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Lecture 7: Hume on Suicide
Instructor: Scott Dixon

This essay consists of four sections.

     1) A Defense of Philosophy
     2) Suicide as Criminal: Against God
     3) Suicide as Criminal: Against Fellow Man
     4) Suicide as Criminal: Against One’s Self

General Overview

The sections display an organization that helps Hume make his points. He begins with his view of
philosophy. One function of philosophy is to dispel superstitions and false religion. His picture of
philosophy is naturalistic. That is, philosophy tells us about the natural world. Superstitions and
false religion are not part of the natural world but constructions of man. One way to look at this is
that nature becomes God for Hume.

Against this backdrop, Hume then sets out to show why suicide is not problematic. The general
idea behind (2) is that natural laws govern the world and we operate according to them. Suicide
is not a violation of these laws, thus it is not a a crime against God.  On (3), Hume thinks that
at best, suicide only reduces a minor good that others might benefit from by having you in society.
However, the benefit of the many is trumped by the pain of the individual; thus, suicide is not a
crime against your fellow man.  Finally, on (4), your own duty to yourself is to be free of pain and
misery. If the goal is to be happy in life, and life doesn’t contain this, then suicide is not a crime
against yourself because you are saving yourself pain.

A few quotes:

“All events, in one sense, may be pronounced the action of the Almighty, they all proceed from
those powers with which he has endowed his creatures.” (3)

Killing yourself is not a violation of these powers, otherwise God would not have made you that way.

“But this seems absurd; all animals are entrusted to their own prudence and skill for their conduct in
the world, and have full authority as far as their power extends, to alter all of the operations of nature.
Without the exercise of this authority they could not subsist for a moment; every action, every motion
of a man, innovates on the order of some parts of matter, and diverts from their ordinary course the
general laws of motion.” (3-4)

Hume is making a simple point here. If someone argues against suicide, that it upsets the natural order,
Hume believes we already upset it in various ways and these are normally thought of as perfectly
acceptable. What he has done is equate altering the operations of nature as a natural phenomenon with
suicide as a natural phenomenon.

“Were the disposal of human life so much reserved as the peculiar province of the Almighty, that it were
an encroachment on his right, for men to dispose of their own lives; it would be equally criminal to act for
the preservation of life as for its destruction.” (4)

Keeping with the previous theme of violating the natural order, Hume draws an obvious conclusion. If ending
life interferes with the natural order, then so does preserving it. Violating the natural order of things then
cannot be used as a justification against suicide, because the same applies to maintaining life when it
might otherwise be gone. There is an implicit premise here. Hume thinks life has no intrinsic value or if it
does, it is very minor.

Finally, Hume states, “When I shall be dead, the principles of which I am composed will still perform
their part in the universe, and will be equally useful in the grand fabrick, as when they composed this
individual creature. The difference to the whole will be no greater that betwixt my being in a chamber
and in the open air. The one change is of importance to me; but not more so to the universe.”

Two things: 1) Notice the naturalistic conception of the universe here. There is no transmigration of the
soul. Your body is all that you have and it is simply returned to the universe. 2) Since God=universe,
and the change does not effect the universe, suicide is acceptable and not a criminal act against

On (3) and (4), Hume appeals to the principle of utility. The best life is one that is free of pain and full
of pleasure/happiness. For (3) this means that if the individual’s pain is greater than the benefit to
society, suicide is acceptable. On (4) I think the following quote is quite telling:

“I believe that no man ever threw away life, while it was worth keeping.” (7)

The individual judges the pain of life to be greater than the value of life itself.

Lecture 7: The Myth of Sisyphus
Instructor: Scott Dixon

Albert Camus

     Born on November 7th, 1913 at Mondavi in Algeria.

     He studied at Algiers University eventually reaching a higher degree in philosophy with a thesis on
        Saint Augustine and Plotinus.

     He is best known as a writer. His works include: The Outsider (1942), The Myth of Sisyphus (1943),
        The Plague (1947), The Rebel (1951) and finally, The Fall (1956). His literary career culminated with
        a Nobel prize for Literature in 1957.

     He died in a car crash on January 4th 1960, at the age of 46.

Some general guidelines for understanding Camus.

He focuses upon rationality and irrationality. If the world is an ordered place, where everything is situated
according to reason, then it is rational. However, if the world has no intrinsic order, where elements are
situated randomly and without reason, i.e. something like chaos, then it is irrational. Camus is going
support the claim that the world is irrational.

As a result of focusing upon irrationality, Camus is going to look for instances of irrationality, which in
most cases is done through finding contradictions. Contradictions purportedly show instances of
irrationality because both sides of the contradiction are taken to be true. Formally a contradiction is
defined as (a & ~a), where ‘a’ is replaced by a proposition or a statement.  For example, with respect
to suicide, Camus’ argument is:

P1—Life has no meaning.
P2—I must not, however, take my own life.
C—Thus, conscience takes preeminence over all.

P1 and C reveal a contradiction, life has no meaning and conscience presupposes meaning.

A general recurring theme throughout the text is heroism. For Camus, anyone who struggles against the
absurdity of suicide and death is a hero. He/she is in a daily struggle of heroic proportions.

Absurdity and Suicide

There is but one truly philosophical problem and that is suicide. Should one live or take his/her own life?

While this is a provocative way to start an essay, Camus’ point is much more general—it is about the
meaning of life. If life has meaning, we shouldn’t do it, and if it does not, it seems that nothing prohibits
us from it.

He is concerned with the relationship between individual thought and suicide, not suicide as a social
phenomenon. Why? Because suicide is about my relation to the world, not yours.

Killing yourself amounts confessing…It is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not
understand it.

Camus is committed to trying to understand life, even though it might be irrational.

The feeling of the absurd—the divorcement of man from his life or the actor from her setting.

The subject of this essay is precisely this relationship between the absurd and suicide, the exact degree
which suicide is a solution to the absurd.

Does the Absurd dictate death? Does the Absurd have the power to drive one to die?

The Myth of Sisyphus

“It is said that Sisyphus, being near death, rashly wanted to test his wife’s love. He ordered her to cast
his unburied body into the middle of the public square. Sisyphus woke up in the underworld. And there,
annoyed by an obedience so contrary to human love, he obtained from Pluto permission to return to earth
in order to chastise his wife. But when he had seen the face of this world again, enjoyed water and sun,
warm stones and the sea, he no longer wanted to go back to the infernal darkness. Recalls, signs of
anger, warnings were of no avail…A decree from the Gods was necessary. Mercury came and seized
the impudent man by the collar and, snatching him from his joys, led him forcibly back to the underworld,
where his rock was ready for him.”

“The Gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the
stone would fall back under its own weight. They had thought there is no more dreadful punishment than
futile and hopeless labor.”

“You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions—not
wanting to return, as through his torture—pushing the rock. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death,
and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted towards
accomplishing nothing.”

Sisyphus has an absurd existence. He knows his life will never be different and that he cannot change it.
He accepts his fate, much like we accept death, and tries to carve out an existence.

“It is during that return (going back down to start again), that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. I see
that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never
know the end. That hour like a breathing space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the
hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks
toward the lair of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”

There is a struggle, pushing the rock. All of his effort and thought are expended on it. Yet, when he
gets to the top suddenly he is free of his immediate burden and consciousness returns. He can now
reflect on the situation, and as he does, he begins his return to bottom. The gods have no hold on him,
he has accepted his fate and surpassed by this acceptance. A “…this is what you give me, then this is
what I’ll take attitude.”

 “If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious… Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods,
powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks
of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his
victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”

Building on the last passage, one can imagine Sisyphus returning to the bottom of the hill with a
smirk on his face. His torture is victory at the same time because the vibrant character of the moment
shows he is still alive through the pains and aches, and through being alive, he is victorious—by
defying the gods.

“All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise,
the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols… If there is a personal fate,
there is no higher destiny, or at least there is but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable
(death)…For the rest he knows himself to be the master of his days. At that subtle moment when man
glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning to his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates
that series of unrelated actions which become his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s
eye and soon sealed by his death.”

The absurd man cannot control death, but the rest he can.

“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus
teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well.
This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that
stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward
the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

The rock is his burden. He negates the gods by accepting his fate in one respect, and he raises the
rock in an act of scorn to the gods. He has no master anymore, the gods can do nothing more to him.
His struggle is one of his own doing, and thus, by accepting his fate, we must try to think of him as
happy—because his choice led him here.

Questions to think about.

1. In the Myth of Sisyphus, what is the parallel to death? Is it the gods, the hill, or the rock? Why?

2. How are the views of Hume and Camus different? How are they the same?