There is no more important question, whether we explicitly confront it or not, than the one we have been considering these last few weeks: What is the meaning of life? Over the last several columns, I’ve provided a glimpse on how various traditions and philosophers have handled this inquiry. Before I tell you my own take, I ask for your indulgence as I set our philosophical table.
The first step in any philosophical query is to define our terms. Here the term we must delineate is “meaning.” When we ask, “What is the meaning of life,” are we asking what fulfills us? Or are we talking about something far more grandiose? The answer to that question depends on whether our context is subjective or cosmic.
From the subjective point of view, the question becomes, “What life path will fulfill me the most?” Concurrent with that idea is the theme that we have seen repeated over and over again by several cultures—that the quality of life, and therefore, its meaning, is determined by a number of critical concepts: life’s temporality, spontaneity, freedom and any ideas of human perfection. Pushing subjectivity to its zenith are the Existentialists, with Nietzsche’s Superman being the most extreme example.
From a cosmic, universal and divine perspective, comes a different question, “Can we ground our life’s meaning in a larger context?” We have witnessed how several major traditions have attempted to do precisely that: the Bhagavad-Gita, the Book of Job, the Koran, the New Testament, the Stoics, and others.
Many traditions fall somewhere in between. For example, Aristotle, Confucius and the Dalai Lama focused primarily on the social context of life. For them, the formula for making sense of our “small” lives is to place them within a larger social context. Aristotle, you may recall, saw the measurement of the meaning of our lives in terms of human perfection. Eudaimonia, or flourishing, was the only path that would lead us to the meaningful life we so desperately seek. For him, it is an active life executed with virtue, moral strength, friendship and practical wisdom that holds the key to happiness. Similarly, the Daoists and the Zen Buddhists portray the ideal life as one lived by a wise man who doesn’t overlook the “empty spaces” and lives spontaneously.
The Dalai Lama extended this vision of perfection to include the development of compassion, which required altruistic action on behalf of others. Lest we forget the contributions of the West, it must be noted that Kant and Mill persuasively argued that a meaningful life must be based on reason, discourse and participation in liberal democratic societies.
Challenging this point of view was, of course, Nietzsche who, taking an extremely subjective point of view, insisted that beauty can only be achieved through spontaneous artistry guided by values we create ourselves, irrespective of society, religion, or government.
Moving beyond the initial subjective/cosmic split, many traditions, as I alluded to earlier, emphasize three reoccurring themes: temporality, spontaneity, and freedom.
Since the dawn of humanity, one of the thorniest issues man has had to face is his own mortality or, in philosophical terms, the problem of temporality. How are we to achieve a comfort level knowing that our stay on this planet is oh so brief? Many of the more prominent traditions have demurred by asserting that we really never die but somehow exist, in one form or another, after our death. Several suggest our “afterlife” will either be joyous or painful depending on what we have done during our lives. Stoics are less emotive, pointing out that there is an infinite amount of time before and after our brief dance with existence (so don’t waste your time fretting). Buddhism, abandoning all fear, sees beauty in our impermanence and teaches that this very temporality mandates that we act morally. Tolstoy and Nietzsche embrace our inevitable demise enthusiastically and believe we must live every moment with an acute awareness of our mortality.
The importance of spontaneity that is ascribed by many philosophers is predicated on the belief that our actions and values do not need to be brought together artificially.
Aristotle and Confucius present for our consideration the example of the artist who practices endlessly to achieve his true nature, without realizing that it was his for the taking. Daoism and Zen want us to use spontaneity to eliminate the limitations of society and culture and return to our true state of nature. Finally, spontaneity is critical to the existentialists who want us to practice experience-centered individualism.
The third reoccurring theme is an emphasis on freedom. You may remember that when we looked at the Gita it instructed us that freedom emerged only from discipline. On the other hand, the Daoists urged us to free ourselves from social constructs. Hume and Kant took a more western view of freedom, telling us we must insist on freedom from authority. Mill focused on absolute freedom of thought. Nietzsche, ever the extremist, wanted us to escape the clutches of philosophical thoughts and intellectual traditions which made creativity impossible. Gandhi, like the Gita, talked of self-mastery as a condition precedent to being free. For him, only when we recognize and resist the pull of capitalism and consumerism can we truly become free.
So where does all this leave us? Each of us has our own experiences, values and points of view. As such, our answer to the question of the meaning of life will be uniquely personal. I have taken us on a journey amongst some of the more prominent traditions, not to waste our time, but rather, to provide a taste of what others through the ages have proposed, for better or for worse.
None of us has been raised in a vacuum. More than likely, you have been exposed to a worldview since childhood, religious of otherwise, which has purportedly provided answers to ultimate questions. For many of us, these answers have given us a feeling of well-being, which I do not wish to disturb.
My only intention is, in the spirit of synoptic philosophy, to invite you to ponder, to question, to explore for your own enjoyment and satisfaction one of the thorniest problems of human existence: life’s meaning. To philosophize, however, you must be willing to forgo a safety net and intellectually venture wherever your reason and intuitions take you. Next week, in Part 2, I will submit for your consideration my personal take on this question. Stay tuned.