The greatest use of life
Kaag (John)
Source: Aeon, 01 October, 2018
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. A year ago, on a late afternoon in November, I decided to walk the seven miles from my hotel in Manhattan to Brooklyn’s Community Bookstore. It was a cool day, on the cusp of evening, at a moment when things, even grimy New York-type of things, seem to glow, and I was so busy looking around that I almost didn’t notice the small white sign that someone had placed at the bottom of Brooklyn Bridge. The green lettering was newly painted and read: ‘LIFE IS WORTH LIVING.’
  2. For many people, life’s worth is never in question. It never becomes a topic of conversation or debate. Life is simply lived until it is not. But something bothered me: if life’s worth is so obvious, why was the sign put up in the first place? It is because there are those of us who occasionally find themselves on the top of the bridge, contemplating a quick and fatal trip to the bottom. Decades after battling depression in 1870, the American philosopher William James wrote to the philosopher and poet Benjamin Paul Blood that ‘no man is educated who has never dallied with the thought of suicide’.
  3. In the 1770s, David Hume, one of James’s intellectual heroes, had argued that self-murder should not be regarded as illegal or immoral since it hurt no one other than the perpetrator, and in many cases might alleviate great suffering. Romanticism, which arose in the subsequent generation of thinkers, only deepened the sense that life – and death – should be determined freely, by passionate individuals. If you wanted to exit life abruptly, by one final choice, that was largely up to you. One of James’s favourite books as a young man, one which probably only deepened his sense of existential insecurity, was the Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), Goethe’s story of a character who kills himself on the sharp end of a love triangle. Perhaps life cuts so deeply that it is understandable, even respectable, to escape. More likely, the Romantics – and James – occasionally regarded suicide as a way of taking hold of life, controlling its machinations by bringing them to an end. We are all slipping toward the grave, uncontrollably. Maybe it is better to choose to fall off.
  4. To my surprise and delight, the walkways on the bridge were empty. I’d have the view to myself. With a maximum height of 276 feet (84 metres), it was once regarded as one of the seven wonders of the industrial world. During its construction, 27 workers died, before it was completed in 1883; two years later, Robert Odlum became the first man to jump off the bridge. A swimming instructor who wanted to prove that descending through air at high speed was not necessarily fatal, he sadly died. In the next century, approximately 1,500 people have followed Odlum, for different reasons. I’m not sure how many people are saved by the sign, but I am inclined to think that it is highly ineffective.


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  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
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