"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide."
- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.
It's not quite the first line, but for sake of drama it probably should have been. Camus was a French writer that died in 1960; he is one of the unfortunates that history remembers as an "existentialist."
I just finished reading Sisyphus, and enjoyed it quite a bit. I like the way he thought, and I admire his political actions. However, despite my deep-seated respect, my philosophical agreements with him go little beyond the above quote.
I've had a few starts and stops while trying to explain myself on this blog. It's hard knowing where to begin. So, like Camus, I'll start at the literal end: death.
A lot of human thought goes into trying to figure out what the good life is. Aristotle had his ideas, Confucius had ideas, and Nietzsche had his ideas. There are a lot of people out there willing to tell you how to live a good life.
So how can we decide which of these ideas are right? I think the first step in deciding is to realize that the question of who is right is not of fundamental importance.
Maybe there are no good, comprehensive answers as to what the "good life" is. On the other hand, there is an easy way to see what a life poorly lived looks like. They end in suicide.
The answers to the question of the good life are incredibly diverse, and humans have been producing them for as long as speaking and writing have existed. Because of the complexity and openness of the question, it is nearly impossible to decide upon a correct path. Discussing suicide provides a solid and unquestionable boundary. Whatever else may be said of a suicide's life, that individual believed firmly that their life was not worth living. Knowing what factors drives people to suicide will help us avoid those factors in our own lives.
So why do people commit suicide?
That sounds like a question that needs to be answered in the vocabulary of psychology or psychiatry. I'm not a psychologist, though, and I don't play one on TV. So I'll write in the much more open (less rigorous?) vocabulary I am familiar with.
That vocabulary will require me to do some pre-supposing. I'm going to use terms that I haven't properly explained yet. The only real background reading for this I can give you is this post.
To supplement that post, we all seek to interpret ourselves into the world based upon an image that has been developing since infancy. We engage in certain activities to take on the corresponding identity; one man works with wood so he can be a carpenter, another writes a book so he can be a novelist. When we exercise our talents, we are donning a particular identity; we solidify our understanding of ourselves and further develop our imago.
To engage with the world and develop our imago, we all have to apply power. I mean power in the broadest and most inclusive sense possible. The carpenter and the athlete use physical power. The scientist uses intellectual power. The lawyer wields social power. Interpersonal relations are primarily influenced. though not necessarily dictated by, power. There are many expressions of power, but it is all the same principle (or perhaps one of two).
We also develop value hierarchies, and these hierarchies are based on the law of our imago (this is a term I don't think I need to explain right now). Different behavior patterns or events are more or less important to us, and more or less desirable, based upon this law. The world becomes understandable; we have answers for why things are the way they are, and we have a guide to action. The intersection of knowledge and ethics form the meaning structure through which the world becomes understandable and relatable.
Now, back to suicide.
I believe there are two basic reasons why people commit suicide.
1. The person's meaning structure is at stake, and only their death can preserve it. This is martyrdom or ritual suicide. History is full of accounts of people willingly choosing death - by their own hand or another's. A Japanese samurai could be placed into a situation in which their meaning structure - their knowledge, ethics, and very imago - were threatened. If the samurai refuses to commit seppuku in this context, then their image of themselves dissolves as surely as if they had died. They enter into a state of shame, and slide towards the second kind of suicide, even if they never arrive there. A martyr faces the same problem; if a Christian bows the knee to another God, then their imago is shattered and the intelligibility of their world is correspondingly damaged (grace and forgiveness shall be considered in another post). The Christian must accept death in order to preserve the coherence of their meaning structure. Both the ritual suicide and the martyr exert a great deal of power in giving themselves over as sacrifices, and thus both strengthen the meaning structures of those around them. But this meaning structure must already be existing - if Jesus died right after he met Peter, Christianity would never have been born. So - ritual/martyr suicide has a particular effect on a community: it strengthens an existing meaning structure.
2. A person commits the second kind of suicide when they are, for whatever reason, unable to develop their imago or assert their meaning structure. I'll call this nihilistic suicide. There are two ways this can happen. One is your standard clinical depression. Nothing has any meaning or significance, including one's self. Now, remember how the ritual/martyr suicide strengthens the meaning structure of the existing community? Nihilistic suicide is a pale reflection of this. The thoughts of "they'll miss me when I'm gone" is an attempt to pretend that suicide will bring meaning to their lives - but of course it doesn't, it brings only misery. Nihilistic suicide is also an attempt to exert a great deal of power in a short time; hence the fact that thoughts of suicide are in fact a great comfort to many people living through dark nights. No matter how bad things get, they always have the ultimate act of finality within their grasp.
The second expression of nihilistic suicide takes place when someone's meaning structure or imago is radically and totally destroyed in an extremely brief period of time. For example, in the great stock market crash of the late 1920s, many of the wealthy men that were ruined took their own lives. Their identity and worth was in their role as a wealthy man; when that was taken, they needed to commit a pale reflection of ritual suicide to regain that worth. However, their worth and identity was found in wealth, not in a community - their suicide does not achieve their goal.
It is nihilistic suicide that haunts the human race. Say what you will about philosophy, religion, science or anything else, suicide ends all the debates. Ritual/martyr suicides are necessary in specific contexts, and they are not evidence of the failure of a particular meaning structure - they are evidence of that structure's strength.
So what is the good life? The only specifics I'll ever be able to offer are tailored to my own life. I can offer a general answer, however: whatever moves you away from nihilistic suicide. Sound out your imago; seek to understand your world and to engage with it actively.