Among the many remarkable insights of Dante’s Inferno is his assignment of the suicides (successful or merely attempted) to the Seventh Circle, that of The Violent, and one level lower than the murderers. At first glance, a modern reader might wonder how suicide could be judged worse than murder. How could taking one’s own life be more sinful than taking another’s? How, more broadly, could self-destruction be worse than the destruction of one’s neighbor?
This question itself indicates a failure to grasp the real meaning of self-destruction, a meaning Dante profoundly understood. Or rather, what Dante knew, and what we moderns have lost in our materialistic superficiality, is that a murderer is nothing but a failed suicide. For a murderer is one who seeks to end life, and thereby to destroy the world, but who lacks the nerve and intellectual honesty to aim straight.
Stated differently, what Dante understood, and we moderns have utterly failed to understand, is this: In strictest terms, there is no such thing as self-destruction.
Modernity’s atomistic reductionism of the individual, rooted in our age’s greatest philosophical achievements, has, paradoxically, set the stage, both psychologically and politically, for the most corruptive forms of anti-individualism: utilitarianism, socialism, nihilism. The last of these is the spiritual essence of late modernity, the inevitable final stage of the evolution of “Man as Material Individual.” Thus we may say that modern man, seen as a civilizational project, is nothing less than the suicide writ large. Modernity, which prefers to flatter itself as the Age of Enlightenment, or even, laughably, the Age of Reason, would more accurately be dubbed the Age of Self-Destruction. The scientific light we have so self-importantly turned in on ourselves has revealed a ghost town, a dusty neighborhood of empty homes with cobwebbed rooms and creaking floorboards. Or perhaps, to adopt the Inferno’s imagery, a bleak forest of gnarled old trees, where only hungry shadow creatures can thrive.
This ghost town is what we self-absorbed moderns call “the self.”
There is no such thing as self-destruction. You can never merely destroy yourself, for as Dante implicitly understood, writing centuries before Leibniz promulgated and oversimplified the notion, the individual is related to the world as a monad reflecting the whole. That is to say, “you,” at the very core of your being, are all the things and people who make up your world, your understanding, your experience, your moments of happiness and sadness, your best and worst thoughts and feelings, the endless ripple of effects your life sets in motion. All of you is all of that, and all of them. Hence, when you imagine you are engaged in “self-destruction,” you are actually pursuing the destruction of everything that comprises the monad that is you.
To destroy yourself is to destroy your parents and family.
To destroy yourself is to destroy your favorite books and authors.
To destroy yourself is to destroy every poem, painting, or melody that ever moved you.
To destroy yourself is to destroy every friend you ever cared about, or who ever cared about you.
To destroy yourself is to destroy your teachers and mentors — and all of theirs, and theirs.
To destroy yourself is to destroy everyone who ever learned from you, everyone who ever helped you or needed you, who ever hoped for your support or waited for your letter.
To destroy yourself is to destroy all that you have learned, all the ideas you have digested or half-digested, every image and sensation burned into your existence as marks of discovery.
One might like to object that this is all “merely a metaphor,” whereas in reality it is only your own private memories that you destroy. That brings us back to the modern atomistic fantasy, the assumption that you exist in essential isolation from the world of which you are a facet. No, to destroy yourself, to the extent that you succeed, is not merely to destroy a personal “narrative,” a certain set of images of things. It is rather to destroy the things themselves. To destroy truths born of experience.
Self-destruction is a comforting (i.e., self-protective) falsehood. What we call “self-destruction” is in truth simply destruction, of many things — in a sense, of everything. For the modern concept of “the self,” a discrete atom of consciousness unto itself, is bad mythology. The individual is not an isolated entity sprung, tabula rasa, from the soil of undifferentiated matter, and essentially unrelated to anything. The individual is primarily a soul, emitted from the cosmic order if you will, and therefore essentially related to that order, as a microcosm.
In the second ring of Dante’s Seventh Circle of Hell, the Violent Against Themselves are trapped forever in the knotted wood of old trees, rooted inescapably in place while harpies continually eat at them, and able to communicate their pain and failure to others only through wounds exposed when their limbs are freshly gashed or broken.
Having succumbed to identifying their existence with those pains that life challenges us to overcome and redeem, the self-destructive are eternally condemned, in Dante’s afterlife, to having no means of expressing themselves to the world they sought to destroy but through their pain, and no form of contact from that world but the infliction of more pain. The monad — the individual understood as facet or microcosm of the whole — will be forever reduced to that atom of empty pain to which he sought to reduce the whole.
Self-destructive civilizations meet a similar fate, it seems.