Form & Void

Why Life Rather Than Death?

By Professor Sandra Shapshay (Indiana University Bloomington)

July 15, 2015         Picture: N.G.Phillips/Behance.

This article is part of The Critique exclusive No Exit From Hell: The Philosophy Of True Detective.

In a previous essay for “The Critique”, I argued that the profundity of “True Detective” (Season One) lay in the series’ handling of the theme of pessimism and possible responses to this doctrine. The doctrine of “pessimism” espoused by the protagonist, Rustin Cohle, is remarkably similar to the view adumbrated by Schopenhauer that (1) conscious life (both human and non-human animal) involves a tremendous amount of suffering that is essentially built into the structure of the world, and (2) there is no Creator (providential or otherwise) to redeem all of this suffering, by say, punishing the wicked and rewarding the good.

Given this grim view of the human condition, it makes sense to raise the question of suicide: Why not put an end to one’s life, in order to escape from this ultimately senseless vale of tears? Throughout the series Cohle struggles with ‘letting go’ and in the last episode, ‘Form & Void’, the creator explains that the episode ‘represents the dilemma Cohle walked for some time: why life rather than the opposite?’ Cohle raises this question explicitly and enunciates his in principle embrace of suicide, but what stays his hand, by his own report, is that ‘he lacks the constitution’ for it.

In his stated attitude toward suicide, Cohle parts ways with Schopenhauer, who calls suicide a “futile and foolish act” (WWR I, section 69, p. 426). [1] What accounts for this divergence? As alluded to above, it is not to be explained by a comparatively more cheerful view of the world in Schopenhauer’s thought. On the contrary, Schopenhauer is just as attuned as Cohle to the tremendous amount of evil in the world caused for the most part by other human beings. While the “true detective” is nauseated and jaded by the sadistic acts of Bayou killers who prey mostly on innocent girls and young women, Schopenhauer is nauseated and jaded by more institutional sources of human suffering in 19th c. Europe and the United States:

“The chief source of the most serious evils affecting man is man himself; homo homini lupus. He who keeps this last fact clearly in view beholds the world as a hell, surpassing that of Dante by the fact that one man must be the devil of another. … How man deals with man is seen, for example, in Negro slavery, the ultimate object of which is sugar and coffee. However, we need not go so far; to enter at the age of five a cotton-spinning or other factory, and from then on to sit there every day first ten, then twelve and finally fourteen hours, and perform the same mechanical work, is to purchase dearly the pleasure of drawing breath. But this is the fate of millions, and many more millions have an analogous fate”. (WWR II, 578). [2]

Additionally, Schopenhauer focuses on the suffering of non-human animals at the hands of human beings who view them as mere instruments for their use:

“Because … Christian morals give no consideration to animals, they are at once free as birds in philosophical morals too, they are mere ‘things’, mere means to whatever ends you like, as for instance vivisection, hunting with hounds, bull-fighting, racing, whipping to death in front of an immovable stone-cart and the like”. (OBM, 162) [3]

From these passages, which contain foreshadowings of Marx and J.S. Mill and echoes of Bentham, one might conclude that Schopenhauer’s opposition to suicide then, would stem from a progressive impulse, to improve human social conditions and the treatment of non-human animals, rather than merely check out of a world that brings so much suffering. Indeed, this progressive impulse would seem the morally and epistemically better option if the world can be significantly improved.

There is this hopeful strand in Schopenhauer’s thought, and he does think the world can be improved somewhat. In this vein, he recommends acts of justice and lovingkindness in response to these sources of misery. For example, he praises the British nation’s spending ‘up to 20 million pounds’ to buy the freedom of slaves in America (OBM, 218). He also lauds the founding of animal protection societies in Europe, especially in England:

We see this fine-feeling English nation distinguished before all others by a striking compassion for animals that manifests itself at every opportunity and has had the power to move the nation … to fill by legislation the loophole that religion leaves in morals. For precisely this loophole is the cause of animal protection societies being needed in Europe and America, which themselves can be effective only with the help of the law and the police. (OBM, 229)

Schopenhauer also champions the proliferation of animal protection societies in Continental Europe, dedicating English newspaper reports to ‘the associations against the torture of animals now established in Germany, so that they see how one must attack the issue if anything is to come of it’ and he acknowledges ‘the praiseworthy zeal of Councillor Perner in Munich who has devoted himself entirely to this branch of beneficence and spread the initiative for it throughout the whole of Germany.’ (OBM, fn. 230)

Finally, Schopenhauer recognizes that the work of civic organizations, especially in securing legal change, can bring about real moral change and reduce suffering. Again, with respect to the animal protection movement and laws against animal cruelty, Schopenhauer writes, ‘Everything adduced here gives evidence that the moral chord in question … is gradually beginning to sound in the occidental world …’ (OBM, 231).

To be sure, this hopeful Schopenhauer is still no philosophical optimist. He doesn’t think that this is the best of all possible worlds (Leibniz); neither does he believe that the world must get better because of a necessary rational structure (Hegel); nor that the world is a self-justifying divine cause (Spinoza). Also, he does not see life as a gift, to be thankfully accepted. Even the hopeful Schopenhauer is convinced that the world is and will always be full of unredeemed suffering for nature involves an internecine struggle for existence rather than a “peaceable kingdom” of animals living largely in harmony. And he is convinced that much of this suffering will go uncompensated in this life, as the sources of suffering seem to outweigh the sources of happiness and tranquility. Above all, he is an uncompromising atheist who holds that there is no providential God to redeem all of this suffering in an afterlife. However, as shown above, Schopenhauer evinces hope that through acts and institutions founded on compassion, suffering may be somewhat reduced, and thus that life can get significantly better for sentient beings.

Schopenhauer’s official stance on suicide is that it is ‘a foolish and futile act.’ Yet it is not because it prevents a person from trying to improve the world—as one might expect from the above-quoted passages–but rather because it prevents a person from allowing personal suffering or the recognition of so much suffering in the world to redeem oneself from the world!

In other words, the fullest insight—namely, that the nature of the will-to-life is ultimately blind, senseless striving and suffering for no particular telos–would lead a person beyond a compassionate stance on the world and bring a person to negate the will-to-life entirely. Surprisingly, Schopenhauer holds that suicide does not negate but rather affirms the will-to-life, for the would-be suicide desires life, he or she is simply unsatisfied with the conditions on offer for that life. Within this logic, suicide is foolish because it prevents a person from attaining this highest wisdom and the true inner peace that would come from actual renunciation of the will-to-life. Thus, Schopenhauer writes, suicide is ‘an act of will’ through which ‘the individual will abolishes the body … before suffering can break it.’ He thereby likens a suicide to a sick person who ‘having started undergoing a painful operation that could cure him completely, does not allow it to be completed and would rather stay sick.’ (WWR I, 426-7).

There is one remarkable exception to his overall view on suicide: death by voluntary starvation! At the highest levels of asceticism, the negation of the will-to-live can attain a point where “even the will needed to maintain the vegetative functions of the body through nutrition can fall away.” (WWR I, 428).

Given Schopenhauer’s rationale for opposing all forms of suicide save the redeeming ascetic one, the hopeful ethics of compassion that Schopenhauer also espouses looks like an epistemically second-best option. On the traditional reading of Schopenhauer, he holds that it is better to go beyond willing and ergo beyond compassion as well to a real renunciation of the will-to-life if one can. In this way, the patient is truly cured of the scourge that is the will-to-life. Yet, the rationality of the choice between compassionate action, on the one hand (action that tries to improve the world), or resignation, on the other (inaction that constitutes a redemption from the world), hinges on whether there are good grounds for hope.

If there were good grounds for hope that the world can be improved, compassionate action would be the morally and epistemically preferable choice. If there are no good grounds for hope that the world can be improved, then renunciation of the will-to-life seems the epistemically and even morally preferable choice. However, on either of these possibilities, a quick exit by suicide constitutes, pace Cohle, a “futile and foolish act”.

Interestingly, in the final episode of Season One of “True Detective,” Cohle does find some grounds for hope, and he chooses to continue on the path of compassion and justice, the path to try to improve the world. This prompts the question of whether he ever really embraced suicide in principle, and just lacked the constitution to pull it off, or whether he perhaps always found the intellectual grounds for such a radical decision to be shaky. As the eponymous “true detective,” he was duty-bound to pursue the evidence—for hope or lack thereof–wherever it would lead.

Footnotes & References

[1] References to the World as Will and Representation Volume I are to the translation by Judith Norman, Alistair Welchman, and Christopher Janaway (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010).

[2] References to Volume II of the The World as Will and Representation are to the translation by E.F.J. Payne (New York: Dover, 1958).

[3] References to “On the Basis of Morality” are to the translation by Christopher Janaway in The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014).

Sandra Shapshay
Sandra Shapshay
Sandra Shapshay is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her work centers on 19th century German philosophy, especially Kant and Schopenhauer, as well as aesthetics and ethics. Recent publications include “Contemporary Cinematic Tragedy and the ‘Silver-Lining’ Genre” (with Steven Wagschal) and “The Problem with the Problem of Tragedy: Schopenhauer’s Solution Revisited” both in the British Journal of Aesthetics, and the Stanford Encyclopedia Article on Schopenhauer’s aesthetics
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