Monday 10 June 2013

Suicide and euthanasia

                                                          Et in Scotia ego....

I've been re-reading Copleston's History of Philosophy recently. In the first volume on the ancients, I was struck by the following:

It is a great mistake to suppose that the Greeks were happy and careless children of the sun, who only wanted to lounge in the porticoes of the cities and gaze at the magnificent works of art or at the achievements of their athletes. They were very conscious of the dark side of our existence on this planet, for against the background of sun and joy they saw the uncertainty and insecurity of man's life, the certainty of death, the darkness of the future. 'The best for man were not to have been born and not to have seen the light of the sun; but if once born (the second best for him is) to pass through the gates of death as speedily as may be,' declares Theognis, reminding us of the words of Calderón (so dear to Schopenhauer), 'El mayor delito del hombre, Es haber nacido' [The greatest crime of man is to be born]. And the words of Theognis are re-echoed in the words of Sophocles in the Oedipus Coloneus, 'Not to have been born exceeds every reckoning' .....

Now this drive towards death really ought to be the common recognized stuff of human experience. But perhaps one of the oddest elision of modern Western culture is the pretence that  it doesn't exist. Instead of the reality that the fascination of death and the quiet desperation of life bubbles up constantly and unpredictably in everyday existence, there is the pretence that the normal condition of humanity is one of good cheer, only interrupted by unwelcome foreign intrusions such as disease in old age.

It's this naive narrative which lies behind much of the pro-euthanasia lobby. If life is just one untroubled smile, when pain finally hits you in the face of incurable disease, then the only remedy is, indeed, 'to pass through the gates of death as speedily as may be'. But if life is, as the best minds of the past knew and as the Salve Regina has it, something we pass through as a place of exile, 'mourning and weeping in this vale of tears', then grappling with death becomes, not a single, unrepeatable event, but something that colours every moment of our life. And how we face that last moment becomes of a piece with how we face every single living moment.

I loathe Stephen Fry: he presses far too many of my buttons, from tweedy Oxbridge superiority to smug Hampstead socialism, from atheistic Humanism to being a Wagnerite. I am, however, extremely glad that he survived his latest suicide attempt: loathing, particular of an omnipresent media type, is a relatively harmless hobby; rejoicing in the actual death of a fellow human being is an expression of the deepest vice. The typical narrative is that he is diseased: suffering from bipolar disorder, we simply need to up the dose, and we'll have nice old Stephen back again. But what then of Dominique Venner's suicide, apparently as a political protest against same sex 'marriage'? Well, however sympathetic I am to the despair he felt at the measure, I am completely unsympathetic to his killing himself: that is simply not how you deal with despair, however profound.

I've known quite a few people who've killed themselves over the years. Whatever sympathy I have for their internal state -how they felt- none of them objectively had a good reason for doing so. Most of them left grief stricken family and friends to deal and live with their own consequent despair. Classic Western culture both acknowledged the pull of death, and absolutely ruled out suicide or euthanasia as a solution: like an alcoholic finding excuses to drink, human beings will always find excuses to kill themselves, but an older and wiser culture both produced an awareness of this tendency and means for dealing with it. Modern Western culture pretends that death exerts no attraction and also encourages the view that killing yourself is an adequate solution to life's woes. It is from the combination of naivety and willingness to kill as a remedy that one of the greatest dangers to human flourishing in the modern West arises.

To be honest, I've lost track of where Margo MacDonald's regular attempt to introduce a euthanasia Bill at Holyrood or Lord Falconer's similar efforts in Westminster are at the moment. (The Care Not Killing website seems to suggest that Falconer is currently busy in the Lords. No idea what Margo is up to.) But it's clear that this is one of those issues that isn't going away. Until we're able to recognize the way that life, from minute to minute, is lived in the shadow of death, rather than pretending it is simply a matter of facing up to pain in the last phase of life, then any discussion in this area is going to remain at the level of the nursery.

Anyway, to round matters off -and nicely illustrating the complexities of eros and thanatos- the ever cheerful Morrissey:

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