On Suicide: Social theoretical and philosophical viewpoints


Francis Bacon’s figures scream desolation and absolute despair. In the above work, innocuously titled ‘Study for a Portrait’, his damned figure is attired in a suit, trapped within a cube and his face is distorted almost beyond what is humanly recognizable. He resembles a terrible skull, his mortality distorted, any semblance of joy decimated. Viewing Bacon often makes me think about what drives people to suicide or madness. His visceral violence with oil paint confronts the art-reader with a total submission to all that is horrible. Since discovering his work in my late teens, I have spent hours gazing into the images, being affected. Deleuze wrote an insightful book on Bacon’s work and his figures as meat trapped in black nothingness. Bacon tears at your insides, summarizes your worst nightmares. The below painting, ‘Figure with Meat’, is perhaps one of his most famous, and philosophically explicit. Here, it is plain that humans are meat – meat that can think, feel and affect, but meat nonetheless.


In her interesting, and well-written, autobiography porn star and entrepreneur Jenna Jameson made a contention that stuck with me. Suicide is an act that anyone can commit, an idea that flashes into one’s mind in a moment of desperate depression and hopelessness. Society tends not to see suicidal ideation, or the act itself, as something capable of anyone at any given terrible moment. Rather, it has built a discourse that demonizes the act, making it an oddity or exception; and by extension, alienating the suicidal, their friends and families. Social theory, sociology, philosophy and psychology have numerous approaches to better frame how we can understand what is both an individual, and social, act. Emile Durkheim saw suicide as a social act. He concludes that there are four kinds of suicide. Egoistic suicide, which is an act committed due to an individual’s alienation from collective consciousness. An example of this would be an individual who did not feel a social connection to their community or had few social bonds. The second typology was Altruistic suicide, wherein an individual commits suicide to conform to the ideals of society. The act of suicide in war by Japanese soliders – Seppuku (ritualistic suicide via self-disembowelment) – can be regarded as an example of this. Durkheim’s third type was Anomic suicide, which relates to an individual reacting to a society in turmoil. Economic ruin could be seen as an example; such as in the case of high suicide rates in The Great Depression. The fourth kind of suicide is Fatalistic suicide; a more individually focused act where in an oppressive situation, the person chooses to die rather than to continue living.


Durkheim’s social theory of suicide gives us a sociological explanation of how an individual can be driven towards taking one’s own life, one that varies from psychological frameworks that argue for abnormality. Philosophy also considers suicide not to be an act that only few are predisposed to. Albert Camus, one of my favourite philosophers, argues that suicide is rejecting one’s freedom and fleeing from the absurdity of reality in hope to attain an illusion of meaningfulness. He argues for one to accept absurdity, in its full strangeness, and seize fulfillment in whatever one does, no matter how banal. His ‘Myth of Sisyphus’ illustrates this beautifully – Sisyphus is forever damned to roll a rock to the top of a hill everyday, only to have it roll back down. But within this absurdity, Sisyphus learns to find pleasure in the futile.


Sartre also argues against the act of suicide, arguing that the absurdist sees life as condemned to end in death, yet revels in this. Hermann Hesse’s ‘Steppenwolf’ calls those who live on the social margins, the introverts squirming with despair, as ‘suicides’ that live without actually dying. Harry, the protagonist, is thus ‘a suicide’ due to his suicidal ideations with no intention to carry out the act. Existential philosophy tends to avoid moralizing suicide, unlike Utilitarian approaches, which contend that suicides cause social suffering for those left behind and Immanuel Kant’s humanist argument that what one does needs to be considered as what they think everyone else should do. However, of most interest to me, is David Hume’s approach to suicide. Hume theorizes that suicide can be considered a ‘duty to self’ if it is rationally considered and all options are investigated. Knowing that this position was controversial, he left this essay to be published after his death. It was brave of Hume to dismantle morality from suicide; he was one of the first to do so. The below William Blake illustration, ‘The Woods of Self-Murderers’, has a value-laden title and the two men both lived in a similar era (mid-1700s).


The above considered, suicide can be seen as a human act against individual suffering. However, moving towards understanding, and away from moralizing it, risks flattening what is a devastating grieving process for the social circle of the dead. In those dark moments, we need to recall love and how such action may affect, and destroy, those we treasure. Kant’s concept of living how you would suggest others to do is important here. Thus, suicide is social, not an abnormal psychological event to be dissected postmortem and individualized into a rational term that falls within a dusty diagnostic text. It is ethical, because perhaps the suicidal do understand their options and outcomes, especially in the case of the terminally ill. And without trivializing those dark thoughts, it helps to see them as fleeting, human and wholly normative.



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