…Young Werther’ is a book by J. W. v. Goethe. It is a tale of youthful passion, unrequited love and the introspection that brings.
The character Albert, a friend of the narrator, argues that ‘… it is easier to die than to endure a harrowing life with fortitude.’ Werther responds that ‘… it would be as misconceived to call a man cowardly for taking his own life as it would be to say a man who dies of a malignant fever was a coward.’
Is Albert right?
He raises a fundamental question about our capacity to bear pain; mental pain, and the anguish that physical pain brings. Werther seems to equate the act of suicide – involving a decision, or series of decisions – with death caused by illness, where no decision is involved. But decisions are involved in ending a life; it’s called palliative care. Pain killers used to ease the patient on their way, is the obvious example.
For those of you wondering what connection I am making with cycling in this post – there isn’t one. I have been feeling grotty now for weeks, so grotty the thought of riding my bike anywhere is too much to contemplate.
Why is it better to bear ‘a harrowing life with fortitude’? I have written about the ancient Greek and Roman philosophy of Stoicism before, but this isn’t the aspect of this issue that I want to concentrate on here. It is the underlying assumption that suffering makes you a better person. In modern parlance – ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’.
What doesn’t kill you destroys your life but keeps your vital organs plodding on, is more like it. This is the position known as the Quality of Life Argument. Who decides what counts as a sufficiently good quality of life to justify keeping going despite a ‘harrowing life’? Sometimes it’s the person themselves. People who travel from countries that do not allow physician – assisted suicide to the Swiss organisation Digitas to end their lives are making those assessments.
I am not advocating for suicide, as I have explained in earlier posts. I have been plagued by persistent suicidal thoughts over the past few weeks, and all I am saying is that I am sympathetic to the position that says suicide is another form of pain relief.
To hell with fortitude. Character – building? Who decides whether that’s the kind of character I want?
The huge wound in my head began to heal
About the begining of the seventh week.
Its valleys darkened, its villages became still:
And constantly my mind returned to Troy.
After I sailed the seas I fought in turn
On both sides, sharing even Helen’s joy
Of place, and growing up – to see Troy burn –
As Neoptolemus, that stubborn boy.
I lay and rested as prscription said.
Manouvered with the Greeks, or sailed out
Each day with Hector. Finally my bed
Became Achilles’ tent, to which the lout
Thersites came reporting numbers dead.
I was myself: subject to no man’s breath:
My own commander was my enemy.
And while my belt hung up, sword in the sheath,
Thersites shambled in and breathlessly
Cackled about my friend Patroclus’ death.
I called for armour, rose, and did not reel.
But, when I thought, rage at his noble pain
Flew to my head, and turning I could feel
My wound break open wide. Over again
I had to let those storm – lit valleys heal
Thom Gunn (1929 – 2004)