Philipp Mainländer’s Arguments For Suicide
In the heart of things, the immanent Philosopher sees in the entire cosmos only the deepest longing for complete extinction; it is as if he heard clearly the call that pierces all the celestial spheres: Redemption! Redemption! Death to our Life! and the cheering reply: you all will find extinction and will be redeemed!
I have always been interested in the philosophical questions that arise from my own life experiences. My interest has led me to consider some of these questions more deeply than others. In particular, I find myself asking whether it is ever right or justifiable to kill oneself. It seems to me that this question can only be answered by considering the nature of a person’s self-worth.
In order to answer this question, I will first discuss the concept of value and then consider some examples of how one might use this concept to justify killing oneself. I will then propose a solution to this problem by showing why attempting to preserve one’s self-worth is ultimately damaging to one’s self. I will then conclude this argument by addressing some of the objections that one might have to my argument.
I will mainly refer to the works of Philipp Mainländer when presenting my argument. Mainländer was a 19th century philosopher whose arguments are only just beginning to receive the attention they deserve. In his writings, he claimed that the cosmos was a unity that was undergoing a steady process of negation. He believed that this negation involved the gradual elimination of everything contingent and that it would eventually result in the perfection of being. In his own words:
“In the course of endless time, all will participate in the negation of the will-to-live so that, finally, all existence will become one with absolute nothingness. This is redemption.”
Hence, suicide would actually be the ultimate expression of one’s self-worth and in this it is reminiscent of egoistic suicide. The difference lies in the fact that Mainländer’s conception of the world entails a dark, pessimistic view of existence and the belief that all things are steadily approaching a state of perfection.
This concept also entails a conception of value that can be used to assess whether or not suicide can ever be justified.
VALUE THEORY AND THE WILL-TO-LIFE
We can only speak of something having value if it has relative value in contrast to something else. For example, water is valuable to a human being because it is necessary for our existence. Now, Mainländer argues that the cosmos is a unified whole which undergoes relentless transformation. All things within this cosmos are contingent upon one another. Therefore, everything that exists possesses relative value by virtue of its relationship to other things within this ever-changing reality. The elimination of something within this system will necessarily have an effect on everything else. Everything participates in the process of redemption.
Everything that exists has relative value, but nothing that exists has absolute value in and of itself. For something to have absolute value, it would have to be independent of everything else. This is contradictory, since everything is contingent upon other things for its existence. The belief in an absolute value and an objective purpose to existence is an illusion, since the very understanding of such things depends upon a perspectival standpoint.
The will-to-live compels every living being to remain alive at all costs. It requires constant effort to resist, but there are some cases in which suicide can be justified. To say something is “good” or “useful”, for example, is to say that it has relative value. However, all things must die sometime. It would be foolish to try to avoid death at all costs, since it is the final end of everything, including the will-to-live. In this light, suicide can be seen as a means of liberation from the unpleasant aspects of the will-to-live. Additionally, the will-to-live also compels us to reproduce and care for our offspring. It is a lesser form of suicide to refuse this instinctive drive. One can still live without having children, since life goes on. If one lives long enough, the probability that one’s genes will die out is certain anyway.
The human mind is a complex system of drives and desires that are often in conflict with each other. There is no single “will-to-live” concept, but rather an amalgamation of things that incline an individual towards certain courses of action. To simplify this into a single force is to ignore the subtle complexities of the human condition. It is somewhat distressing that the will-to-live should be elevated to such importance in philosophy. One might imagine that it would be far more desirable to focus on other aspects of human nature instead.
The will-to-live explains why we are alive and why we act. The desire for life is very strong. Mainländer offers the following metaphor to explain the power of the will-to-live: We are like sailors aboard a ship in the middle of a violent storm. Some sailors are courageously trying to turn the ship around and weather the storm, while others are cowardly hiding below deck and praying for their lives. If the ship is a symbol of life, then the sailors are a symbol of living creatures. The will to live is what makes the sailors want to live and what makes them willing to fight the storm. A dead sailor has given up all hope of survival and no longer wishes to be alive, even in the midst of life-saving weather.
The will-to-live should not be thought of as a force driving people towards their goals, but rather as an explanation for why people achieve their goals. When weathering a storm, the concept of the will to live is the explanation for why sailors act as they do. A common mistake is to think that sailors are moved by an invisible force towards certain actions. This is not the case, and such thinking stems from a confusion between force and explanation. A force can be understood as an explanatory construct for observations. If we see a ball rolling down a hill, then the law of gravity explains why it is doing so. There is no ball rolling down the hill due to this force; it is merely an explanation of what is happening. If there were no such thing as gravity, the same ball would not roll down the hill. Likewise, if there were no such thing as the will-to-live, sailors would not act in their own self-interest. The will-to-live is an explanatory force and not really a force at all.
The human world is a world of becoming and not being. Suicide and self-inflicted death are merely transcendental acts of singularity. Instead of the act of dying following the loss of the will-to-live, it precedes it. In a storm at sea, where the outcome is life or death, we can see how this is the case. But death doesn’t actually occur until all hope is lost, and this is why they continue to survive; in their minds, there is still some hope left for survival. This false hope is the will-to-live. When the waves crash over the deck of the ship, and it begins to sink, there is no hope left. It is at this point that the sailors attempt to transcend their individuality and merge back into the oneness of the sea.
The value of life is a concept exclusive to the living. The dead have no value; they are without price. A heart has no value when it ceases functioning; it is without price. It is for this reason that Mainländer refers to death as the “Priceless One”. The will-to-live is not an explanation of life, but an erasure of all meaning. A being that has its own desires is without meaning. In his words, “the will, ignited by the knowledge that non-being is better than being, is the supreme principle of morality.” What he meant by this is that a life devoid of desire is the best kind of life. A life with desires can only lead to pain and suffering; the desires of life are ultimately undesirable.
A SILENCING OF THE WILL
It is impossible to observe life without also observing death. Standing on a beach watching waves come in and out, we can not focus solely on the water, but must also pay attention to what the water is doing. The water is not merely coming and going; it is also continuously moving. We can focus on any part of the sea, such as a single wave, but it is impossible to observe the sea without movement. A single wave is static, but the sea is dynamic. Water seeks its own level and when some reaches a higher point, the rest of it rushes to catch up. We refer to this as the “tide”.
Life is similar to this: we breathe in and out, we eat and drink, we consume and excrete. All creatures are bound by their bodies’ demands. The body is a chain that restricts the will. In his book “The Philosophy of Redemption”, Philipp Mainländer focuses on the concept of the will. The will cannot be observed directly, yet it is ever-present. We hear about a man who was “mentally strong” — what does this really mean? It means that he had control over his emotions, not that they didn’t affect him. His love was stronger than his hate. A truly mentally strong individual has no emotions at all, for they have complete control over their will and these arbitrary stimuli would be irrelevant to them.
The body and the mind are separate and the will is a force of nature outside of either: it is both within us and without. This is the concept of Âtman in Hinduism: to achieve moksha , or salvation, one must extinguish all desires and reach Âtman. The ideas that Mainlânder presents, though, can be applied to all religions. All religions employ the concept of a higher being or a force that created our world. None of them, however, refer to the constant struggle of wills within every creature and how we all seek Âtman, or nirvana, or freedom from worldly desires. This “salvation” can only be achieved when we silence the will.
Only through death can we find freedom from our chains. Life is a constant struggle that wears us down and forces us to obey the wishes of our bodies. All living things obey their urges and cravings: plants grow toward the sun, birds build nests, humans form communities. We are all slaves to our bodies’ demands, even you-the reader-and I. We have no control over ourselves. If our bodies demand sleep, we sleep. If they demand food, we eat it. And so we are all-the reader, myself, and even you-slaves to our bodies. To be able to break free from this position of inferiority and be truly free, one must die. No one can ever achieve the “perfect freedom” that is death and silence their will, but we are all capable of striving for it. Our society shuns such ideas and aims to achieve the impossible: happiness in life. We strive to accumulate more power, wealth, and possessions in order to achieve happiness. And what do we find? There are only temporary solutions to our permanent problem. There will always be something we want: more money, a better job, a cure for a disease.
Life is a constant and never-ending push on the part of our body and soul toward nothingness and death. True liberation from this oppressive force is possible only through death. Any other escape — such as through ignorance or addiction to material goods, pains and pleasures — is only a postponement of the inevitable.
All of creation is subordinated to the law of destruction. Everything comes into existence, exists for a while and then vanishes. This is the “eternal struggle” (German: “ewiger Kampf”) that dominates our world and controls our destiny. It is the original sin of creation.
According to Mainländer, the world is a theatre of suffering, within which we experience the fate of “exile”. Our existence is an incessant struggle between the will-to-create (German: “Schopfungswillen”) and the will-to-destruction (German: “Zersetzungswillen”). The cosmological doctrine of Mainländer is a kind of “dialectical monism”, in which the two wills are the primary and secondary factors, respectively. The second will follows the first, but it also constantly struggles against it. It is this fact that has led to the existence of creation and history itself. Within the confines of eternal suffering, humans are subject to three inevitable facts, upon which all else is contingent. These facts are:
Firstly, we all must come into existence, Secondly, we all have to experience pain and Thirdly, we all must ultimately return to nothingness.
These facts constitute the essence of our being and also the fact that any possible existence after death can only mean perpetual unhappiness.
Life as such is not a good thing and needs no further justification.
So why don’t we end it and put an end to our suffering once and for all? Why don’t we commit suicide? Mainländer considers this to be the only real option available to us. He concludes that existence is an evil and that we have no right to deprive the world of our life. This option is therefore better than any religious belief in life after death, which preaches an unproven continuation of our conscious existence.
When we end our lives, we also do the world a favour, as we save ourselves from the eternal suffering that is yet to come. So what exactly is it that is so bad about death? According to Mainländer, death is the ultimate end of our consciousness, and as such it is also the end of our will. This would ultimately deprive us of any possibility to perform any kind of action at all.
Because of this, the act of committing suicide would be the only honorable thing to do. Far from being an act of cowardice, it would be an act of bravery, a noble deed. Even if we assume that there is life after death, the suicide prevents any possibilities of suffering and therefore should be considered as a blessing.
However, even though our own suicide might be an act of courage, and even though it would serve as a blessing to all those left behind, the possibility still remains that we may commit suicide for the wrong reasons. Mainländer thus poses the following question: Must we end our lives because we are confronted with a life of inevitable unhappiness? And if not, what are we to do in order to dispel this unhappiness?
The first thing that we must do is to admit that there is an urgent need to improve our situation, which means that we may not be able to take shelter in the thought of being part of a higher plan of some sort. Whenever someone claims that some higher power has a plan for him and that he must therefore endure whatever suffering he is confronted with, there can be no appeal to reason or logic.
AN UNCLOCLUSIVE CONCLUSION
In the end, Mainländer suggests that it is better to end it all, if one finds him or herself in an unalterable state of suffering. To commit suicide is courageous, since it is an act of bravery. To commit suicide is a blessing, since it may prevent the suicide from falling into a state of despair and hopelessness. It is a logical move, since one’s future will only be more of the same misery. It is a positive step towards salvation, since by ending his suffering, the suicide helps to silence the world-will and thus contributes to the salvation of all creation.