In Memoriam: the MSU Philosophy Student

“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.” – Cicero

The philosophy student who shot himself in the library at Mankato State University yesterday could have been me many years ago. Or is it “could have been ‘I’”? I or me is a question of grammar without much consequence. Philosophy is a question of meaning. Grammarians don’t shoot themselves. Some philosophers do.

I know nothing about the 27-year-old philosophy major at MSU. I don’t need to know more for tears to fall while reading the Star Tribune news report over morning coffee.

A Minnesota State University Mankato student shot and killed himself Monday afternoon in the campus library.

Police were called about 4 p.m. to the library after receiving a report of a suicidal man. After searching Memorial Library, police found the 27-year-old man, a junior philosophy student, on the second floor. Police said he turned the gun on himself and shot.

Police said no one else was in any danger during the incident.

The library was open Monday evening but with access only to the lower level, first and third floors.

I feel sick. It’s sad enough when anyone takes his or her life. It’s sadder still, at least for me, to learn that he was studying philosophy and that he appears to have found a solitary place on the second floor, perhaps among the stacks in the philosophy section of the library, as I imagine it.

He was a junior, as I was when the course in contemporary philosophy plunged me into deep despair. Psychology majors might have called it depression because it looked like that on my face. But there’s a difference between depression and existential despair.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, No Exit and The Flies, and Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and The Trial were like nothing I had ever read or heard. They blew my mind to smithereens, leaving me very much alone with the sense of nothingness.

By the time I hit the books in the library that junior year, I ate, drank, and slept philosophy. Of the 18 hours of courses I had decided to carry, only the philosophy course seemed important. Raised in a Christian home, I had always prayed, more or less, giving thanks and asking for blessings on those I loved and the less fortunate. But now prayer seemed a cruel hoax, “bad faith” as Jean-Paul Sartre put it. Why I would return from class and kneel down beside my bed not for “now I lay me down to sleep” but to tell God to go to hell is one of the great ironies, a question grammarians cannot answer.  Had I had a gun that afternoon, my roommate might have found me on the floor in Room 301 of Carnegie Hall.

I know nothing of the circumstances or state of mind of the 27-year-old MSU philosophy student. Perhaps no one will ever know for sure. It may be that his experience bears little or no resemblance to mine all those years ago. It’s not for me to know.

I don’t even know your name, but I sure do feel you! And I feel for those who mourn your loss. “That God does not exist, I cannot deny,” wrote Sartre, “That my whole being cries out for God, I cannot forget” – Jean-Paul Sartre.

Almighty God, Father of mercies and giver of comfort: deal graciously, we pray, with all who mourn; that, casting all their care on You, they may know the consolation of Your love. [The Book of Common Prayer]

Rest in Peace

– Rev. Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, Minnesota (an hour from Mankato), Feb. 3, 2015.

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