You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please SUBSCRIBE!
Question of the Month
To Be Or Not To Be, What Is The Answer?
The following responses to Hamlet’s big question each win a random book.
“There is only one philosophical problem which is really serious: suicide. To decide whether life is or is not worth living.” So opined Albert Camus, and he proffered an answer too. Yes, life is worth it if lived with lucidity, conscious of life’s absurdities, but rebelling against them. Scorn its arbitrariness and commit to being happy. Carry on Sisyphus!
The question is topical. The single biggest cause of death among men under forty-five in the UK is suicide, and that’s typical for the whole Western world. Is that a ‘philosophical’ issue? Being authentic – true to who you are, and exercising your freedom to choose – is easier said than done in a modern world that’s so coercive. Social media invites us to create a kind of living autobiography that is not necessarily about the person we are. And how do you exist authentically with the pressures of modern life, which tend to bear us along on a tide of preoccupations? Understanding our human condition goes some way to inuring us against its absurdities.
Where does suicide fit in a cost/benefit calculation of life’s trials and tribulations – which is what Hamlet’s soliloquy is largely concerned with? It is only if you exist that you can have pleasure, joy and satisfaction. As long as these outweigh the pain and the suffering, then being is worth it. But there is arguably an asymmetry in this argument. If you no longer exist then there is a complete absence of pain, which is a good, but also an absence of pleasure. Yet the latter is not in itself bad, because there isn’t a person who is being deprived. For the living, however, the calculus is different: pleasure involves a good, yes – but you experience pain too, which is an outright bad. Bad seems to outweigh the good when you compare the latter with the former, so that if we had the choice whether to come into being in the first place, we might well answer, no thanks.
Eastern philosophical traditions argue that we confuse ‘being’ with egotistic thought and emotion; break free from these and you become aware, present, attentive to the present moment and non-reactive. This emergent self enjoys a different sense of being. It isn’t just what we feel and experience that matters to us, it is also what we are and how we live in contact with reality; and being in contact with reality requires us to be.
Mike De Val, Nant-y-Derry, Abergavenny
To be is a good. Unless existence is a good, then nothing is good. Yet we all desire good: the will is naturally drawn to the good, and recoils from harm. What is not good is evil, meaning that evil is the privation of good. So evil only exists relative to some good. We all participate in goodness, which can be perfect only in God. Yet we’ve all also experienced evil at some point, because we all exist. We’ve also had experience of good, whether simple or complex; the pleasant feeling of sunshine on one’s skin, or the pleasures of friendship or romance. These are goods which we especially recognize when they’re missing, in the bitter cold, or loneliness, or heartbreak. No one who loses a limb reckons life better by the loss itself. Rather, the loss is only made bearable by the gain of some other good; for example, by becoming a more grateful person, or a more charitable human being, through overcoming the adversity. I think few would argue that the evil was required in order to gain these goods. Rather, the evil was merely the occasion of these intangible goods, which could be acquired by anyone at any time.
There still sometimes occurs the feeling that life is unbearable, that the sum total of good experiences surely cannot outweigh the bad ones. Or perhaps the crushing weight of adversity and sorrow has made its presence felt too keenly upon a soul. To know that another has suffered more than me and has endured it admirably – Jesus is a good example – may be a small comfort. But perhaps all that is needed to revive hope is a change in perspective; to have a little more courage, a little more strength, and the grace to bear that which is passing, for this earthly life is indeed passing, lasting but a moment, while eternity is forever. With a perspective such as this, and the examples of countless others who endure suffering with fortitude, who wouldn’t be inspired to work not for what perishes, but for eternal life?
Efren Pizano, Chatsworth, California
To be or not to be? That is the question that arises when one faces up to the feelings of anguish, despair, and insignificance that can overcome us during times of deep reflection. Such feelings can lead us to wonder if it would be easier to end it all now and be done with the fluctuating emotions that never seem to settle or straighten themselves out with time. They linger on our horizon alongside another cause for concern: the certainty of death. When we reflect on the likelihood that a century from now we will be erased from the historical memory, a dark shadow of meaninglessness can be cast over our every decision and action. We feel like a Kafka character, who has been summoned to this world without a reason but living in hope that one day, before death, it will all become clear. I personally do not hold my breath.
Instead of looking for answers in the works of existentialist philosophers or in the texts of the world’s religions, perhaps a reason to be can be found by observing nature. While walking my dog one afternoon, I noticed a cherry blossom tree in full bloom. It was strikingly beautiful, and I made a point of walking the same route every time I took the dog out, so that I could bear witness to the pink leaves that had left such an impression on me. A week or so passed, and I headed out on the same route: only this time, the tree stood bare. I was later to find out that these blossoms are very short-lived. Ever since I became aware of the cherry blossom tree’s evanescent nature, I have felt a deep affection towards it. I believe that while the colour of the petals is pleasing on the eye, it is their transience that provides the special aesthetic quality.
Like the blossoming of a ‘Sakura’ tree, our lives are unenduring. This does not render them pointless. Instead, it provides the beauty and significance that makes them worthwhile. If we can learn to embrace our impermanent and absurd condition, we may, like Albert Camus, find within us an eternal summer.
Kevin Hattie, Kirkintilloch, Glasgow
The reference in the question is undoubtedly to Hamlet’s soliloquy where, considering suicide, he realises he and others are deterred by fear of what may happen after death. But to me the question also suggests the Greek myth where, when questioned by King Midas as to what is the best and most desirable thing for human beings, the satyr Silenus replies: “Not to have been born – but the next best is to die soon.”
Some may say that philosophies which claim that life is not worth living, or that only a fear of death deters us from taking our lives, cheapen and degrade life. But, in regards to Hamlet, much of his soliloquy appears to ring true. He is surely right to say that life is full of tribulations – “the thousand natural shocks” – and that we are often unable to avoid them. We may, for example, be oppressed minorities living under a dictatorship; or, like Ophelia, we may be scorned in love. By ending our lives, it may, strangely, seem that we are taking control over matters and deciding how to live (to not). However, although many may hate their lives sometimes, few actually take their lives. Hamlet seems right when he says, “conscience makes cowards of us all.” Silenus, however, seems to be saying that it’s never worth living at all. Yet surely many things do make life worth living: the beauties of nature, art, science, the capacity for reason and self-awareness which allows us to appreciate these things. Although we know some of our life-experiences will be painful, and are aware that love affairs and friendships end, and the people we love most may die in the course of our life, there is, arguably, still much to appreciate. Furthermore, there is perhaps a certain dignity gained by living through personal adversity. Consider Camus’ telling of the myth of Sisyphus: Sisyphus adheres to his pointless labour in Hades despite the endlessness and ignominy of it, deriving some nobility from his absurd condition.
And irrespective of the rights and wrongs of suicide, should we really fear death and what comes afterwards? Perhaps we should instead view it with anticipation. In the words of Peter Pan, death is “an awfully big adventure.”
Jonathan Tipton, Preston, Lancashire
Is that the one real philosophical question – whether to live? (Camus.) But yet it is not really a question; it is a choice (or are we merely bewitching ourselves with language here? – Wittgenstein). But what is the purpose of this ‘real philosophical question’? Purpose itself goes far beyond the idea of ‘to be’: the real answer is to be sought in ‘how to be for someone’ (Levinas).
In fact, there is no ‘answer’ available to us, only a choice; and this choice is contingent on whether the ‘to be’ can attain (realise, etc) its purpose – whether understood as that revealed in scripture, as the final cause in Aristotle’s sense, as some personal construction, or the ideal of a thinking subject, and so on.
Hamlet’s trouble in asking his question is also an admission of having missed a particular life-purpose. That is, Hamlet is without an answer to the primary pair of questions: ‘What is man and why are we here?’ (Cassirer). I mean, it is difficult to imagine the ‘What am I?’ before knowing the ‘Why am I?’ This alone can inform us about ‘Who am I?’; and only from answering that can one have any idea about how to answer ‘What should I do?’
So Hamlet seems not to understand what he is asking. He, like everyone else, cannot proceed to properly answer ‘To be or not to be?’ without having performed the necessary first step of making a positive identification of, and commitment to, why he is here. And then the so-called ‘question’, like the dense fogs of Elsinore which so mystified him, should clear.
Hank Vrana, Sofia, Bulgaria
The human heart recognizes heroes by the choices they make when they are faced with adversity or responsibility. None of us ever knows for sure what we are made of until we are tested. In The Tragedy of Hamlet, the protagonist falls short of being a hero by virtue of his character, or lack thereof.
According to the gravedigger’s reckoning (Act 5: Scene 1), Hamlet was thirty years old when he fell into his pit of despair.
To be fair, Hamlet’s future was pretty bleak. His father, the old King of Denmark, had been dead only a month when his mother’s scandalous marriage turned his world upside down. Hamlet knew that his mother’s self-centered happiness had cost him the throne, but he felt helpless to stand up for himself. And what can a king stand for if he can’t stand up for himself?
Poor Hamlet! He was a prince: that much was true. He knew full well who he was, but what he was, he hadn’t a clue.
In this modern age of blended families and accumulated cultures, we struggle more than ever to know who we truly are. Companies such as AncestryDNA and Ancestry.com lend their shovels to help us dig up our roots; but the deeper we go, the more we know that we are digging in the wrong place. Our true identity does not reside in the dry dusty bones of our family trees, but rather in the sum total of our own individual actions.
The beloved Russian author Leo Tolstoy believed that untangling who we are from what we are is one of life’s greatest pursuits. His philosophy was that our station in life merely describes us, whereas our actions define us. In his book, The Gospel in Brief, Tolstoy concludes that our true identity comes down to one thing: our choices.
We have no control over who we have been made into. That is a fact of circumstances beyond our control. Yet to become or not to become what we are meant to be is for us to decide. Therein, dear Hamlet, lies our true identity, and our strength to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
Connie Koehler, Texas
Camus wrongly reasons that the fundamental question of philosophy is whether or not life is worth living. No one seriously raises that question except in uncommon, particular cases. Why should I continue to live? The nearly universal answer is, “Because I want to.” It’s the way nature made us. Camus should have consulted Mother Nature. To be or not to be? The empirical evidence is clear. It is to be.
There is a survival instinct. It is visibly operating in, for instance, conditions of slavery, where a continued existence in a degrading state of injustice, no liberty, scant pursuit of happiness, brutal punishment, and back-breaking labor, is still preferred to death. It is manifest in the clinging to life of the old and infirm whose time is short; and in the same clinging to life of the young and infirm whose time to suffer is long. Many with terminal illness who plan suicide find they cannot will themselves to do it. The survival instinct is not something we reason out. It is in us as a result of aeons of evolution. It clearly contributes to the survival of one’s species. To be or not to be? Nature answered that question for us.
Neither suicide nor deliberately sacrificing one’s life for another is evidence against the survival instinct. Both are rare, and their rarity is itself evidence that ‘to be’ is generally preferred to ‘not to be’. War might be the chief evidence to the contrary. However, most have to be conscripted or pressured to fight. And when people do march off to war, they do so not to give their lives for their country, but, as General Patton said, to make “the other poor dumb bastard die for his.”
I might question my continued existence in the face of terminal illness. I would never question it just because someone suggested that life seems absurd. Even if it were proved to be so, we still are driven to live, and so we will. And if we need meaning in our lives, somehow, almost all of us will find it.
John Talley, Rutherfordton, North Carolina
Conscious thoughts are due to complex electrochemical reactions in the brain, which, when deconstructed, are essentially interactions of matter and energy. Einstein’s equation E = mc2 says that matter and energy are interconvertible. And one of science’s most secure maxims is that energy can never disappear, it merely changes form. This means that nothing is absolved from this immortality, because everything has energy-identity. Therefore, ‘to be’ is the only answer.
But will we still experience a sense of life after death – especially since our sense organs will no longer have the capacity to work as we anthropocentrically perceive them to? Aye, there’s the rub! Emerson says in The Poet, “Here we find ourselves, suddenly, not in a critical speculation, but in a holy place, and should go very warily and reverently.”
To conceptualize post-death consciousness is to plunge into a conjectural dreamscape. Yet, many pundits have taken this dive and fashioned innumerable ‘answers’. In his Myth of Sisyphus, Camus calls this leap to belief in an afterlife a hope that transcends human understanding, an escape from reality that is akin to philosophical (that is, intellectual) suicide. He finds integrity only in the state before the jump: in Shakespearean terms, an ego-teetering between being a “paragon of animals” and “quintessence of dust.” He counsels living with the absurdity of the life we perceive. Absurdity bursts forth from conflicting contemplations of self: body and/or consciousness, meaningful and/or meaningless, particle and/or wave, etc. As T.S. Eliot said in The Hollow Men: “Between the potency and the existence/Between the essence and the descent/Falls the Shadow.” All who meditate upon these koan-like recursive mysteries become ensnared in this speculative penumbra of potential solutions, not unlike the superposition of the photon before the wavefunction collapse.
In one sense, we will always be a part of this great flux of matter-and-energy existence; but the conscious decision to give place to being and/or non-being is one of preference not of certitude, for we cannot experience death amidst living awareness. The possible implications of quantum entanglement, universal sentience, parallel worlds, and a myriad other rabbits, beg to be chased. My preference is to shimmer in the probabilities, blink from one to another without settling, without collapsing. I will continue this relentless run to touch the horizon of human knowledge until I am enlightened by hidden variables, by inevitable natural death, or never, by nothing. Until then, the only significance any of us can give to these primeval yearnings for absolute identity are personal morality tales of ideology and imagination.
Christine Rousseau, Flagstaff, Arizona
In practice, suicide is rarely the result of a process or reasoning, but rather of a loss of reason. It is an outcome of depression, of schizophrenia, of alcohol or other drug abuse. It is estimated that 80% to 90% of suicides occur in people with mental disorders. Two-thirds of suicides visit a doctor in the month before their final act. (A depressed young friend of mine tried to admit himself to hospital the day before he killed himself, and was turned away.) So suicide is usually the consequence of an untreated illness; an illness that leads as surely to death as untreated cancer.
Every year, across the world a million people kill themselves, and fifteen times as many try. In the developed world it is a leading cause of death in the unreasonable young. The old, and sometimes wiser, having still a little reason, eschew it, for reason cannot drive us to suicide. Roquentin in Sartre’s novel Nausea confronts a world in which all action is pointless, and quickly deduces that suicide would be pointless by the same token. Camus writes The Myth of Sisyphus towards much the same conclusion, encouraging us to battle on in an absurd world. Thomas Nagel agrees that if all life is pointless, then suicide is as pointless as anything else. It will be neither justified nor condemned by reason.
However, David Hume long ago taught us about the limits of reason for motivating action. Reason cannot prove that night follows day, nor that the world exists, nor that I have a self. And yet I daily preen myself, and in the day that follows night, I go out into the world. I may also kill my unreasonable and unjustified self.
We are not perfectly rational beings, like angels or gods. We are apes, and if we kill ourselves it is not because reason has shown us the way, but because we have become temporarily wonky. The brain – that highly irrational organ – that struggles to convert sensation into something bearable, has given up trying for a moment. And in that moment – and it only takes a moment, it does not take thought – we do the non-undoable.
As for Hamlet, he was all words, words, words, and he was driven to murder and suicide because he had seen a ghost.
Robert Griffiths, Godalming
Thought over the act of self-killing has persisted for millennia alongside entrenched religious anathema against it, as well as certain religions which require it on occasion, for example, in the immolation of widowed Hindus. Attitudes in Western civilization started to shift from the Seventeenth Century: John Donne’s defense of suicide and David Hume’s critique of the Thomistic view of suicide were notable treatises. Hume argued that circumstances that lead to a human being living in constant pain and suffering mean that that person is leading an existence worse than death.
Hume thought that the our natural fear of death ensured that the person who chooses to commit suicide would only do so after substantial deliberation. However, a person embroiled in dreadful circumstances may not be in the optimal frame of mind to make the choice. Giving the choice to someone else, a close relative, for example, appears to be a better alternative. However, the threat of extraneous factors affecting the decision always remains. For example, the person chosen to choose might abandon her duty to prevent an impulsive suicide in order to advance her own interests. Regardless of the checks which we might presume operate, a set of practices has yet to be devised that prevents manipulation and abuses of the potential victim. Advances in medicine have enabled us, through psychiatric testing, to determine a person’s rationality in moments of extreme anguish, for instance, when a patient chooses euthanasia. But are such tests able to reveal a difference between a soldier laying her life down for her county and a suicide bomber at the end of her life? Without testing capabilities at such junctures, the answer to ‘To Be or Not To Be?’ would appear to lie within the moral compass of the beholder. Yet as Schopenhauer puts it, suicide “is a clumsy experiment to make; for it involves the destruction of the very consciousness which puts the question and awaits the answer.”
Ish Sahai, Mumbai
Whether life is inherently positive, negative, or neutral is an issue faced by many philosophers, but few confronted it with such force as Arthur Schopenhauer. For Schopenhauer, all organisms are all driven by a Will to survive that often drives them into conflict, meaning that life is essentially suffering. Even in the brief respites when Will is not pushing us forward, there is little more than boredom. Life is therefore overall negative in nature. This is the philosophical stance of Pessimism.
This Pessimistic stance leads Schopenhauer to another rather shocking conclusion – that human reproduction is morally reprehensible, and cannot be justified through reason. If life is suffering and negative, then it follows that to create life is a cruel act, as it condemns a new being to a life of suffering. It is no wonder then that, in both fiction and reality, suffering sentient beings often curse their creators, who have damned them to an unfair existence – as exemplified in Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Even if we do not go so far as Schopenhauer’s Pessimism, nor accept his conclusion that human reproduction cannot be justified, his argument should highlight to us the significance of childbirth and parenthood. Creating another being is not something that should be undertaken lightly, and our reasons for doing so should be carefully considered, perhaps more than for any other act. For while we may not accept that life is inherently or simply negative, it is evident that our world is one with a great deal of suffering. With the awareness that one is bringing innocent life into an at times hostile world, parenthood is then a great duty. Let Schopenhauer’s Pessimism then be taken as a challenge and a reminder to us: a challenge to build a better world for future generations to inhabit, and a reminder that children do not choose their existences. And on a broader scale, if society supports childbirth to sustain its own existence, then education and other investments in the future should be prioritised as a debt owed to the life that has been created. If new life is to be created, then we must take care that it is not a curse, by accepting the challenge of Schopenhauer’s Pessimism.
Kenneth Thomson-Duncan, Aberdeen
To be or not to be? Let me try to answer the question by recounting a harrowing episode from three years ago.
Facebook is a strange place to try to talk someone out of suicide. But through an instant message I checked in with a young friend, who I knew outside of Facebook. She was not doing well and threatened to end her life. I am a philosopher, not a counsellor, so I was not trained for this. Nevertheless, I had to keep typing.
I told Nancy (not her name) that she needed to stay in the world, that her presence, no matter how miserable for her, was nevertheless good and significant. I asked her to remember her place in the hearts of her family and friends. I added that her life might get better unexpectedly. I gave her links to articles that might awaken her desire to live. (All the while, I was frantically Facebooking to try to get through to her family.) I had a significant problem, though: Nancy is an atheist, who thinks that life has no objective meaning. But I did not counsel her to commit suicide if that was her desire since everything is meaningless anyway, neither I did not invoke Camus’ response to suicide, since I find these worldviews unconvincing. But since even nihilists cannot escape the truth that some things have meaning to some people, I tried to remind her of value outside of her own suffering. Ultimately, and however clichéd it sounds, that value, that meaning, is love. Love could hold her back and lead her on. I also implored her as a loving friend.
Nancy did not try to die that night. I had gotten through to her mother, who lived locally and she rushed to Nancy’s apartment. Perhaps I stalled her long enough to make that possible. Sadly, Nancy did attempt to take her own life twice not long after. She failed both times. I visited her in the psychiatric ward, because she asked to see me. It was a kind-of pastoral visit to an atheist. Our philosophical discussion about God and meaning didn’t get too far during those visits. But why did she call me, a Christian philosopher, to meet her in the aftermath of her darkness? I think it was love. If love is real, suicide is wrong. As I departed, I said, “Love is real, please stay.”
Dr Douglas Groothuis, Littleton, Colorado