Questions of Meaning (From my forthcoming book)

Questions of Meaning

      In his essay “The Meaning of Life” Richard Taylor defines meaninglessness as “essentially endless pointlessness.” 137 A meaningless life is one that is caught up in an “idiotic cycle.” 135 Death can be seen as a welcome event because it brings this cycle to an end. Meaninglessness involves “ a repetitious cyclic activity that never comes to anything” 135 Can meaning simply be found if we embrace this type of activity and reconcile ourselves to the tasks? Taylor has Sisyphus want precisely what the gods inflict on him. It is his desire to roll the stone and his desire is therefore fulfilled for all eternity. This twist does not bring mercy to the perversion; it in fact multiplies the perversion like a Stalinist show trial.
              Taylor argues that our lives share certain patterns with all life. Taylor describes caves in New Zealand inhabited by worms that lure insects to their death. Taylor asks, “what great thing awaits all this long and repetitious effort and makes it worthwhile?137 His answers is “really nothing”. Taylor offers the insight that “the point of any living thing’s life is evidently nothing but life itself”138 Life is defined as “a vast machine feeding on itself, running on and on forever to nothing” 138. Since we are part of this life “the differences are not as great as we like to think.” 138 What makes us different from the cannibalistic worms? Are we not the same? Do we create a wall of difference in the bubbles of achievement that break as soon as something sharp touches them?
               The old house where I was born is now in decay. My grandfather built it after he returned from the United States to fight in the Great War. Here sixteen people lived, loved, rejoiced and mourned. I remember sitting on the wooden floor in 1989 looking through old photographs and letters that my father wrote to his parents and brothers. My tears mixed with the ash of my cigarette. This once beautiful village house is no more. The rocks rolled only to crumble. The Buddhists believe that we can end our suffering by embracing impermanence. I have never liked this answer even if I know it is true. I am left with what Taylor calls an “unspeakable sadness” 141 It is not enough for me to embrace the notion that “the day is sufficient to itself” 141 Taylor argues the point to living is simply to be living in the manner that it is in our nature to be living. It is not that we stand on the shoulders of giants; rather we stand on fragments and remains. The landscape is already a deathscape that no amount of grass trimming can mask. If the final result of all our activity is ruin, what is the point?
             One can say, yes, the archaeologist can unearth this piece of ceramic tile, but her PhD thesis will never record what was really important unless it is recorded here. These tiles were laid with memories whose meaning will always remain secret. It is not the doing that counts, but what can be achieved by the doing. I agree with Taylor, the meaning of life is within us. It is not something given and ready made.
              Leo Tolstoy in his My Confession writes that there are five basic attitudes towards life and meaning. We can live in ignorance of the problem of the meaning of life. We can ignore the question and seek pleasure. We can admit that life has no meaning and commit suicide. We can admit that life has no meaning and continue to live. The attitude chosen by Tolstoy is that “without faith one cannot live” 14. Faith for Tolstoy allows one to be satisfied with life. Tolstoy writes, “ In contradistinction to the people of our circle who struggled and murmured against fate because of their privation and suffering, these people accepted diseases and sorrows without any perplexity or opposition but with the calm and firm conviction that it was all for good” 15. Tolstoy is convinced that “the more intelligent we are, the less we will understand the meaning of life” 15 Tolstoy’s wise peasants “live, suffer and approach death and suffer in peace and more often in joy” 15 I cannot accept Tolstoy’s easy answer. A people drugged on faith can be easily brought to the Gulag to be told “it was all for good”.
            David Swenson argues that happiness “is life’s vital fluid and the very breath of its nostrils” 18 though I would like to believe in such optimistic remarks, I do not think that “happiness and life are so much one and the same thing” 18 Life itself brings forth the evidence that happiness is a fleeing thing. We have a need for happiness but happiness is not something that life provides. Given this I am not in agreement with Louis Pojman who argues that we should live as though the theistic world view were true 30. It is the “as thought\” and the “as if” that I find problematic. Pojman basically provides us with the same answer presented by Tolstoy. Pojman is correct when he argues that secularism fails to produced moral saints like Jesus, Maimonides, Father Kolbe and Mother Teresa but neglects to ad that these saints became exemplars because of “the rotten ground of secularism.”
              I am not satisfied by Schopenhauer’s answer that “on the whole life is a disappointment, nay a cheat” 46 I do not find the “blessed calm of non-existence” 46 preferable. Schopenhauer argues that “the happiness of any given life is to be measured not by its joys and pleasures, but by the extent to which it has been free from suffering” 47 Schopenhauer condemns life in advance. Much of life is about suffering and un-ease, so that any joy however large does not seem to put suffering into a corner. Given the accounts of Schopenhauer’s own life and his legendary sexual appetite, one wonders why he so full of complaint? Was the orgasm after-glow not enough to melt his pessimism or did he see pleasure as a cheating lure cast by an optimism that no longer believed in itself?
               I agree with Schopenhauer that this world cannot be “the successful work of an all-wise, all-good and at the same time all-powerful Being”51 The Nietzschean answer would be to find joy within the suffering. Here the words of Bertrand Russell are important: “Be it ours to shed sunshine on their path, to lighten their sorrows with the balm of sympathy, to give them the pure-joy of a never tiring affection, to strengthen their failing courage, to instill faith in hours of despair”60 The insights that Russell gives us comes from the strength of the free mind that has overcome the mediocrity that spreads itself as the ground of culture.
             Moritz Schlick in his remarkable essay, “On the Meaning of Life” argues that we shall never find an ultimate meaning in existence, if we view it only under the aspect of purpose” 63. Schlick sees purpose as a burden. Empty work is a burden. This work is not performed for its own sake. Schlick affirms that :the core and ultimate value of life can lie only in such states that exist for their own sake” 64. He calls such activities “play” because they contain “ free purposeless action”. In this joyous play all “working days become holidays” 54 This creative play produces values that can transform this “war-racked globe” 65 Schlick names the poet, the artist and the scientist as exemplars insofar as their activity is shaped by this inspiration. For Schlick, the pursuit of knowing is a “pure play of the spirit” 66
Schlick contrasts the work of the artist, poet and scientist with the “mechanical, brutalizing, degrading form of work (that) serve ultimately to produced only trash and empty luxury” 67. Schlick continues, “ So long as our economy is focused on mere increase of production, instead of the true enrichment of life, these activities cannot diminish” 67 What kind of culture can give rise to the work that can become vocation and play? Schlick’s warning is clear, “ a civilization which maintains artificial breeding grounds for idle trumpery by means of forced slave labour, must eventually come to grief through its own absurdity”67 For those of us who are unwilling to wait for this apocalypse what can be done now to emerge out of the feedback loop that diminishes our spirit by making us slaves to mortgages, credit card interest and payment plans? Schlick argues that to live means “to celebrate the festival of existence”68 This festival is not one of weary pleasure but of joy that refreshes, enriches and exalts. Following Nietzsche, Schlick writes that we can “learn from the child who is capable of the purest joy. The child Is not “overshadowed by the dark clouds of purpose” 69 Here Schlick sounds like the Buddhists who claim that to be enlightened is to realize that there really is nothing to be done. Schlick believes that the enthusiasm of youth is what can save our life-worlds. But most cultures send their youth off to war. The fight, if there is a good one left, should be against those who continue to serve death and decay in all its forms, while presenting us with deceiving images of manufactured beauty. Schlick allows us to see that youth is not a preparation for some training in adulthood. Such a view is contained in the majority of religions that ‘shift life’s center of gravity forwards into the future” 70. This perfect state never arrives. What arrives is a state of continued servitude posing as the freedom to choose between Coke and Pepsi.
              Schlick argues that “if life has meaning it must lie in the present, for only the present is real” 71 The spirit of youth is an attitude that one can have always regardless of numerical age. This attitude takes root when “action become play” 71. Schlick concludes “ the more youth is realized in a life, the more valuable it is” 71.
Schlick provides a better alternative to the absurdity embraced by Nagel and Feinberg. Nagel argues that “ we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair” 152 The absurd occurs for Nagel when there is a discrepancy between our aspirations and reality. There is a clash and collision between what we want to achieve and what is achieved. Viewed from the filter of a million years the everyday things we do can be viewed as insignificant. But it will always remain significant that Noah is my son and Holly is my daughter even if time devours everything. There is a secret that cannot be devoured. As Camus writes in The Myth of Sisyphus, ‘This very heart which is mine will forever remain indefinable to me” 76. Philosophy is this small insignificant thing that we take seriously. It entrenches us within the absurd when we forget that the sun beckons us to escape from the interior fluorescent burn.
Feinberg’s example of the absurd is taken from a World War One documentary. A group of British reinforcements marches towards the front singing, ‘We’re here because we’re here”. Feinberg writes, “ the soldiers were in an inescapably absurd predicament, without hope and only by their unflinching acceptance of the absurdity of their situation are they save from absurdity themselves” 180 The soldiers are not saved from absurdity. There is no inspiration in their example. They could have changed the co-ordinates of their situation but choose to do otherwise. The marching off into slaughter is not a “cosmic incongruity” 181 that we meet with an ironic smile. There is no sad pleasure in observing this situation. There is nothing noble in such a sacrifice especially when youth were murdered for the hegemonic dreams of dying generals and unjust monarchs.
                  John Kekes argues that the question, does life have a meaning, “originates in a disruption of everyday life” 255. The problem happens when we find ourselves, “unsuccessful, bored, tired, unlucky, grief stricken, victims of injustice” 255 The question arises when “we start reflecting on the point of the routine activities we endlessly perform” 255 It seems pointless to argue with someone whether priming the drywall is actually “painting” the drywall even as your brush is coated with paint. You stand in front of the drywall thinking there are better things to do with my time, but then reflecting further you realize there is no need to turn to religion or morality or join a new club. There is no need to ask if there is a cosmic order, nor is it necessary to remain in unreflective innocence or willfully embrace ignorance. If the everyday is problematic then a shift in how the everyday is seen is required. Kekes writes, ‘everyday life is what life mostly is. Keeping it going requires constant struggle. From a birth we did not choose to a death we rarely desire, we have to cope with endless problems. If we fail, we suffer and what do we gain from success? No more than some pleasure, a brief sense of triumph, perhaps a little piece of mind. But these are only interludes of well being because our difficulties do not cease. 239
                 Kekes ignores many other solutions available to the so called ‘difficult business of living: 239 In such well argued accounts of meaning, reason and logic are not saviors. It is as if theorists believe that by providing necessary and sufficient conditions that difficulties will cease. In the end, philosophy can be disheartening even if its answers are plausible, convincing and full of meaning.


About Mark Zlomislic

Philosopher. Writer. Artist. My Studio/Gallery Inscape Fine Art is located in Cambridge, Ontario. Viewing by Appointment Only. Please email:
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