This is a guest post by Skye C. Cleary, Visiting Professor at Columbia University, City College of New York, and Barnard College as well as Massimo Pigliucci, K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. It was originally posted on The Institute of Art and Ideas’ website.
When every day many of us wake up to read about fresh horrors on our fresh horrors device, we might find ourselves contemplating the question as to whether, as Albert Camus supposedly put it, one should kill oneself or have a cup of coffee. If there is any philosopher who is famous for contemplating suicide, it’s Camus who, in a more serious tone, proposed that, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.”
The existentialists and Stoics are notorious for being at loggerheads on many issues. Yet Simone de Beauvoir, who was much less famous for her views on suicide than Camus, gives an example that shows the existential answer isn’t so far removed from the Stoic one – a fascinating case of philosophical convergence, two millennia apart.
In 1954, Beauvoir was awarded France’s most prestigious literary prize for her book The Mandarins, in which the main character Anne contemplates suicide. When once she saw the world as vast and inexhaustible, she now looks at it with indifference: “The earth is frozen over; nothingness has reclaimed it.” Her great love affair has collapsed, her daughter has grown up and no longer needs her, and she finds her profession unfulfilling. It’s not only that she feels her life no longer counts, but also existing is torturous and her memories are agony. Suicide seems like an escape from the pain. Clutching the brown vial of poison, Anne hears her daughter’s voice outside and it jars her into considering the effect of her death on other people. “My death does not belong to me,” she concludes, because “it’s the others who would live my death.”
“If having a cup of coffee is a blasé return to the quotidian, then that’s just not good enough. However, if one embraces the coffee as a meaningful part of one’s existence, for example, as an affirmation that life is worth living, then choose your espresso and leap into the day.”
In her later autobiography, Beauvoir said that she wanted Anne’s survival in her mundane existence to seem like a defeat. This outcome implies not only that suicide is difficult, but that its difficulty lies in the fact that apathy is not a viable option – which one of the characters suggests earlier in the book. Living isn’t just about breathing; living implies that you actively recognize value in life, which Anne found in her relationships. Other people don’t always infuse our life with joy, but they can certainly give it meaning.
Nevertheless, embracing life and living passionately when one is despondent about existence is easier said than done. There is no explicit answer in The Mandarins. In typical existential style, it’s up to us to work it out for ourselves, to figure out what gives our life meaning. However, elsewhere, Beauvoir gives a more active interpretation: “Change your life today. Don’t gamble on the future, act now, without delay,” implying that we might only get one life, so let’s treat it as a gift and make the most of it. If having a cup of coffee is a blasé return to the quotidian, then that’s just not good enough. However, if one embraces the coffee as a meaningful part of one’s existence, for example, as an affirmation that life is worth living, then choose your espresso and leap into the day.
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus provides a more direct answer. Suicide is ethically acceptable, but only under extreme circumstances. He uses a famous analogy, with a house on fire, full of smoke: “Don’t believe your situation is genuinely bad – no one can make you do that. Is there smoke in the house? If it’s not suffocating, I will stay indoors; if it proves too much, I’ll leave. Always remember – the door is open.” The choice is up to you: if you truly think the situation is unbearable, the door is open. But if you stay, you accept the responsibility of doing whatever it takes to live a life worth living.
In book II.15 of the Discourses Epictetus is told that a friend is starving himself to death, a common form of suicide in ancient times. He rushes to him and offers support, but discovers that the friend is letting himself die for no good reason at all. Tellingly, Epictetus then says: “If your decision is justified, look, here we are at your side and ready to help you on your way; but if your decision is unreasonable, you ought to change it.”
And what counts as a reasonable decision? The Stoics, practical philosophers that they are, tell us by example. Zeno, the founder of the school, let himself die of starvation because he was too old, fragile and dependent on others to be able to contribute any more to society; Cato the Younger, the archenemy of Julius Caesar, committed suicide in order not to be used as a political pawn by the tyrant; and Seneca tells us of an unnamed slave, captured after a battle, who decided that death was preferable to slavery.
“No one knows when our time is up. But precisely because we don’t know when life is going to end, the Stoics say that we should live every moment to the fullest, engaging our life in the here and now.”
But there is a positive flip side to this coin: what makes a life worth living is being useful to others, trying to make the world a better place, our relationships with people we love, and our freedom as moral agents. So long as we have those things, even in limited measure, we stay. And the very fact that there is an open door is a guarantee of freedom for the Stoics. It’s the reassuring knowledge that, if things are really unbearable, you can walk out. As Seneca put it, liberty is as close as your wrists.
No one knows when our time is up. But precisely because we don’t know when life is going to end, the Stoics say that we should live every moment to the fullest, engaging our life in the here and now. If we do things that we don’t enjoy, or are not important, we are wasting the only resource for which people cannot possibly pay us back: time. As Seneca puts it: “Hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon tomorrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by.”
Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor, agrees: “A limit of time is fixed for you, which if you do not use for clearing away the clouds from your mind, it will go and you will go, and it will never return.”
So the answer to Camus’ question is the one given by Epictetus: no, you shouldn’t commit suicide so long as you are up to do what Marcus called the job of a human being. Grab a cup of joe, and focus on appreciating and creating meaningful relationships, projects to pursue, useful things to contribute to others, and things to learn for yourself. So long as that’s true, do as Anne does, and stay. If, however, the room gets too smoky for you (and we are not talking about cigarette smoke, which would be a problem for a lot of existentialists), then you do have the option to walk through the door. Stoics and existentialists agree that meaning in life does not come from the outside; it is constructed by you as a moral agent. Therefore, the decision as to whether to commit suicide or have a cup of coffee is also entirely yours. So far as the two of us are concerned, we are about to head out to the nearest java joint. Care to join us?
 Camus, Albert. 2000. The Myth of Sisyphus. Translated by Justin O’Brien. London: Penguin. Original edition, 1942, 3.
 de Beauvoir, Simone. 1968. Force of Circumstance. Translated by Richard Howard. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 283.
 Schwarzer, Alice. 1984. After The Second Sex: Conversations with Simone de Beauvoir. Translated by Marianne Horwarth. New York: Pantheon Books, 29.
 Discourses I, 25.17-18
 I. On Saving Time, 2