Is there such a thing as a pessimistic, nihilistic, or otherwise melancholy person who’s not also a hypocrite? This question is at the root of a conventional criticism of anyone who subscribes to some dark way of looking at things. The natural suspicion is that believing that life is wretched and hopeless should lead the person to suicide, so if the person chooses instead to keep living, the person's philosophical beliefs must be phony. In fact, the philosophy I’ve been exploring on this blog, which draws from existentialism and cosmicism, among other sources, is pretty grim and iconoclastic, so does it also imply that life isn’t worth living? To anticipate the conclusion, the answer is no.
The Dark Side of Existential Cosmicism
It’s important here to distinguish between having a cause and having a reason to kill yourself. Any cause of suicide must overcome the instincts that drive us to keep going even under dire circumstances. Some people’s instinctive will to live might be stronger or weaker than that of others, so different situations may prove unbearable to different people. In any case, this question of what might cause someone to take her life differs from the question I’ll try to answer here, which is whether a melancholy worldview, and in particular the one I’ve laid out, might provide a good, which is to say, a sufficient, reason for suicide. Notice that you can have such a reason but not the cause, because your will to live may be stronger than your rational side which recognizes the logic of the reason in question. This is the basis of the criticism of melancholy individuals: their reason tells them the proper course, but they lack the courage or the intelligence to follow through, that is, to overcome the pro-life forces both in them and in society.
Now I’ll summarize what seem like the pro-death parts of my philosophy, to see whether they imply a reason for suicide. To begin with, I assume naturalistic metaphysics, according to which science tells us what the fundamental facts are, and I interpret the social relevance of that naturalism in a way influenced by Nietzsche, Thomas Ligotti, Leo Strauss, and others. So of course I assume atheism. There’s no personal God. But with Nietzsche, I assume there’s a good reason the majority of people throughout history have been theists. There are many explanations of the prevalence of theism, but the one that’s most relevant to the existential question at issue, about whether life is worth living, is that we all have an irrational side that makes us want to trust in myths and believe in something sacred. That’s why we conceive of God (and of all manner of other supernatural entities) in the first place, even as children like to play with their invisible friends. The crisis of postmodernity is that we’ve killed the God we created, because of the Enlightenment, so that now we’re left with the threat of nihilism, that is, with the feelings that nothing’s sacred and that life is absurd. This is all just standard Nietzsche. I reject, however, Nietzsche’s solution to this crisis, which is to glorify the natural impulse to cherish life because of the opportunity it gives the strong to overpower the weak. I agree with Nietzsche’s aesthetic take on viable morality, but I don’t think power for itself is a worthy goal, nor do I feel that raw natural processes are sacred.
Granted, I do think naturalism implies a kind of pantheism, according to which natural processes are supremely divine in that they’re ultimately creative. But I don’t commit the naturalistic fallacy of inferring that because something is absolutely X (in this case, creative) as a matter of fact, therefore that thing is highly good because of that fact. That hasty evaluation would leave open the questions of whether creativity ought to be valued at all and whether it should have a positive or a negative value. Perhaps nature is absolutely repulsive because of its supreme creativity, since nature creates new things by destroying old ones. Even if naturalists should worship nature, the question would remain whether they should be tree-hugging hippies or wiccans, on the one hand, or doom-and-gloom Satanists or neo-Lovecraftian cultists, on the other. I’m inclined to think either that all valuations are subjective or that nature’s authentic, most fitting value is beyond our comprehension, so that we can only project onto the universe a value that satisfies us.
In any case, I apply this quasi-religious interpretation of naturalism to politics and to other social issues. Nature creates and sustains complex life through the imposition of dominance hierarchies which lock into place innate inequalities between alphas, betas, and omegas (among other social classes). Nature also perpetuates that creation through the instinct to procreate. Nature sustains its creation of highly intelligent species, such as us, by mitigating our tendency to suffer from angst as a result of our horrifying knowledge of how godless nature works. Nature does this by making us susceptible to various noble lies or myths. Thus, we conceal the horror of politics, which is that social systems tend to succumb to biological inertia so that they express the most primitive and stable pattern of the power hierarchy. We do so by focusing on the distractions of liberal versus conservative ideologies and on mass media infotainment. And we conceal the existential horror of sexual reproduction, which is that sex reveals our animal and mechanistic aspects, the truth of atheism, and the monstrous divinity of nature. We do so by distracting ourselves with romantic fairy tales of true love and by objectifying each other in mating rituals and in the sex act, thus ignoring our greater potential and making a mockery of our modern pretension that we’re a noble, indispensible species, capable of progress through our power of reason. Finally, we conceal the myriad effects of nature’s impersonality, including much of the suffering in the world, by distracting ourselves with myths of cheap morality and personhood. According to them, we ought to be happy, the good life is one that’s full of a variety of life-affirming experiences, we ought to follow social conventions and play along with the natural processes that benefit us, and there’s such a thing as a personal self, in the first place, one that’s free to alter the natural order that opposes us.
So much for a summary of my metaphysical, religious, and social principles. Now given just that side of my worldview, let’s ask whether it implies that some people, at least, ought to kill themselves, namely those who subscribe to anything like the dark philosophy in question. This question needs to be subdivided, since in the world I’ve described there are roughly two groups of people, the conventional winners and the losers. Let’s consider the winners. You might think it’s obvious that those who are most successful, who climb to the top of the dominance hierarchy have little incentive to kill themselves because they have so much going for them. Indeed, but again I’m putting aside the matter of what causes suicide. Just because the wealthy are less likely to kill themselves, doesn’t mean they have less of a reason to do so. Of course, some winners do commit suicide such as those who rise to the top, due to their success in criminal ventures, so that when their schemes are found out they can’t live with the shame.
But more generally, we’re supposing there’s a winner in life who nevertheless subscribes to the subversive worldview I’ve summarized. In fact, that combination is plausible, since the power elites usually have abundant education, which weeds out those with naïve superstitions, and the mountains of money required for their luxurious lifestyle typically requires intimate knowledge of the real world’s squalidness, not to mention a mastery of the vices needed for advancing to higher and higher managerial positions. There’s a conflict here, then, since such a winner would have to look down on her lifestyle, from a philosophical or religious perspective, and yet she’d have to persist in living as a winner. Why not abandon her wealth and the luxuries she’d consider distractions? Or why not kill herself out of shame for the hypocrisy? Meanwhile, the losers have fewer worldly successes which the philosophy in question calls, for the most part, degrading distractions founded on delusion. Does the loser, then, have less reason for suicide?
The problem here is that there’s a clash between two evaluations of social status: there’s the conventional one and there’s the philosophical or religious one. In fact, the worldly designations, “winner” and “loser,” beg the question against the philosophy I’ve summarized. But it’s hard to be rigorously consistent in your worldview, so we can imagine that the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak, the successful and the unsuccessful have mixed perspectives. They have enlightened moments when they perceive the hollowness of mainstream culture, but they’re also forced to degrade themselves to fit in. And so a rich person, for example, might adopt the popular estimation of her riches, in which case she’d consider herself a winner indeed; she'd think her life is good and that it certainly shouldn’t come to an untimely end. Even a poor person who has similar flashes of insight might share the goal, at least, of becoming successful in worldly terms, and that will motivate her to endure her hardships.
Still, this speaks more to causes than to reasons. The question is whether my worldview or some similarly unconventional one implies that life isn’t worth living either for the so-called winners or the losers or both. How harsh, then, should we be on the distractions and delusions of exoteric religion, politics, sex, and personhood? Does every life tainted by these debasements and follies become good for nothing? And are there no spiritual or esoteric pleasures that make life worth living while satisfying austere existential standards? If we focus only on the summarized negative side of my worldview, we might leap to some sort of anti-life conclusion, but such a conclusion would misrepresent what I have to say. My worldview has a positive, constructive, pro-life side.
The Light Side
To wit, I advocate a secular and naturalistic version of classic asceticism, which is to speak of detachment from our base inclinations and of withdrawal from the crudest forms of dehumanization which make up the pastimes of popular, so-called advanced societies. I advocate existential revolt against aesthetically-assessed monstrosities, whether they're the wilderness of pristine nature or the clichés of animalistic behaviour. I propose that we construe morality as a branch of aesthetics and that we value creativity, gallows humour, and the ultimate goal of tragic resistance to the sources of depression for enlightened naturalists. I hold as sacred the artistic merit of originality—not just in traditional art forms, but in all areas of life. All of which implies what Nietzsche and Jesus alike call a dramatic revaluation. Jesus, the character in the Christian fiction, said the last will be first and the first will be last. This speaks to the Gnostic, mystical perception of the apparent world’s wrongness according to a secret criterion. The worldly winners are actually spiritual losers. Nietzsche turned that around and regarded Christians as resentful slaves who long to be worldly winners, so that the winners carry the day even in spiritual terms. For Nietzsche, those with enormous power can be at one with nature in something like a Daoist sense, as long as they affirm their lusts and prejudices rather than pretending they’re disembodied, supernatural beings.
I mean to synthesize classic religious asceticism with Nietzsche’s aesthetic naturalism. So I agree with Nietzsche that we shouldn’t resort to delusions; instead, I think we should suffer from knowing harsh truths about ourselves and about how the real world works. Certainly, if we long to be sadistic dominators we shouldn’t pretend we’re Ned Flanders. But power alone is vacuous, like having a car with no destination. Nietzsche, too, appreciated creativity and artistic vision, but I don’t think he was clear about their relevance to his project. As I see it, those who are truly one with mindlessly-creative nature will have artistic criteria running through the back of their mind at all times. Thus, they’ll condemn all forms of behaviour that settle too easily into unoriginal scrambles for supremacy in a dominance hierarchy, as pedestrian and unworthy of potential heroes. This philosophical artist will agree, rather, with Jesus and Schopenhauer that there’s a kind of withdrawal from natural life that’s “noble,” to use Nietzsche’s term, which is to say aesthetically elevated.
Nietzsche rejects classic asceticism because he thinks it has dubious mental causes. But psychology provides little basis for any normative evaluation, especially since all natural causes are ultimately dubious due to their undeadness, the latter being a type of monstrosity. So there’s the genetic fallacy to worry about here. Indeed, even if many worldly losers are resentful, I see the potential there for sublimation. I agree with Nietzsche that outright delusion, which is to say the lack of self-knowledge is repellant, so losers or slaves in Nietzsche’s sense, who are unaware of their true nature, are unlikely to improve on it. But if worldly losers—outsiders, introverts, melancholy artists, depressed or mentally disturbed and ostracized drifters—are fully aware of their status in the natural struggle, they can recognize their weaknesses and failings and creatively overcome them. The goal isn’t conventional success, but resistance to the monstrous flow, the re-enchantment of the world through great art, and even (in a mythical sense) the vivification of the undead.
According to this naturalistic asceticism, the outsiders tend to occupy a superior spiritual position to those with abundant worldly success, because that success tends to corrupt and distract us from existential matters. If anything, then, it’s the conventional worldview, which divides people into winners and losers, depending on their evolutionary success and material wealth, that threatens people with a reason for suicide. After all, the losers in that case have little to look forward to, aside from an unrealistic chance of their material advancement. On the contrary, the resistance I speak of provides a reason to live in spite of knowing precisely the dark side of philosophical naturalism and thus the futility of most people’s hopes for worldly success. Anyone can take up some degree of classic asceticism, including the aesthetic form I maintain is consistent with naturalism, but those who suffer the most and thus who have the least in material terms are the ones most in need of some such salvation from hopelessness. Christian salvation is merely fictional since it’s supernatural, whereas human creativity is palpably real.
Moreover, I don’t imply that the deluded winners ought to commit suicide, despite the grotesqueness of the decadent lifestyle that’s celebrated by the slumbering masses. Instead, I admire the wealthy for providing the tragic heroes with a sophisticated form of clowning which lends itself to being the butt of existential comedy. (I'm only being a little facetious here.) Those who renounce many of the conventional goals need some entertainment between their bouts of subversive creativity, and one such entertainment is comedy. Wise people laugh at the follies of those who are existentially blind, that is, of those who are preoccupied with trivial, passing, and ultimately pointless matters which are nevertheless worshiped in popular culture. While the most successful among us can be well-informed, they can also be narrow-minded and deluded, especially with regard to their materialism. So were the worldly winners to suddenly do away with themselves, they would deprive the enlightened of the material for nourishing comedy, making the enlightened life that much harder to bear. And so my philosophy provides a reason for the continuation of human life, no matter what the social class.
Perhaps, though, despite my best efforts, the dark side of this worldview conflicts with the light side. For example, I speak above about the delusion of personhood, including the myth that we’re “free to alter the natural order that opposes us.” If we lack that freedom, though, how is existential, ascetic revolt possible? This conflict is resolved, I believe, because I maintain that we have limited freedom, contrary to determinists like Jerry Coyne or Scott Bakker, and I also qualify the heroic struggle by constantly reminding us that it’s tragic, which is to say that it’s doomed to fail since undead nature will have the last alien chuckle. Despite our self-control, our independence from natural processes isn’t absolute. We still need to eat and sleep, and so forth, and we all still die; that is, even enlightened people are also embodied animals. Nevertheless, our limited knowledge and autonomy allow for limited, ultimately futile defiance of nature’s decay. This resistance began unconsciously with the Neolithic Revolutions and with our species' mastery of technology, which allowed us to simulate the mythopoeic vision of an enchanted, meaningful world, by replacing the wilderness with the cityscape.
Enlightenment is a matter of becoming clear on the monstrosity of the underlying processes, of suffering from alienation because of that knowledge, and of creatively making the best of that predicament. All of our creations will presumably come to naught in the end. Our cities, our traditional artworks, our writings and ideas will be replaced and forgotten until our species too is extinguished. This blog’s philosophical rants over which I’ve labored will presumably be entirely forgotten in just a number of decades at most, once its relatively small readership passes away. Eventually, no life forms will remain in the universe even to forget the lot of us. I affirm the likelihood of this tragic end of life. Understanding that bitter truth may cause some people to commit suicide, but I think there’s a reason to keep going even under the circumstances. Struggling while we can against the undead processes that will destroy us, by mentally or physically withdrawing from dominance hierarchies and stoically shutting down the instincts that enslave us puts our mark on the world. While we're obviously undone in death, our having made the mark can’t be undone. True, eventually no one will know that some animals awoke, became disgusted by the natural world, and strove to wipe out the wilderness both in the undead landscape and in their primitive impulses. But the undead god will have felt our wrath. We won’t have been mere puppets that went down without even putting up a fight. We will have done the best we could, and participating in that epic resistance gives meaning to life even in the worst-case scenario.