1

From Goethe to Camus: On the Progression of European Thought Concerning Suicide

What ought one make of suicide? It seems that seeking ³the meaning of life´ in Western philosophical and religious doctrine has been treated time and time again exhaustively without a universally accepted answer. But somehow, in the absence of this meaning, suicide has been widely disparaged and stigmatized in our culture. Whatever one makes of either of these ambitious practices, it is worth understanding and examining the history the issue of suicide. While there is a tradition of writing on this issue in Western philosophy dating back to Plato, I will begin the point of major inquiry on this issue by comparing Johann Wolfgang von Goethe¶s The Sorrows of Young Werther, a Romanticist novel where the protagonist ultimately commits suicide, with the ³absurdist´ philosophy of Albert Camus put forth in The Myth of Sisyphus (and, to a lesser extent, The Stranger). It will not be my goal to endorse or recommend the conclusions of either writer, but rather to illuminate the differences between significant elements in each of their writings and examine the development of thought concerning suicide in the years between Goethe and Camus. Reading and understanding The Sorrows of Young Werther is most effective when first understanding the Romanticist movement, Goethe himself, as well as the time period during which the book was written (and the effect it had on people). Goethe was a young man born into a wealthy German family in 1749. In his younger years, he had a relationship with a young woman named Charlotte that did not end well for him, but would go on to inspire this novel that would make him an early literary celebrity.

2 Werther, the protagonist of the novel, would have a relationship with a woman not coincidentally named µLotte,¶ who he wishes to win the affection of but ultimately concedes that her fiancé, Albert, is the man she ought to be with. In the end, Werther decides that he must commit suicide for, as he wrote to Lotte, ³One of the three of us must go, and I want it to be me!´ (Goethe, 126). The book is characterized by several formal and thematic elements, but most notably its strong Romanticist themes. Romanticism is characterized by an aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional rejection of contemporary (circa late 18th century) values, which were largely distinguished by an adherence to Enlightenment values of rationalism and industrial progress. While Werther (and Goethe) both seem to be well aware of much Enlightenment work, the book works to reject these values: Werther often feels constrained by the rules of society, and often seems to find his greatest pleasures apart from his obsession with Lotte in nature (³All rules, say what you will, destroy the genuine feeling for nature and its true expression!´) and spiritual rumination (³If our hearts were always open to enjoy the goodness that God prepares for us each day, we would have enough strength to bear the bad when it comes;´ Goethe 16, 36). Understanding Goethe¶s Romanticist thought is perhaps best considered in juxtaposition to the Enlightenment principles it rejects. A philosopher who Goethe was no doubt aware of (if not familiar with his works) was Immanuel Kant, famous for, amongst other topics, is writing on ethics. Kant¶s philosophy is based on the categorical imperative, a revolutionary take on the age old ³golden rule´ that means to produce a basic way for moral agents to determine the morality of any possible course of action. In Suicide and Morality, David Novak analyzes Kant¶s philosophy of suicide as it appears

3 throughout his canon of works with the initial premise that all of Kant¶s thoughts on suicide will begin with the notion of the categorical imperative. Goethe will be best highlighted by applying the categorical imperative to the problem of suicide, a problem which Kant covers in four major works (83). Several formulations of the categorical imperative appear throughout the Kantian corpus, but the general notion is that certain so-called imperatives demand a moral subject to act in a particular moral way, making that action dutiful in line with an idea of universally righteous law that would dictate similar action in parallel circumstances. This makes suicide a particularly pertinent problem, for if suicide is morally permissible according to the categorical imperative then there would essentially be universal law establishing extermination of all humans as moral duty. It is this outlook that Kant uses to reject suicide. In Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, Kant argues that the desire to commit suicide is derived from feelings of self-love: if one feels that shortening one¶s own life will lead to greater satisfaction then he is tempted to do so. But to Kant, feelings of self-love entail a drive for self-preservation, and so suicide becomes a contradictory act in the pursuit of self-love. Therefore, suicide cannot be universal law. Given the Romanticist reading of this text, it seems that Werther¶s suicide is supposed to be, ultimately, a rejection of Enlightenment values. Goethe most likely wouldn¶t accept the categorical imperative on principle. The idea that there could be any sort of thing like universal moral law is not something that would even cross the mind of a Romanticist, for any sort of law like this that is supposed to govern an individual¶s action would be readily grouped in with other restrictions imposed on the individual by society. Furthermore, the idea that one¶s individual actions should entail this sort of law

4 would be laughable to a Romantic. Finally, even if Goethe (or Werther) were to accept basic provisional moral laws, Kant¶s specific ideas on suicide would clash. The justification for Werther¶s suicide is hard to characterize, but it is clear that considerations of self-love or self-preservation are a non-issue for him, for these are formulated on anti-rationalist principles. It would be hardly in character for Werther to accept the proposal that his motivation to commit suicide was out of self-love: more than anything, it seems to have been primarily motivated by the desire to create a spectacle. Perhaps more importantly, a suicide driven by Romantic views is supposed to be full of meaning. It is a passionate exercise of expression that is at once anti-rational and well conceived. Werther¶s feeling that either he, Lotte or Albert (whose character pretty clearly symbolizes rational Enlightenment values) must die embodies a sort of spirit that isn¶t to be explained on reasonable grounds. Lotte protests that Werther can go on to love another (³Oh, why did you have to be born with this fierceness, this uncontrollable passion that fastens on everything you touch« I fear it is only the impossibility of possessing me that makes this wish so attractive to you´), but at once accurately identifies his Romantic nature: it is the very passion for the impossible that defines his despair and leads him to his condition (Goethe 124). The Romantic disposition requires further probing still. There is something about suicide, the so-called permanent solution to a temporary problem, which is more significant than any other sort of dramatic outburst Goethe might have written. While the trajectory of Werther might seem hackneyed to contemporary readers, in Goethe¶s time it was a profound and influential idea. The ³Werther Effect´ has been used to describe the popular reaction to the book where many people, particularly young men, emulated the

5 protagonist¶s artistic, passionate temperament even to the point of committing suicide themselves. Whether or not young individuals like Werther had identified their conditions as temporary is unclear; it is equally unclear whether they fully realized suicide to be a permanent solution. But there is a preclusion to the conditions of self-awareness that contemporary thinkers might attempt to apply to this movement, for reflection is not a value embedded in the Romantic disposition. While I have yet to offer an exhaustive analysis of what this disposition entails in relation to suicide, (it will become clearer later that) this issue of self-awareness is an essential breaking point between Goethe¶s depiction of the utility of suicide and that of Camus that calls for some contrast between the two. Albert Camus has often been associated with existentialist philosophy, but is more specifically identifiable with the philosophy of ³Absurdism.´ This is not a philosophy that Camus is necessarily responsible for inventing or even perfecting, but one that he affectionately represented and put forth for the public¶s consumption. Born in French Algeria in 1913, Camus is most famous for his novel L¶Etranger (translated as The Stranger), which can be characterized as the literary translation of his Absurdist philosophy as put forth in The Myth of Sisyphus. A proper review of both of these books, read as complementary, should best help us juxtapose Camus with Goethe. While Romanticism doesn¶t necessarily entail a need or even a discussion of suicide, the Absurdist philosophy of Camus puts the problem front and center: ³Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy,´ writes Camus (Myth of Sisyphus, 3). While Werther judged that life is not worth living only after a certain series of events that compelled him to believe in suicide

6 as a solution, the question is open from the beginning with Camus. Because he recognizes that there is a certain condition where ³in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger« This divorce between man and his life« is properly the feeling of absurdity´ (Myth of Sisyphus, 6). The question Camus wishes to investigate is whether suicide is a proper solution to the absurd condition. In order for the condition of the absurd to be a problem for man, one must first become aware of the condition of the absurd. Clearly it is not one that we all confront: whether it be through religion or any other like apparatus, many people go about life convinced that there is intrinsic value in life, unaware even of the possibility of the absurd condition. This can occur rather easily. Man of the industrial age, for instance, might realize the absurd when he becomes aware of the fact that his life is spent waking up to do factory work and simply asks ³Why?´ Camus writes, ³The Absurd is not in man« nor in the world, but in their presence together (Myth of Sisyphus, 30). Camus refers to the ³mechanical aspect´ of man that really helps to illuminate the absurd, as demonstrated here: A man is talking on the telephone behind a glass partition; you cannot hear him, but you see his incomprehensible dumb show: you wonder why he is alive. This discomfort in the face of man¶s own humanity, this incalculable tumble before the image of what we are, this ³nausea«´ is also the absurd. (Myth of Sisyphus, 15) This is not to say that the absurd is merely a byproduct of the industrial age, or even modernism. After all, it is Soren Kierkegaard who is noted for pioneering commentary on Absurdist philosophy. In The Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard writes of the problem where the sense of despair (characterized by the absurd) inherent to life is mainly problematic not because, as the title might suggest, this sort of sickness is what leads to death, but ³On the contrary, the torment of despair is precisely this, not to be able to die´

7 (Kierkegaard, 150). But it is important to distinguish between the Absurdism of Kierkegaard and Camus, for while they reach the same conclusion (that the absurd condition does not demand suicide), they do so with fundamentally different approaches. Camus explains that Kierkegaard¶s solution, informed by Christianity, is insufficient because Kierkegaard¶s so-called leap of faith seems to avoid the problem entirely, for ³the absurd is sin without God. It is a matter of living in that state of the absurd´ that is founded on ³this mind and the world straining against each other without being able to embrace each other´ (Myth of Sisyphus, 40). So it is not the view of Camus that the solution to the absurd must exclude God, but that the way Kierkegaard does so is questionable, resulting in ³philosophical suicide.´ This is linked in with the problem of freedom under God. The problem of the absurd is an individual one, and because Camus sees no solution to this classic philosophical problem, the Kierkegaardian solution loses meaning. Camus¶ solution to the problem of the absurd is, in effect, through affirmation and acceptance of the problem. He wishes to know ³whether or not one can live without appeal,´ where existence is merely defined by the presence in of life in a world void of it (Myth of Sisyphus, 60). But because this life is only defined by our presence in the world, Camus writes that man simply must maximize quantity of life, as this is the only differentiating factor between men existing in the same world. Living in the absurd condition is ³being aware of one¶s life, one¶s revolt, one¶s freedom,´ and that these three consequences of life are what is entailed by consciousness leads Camus to ³transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death ± and refuse suicide´ (64).

8 This reasoning is what leads Camus to recount the ³Myth of Sisyphus´ and explain how this example of the most absurd sort of lifestyle is even able to generate meaning (because of the presence of the three consequences). In Ancient Greek Mythology, Sisyphus was condemned to an eternal life of pushing a heavy boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back to the bottom and repeat the process continuously. Despite such a torturous lifestyle, ³if there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny« he knows himself to be the master of his days´ (Myth of Sisyphus, 123). In the end, the struggle Sisyphus lives is enough to be content about, given the conditions of existence. This sort of solution is consistent and contemporaneous with the work of JeanPaul Sartre, perhaps the most famous existentialist thinker of the 20th century. Sartre¶s output on the matter of meaning of life, although generated from a strict atheist position, comes to a similar conclusion. In Existentialism and Human Emotions, Sartre explains his position quite simply, saying that ³Man is nothing else than his plan; he exists only to the extent that he fulfills himself; he is therefore nothing else than the ensemble of his acts, nothing else than his life´ (32). While his existentialism does not admit of or depend upon Absurdism, his certain familiarity with it is helpful for appreciating his evaluation this philosophy in his essay ³Camus¶ The Outsider´ (an alternate translation of L¶Etranger). Given our review of the Absurdist philosophy, Sartre properly notes that ³now we fully understand the title of Camus¶ novel´ (30). But two questions come to mind: how should we understand Meursault, the main character, as an Absurdist protagonist; and why did Camus feel the need to proffer a literary manifestation of this philosophy? In part we can understand the novel simply as another piece of output of a prolific Nobel

9 Laureate in Literature. It simply makes sense that Camus would attempt to epitomize his philosophy in literary form because he was a master of that form. Sartre explains that ³the very fact that M. Camus delivers his message in the form of a novel reveals a proud humility,´ and that it is ³the rebellious recognition of the limitations of human thought´ (31). It seems there is a matter of accessibility at the heart of such an intention: both for Camus and for his audience, confronting the full implications of the absurd perhaps demands a format other than an essay. And finally, because Absurdism is something that the individual must confront, how better to present that condition than to read the story of Meursault, the quintessential absurd man? Meursault is not presented to us as a man who has digested the formal presentation we find in The Myth of Sisyphus; he is closer to the man who Camus describes in that book as having stepped back and asked ³Why?´ The reader engages his absurdity as soon as she opens the book, as Meursault introduces himself to us immediately following the death of his mother. Truly in the form of a stranger, Meursault is isolated from the world around him emotionally as well as practically: not only did he not cry following the death of his mother, but the fact that he received word via telegram (and wasn¶t sure of which date she died on) symbolizes his absurd condition. Furthermore, his main concerns following her death are practical ones: having to take the bus to attend her funeral, having to explain the situation to his boss, and even complaining that his apartment felt too big ever since he had put her in a retirement home. Sartre notes, ³Meursault thinks and acts in a different way« For him, neither love nor individual loves exist. All that counts is the present and the concrete (33).

10 Eventually, Meursault finds himself in the series of events that leads him to murder a man, wind up in jail, and be sentenced to death. The series of events leading up to his fate are critical in terms of understanding the practical trajectory of the character. But the particular days we witness in the life of this man merely continue to exude the absurd, as he is merely concerned with the present, not any matters of his trajectory. Although Meursault makes no serious attempt to defend his innocence or maintain his life, he has not committed suicide: he is truly a man who has accepted the absurd and, like Sisyphus, he is content to accept his life for what it is in the present. He concludes his story by telling us, ³I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world« I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again´ (The Stranger, 122-123). There is something revealing about each of the writers¶ takes on suicide. Meursault and Werther share an important characteristic: while each arrived at his fate of death by very circumstances, they both admitted to being accepting, if not pleased with the outcome. While it would be overreaching to consider Meursault¶s death a suicide, it can certainly be said that he, like Werther, was (in part) responsible for the series of events leading up to his death. In this way, we can understand each of these fictional characters¶ deaths as (in part) a product of more than their authors (or their philosophies): they are necessarily a part of the time period in which they came about. Here it will become clear just how similar these philosophers are, despite their differing conclusions on the question of suicide. Once again we must look at The Sorrows of Young Werther as a product of Romanticism. It is not just Enlightenment thought that Romanticism rejects, but the cultural conditions surrounding it. A crucial byproduct of the Enlightenment movement

11 was the first stages of society modernizing around the needs of industrialism. Given the timing of Werther, the Romanticist response begins just at the time when society was undergoing rapid reorganization that was meant to make life better for individuals. It is almost too fitting for Werther to ask, ³Must it be, that what makes for man¶s happiness becomes the source of his misery?´ (57). While Werther says this to Wilhelm in the context of a rumination about how he is overwhelmed by nature, this rhetorical question seems to be the manifesto not just of the Romantic man, but of the suicidal man generally. One who views the mechanization of life as a threat to living life passionately has the same right to ask the above question as the absurd man, because now any time that an individual confronts the absurd, it will be in the context of a modern society that makes the pursuit of life itself truly absurd. However, it is not clear to me that the philosophies of Goethe and Camus being affected by institutions of industrialism entail their dependence on these conditions. This is much clearer with Camus, for the absurd is something that simply exists because of man¶s presence in the world. That we might realize the absurd and continue living with an acceptance of it is applicable to any time period; it just seems that Camus was a modern man, so his environment naturally informed his examples of the absurd. It seems less clear that Goethe¶s philosophy could be applied to people of any time period. So far I have only defined Romanticism negatively: it is anti-Enlightenment, antiindustrial, and anti-rational. But when understood as an attitude that supports a spirit of favoring passion, enjoying nature, and embodying spirituality, someone like Werther need not be only understood as being non-conformist. What Goethe¶s novel expresses is an attitude towards life that is truly timeless, and makes Werther¶s suicide all the more

12 appropriate. Viewing Werther merely as someone who wishes to reject societal conventions is giving him less credit than he is due, for a Romantic would even reject the sort of rational, categorical explanation I have assigned to his motives thus far. The Romanticist way of being should not even heed the cause-and-effect conception of life I have ascribed to Werther. It is no mistake that Goethe wrote Werther¶s story as an epistolary novel, for his philosophy is one that is mainly concerned with the present. Surely there are times where we witness Werther reflect on past events, but these are more often the exception. That his life is documented by discrete reflections of the present reinforces the visceral nature of Werther¶s life. Only towards the end of the novel, when he has decided that he will abandon life, do we leave the epistolary format. This stylistic move of Goethe¶s has an effect on the reader that compounds the emotional release of Werther¶s suicide.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful