The answer is 42, according to Deep Thought, from the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The Philosophers were keen to turn the machine off, and perhaps rightly so. Still, the NY Times’ Philosophers Stone has raised the question again. What is meaning in life? Or something like that.
This week’s Stone author is Sean Kelley. He sees nihilism as saying that there is no meaning in life. There are, he appears to think, two alternatives to such a view. One is to take one’s life and its values as universally justifiable. Kelly takes this view to have been present in the Middle Ages, and presumably beyond, though that is less clear. When the society starts to recognize that other modes of belief and action are acceptable, taking one’s own to be universally valid becomes a kind of self-deception.
The other way is articulated by Melville:
Writing 30 years before Nietzsche, in his great novel “Moby Dick,” the canonical American author encourages us to “lower the conceit of attainable felicity”; to find happiness and meaning, in other words, not in some universal religious account of the order of the universe that holds for everyone at all times, but rather in the local and small-scale commitments that animate a life well-lived. The meaning that one finds in a life dedicated to “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” these are genuine meanings. They are, in other words, completely sufficient to hold off the threat of nihilism, the threat that life will dissolve into a sequence of meaningless events. But they are nothing like the kind of universal meanings for which the monotheistic tradition of Christianity had hoped.
To find meaning, then, is to see one’s life as lived according to universal standards OR to see it as attaining the local and small-scale contentments of human life.
I hope we can discuss these issues. I’ll try to start off the discussion with two observations, but my sense is that remarks tangential to all this might be particularly illuminating. Anyway, here goes:
1. From what perspective is the question of the meaning of life raised? Is it the philosophers’ reflections on lived lives, or does it really signal some concern animating human lives as they are lived? I do think the question of meaning can get younger people in its grip, but I’m less sure that it does for those of us who are older, particularly those who don’t read philosophy. I could easily think of myself as steering a large ship through unknown waters, where I lack both a map and any clear idea of the goals the journey is supposed to have. By this time, I have a pretty clear idea of my own goals and priorities, but they can hardly determine the decisions I have to make. Too much else is involved in this extraordinarily puzzling trip. It seems more correct to judge it nearly incomprehensible than to say it lacks meaning. (I am, of course, exaggerating.)
2. What do we do with the fact that each approach seems to have extremely serious drawbacks? The idea that one is living according to universal values can come under some pressure since those values are pretty much always interpreted. And, when interpreted, often highly questionable. Indeed, it may take a kind of self-deception on the part of some living then to accept that the values of the Christian Middle Age were really universal. Not recognizing any rights of women to their children or the property brought into a marriage? Shutting women in nunneries? Boiling dissidents in oil? Castrating sinners?
Of course, today, at least in Western culture, we don’t boil dissenters in oil, we merely water-board them. But, putting that aside, those of us embracing the small-scale pleasures of life may still find incongruities. For example, how does one cope with the fact that seemingly small events can put an end to what one – or others – care about?
All such incongruities seems to leave us threatened with meaningless. At least if we read philosophy.
So what do you think?