"Don't Mean Sheeit": On the Necessity and Impossibility of Meaning for Life
We want to know the meaning of life, to begin with, in the face of death. We confront, as H.L. Mencken - the Sage of Baltimore - put it, "the harsh fact that on such and such a day, often appallingly near, each and every one of us will heave a last sigh, roll his eyes despairingly, turn his face to the wall and then suddenly change from a proud and highly complex mammal, made in the image of God, to a mere inert aggregate of disintegrating colloids, made in the image of a stale cabbage."[i]
Now this might make it appear that Mencken's highly unedifying confrontation with the abyss is caused by his naturalism. Caught in a world of dead gods, a material, Darwinian, sciencey world, Mencken despairs and resolves to confront the truth: face up; don't mean sheeit.
You may have heard about Mitchell Heisman, who in September shot himself on Harvard Yard in front of a tour group. He left behind a two-thousand page manuscript titled Suicide Note, in which he constructed a philosophical system according to which his suicide made sense. Heisman's philosophy was more or less the philosophy of Richard Dawkins, for example: materialist, scientistic, atheistic, and so on.
The Boston Globe quoted and summarized Suicide Note as follows.
'The death of my father marked the beginning, or perhaps the acceleration, of a kind of moral collapse, because the total materialization of the world from matter to humans to literal subjective experience went hand in hand with a nihilistic inability to believe in the worth of any goal,¹ he wrote. He saw his emotions as nothing more than a product of biology, as soulless as the workings of a machine, making them in essence an illusion. 'If life is truly meaningless and there is no rational basis for choosing among fundamental alternatives, then all choices are equal and there is no fundamental ground for choosing life over death,' he concluded.[ii]
For a suicide note, that's remarkably lucid, and perhaps we could frame the problem of the meaning of life as the demand to "produce a fundamental ground for choosing life over death."
So one way the problem of the meaning of life arises is from the demystification of the universe and in particular the destruction of the ideas that it has a comprehensible moral order and that we are immortal. On the other hand, we might wonder whether immortality would really relieve our ennui; I think, reading Dante or something, that you could say it did not actually relieve the ennui of the believers. Indeed death lends living shape and urgency, and it is very hard to tell the exciting full story of an immortal being. If living in the next world is anything like living in this world, or if we are anyone there like who we are here (and if we're not, then what does it mean to say we are immortal?), eternity is way too long. What life means is not answered by saying it's interminable. 'What is the meaning of a life unending?' is just a longer version of the question, 'What is the meaning of life?'
One good thing about a life unending: in it, someone is going to tell you what life means. Of course in the situation we're in now, we can't know what it is we don't know. But we will know it there. In the next life God the sage will tell us why we're there and why we were here. God is the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Socrates, Jesus, the Dalai Lama, the Pope, Mr. Natural: he'll tell us and then we'll know. Well that's nice, especially if it's true, but it doesn't actually solve the problem we face right now. The notion that we might someday know what we do not know now does not help us know anything now, in the midst of our existential crisis. Not only that, but this seems like a mere yearning after authority, an enthusiastic pre-capitulation. Once God tells me the meaning of life, I reserve the right to ponder whether whatever he just said makes sense.
If the universe displays a comprehensible moral order, we are not now in a position to assess its content: the basic dilemma of a little-bitty creature in a big old world. It doesn't seem to, actually, from here. And indeed, we might point out that various systems that have attributed to the world a comprehensible moral order - from Papal Bull to Sam Harris scientism - have also produced a certain anxiety, in that they tend to display us as failures within that order. And if you think that the doctrine of original sin, or the notion that evolution produces intelligence, or the idea that we are put here as stewards of the earth are edifying, then I say you aren't sufficiently alert to your own massive failures by the moral standards thus articulated. You haven't sufficiently contemplated your own future burning in eternal hellfire or in a carbon-rich atmosphere.
Speaking of hellfire, when Augustine wanted to contrast Christians and pagans, he said that pagans turned toward the self, while Christians turned toward God. Turning toward the self was, for Augustine, the essence of sin: "to live according to oneself is sin, and to sin is to lose God."[iii] On this ground he condemned the philosophies of what we call the "Hellenistic" philosophies: Skepticism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism. All these schools of thought turned from the grand metaphysical and political questions of Plato and Aristotle into philosophy as a way of life, philosophy as a way to achieve tranquility in the individual soul. Indeed Skepticism and Epicureanism were at best agnostic about the existence of the gods, and Stoicism's god as reason and nature cut across the religious tendencies of the times, neither pagan nor Christian.
So one way to phrase this idea is that to live for oneself is evil, but to live for something greater than oneself is good: or, the meaning of life has to be found in something greater than the self. Here we face a number of options: the thing greater than the self might be God, or it might be nature as envisioned by Thoreau, for example. It could be the universe as a whole. Or it could be as close to you as your neighbor: we live to help each other, for social justice, or for the amelioration of suffering.
However, this appears merely to defer the question. If each of us has no meaning as a mere individual, it seems hard to explain the meaning of all of us together. If we are just another species of mammal, rushing like most species the world has ever produced toward extinction, then all of us together appear in a Heisman or Mencken structure to be just as meaningless as each of us. Living for nature conceived as a mechanical system of atoms swirling in a void appears no more sensible than inventing a God and living for Him, or on the other hand, if God is real, capitulating to His incomprehensible imperatives.
Now one of the things that seemed to be bothering Heisman was his "inability to believe in the worth of any goal," And that is yet another way to read the demand for the meaning of life: produce the goal of human life, like a rabbit out of a hat. Aristotle thought the goal was happiness or flourishing. This purpose, like so much for Aristotle, is built into our nature as a brute fact, indeed all things for Aristotle are filled with purpose: that's ours.
But first of all, if life has a goal, I personally don't know what it is. And second, the goal would itself have to be meaningful: it can't make life meaningful recursively unless it has some meaning to lend. In other words, even if life had some obvious goal, or even if you gave yourself a goal of whatever sort, it would make sense to ask whether the goal was meaningful, and hence whether a life lived in its service was meaningful. Many life goals, such as big cash money, a BMW, and a job in investment banking, seem to have a problem in this regard. Even 'happiness,' a kind of blank into which we can pour whatever goal we imagine, seems to come up wanting. Perhaps it is a brute fact about us that we want to be happy, whatever that means exactly. It does not follow that happiness is the meaning of life. And if we consider a goal of life as something that could be reached at a certain moment - a culmination of us, as it were - still we would wonder about the merely instrumental value of all the activity that led to its achievement, while wondering what the hell to do next, and why, once we've arrived.
It's been a popular position that life is a kind of story or narrative. This would make it meaningful in a relatively comprehensible way: it is meaningful in the way a novel or a fable or a tragedy is meaningful. Now one thing about this is that novels consist of actual words: they are meaningful in the sense that the words signify: a novel is a linguistic item and has meaning in the sense that language has a semantics: the words don't just mean their own shapes or sounds: they mean a setting or a character or a plot.
Indeed it is with regard to such items as novels or paintings that the term 'meaning' is fundamentally appropriate or something like literal. The Boston Globe piece on Heisman is meaningful in a relatively clear way: it refers to something beyond itself in a certain manner; it has sense and reference. It is a description or exploration of something beyond itself, or beyond its own syntax: namely, Mitchell Heisman and his writings. I think perhaps the demand for meaning in life is a demand for each of us to interpret ourselves and others as though we were texts or pictures: items with a semantics, with reference to a level of reality beyond themselves. We want to know what we signify or symbolize. But though we are things that use symbols, we are not, I think, ourselves symbols. A person can be used semantically, and perhaps Martin Luther King symbolizes justice. But that means that, for us, King has become a word or a picture; he is a symbol of justice only insofar as his existence as a flesh-and-blood human being is attenuated. It helps that our experience of King is exclusively itself an experience of words and pictures: the flesh-and-blood organism is not itself a semantic item. Martin Luther King, whatever he was, was no picture.
I just want to point out that our lives are not stories, and are nothing like stories. You could tell a story about your life, but most of it is lived in completely irrelevant detail, as if the story-teller was an excruciating parody of Proust, leaving you in the midst of an infinite enumeration of entirely incoherent and useless routine. So, last night after a long day I felt kind of dazed. I watched part of a baseball game but couldn't really pay attention. I ate a sub. I pissed three times. I stubbed my toe on the fucking top stair again. As a climax, I brushed my teeth. Every day is like this, more or less: an infinite tedium of mundane details, shaped into a coherent narrative only by total falsification. Indeed, that's precisely why we wish our lives were stories, or why we try to reconstruct them into something with directionality, plot, character: because our actual lives are lived at the level of continuous plodding everydayness.
Of course, you could try to settle the question of the meaning of life for yourself one way or another. Indeed I suppose that that is one possible answer, and perhaps it is well-suited to our eclectic cultural moment in some ways: each of us must provide meaning for her own life. There is no reason to think that a single answer would satisfy everyone, and there is no reason it should. It's a kind of existentialist approach a la Sartre: each of us must be the creator of himself, and this creation includes making sense of your own life, telling your own story, giving yourself your own values, finding your own god or attributing to yourself your own immortality if any, and so on.
But the interminability of the question is not adequately snipped by locking it up inside your head or by decisively pretending you've answered. Goals are revisable. If we were living stories, they'd suddenly fly off in a different direction, or end and begin again somewhere else. You can decide to believe in God, but you can decide to silence all doubts about that belief only by a rigid regime of self-censorship. In other words, you're going to keep losing the thread, and if you're a reflective existentialist, you'll realize that your answers are essentially arbitrary and always subject to revision in the face of experience or a breakdown.
The question as it confronts the self-inventing individual (or as it would confront self-inventing individuals if there were any) is precisely as ambiguous and interminable as it is for whole societies or religious traditions or for the species as a whole. In fact, if you are aware that you're inventing your own meaning, then I don't think it can actually function as meaning; we want to know our place in a wider context, and we want our answers, if any, to conform to the reality outside our own subjectivities, or else we are aware that the world we are constructing is false. That you feel some sort of directionality or momentum in virtue of something you heard or made up - that, for example, you made up the idea of your own immortality, or Science, and then committed yourself to it utterly, but arbitrarily, is nice. On this view, of course, there is nothing to choose between committing yourself to social justice or Jesus, and committing yourself to racial suprematism or Satanism. Subtract the actual world and find meaning in your head, and you're no longer engaged in the meaning of this life, but in the meaning of a fantasy.
I think that what these various rather casual observations suggest is that the demand for the meaning of life is multiply ambiguous and completely unsatisfiable. It is not at all clear what we could possibly mean by "the meaning of life"; it is not at all clear what we are asking for or what could ultimately satisfy us: a story, a goal, a God, living forever, dying right now, an ethical theory, pleasure without pain, and so on. These answers are not only in competition with each other, they are not even related to each other in any very clear way. They do not settle into a single dimension in which they might rightly be thought to be answers to the same question. This leads me to suspect that there is no question. Certainly there is no coherent single question being framed when one asks for the meaning of life.
And indeed, perhaps people live better or more clearly or more simply or more in reality when they just stop asking this question, or never get to the point of asking it at all. At any rate, this semester I am teaching Intro to Philosophy to forty undergraduates at Dickinson College. As professors often observe to one another, classes differ in their personalities, and this one is just a wee bit non-lively. Maybe it's me, or maybe it's them. Anyway, we're reading Plato or Epictetus when in a moment of pedagogical ecstasy I confront them with the momentous question: What does it mean to you that you yourself - you Cody, Jessica, Zach - are going to die? How do you grapple with the overwhelming fact of your own mortality? Well, in response they stare blankly at the wall, or roll their eyes, or concentrate on texting. Someone will put up a hand and say: Is this going to be on the exam? Now admittedly, y'all are the products of an amazing standardized testing regime in which such questions cannot arise. You are the products of a profoundly authoritarian educational system in which thinking is heresy, and the profoundest form of individual expression permissible is the five-paragraph essay, graded by computer.
There's a lot to be said for this, which is one version of the unreflective life against which philosophers are supposedly juxtaposed. Reflection, as the previous paragraphs have shown pretty clearly, can leave you in complete puzzlement and possibly - as in the case of Mitchell Heisman - abject despair. Reflecting on one's own identity, as I believe I know as well as anything can be known by anybody, can induce nausea. Not only that, but thinking too hard about anything kind of hurts, and that is a form of pain that the average American undergraduate can avoid with ease and even a certain insouciant joy.
We philosophy professors think that when we frame such questions we are getting at the fundamental dilemmas and conditions of our own lives and those of our students; we flatter ourselves that no one should get through life without pondering them. Well, why not, exactly? We keep raising questions without answers, and if we don't give up because we are diseased in some way, it doesn't follow that everyone has to follow us down our road to nowhere. If you're focused not on what your life and death means but instead on what's happening at tonight's kegger . . . well, we don't actually have any answers to the questions we are raising, but the kegger will actually occur. While we speculate our way into layers of reality that bear on nothing practical, and the existence of which is sheer speculation, people go on living just the same. And if they feel no demand for meaning, that doesn't seem to be any less rational than feeling no call to jump over the moon; not trying is a perfectly good approach. It's hard to quibble with the observation that going to the kegger is preferable, all things considered, than shooting yourself on the quad as a tour group strolls by.
However, there is also something touching in the cow who aspires to jump over the moon. At any rate, cows - like philosophy professors - have an excruciatingly limited behavioral repertoire, and you might find a cow who just can't quit jumping, no matter what. Perhaps the cow could be treated with medication. Or perhaps, after jumping again and again and again, the cow breaks a leg, or just gives up, or croaks and thenceforth jumpeth not. More likely, she simply declares, falsely but to her own immense satisfaction, that she has succeeded, that she's cleared the moon, or close enough. Thus the introduction to Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, or Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, or Schopenhauer's World as Will and Idea, in this wise: "For millennia, philosophers have puzzled over this and that. As you know, I am the culmination of the human species, and I have answered all these questions once and for all or just as good as, as any rational person will have to agree after reading this book. You'll be grateful to me because you no longer have to read my predecessors or idiotic rivals, think for yourself, and so on."
At any rate, as I say, philosophy might be a disease, but it is a poignant disease: touching, ironic, like the deafness of Beethoven. We cultivate unsatisfiable aspirations, ironic aspirations, tragic aspirations: infinite aspirations: aspirations that could only be satisfied by omniscience, or rather could not even be satisfied by omniscience. We ask questions so large and so obscure that every single possible answer is inadequate. Nothing could help us: not God, not immortality, not a nice clear goal or a beautifully coherent reconstruction of our lives into stories.
Beauty is the object of longing. And longing is unsatisfied or unsatisfiable desire. Indeed, it is worth saying that eternal beings could not experience beauty at all: that beauty is opened up as a possibility by our time-boundedness, by the fact that our losses are irremediable. We are always in the condition of losing everything we have, including ourselves if we have ourselves. Or put it another way: it's the loss of or lack of meaning, or even the fact that we don't actually have any idea what we're looking for as we go on looking, that makes our lives potentially beautiful, in a world that is potentially beautiful. It is our radical meaninglessness that opens up life as an arena of intense or eternal or infinite desire.
Now perhaps this sounds like I'm asserting that the meaning of life is aesthetic, or is a quest for beauty. And even though I actually would entertain that notion, at least for myself - even though if I were making my own meaning I might start with beauty - I don't propose it as an answer. Beauty is just as equivocal, questionable as a value, liquid and contingent as anything else that might be proposed as the meaning of life. But what I'm saying is that beauty points us toward our meaninglessness in a worthwhile way, or is a way of revealing our condition.
Creatures, we might say, want. They are turned toward the satisfaction of desire. But creatures can get into a position of desire without object or surcease. Desire is more than a way to get you shoving food in your face; it is a habit of mind, the posture of a finite creature in a challenging environment. What do we yearn for when we yearn to be loved, for example? Well, we yearn toward some kind of perfect affirmation of ourselves, an ecstatic 'yes' to everything we are. Love perhaps has a perfectly sensible object; maybe it's an epiphenomenon of our sexual desire, in turn an epiphenomenon of our condition as creatures who must reproduce, which would not be necessary if we were immortal. But the point is, in desiring an infinite or perfect affirmation of ourselves, we desire what we cannot deserve and what no person can give us. Even if we got it, it might be oppressive or disconcerting, or a mere hallucination on the part of the person loving us. Even if someone were capable of affirming me utterly and entirely, I don't think that that would actually fix me or cure me. Indeed, it might just irritate me.
However, the desire to be loved like that is irremediable. You can see that in everything from General Hospital to the Christian idea of God's perfect, infinite love, which is easy to say but hard to understand or square with reality, or with, for example, God's justice. But what I am saying is: the spectacle of people who need a love they can't even describe sensibly is a touching spectacle, or even a beautiful spectacle. That supposes precisely its conceptual impossibility, its infinity in the face of a constant confrontation with finitude, its contradictoriness and incomprehensibility, its excess to anything we could actually believe or experience. Somewhere I think even Dickinson College undergrads feel both that aspiration and its futility. And I want to say that it is only comprehensible as an aspiration on the condition of its futility. Even the quest for pleasure or sex or extinction through beer is a little node of the dilemma: you can't get drunk enough without puking and passing out; you cannot get through beer what you seek in beer. And yet you keep right on gulping toward ecstasy or unconsciousness, seek through living an end of living.
Religion is, as a series of assertions, a terrible crock. The promotion of Jesus to godhead is, it seems to me, no more sensible than the promotion of Haile Selassie: it's essentially arbitrary, and the huge quasi-intellectual edifices built on top of it are in a way pitiful, or at least entirely fantastic. But religion is also beautifully human in that it captures in crystal the dilemma of finite creatures with infinite aspirations. It marks our desire to know what cannot be known, as well as a need for moral structure, and perfect love, and immortality. These needs, I am suggesting, have never been met and cannot be met. But they cannot cease; they are a site of the poignant expression of a useless, infinite longing.
Now I could come off of this and suggest that the meaning of life is precisely this aspiration. That it is unrealizable should give one pause, of course; it identifies the meaning of life with a kind of total futility, a futility by definition, a futility that cannot be solved or fixed. But what I am suggesting is that if this aspiration were to be met, it would, like any satisfied desire, cease, and we would cease to be recognizably human or animal; we would cease to be real creatures or finite things of this world. What you have to understand is that the need is only comprehensible in the face of its unsatisfaction. The need itself, in its irremediability can drive you crazy or make you feel that life is meaningless. But if it were to be satisfied, it likewise would not yield what we are looking for; when meaning is satisfied it ceases to be meaning; when it stops having a reference to anything outside itself, it ceases to mean anything.
So how would I counsel Mitchell Heisman, the philosophical suicide? I don't think I could really help, but roughly I'd try to say something like this. The demand for meaning, for the meaning of your own emotions, for example, is an unsatisfiable demand. It's not exactly your materialism that drives you despair; it's the fundamental conditions of life. But perhaps in the midst of this contradictory or impossible situation, you could find some lightness of touch, some distance from your own need for meaning. In a way, the futility of the project opens it up as an arena of play. There could be a kind of joy in committing yourself to an answer. Or there could also be a kind of joy in a release from significance, a sense of the universe as radically open or indeterminate. Meaning is a burden as well as a satisfaction, and release from that burden might be conceived as a liberation. I think, however, that such joys are mixed with falsehoods: either that we have the answer or that we can actually achieve satisfaction without an answer. But the truth is that we cannot stop seeking, and we cannot find what we are seeking. In one way this is an extremely unsatisfactory situation, but in another way it is a lovely dilemma, without which we would cease to be anything like what we are, that is, would cease to exist.
So I suppose I am and I am not trying to answer the question of the meaning of life. It would hardly be too much to say that the meaning of life is that it has no meaning, or that its meaning is its meaninglessness, which opens it up as an arena of unsatisfied desire, longing, beauty, and play. We face death, and yearn uselessly for immortality; we want an infinite amount of money and money doesn't repair the hole in our souls. Nothing can cure or fix us, and we cannot stop needing to be cured or fixed. This is a terrible and terrifying situation. But it is also highly comical. If anyone read all 2k of Mitchell Heisman's suicide note, it wasn't me. But the stuff I looked at was notably humorless. The question might not be what the meaning of life is, but how we comport ourselves in the face of its meaninglessness. Sick comedy is certainly not the meaning of life. Rather it is a way of comporting ourselves in the face of that meaninglessness, affirming a condition which is at the same time fundamentally intolerable.
Human beings, we might say, are in a comedy of inadequacy, of nobleish futility, like a schlumph played by Will Farrell or Fatty Arbuckle. Or we face the predicament of the immortal Howard the Duck: "trapped in a world that he never made." Mencken says of "man" that he always aspires, and adds: "Always he imagines things just over the skyline. This body of imaginings constitutes his body of beliefs, his corpus of high faiths and confidences - in brief, his burden of errors. And that burden of errors is what distinguishes man, even above his capacity for tears, his talents as a liar, his excessive hypocrisy and poltroonery, from all the other orders of mammalia. Man is the yokel par excellence, the booby unmatchable, the king dupe of the cosmos."[iv]
The grand cynicism of a Diogenes, or an Ambrose Bierce, or a Mencken as represented, for example, in that thing about stale cabbage, is a way of welcoming the universe, an attitude of dark good humor, the only laughter that isn't ultimately hollow. Face up to the world squarely, more or less, and try to respond with a gracious, mordant wit, a slightly light touch, a disillusioned but nevertheless bitter resolution to keep your distance, or hop right in, snickering.
[i] H.L. Mencken, "Exeunt Omnes," Prejudices: First, Second, and Third Series (New York: Library of America, 2010), 256
[iii] Saint Augustine, The City of God, trans Walsh, Zema, Monahan, and Honan (New York: Doubleday, p.300-301.
[iv] Prejudices Third Series, LA 371.