DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
If god is eternal, then his suicide would be the ultimate logical absurdity. If god can not destroy himself, then he is not omnipotent or all-powerful. If god committed suicide, he would not exist, hence he would not be eternal. Given the logical contradictions of god’s supposed attributes, a reasonable man has good cause to opine that it is impossible for an eternal and omnipotent god to exist.
Yet many are those who would be at least hypothetically at one with an impossible god – they might write the logical absurdity off as another “one of God’s mysteries.” Consider this excerpt from a December 1876 article in Fyodor Dostoevsky The Diary of a Writer:”I cannot be happy except in the Harmony with the great all…. I consider the comedy perpetrated by nature altogether stupid… Humiliating for me to deign to play it…. I condemn that nature which… brought me into being in order to suffer – I condemn it to be annihilated with me.”
The disillusioned speaker obviously desires something besides the harmony, say, of a fifth on the major scale, say between the notes C and G. He rather wants to be atoned with or be at one with a universal One; he would be absorbed by an One of which the world he hates is not a part; for, if it were a part, the tragi-comic world would persist. Such an undifferentiated One would of course be a static infinite void, an eternal nothingness similar to absolute space. The nebulous qualities of absolute space are similar to the theological definitions of God: Absolute Space = God – a fact not lost on the early metaphysicians of modern physics.
Of course the reasoning of our death-wishing author is absurd. There is no identity lacking a relationship, whether or not it is a harmonious one. Further, the suicide leaves the very thing he protests behind – the world persists. The same may be said of the virtual suicide of the ascetic who protests against vanity, claiming that all things of this world pass, therefore it is vain to place confidence in them: the world however persists long after the protestant perishes, which leads us to ask whether or not his heaven, whatever the imagined contents of its absolute space may be, is actually the Vanity of vanities.
Methinks the impossible god represents the will to power, the will to persist forever, something which most of us would not mind doing provided that we did not suffer too much. If no such god exists, men are left to their own relative devices and powers: they are their own gods, petty gods or demi-gods, so to speak. Confronted with relative existence, with the apparent fact that everything perishes and that every living being dies, a few individuals will always manage to reason themselves to death. After thinking on the matter for awhile, they conclude that they might as well face the terrifying truth now, that life is absurd, and take advantage of the ultimate exercise of their relative power, the power to destroy themselves.
Instead of avoiding reality and wasting time with one futile diversion after another, instead of leading an absurd life in a godless universe with a world deaf to their need for eternal life, some folks are disposed to dispense with themselves forthwith; not necessarily because they despaired, but simply because, like President Clinton, they could if they would. Forsaking all else except their love for efficiency, self-destruction seemed to be the reasonable thing to do. Why waste valuable time? And, in his self-sacrifice of his self to his self, at least a man would courageously prove that he, judge and victim, has the power of life and death over himself, and is in fact the god so many people are in need of.
There are a number of men in our midst for whom life on earth is insufficient yet not insufferable providing they have sufficient leisure to gradually reason themselves to death. Logic-chopping suicide is self-murder by gradual mental amputation. Many logical suicidal fanatics never get around to actually killing themselves, preferring an extended virtual suicide to the real thing. Some of them are too preoccupied with philosophy as a preparation for death, or with writing novels about suicidal protagonists, to take their own lives that seriously.
Fyodor Dostoevsky said that his life was tormented by the question of God’s existence. That question is obviously the thorn in the side of several of his characters, who are as salt in their creator’s wound. And those of us who appreciate the works of Dostoevsky if not his personal suffering are glad of that. We are not afraid of his doubts. Even those who consider the question personally irrelevant have been amused by the characters for whom the subject is crucial.
Dostoevsky reasoned on the pressing issues of his day in The Diary of a Writer- the Diary was initially a column in the Citizen but later an independent periodical. Of course the eternal and omnipotent god was dying in those days and the number of people who believe in the immortality of the son of man – meaning the ideal man abstracted from men – was on the wane.
“If faith in immortality is so necessary to the human being,” speculated Dostoevsky in the Diary, “that without it he comes to the point of killing himself, it must be the normal state of humanity. Since this is the case, the immortality of the soul exists without any doubt.”
Of course that argument was hardly the end of Dostoevsky epic internal combat. The speculation itself is specious. Evidence is ample that faith in immortality is not necessary for the human being to persist. Many people believe that life ends with the death of the body and that no soul survives et cetera; and many of them have even rejoiced at the supposed finality of each life; yet they did not go hang themselves, and many lead happy lives. We must also note here that suicide would be impossible if the soul really were immortal; in that case, all suicide attempts would be futile – Hamlet was troubled by that possibility.
As for me, my opinion on the existence of god is irrelevant to orthodoxy since I am not a licensed spiritual consultant; but that shall not stop me from giving it: I am moved to opine that human beings have a sort of “blind faith” in their persistence, a faith inherent in their will to live. The subsequent reasoning thereupon, the dogmas and doctrines, some of them quite beautiful, may be useful in rounding up the herd in a secure place, for misery loves company. After all, for the sake of social coherence it is convenient to construe certain dogma as if it were true.
Nonetheless, religious dogmas and doctrines, such as the doctrine that faith not works saves, appear to me to express more fear than faith. And those who persist in forcing their faith on others have more to fear than most; for instance, the old Jewish notion that it is just to hate missionaries, as if they were murderers, has merit inasmuch as to convert a Jew is to kill a Jew. I have heard it said that people must abide with a particular blind faith or the other. Universal skepticism towards all faiths, or the “godlessness” of those “demons” who refuse to participate in the conspiracies around the holy camp fires, is blamed for the ruination of the world. But the current evidence suggests that this world is not being brought to ruin by skeptics but rather by irrational fundamentalists who have fanatic faith in the Terrorist Almighty: Islamists, Zionists, the Christian Right and Company. They appear as regressives or “conservatives” who revert to the ancient, heroic way to immortality, in the mass suicide of war; for instance, the Greek heroes who sought immortality in killing enemies.
I have met a few truly faithful people; they had nothing whatsoever to prove to anyone at all; their fearless example in bearing witness through their works alone was proof enough to those who worked beside them.
Methinks morality whether it is distinctively religious or not is a sort of virtual suicide. People like myself used to drink religiously in ancient times, then gave it up. In my case, I developed an extra-dry sense of humor when I deserted the tavern-churches and took up writing interminable screeds in cheaper and cheaper garrets. I became a virtual ascetic, abandoning all but one or two of those activities some refer to as “sins.” After all these years of doing without, I might be Leaving Las Vegas with one last blast – if I survive, at least I will have to make good money to keep up with my bad habits. Pending that return to the sweet life, I must reiterate that morality as I know it is a sort of suicide – one would hope for the sake of the species. It is said that a man who conquers himself – a congery of habits – is the most powerful man of all. An ascetic who conquers himself might reason, Why wait? Why not end it all now? Why not exercise the ultimate power and actually be a god?
One of my favorite virtual characters of the logical-suicide type is Dostoevsky Kirilov, the protagonist in The Possessed who fancied that Christ did not find himself in Paradise after his suicide-by-mankind, but had lived and died for a falsehood or illusion.
“It has always surprised me,” said Kirilov, “that everybody goes on living…. If there’s no God, then I’m God…. If God exists, then the whole will is His and I can do nothing. If he doesn’t exist, then all will is mine and I must exercise my own will, my free will…. ”
That is, If God does not exist, everything depends on us. To be truly independent, kill God and become God. If God is eternal, becoming God would realize eternal life – the Power that men worship – on Earth, at least for the time being. Why then commit suicide? Because, or so the perverse reasoning goes, the most glorious exercise of the newly found fearless freedom is to sacrifice it. Again, Why? Out of love for humanity, of course, the son of man, the ideal man, provides humankind with a lesson – his suicide is pedagogical. The ideal man will by the last god to die for all the rest, and thus immortalize humankind on Earth. He is the grandest paranoid man, the most humiliated and exalted man on Earth, and by virtue of his self-martyrdom, the hypocrisy or underlying crisis of humankind will be resolved along with the embarrassing ambiguities, and everyone may become an enlightened god on Earth, or a Christ-Tsar. Humankind is now divine, is free at last! Thus the divine suicide sacrifices himself not to eliminate his own unhappiness, but to free all his neighbors out of love for them, wherefore they do not have to take the same fatal step providing by virtual suicide they take the metaphysical leap to his fearless faith. Kirilov is not suffering from an illusion: in the final analysis, he is deluded; no matter how impeccable his logic might be – and it is not – he has broken with reality. Intolerant of ambiguity, of the absurdity of particular contradictions to the universal, he would in madness rid himself of the ambiguous by reasoning himself to death. Logic is for application to a particular objective purpose or practice, and not for the destruction of the logician. In fine, Kirilov is unwholesome, or, if you will, insane.
“I can’t imagine,” Kirilov continues, “that there’s not one person on our planet who, having put an end to God and believing in his own free will, will dare to exercise that free will in the most important point. It would be like a pauper inheriting a bag full of money and not daring to put his hand into it, thinking himself too weak to own it…. I have an obligation to shoot myself because the supreme gesture of free will is to kill oneself…. I am the only one to do it without reason, just to establish my free will…. I must affirm my unbelief, for there’s nothing higher for me than the thought that there’s no God. The history of mankind is on my side. Man kept inventing God in order to live, so as not to have to kill himself. To this day, the history of mankind consists of just that. I am the first man in history to refuse to invent God. I want it to be known always…. Only one – the first one to realize it, that he’s God, must kill himself…. I’m terribly unhappy because I’m terribly afraid. Fear is the curse of man. But I shall establish my free will. It is my duty to make myself believe that I do not believe in God. I’ll be the first and the last, and that will open the door. And I’ll save them…. For three years I’ve searched for the attribute of my divinity and I’ve found it – my free will! This is all I have at my disposal to show my independence and the terrifying new freedom I have gained. Because this freedom is terrifying all right, I’m killing myself to demonstrate my independence and my new terrifying freedom!”
The Brothers Karamazov was Dostoevsky titanic torment on the pressing question. No doubt it was homeopathic medicine for the impoverished author’s pain. It concluded with the announcement of a future life.
Kolya (a boy), asks, “Karamazov, is it true what religion says, that we shall rise from the dead, that we shall see one another again?”
“Certainly we shall see one another again, we shall joyfully tell one another what happened.”
The gospel of immortality and the dogma of an eternal god may be absurd but real; existence may be at once illusory and eternal; and a person can be both incredulous and convicted: “I doubt it, but I believe it despite myself.
The character typified by Kirilov, Stavrogin, Ivan, is defeated at the end of Dostoevsky gigantic literary combat with God and Vanity. We shall meet again. Suicide and madness are unnecessary, useless, for we shall enjoy immortality, be as the eternal god, gods ourselves, after death on this sphere.
Quoted: Dostoevsky, Fyodor, The Possessed, Trans. Andrew R. MacAndrew, New York: Signet 1962