Nicolae Tanase: Richard, what is the meaning of life?
Richard Smoley: It’s a funny question. Meaning, in its conventional sense, relates two things to each other — usually a word and an object. There is the word dog and the animal we call a dog. The second is the meaning of the first. If somebody asks you what dog means, you can point to the animal to show her.
Then there is life. What does life point to? It can’t be something within life, because everything within life is part of life. The meaning of life must then be something outside life, outside reality as we know it. Therefore it can never be pinned down, at least not in ordinary terms.
Of course when people ask what the meaning of life is, they are not asking you to point to an object or look up a word in a dictionary. They’re usually asking something like this: what are we here for?
The most profound answer I know of is, curiously perhaps, in Genesis. The man and woman eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. What does that mean? They seek to know good and evil. They are given their wish. They are thrown out of Eden and cast into a world where it hurts to have babies and you have to work hard for a living: “In sorrow shalt thou bring forth children . . .In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” (Genesis 3:16, 19).
Thus we — the human race collectively and individually — exist in this world because we have chosen to know good and evil. And we do. I have no idea who you are who are reading this, but I will say this infallibly about you: you have known some good and some evil in your life. It’s true that the allocations to each person vary wildly, but that’s another question.
Moreover there is a problem with this situation. However obscurely, each of us senses that something is wrong. Indeed man is the animal who believes something is wrong. What this something is is a matter of dispute. Some see it politically, others economically, still others in a religious sense. But we could say that the problem is metaphysical — and in more than one sense of that word. Not only does it have to do with the question of being (the conventional definition of metaphysics), but it is meta-physical: it lies beyond the physical world as we commonly know it.
The problem is that this reality is painful and, in some way that we can sense but not explain, inappropriate for us. We are not supposed to be here. We are living, so to speak, in the wrong element. This is the primal source of our angst (what the Buddhists call dukkha or suffering).. Deep down, I believe, everyone realizes this.
There is an ancient text called the Excerpta ex Theodoto — excerpts from the writings of a Gnostic teacher named Theodotus, who lived in the second century A.D. He said that human beings are liberated by “the knowledge of who we were, and what we have become, where we were or where we were placed, whither we hasten, from what we are redeemed, what birth is and what rebirth.”
We come to the same answer twice. We are in this world because, in some long-obscured context, we decided to have knowledge of good and evil. But this knowledge is, inevitably, painful. Liberation from it is, again, knowledge. This, however, is knowledge of a very different kind — and one that takes great effort and great subtlety to grasp.
~Richard Smoley is an author and philosopher specializing in spirituality and religion.
2016 Excellence Reporter
Copyright © 2016 by Richard Smoley