Philosophy & Psychology

Suicide as catastrophe and as calculation

The August 2021 issue of Harper’s magazine has a cover story headed ‘What are the odds? The Troubled Quest to Predict Suicide’. The essay was by Will Stephenson, an associate editor of the magazine.

Towards the end of the article, he recounted the stories, in brief, of two male friends of his (B and J, he dubbed them) who had committed suicide when they were all very young; one shooting himself at the age of 16, the other hanging himself a couple of years later. Ever since then, he had been curious as to why people commit suicide and whether it can be foreseen – presumably with a view to forestalling it.

Editor's note: This article covers a sensitive topic. If you or anyone you know needs help, contact: Lifeline on 13 11 14; Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800; MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978; Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467; Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636; or Headspace on 1800 650 890.

Stephenson comments, early in his essay: "We tend to discuss suicidal ideation as if it is dramatic, rather than banal, but it is surely just as often the latter. The impulse can act as a sort of muscle relaxant, a release valve that also, perhaps not incidentally, corresponds to periods of persistent discomfort or despair."

One is reminded of Nietzsche’s quip, in Beyond Good and Evil #157: "The thought of suicide is a powerful solace. By means of it, one gets one through many a bad night."

But Stephenson quotes a more sombre reflection, by the American poet ...

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About Paul Monk

Dr Paul Monk is a public intellectual, poet, former senior intelligence analyst and consultant in applied cognitive science. He is the author of a dozen books, including 'The West in a Nutshell: Foundations, Fragilities, Futures' (2009), 'Dictators and Dangerous Ideas' (2018), his breakout book of poetry 'The Three Graces: Companionship, Discretion, Passion' (2022) and 'Thunder From the Silent Zone: Rethinking China' (2nd updated edition 2023). He is a fellow of the Institute for Law and Strategy (London and New York) and a fellow of the Rationalist Society of Australia.