As we have seen, suicide has captured the attention of most of the finest thinkers in Western civilization. The story of suicide, as fact and as idea, runs through Socrates and Aristotle, Cleopatra and Cicero, Judas and Jesus, Augustine and Aquinas, Dante and Maimonides, Chaucer and Shakespeare, Voltaire and Wittgenstein. The history of Western philosophy and religion is, among many other things, one long dialogue on the propriety of taking your own life.
This history reveals that even in the intensely personal matter of choosing whether or not to go on living, the ideas and beliefs of others can be a deciding factor. Thus it is critical that people have at least heard the arguments against suicide. My chief goal in writing this book has been to place these arguments on the shelf of common ideas, so that people have access to them. I believe fiercely in the position I have here put forward, but rather than seeking to convince everyone that my position is the only correct one, I am seeking to make sure that alongside arguments in favor of the right to suicide, people are also aware of this argument that we must endeavor to live. One man or woman in extreme distress might be beyond reaching, but another might be reached. No argument will convince everyone, but no one should die for want of knowing the philosophical thinking on staying alive. The arguments against suicide are precious because they may save lives and also because they may help make life happier. As we have seen, many thinkers have reported on the terrible experience of living with the temptation of suicide. People who have bouts of depression find life difficult enough without feeling as if it is up to them to justify their continued existence. I hope it will bring solace to know that there is a philosophical thread extending over twenty-five hundred years that urges us to use our courage to stay alive.
Religious people may be able to use these largely secular arguments against suicide, for belief in God is not always enough to stop a person from killing him- or herself. Still, the nonreligious reasons to stay alive chronicled in this book are especially important for those who do not believe in God, or at least not a God who is concerned with these matters. In particular, in our culture it is widely believed that secular philosophy is without exception open to suicide, and that the more decidedly nonreligious a philosophy is, the more decidedly affirming it is of suicide. We have seen where that idea came from, and we have seen that it is not true. A few secular thinkers have argued that we all have a right to suicide, but suicide was roundly rejected by Plato, by Aristotle, by Kant, by Schopenhauer, by Wittgenstein, and by Camus. We have seen that throughout history various authors and institutions have taken steps to influence people away from suicide. Our own era needs such influences as well. Many of the techniques used in the past do not make sense for us today—we certainly would not want to threaten people with postmortem exposure or torture. For us, knowing our history may be most valuable, as it shows us the broader context of our troubles.
Clear as it is that suicides can cause more suicides, it is clear that talking to people about rejecting suicide can help them reject suicide. Ideas matter. To stem the awful rise of suicide in our time, many things are surely needed, from easier access to mental health professionals to a general rise in economic security. Yet some of the problem can be addressed by talking about it. We need to actively reject suicide, and get this
into our collective minds by reading it, speaking it, and hearing it, both one-on-one and in large communal settings. We sometimes need to be reminded that life is where everything happens, all forgiveness and all reunions. We can forget that we live in a web of significance and emotional interdependence with hundreds of other people. Sometimes the web is subtle, even imperceptible, but it is real. We forget to thank each other for staying. People can feel isolated in their dark thoughts, and learning that all of humanity suffers, at least some of the time, from such thoughts can help us to feel less alone.
Let us consider one last time the version of human existence depicted in Rembrandt’s painting of Lucretia. She has been wronged, she is deeply troubled, she is contemplating suicide, but she is still alive. There is something magical about this moment: she is in a state of inestimable significance. If we follow the logic set out by Kant, or that proposed by Wittgenstein, a person choosing to die or to live exists in the very crucible of human morality and meaning. Certainly it is a frightening thing to think about, but it yields fascinating insights about what it means to be human. From a practical standpoint, too, it makes sense to give thought to these issues. If we try to suppress the whole subject, if we quarantine suicide from our consciousness and from public conversation, we run the risk of suddenly confronting it, alone and unarmed, when we are most vulnerable. It is much better to remember that this is part of the human experience and to avail ourselves of the conceptual barriers to suicide that have been provided through history. When we cannot see our own worth and are tempted to leave life, we are doing a shining service to our community and to our future selves when we choose to stay. If there is one factor universally recognized as a route to happiness, it is to be of use to others. When you are tempted by suicide and you make the decision to reject it in part for the sake of community, you may gain some of the happiness that derives from simply being of use.
None of us can truly know what we mean to other people, and none of us can know what our future self will experience. History and philosophy ask us to remember these mysteries, to look around at friends, family, humanity, at the surprises life brings—the endless possibilities that living offers—and to persevere. There is love and insight to live for, bright moments to cherish, and even the possibility of happiness, and the chance of helping someone else through his or her own troubles. Know that people, through history and today, understand how much courage it takes to stay. Bear witness to the night side of being human and the bravery it entails, and wait for the sun. If we meditate on the record of human wisdom we may find there reason enough to persist and find our way back to happiness. The first step is to consider the arguments and evidence and choose to stay. After that, anything may happen.
First, choose to stay.