The question of the meaning of life elicits deep-seated disagreements. What I want to suggest is that these disagreements are driven by three temperamental polarities. These define our attitudes to three questions. The first is Where does meaning come from? Does it require a transcendent source? The second polarity concerns our attitude to time. Should we live in the present?. The third relates to the value of suffering. Would a painless life be meaningless? Let me explain.
If a voice came to you from a burning bush, what you make of it would entirely depend on your interpretation of it. It would be for you to decide whether to attribute it to some god or devil. Books with such titles as The purpose driven life express the longing, felt by many people for something to absolve them from that decision. But others feel, with equal intensity, the force of Nietzsche’s proclamation: “God is dead”: No source of meaning or value exists outside of ourselves. Answering the call of a higher being, far from giving meaning to our lives, simply amounts to accepting the status of a tool or slave. We are subjects only in the sense in which a monarch has subjects, not in the sense in which we are subjects of our choices and experience. Instead, the meaning of my life is the meaning I give it.
Note that to regard myself as the origin of my own life’s meaning is not to deny the contingency of my desires and aspirations. My values and goals are largely due to genetic or environmental influences that result from the accident of my birth at a given place and time. I can still worry that the goals I set myself may come to seem worthless. What I take to be my autonomous choices might – in my own or others’ eyes – turn out to be ultimately trivial. But that leaves me no worse off than the staunchest disciple of divinely sourced morality. For their commitment to some divine or transcendent source of value—Christ, Zeus or Vishnu—is just a wager, a stab in the dark.
Many of us have been brought up with the thought that Prudence is a cardinal virtue, which requires us to look ahead and take a long view. We plan for University while at school; we choose University courses that will serve our career; we save for retirement throughout our career. But when will it be time to live now? If life is a treadmill of perpetually receding anticipation, then meaning is always elsewhere.
At the opposite pole of this continuum, is the view that life is and should be lived in the present–albeit enriched by memory and imagination. To take an excessively long view of the meaning of life is to sacrifice the only reality of the Now to what literally does not (yet, or any longer) exist.
The principle “Better safe than sorry” is firmly implanted in our minds by natural selection. Better to run away from a mere rustling of leaves than to be caught by a predator. To that end, we are equipped with what the philosopher Daniel Dennett has called a “Hyperactive Agency Detector Device”. Our HADD induces us to ascribe random events to some hidden agent.
In our ancestors’ experience as in ours, the workings of nature must have seemed largely malevolent. The powerful agent responsible for the cataclysmic natural events that insurance companies still call “Acts of God” might be angered or placated—so we praise and pray to him, and call him utterly benevolent as well as omnipotent. (A psychoanalyst might call this a “reaction-formation”, designed to conceal from both God and ourselves the whimsical brutality of whatever higher power governs the universe.)
The practice of sacrifice embodies the hope that just as tribute might influence an unpredictably moody warlord, so one might ingratiate oneself to a god by burning a goat. When things get really tough, one might even sacrifice a son, a daughter—or even oneself—to get the deity on side.
The notion that suffering is essential to sacrifice is reinforced by the notion that the character of any experience rests on contrast. Happiness and pleasure can only be felt in comparison to their opposite. Suffering is a precondition of happiness, and only supreme suffering can make possible the highest form of bliss.
Why should anyone buy this conception of the value of pain? To be sure, aversive sensations function as crucial signals to alert an organism to the need for harm avoidance or repair. But if the point of pain is to highlight pleasure, a little pain goes a long way.
Here again, we are dealing with a polarized temperaments. Many are tempted by the fascination of suffering. They find grandeur in the thought of having been born into a condition of sin so heinous as to require a curse on the entire human species. Others are unpersuaded: unless pain is mild, and required as a unavoidable means, as in a tooth extraction, no amount of future bliss can justify suffering. The need for contrast is easily met by the state of indifference. For those who are not captivated by the masochistic appeal of pain, even if the greatest bliss depends on relief from torture, the deal isn’t worth it. A life’s total value and meaning cannot depend on such peaks. Much pleasure and little pain, deprived of peaks either of bliss or torture, is much to be preferred.
Why do those who exalt the masochistic cult of suffering remain so influential? I cannot claim to explain it. What does seem clear is that the three temperamental polarities I have outlined together define contrasting conceptions of the meaning of life. In one conception our search–or thirst–for meaning can be quenched only by drawing on the supposed designs of some greater but fundamentally alien being; our lives must make sense as a whole, to the detriment of momentary pleasures; and meaning can be attained only at the cost of suffering. In the contrasting view, nothing is less meaningful than meaningless suffering; our lives are lived in moments of which we should strive to savor the intrinsic value; and the meaning of those moments is given by nothing but our own hopes and desires, for ourselves and those we love.
~Ronald de Sousa is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Toronto. His more recent books include Why Think? Evolution and the Rational Mind (2007), Emotional Truth (2011) and Love, a Very Short Introduction.
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