distinction that makes the same thing is that between freedom to something and freedom from something.
Our reason normally builds on our freedom to make certain continuations of our life path. We weigh up which of the options is the right one for us. Amery contrasts this with the freedom to simply be spared certain future paths in life, not to have to walk them, regardless of what happens instead. And only on this freedom, says Amery, does the suicide build.
“So is suicide, which promises freedom from something, but without, as logic dictates, freedom to something, more than just an affirmation of dignity and humanity, directed against the blind rule of nature. It is liberality, as its outermost and final form. "
Camus and Amery both regard the senses emptiness of the suicide's world as a challenge to his dignity and pride, they also see in suicide a possible, conceivable attempt to deal with this situation honorably, and they both come to the conclusion that In any case, suicide is not a sensible reaction to this senselessness, but Camus therefore pleads for an alternative reaction, revolt, while Amery sees human dignity preserved by the fact that he takes his freedom from this unworthy life.
There is, however, one more thing in common between Camus and Amery that I have left out entirely, although it also points to a long philosophical tradition: Both take it for granted that it is not a moral question of whether one should kill oneself or not. That brings me to the second question from the list I gave you at the beginning, the question of whether one is allowed to commit suicide at all, whether it is wrong, forbidden, immoral, reprehensible to take one's own life .