Saturday, 14 August 2010

Something to live for

The Chief Coroner's call for debate on the media's reporting of suicide has got people talking about suicide, and why it is that teenagers especially elect to end their lives just as they’re about to blossom.

At a time when they’re just beginning to ask life’s big questions, why is it that oblivion seems to so many a more desirable alternative than life on this earth, with all its madness, laughter, delight, possibilities and joy?

Why do they throw their young lives away so lightly?

In one sense, it’s a hard one to answer, since no-one can ever really tell us why they’ve done it.  But surely one major answer is that when they come to ask those big questions, they’re finding no answers to them that make sense.

Those “big questions” are the ones that, by definition, philosophy is supposed to ask and answer. But modern philosophers can’t, and don’t. Instead, if they listen to philosophers at all, they tell youngsters there are no absolutes, life has no meaning, and not to bother asking about it. Why wouldn’t thinking teenagers ponder that message of destruction and wonder what to do about it?

They’re told from every screen and in every school room that their species is evil and destructive, and is going to kill the earth.  Why wouldn’t serious teenagers take that message seriously and begin to damn themselves and existence?

They’re given religion as an answer to life’s big problems, which tells them to renounce their own happiness on this earth for a “life” in some other damn place; to place other’s faith over their own reasoning mind; to live for others instead of themselves. Is it any wonder they end up in doubt, confusion and ready to be easily led? Ready to damn achievement and success?

lewis Tennis ace Chris Lewis (right) calls this 'the crab-bucket mentality,' the hatred of achievement with which so many young folk shackle themselves and damn their more successful brothers. And why wouldn’t they? Instead of real values for living life on this earth, they’re given only nihilism or slop.  Says Chris about a youngster’s need for fuel to impel themselves forwards from within,

_Quote …in a world where the predominant trend is toward anti-achievement & anti-success, motivational fuel is something that we all need from time to time to propel us toward our goals. Which is why I would like to commend to your attention a book that provided me with a tremendous amount of motivational fuel very early on in my tennis career.
   The book is entitled The Fountainhead, by the Russian/American novelist Ayn Rand. In the introduction to her book, she tells us,
        "Some give up at the first touch of pressure; some sell out; some run down by
     imperceptible degrees & lose their fire, never knowing when or how they lost it ... Yet a few
     hold on & move on, knowing that that fire is not to be betrayed, learning how to give it
     shape, purpose & reality. But whatever their future, at the dawn of their lives, men seek
    a noble vision of man's nature & of life's potential. There are very few guideposts to find.
    The Fountainhead is one of them."
    At a time when, as a seventeen-year-old, I was just setting out to conquer the tennis courts around the world, an attempt that demanded excellence & achievement every step of the way, it was The Fountainhead that helped to inspire me in the face of discouragement from the "crab bucket mentalities" who told me I was wasting my time.
    For anyone who believes in the importance of achieving his or her values & goals, who believes that happiness is the end result of such achievement, & that happiness is the norm when independence, in thought & action is promoted, encouraged & pursued, The Fountainhead comes with my highest recommendation.

picture-2 Lindsay Perigo (right) expands on the theme in a piece he wrote a few years ago in response to a how-to piece on suicide in Craccum. (One of the “high points” of the editorship of Martin “Bomber” Bradbury, as I recall.) Called “Affirming Life,” I post it here in its entirety.

    Yesterday's furore about the Craccum "How to commit suicide" article … set me to thinking about the time I appeared on 'The Ralston Group' when we panellists were asked our explanations for the high rate of youth suicide.
    I stated my own suspicion that the problem came down to a failure of philosophy. Youngsters were taking their own lives at precisely the time one asks life's big questions & searches for ideals to guide one's conduct. Religion, to which one traditionally repaired for answers, was discredited & had not been replaced with a viable secular alternative - leaving a values vacuum, leading to despair. What youngster would be inspired by the jaded cynicism so manifest in so many once-thoughtful adults?
    But is a viable, secular alternative to religion possible? Can life have meaning without an after-life? If there is no god to inspire ideals & prescribe values, can there be any other source? Can man discover it? Theologians & philosophers alike have answered these questions with a resounding, No! Many professional philosophers revel in proclaiming their discipline irrelevant to the conduct of everyday life. The moral status of benevolence, they say, is no different from that of malevolence, creativity from destructiveness, honesty from deception, etc., and a belief in any of these values over their opposites is merely an arbitrary preference, with no objective validity. Ethically, it's deuces wild.
    The current subjectivist/relativist/nihilist morass may seem unappetising, they concede, but that too is an arbitrary judgement. There are no grounds for seeking anything better - there *is* no "better."
    The Russian/American novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand begged to differ. It is reality itself, she argued, that confronts man with the need for morality - a code of values designed to facilitate the process of living - because it confronts him with alternatives amongst which he must choose (he has no choice about choice). At the most fundamental level the choice is: life or death. If one chooses death, there is nothing more to be said; if one chooses life, the book of morality opens, & one must fill in the pages oneself, making one's choices in the presence of alternatives to the ultimate value of: life.
    To the nihilist's gleeful 'coup de grace,' 'Ah! But why should one value life in the first place?' Rand replied: The question is improper. The value of life need not & cannot be justified by a value beyond life itself; without the fact of life, the concept of value would not be possible in the first place. Value presupposes life; life necessitates value.
    To the existentialists' lament that without something beyond life, life itself has no meaning, she responded similarly - the very concept of meaning can have meaning *only* in the context of life. Ultimately, the meaning of life, if one wants to use that terminology, is ... *life* - one's own life, since one cannot live anyone else's - & what other or better meaning could one conceive?
    A creature endowed with immortality, denied the alternative of life or death (& their barometers, pleasure & pain) would have no need of values & could discover no meaning in anything since nothing would be of any consequence to it. It is man's nature as a living, mortal entity, unprogrammed to survive, constantly facing alternatives, endowed with a conceptual/volitional consciousness, that simultaneously makes the need for morality inescapable and the fulfilment of that need possible.
    For a human being, "is" is fraught with "ought"; "ought" is an irresistible aspect of "is" - the traditional dichotomy between them is false. The task of ethical philosophy is to prevent their being artificially sundered. A successful outcome - a morality derived from and consistent with the facts of reality - is, by virtue of those very characteristics, *not* arbitrary (disconnected from reality) but objective (consonant with reality).
    Rand went on to argue that a reality-based, life-affirming morality would concern itself not merely with survival, but survival proper to the life of the sentient, conceptual being that man is. While life might be the *standard* of morality, *happiness*, she argued, was its *purpose*. "The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live."
fountainhead     In Rand's novel The Fountainhead, a young man fresh out of college, looking for spiritual fuel for the journey ahead of him, is wheeling his bicycle through a forest, when he encounters the architect Howard Roark, contemplating some breath-taking new structures - his own - in a nearby clearing. "Who built this?" he asks. "I did," Roark replies. The boy thanks Roark & walks away. "Roark looked after him. He had never seen him before & he would never see him again. He did not know that he had given someone the courage to face a lifetime."
    To all this country's young people, happy & unhappy alike, I would repeat what I said on 'Ralston': Read this book - & the philosophy that produced it. You have nothing to lose but your doubts; you have your dreams to win. I repeat that advice today.

Here’s Ella Fitzgerald & Mercer Ellington.  Something to Live For.

PS: If you agree with the prescription that Chris and Lindsay outline here and you’d like  to offer to a new generation the inspiration to face a lifetime that reading The Fountainhead has given some of us—then why not help out with our Fountainhead Essay Contest, and put the ideas in this life-changing book in the hands of more young New Zealanders.  (Here's what one participant in the ARI's American competition has to say, and here's the winning 2002 New Zealand essay.)


  1. "At the most fundamental level the choice is: life or death. If one chooses death, there is nothing more to be said"

    Wow that's ironic. An objectivist responds to a discussion about suicide, says that it's a failure of philosophy, then quotes Rand saying that if people choose death there is nothing more to be said?

    There's a lot of truth to what she said in that paragraph, but it hasn't answered the nihilist's question, and it barely even touched the issue of suicide.

    Why should we value life? This is not an "improper" question as Rand stated. She herself said that we are confronted with a choice, life or death, a choice we have no way of avoiding. But you can't choose between these actions without assigning value to them.

    The question is not "improper" because we are alive when this choice is presented to us, and because we are alive value has already been established. Both the act of continuing to live, and ending life have value.

  2. Richard McGrath15 Aug 2010, 08:49:00

    @David S:

    I don't think Rand is saying suicide is due to a failure of philosophy.

    For many suicide is the rational alternative to continuing a life of misery.

    But if a life-affirming alternative exists as a further choice in addition to nihilism and death, wouldn't it be tragic if a young person was unaware of this third option?

  3. One thing that may not be taken into account with youth suicide is the finality of it. A lot of teenagers seem to have the misapprehension that if they commit suicide, then life will stop for all the people around them, forgetting that those who choose to live life after the suicide of a friend/relative, will be a little different, but in general, not so much. It won't be the life ending event for most people that some of these suicides hope/ expect it to be.

  4. I think suicide *is* a failure of philosophy.

    One of the worst quotes I have ever seen is approvingly quoted as a chapter heading in a popular *teenage* parenting book I have :

    You are as great as your faith and as small as your ego. ~ Shimon Perez, former PM of Israel

  5. "I don't think Rand is saying suicide is due to a failure of philosophy."

    Those were Lindsay's words.

  6. Loved your post, PC..... loved it so much that I went out and bought 'The Fountainhead' and 'Atlas Shrugged' from Dymocks as it really is about time I read some od Ayn Rand's works.

    They were on promotion and as I lugged them back to the car on the freight trolley that I borrowed from the bookshop, I reflected what a great deal I had got at just $38.33 per kilo!

    I'm going to make sure that when I read them I am careful to use alternate hands to hold the book so as not to build muscle mass unevenly on one side of my body.... so... here goes....! :-)

  7. "I don't think Rand is saying suicide is due to a failure of philosophy."

    I think she most definitely does. But by the success of the wrong philosophy.

  8. @Dave Mann: Great news! I'm jealous that your get to read her for the first time. :-)

    And be assured that reading Ayn Rand builds up both your mind and your body.

    And her books are also perfect to help hold down the lid on your scanner.


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