In 1930 the historian and philosopher Will Durant—who was at that time a famous public intellectual—received a number of letters from persons declaring their intent to commit suicide. The letters asked him for reasons to go on living. In response Durant asked a number of luminaries for their views on the meaning of life, publishing those responses in his 1932 book, On the Meaning of Life.
As the manuscript was being prepared for publication, Durant received a letter from “Convict 79206” at the Sing Sing maximum-security prison in New York. The convict had been recently sentenced to life in prison and Durant published the letter as an appendix to the above-mentioned book. Of its contents, Durant wrote: “It is incredible that we should be unable to find any better use for such intelligence than to lock it up forever.”
Convict 79206’s response is too long to print here, but we can highlight a few of its points. He argued that suicide would be permissible for those who found life meaningless, but that he had not yet reached that point. He maintained that life was accidental but not necessarily meaningless. He was not religious and advised against seeking “comfort in delusions, false tradition, and superstition.” He discussed the difference between truth, which is neither beautiful or ugly, and belief “the idol-worshiping strain in our natures.” He said that “happiness is a state of mental contentment [which] can be found on a desert island, in a little town, or the tenements of a large city.” And he was optimistic about the future:”[Humans are] an integral part of the universe in which [they] live, that universe which is ever-moving forward to some appointed destiny.”
At the end of the letter, before heading back to live what most of us would assume is a futile and meaningless existence, convict 79206 painted a picture with his words. Through them, his dignity, integrity, and strength of character shone forth.
This evening I stood in the prison yard amid other prisoners, with eyes lifted aloft gazing at that great … airship … as it sailed majestically over our heads. Into my mind came the thought that, just as that prehistoric creature struggled up out of the sea to the land, so is man struggling up from the land into the air. Who dare deny that, some day, up, ever up he will struggle thru the great reaches of interstellar space to wrest from it the knowledge which will enable him to lift his life to a plane as high above this, our present one, as it is above that of prehistoric man?
I do not know to what great end Destiny leads us, nor do I care very much. Long before that end, I shall have played my part, spoken my lines, and passed on. How I play that part is all that concerns me.
In the knowledge that I am an inalienable part of this wonderful, upward movement called life, and that nothing, neither pestilence, nor physical affliction, nor depression, nor prison, can take away from me my part, lies my consolation, my inspiration, and my treasure.
Owen C. Middleton (convict 79206) was a transhumanist before his time and a man of greater depth and humanity than most. How much potential wastes away in our prisons.
Note – This post first appeared on this blog on March 7, 2014.