The Irrationality of Existence or, How to Find the Meaning of Life, much to Nietzsche’s Chagrin

DSC01524We’re too busy to ask the big questions anymore, but they linger over our heads like an ominous shadow lurking in our rooms while we sleep. We keep ourselves occupied with jobs, television, movies, video games, the internet, and a host of other things. Companies make billions of dollars a year off the fact that we will buy anything, any amount of money, and do anything we can in order to keep ourselves busy and thoughtless. The more thoughtless the entertainment, the less it demands of us, the more likely we are to consume it. Why is it that reality television shows have become so popular? Is it because we are that dumb, or are we that desperate to silence the big questions of life? At least the alcoholic is honest with himself and admits to drinking in order to avoid and suppress life’s difficulties; the TV junkie or video game addict hardly realizes he has a problem.

Yet, we must all face the big questions. At a funeral, they sneak up on us without our permission and infect our minds. What if I’m next? What has the purpose of my life been? What if this is all it’s worth? We hate funerals because it reminds us of our own inevitability; certainly we will miss the person who has died, but even for strange acquaintances whose funerals we attend out of social obligation we still feel our stomachs turn.  We realize that one day we will be the person in the casket and it is in that moment that life’s big questions engulf us, it is then we all become Jonahs in the belly of a great fish, trapped in a darkness we’ve fought so hard to avoid.

We quickly push such thoughts away by looking at our phones for the latest news, looking at what Jane is wearing, thinking about what the kids have to do tomorrow, putting together a grocery list, and the line of distractions grow. We distance ourselves from the big questions, yet they remain. When forced to confront our own mortality, we are faced with the meaninglessness of our existence. To the ancient Greeks, life wasn’t meaningless because one was supposed to pursue the good. Of course, they then spent countless hours defining and attempting to understand exactly what “the good” was. For Plato, the good was some abstract form, something to which we could only achieve within the form world. To Aristotle, the good was found mostly in this life, through living a virtuous life. Yet, both seem meaningless; if the good is abstracted and unobtainable in this life, then what is the purpose in trying to pursue it? If the good is found in a virtuous life, how much virtue and how long do I have to live before I obtain it? For the Romans, specifically Cicero, the good was best manifested in being a good citizen. But oh that Cicero could have seen his Republic fail (he did see its twilight), for then he would realize that being a good citizen cannot be our ultimate end since the State is mutable. Turn East and one could seek the Tao, but the Tao is immutable and therefore one cannot know if it is obtained or not. Or one could seek Nirvana, which is ultimately nothingness; if the purpose of life is to obtain nothingness, then there is no purpose.

Before we ridicule the ancients in the East and the West, we should better understand that us moderns are infantile in our quest compared to the ancients. At least they dared to stand their ground against the big questions of life. Rather than fleeing as we do, they turned and like a brave soldier fought against these questions. They did battle with the struggles of life and even if they did not emerge victoriously, at least they fought. We moderns are far too quick to run away. We tend to take the meaning of life for granted, hiding behind beautifully written platitudes that when exposed to scrutiny, dissolve like paper in acid. Think of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which while a great film, provides a cleverly written, but stupidly simple meaning of life: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.” Like modern music, such a saying might sound great to the masses, but there’s really nothing behind it. If the meaning of life is to see the world, then already those who are poor are now excluded from enjoying the meaning of life. Only those who can afford trips need apply to having meaning in life. To see dangerous things to come, to see behind walls (that is, to see the truth of the world), to draw closer and find each other, and to feel; none of these, however, indicate positive things. By all accounts, both Gandhi and Hitler obtained the meaning of life, both Mother Theresa and Josef Stalin stood on equal footing when it came to finding meaning in this life. All involved saw the world, they saw the dangerous things, they saw behind the lies of the world, they drew closer to some and even found love, and they did feel. Such a meaning of life is amoral, which means there is no meaning at all. 

In our modern setting, now that we’ve moved beyond the death of God, perhaps it is best to say there is no meaning. That is, there is no Meaning, even if we can create meaning. There is no overarching story, no metanarrative, no conclusion to which we must strive. We may try to give meaning to our lives, but there is a multitude of individuals and therefore a multitude of meanings. None of us has the same meaning, none of us has the same end, which sounds great until one ponders what it means; if each of us has our own meaning, then we are stumbling along in life alone, only temporarily crossing the paths of others who, no matter what we think, we ultimately use for our own meaning and vice versa; we never truly fall in love, we never truly sacrifice, we never truly do anything for anyone; each one of us is a selfish bastard, an island unto himself, fighting against the absurdity of this existence, that I exist and do not know why. That is life without meaning, an absurdity that laughs at itself, never knowing why it is here or where it is going.

Yes, perhaps there is freedom in the idea that we can create our own meaning. Rather than having to aim toward a destination, we are free to create our own destination or have no destination if we choose. A romantic notion, certainly, until one realizes that we can choose a destination that leads to world destruction. The passion of Romeo might make for a great justification of creating our own meaning, but the nightmare of Machiavelli ought to give us pause. We say to do as one wishes so long as one does no harm, but the “no harm” assumes there is a meaning to life. Once again we prove ourselves to be much lazier than our ancestors and simply take for granted the idea that we ought not harm each other.

In reality, a life with no meaning leaves us with two options; suicide or ignorance. In coming to realize that life has no meaning, no purpose, we can be honest and simply kill ourselves. The Romans and Japanese both, when faced with a life of dishonor, opted for suicide; the alternative – to live without honor – was not considered a life worth living. It was a life without meaning, one that could never obtain that meaning again, so why not die? Almost all suicides result from the person believing that life has no purpose, no meaning behind it; otherwise, why would one kill one’s self? To quote Vladimir Solovyov,

“Allowing for difference in detail, we find the same thing at the bottom of every suicide: life is not what in my opinion it ought to be, therefore life is senseless and is not worth living. The absence of correspondence between the arbitrary demands of a passionate nature and the reality is taken to be the result of some hostile fate, terrible and senseless, and a man kills himself rather than submit to this blind force.” (The Justification of the Good, preface to the first edition)

What, then, of those who choose to avoid suicide? What about those who realize there is no meaning to life, yet continue onward? Perhaps we ought to follow Nietzsche, who’s view of life is summarized by Solovyov:

“The meaning of life is to be found in the aesthetic aspect of it, in what is strong, majestic, beautiful. To devote ourselves to this aspect of life, to preserve and strengthen it in ourselves and in others, to make it predominant and develop it further till superhuman greatness and new purest beauty is attained, this is the end and meaning of our existence.”

Or, to summarize, the purpose of existence is to obtain power and beauty in perfect form. Ultimately, however, all beauty fades and all power collapses. All earthly strength is impotence, all powers fail and are overcome by another power. Every beauty queen ends up an old lady, and every old lady ends up a corpse, and no corpse is beautiful (except to the morbid). The corpse ultimately shows the futility of Neitzsche’s hope; all of us stand powerless before death, and all of us lose our beauty in our decay. If the meaning of life is to obtain power and beauty, then our meaning can never be found and it might as well not exist; what good is power if it is powerless against death? What good is beauty if beauty will end? Even if I obtain it for a short while, though the romantic might protest that while is enough, I know that it is not enough. For at what point have I seen enough beauty? At what point can I say, “I can see no more?” One would have to inspect the entirety of the universe (and any other possible universes) before one could make such a declaration. One would have to explore every atom, every planet, every star, every galaxy, before one could accurately declare one has seen enough beauty. And even then, if you were to discover all the beauty that can possibly be found in the physical universe, you would be faced with the sudden reality of entropy as you watched that beauty decay before your eyes into a vast pit of nothingness.

Ironically enough, however, our denial of life’s meaning and our response – suicide or ignorance – proves that life does have a meaning. Those who end their lives in the face of life’s meaningless do so because, at that moment, they’ve truly ceased believing that life has no purpose. Up until that point, whether consciously or not, they held out hope that there was something worth living for. There was just one more thing they wanted to see; but in that moment, they lost hope and realized there was nothing more to see in this life. They needed the hope of meaning in order to function and to exist, just as one needs oxygen or food in order to live. We do not create the simulation of oxygen and say that it actually doesn’t exist, we know it exists and that we need it. If we lose it, we die. Likewise, meaning functions in the same way.

Perhaps, some would argue, it is the illusion of meaning that allows us to live. Yes, if we lose this illusion we will die, but that doesn’t entail that meaning actually exists. We therefore continue on in our arbitrary and absurd existence, knowing there is no meaning to life, but acting as though there is one. We give meaning to life. Yet, such arbitrary actions actually prove there is a meaning to life. Why seek out that which does not exist? Why create that which is not needed? If something is needed, then how can it not exist? If we need meaning in order to survive, to avoid taking our own lives, then how can we say it doesn’t exist? If we cannot live without it and there is a need for it then how can we say it doesn’t exist? It is akin to the madman denying the existence of food, yet continuing to consume it, crying out, “Yes, my food is illusionary, but I must create this illusion in order to survive!” Such a man would rightfully be locked up and medicated; yet to those who question our meaning and continue living we give awards and put on shows like Cosmos.

Certainly the meaning of life must be beyond our demands and imaginations, for there is no way it could coincide with so many contradictory views. Do we turn to Plato and say that the meaning of life, “the good,” is some abstracted form? The number 42 is abstract, shall we say it contains the meaning of life? Or shall we follow the Tao and say that the meaning of life is ineffable, yet can be experienced? Then how do we lead people to it? How do we become one with that which is just as abstract as Plato’s “the good?” Abstractions do nothing for us; we are personable beings, beings that desire and thrive within community, that become better when we encounter beauty, love, truth, and strength. We are persons and learn from other persons, not abstractions, so the meaning of life must exist beyond the abstract.

Perhaps the problem all along has been the question: What is the meaning of life? Such a question is in error because it asks “What?” and only allows for a thing. Perhaps it would be best to ask, “Who is the meaning of life?”

Such a question seems absurd, especially in our modern context where we hate the idea of God, but hating the idea of God does not negate the existence of God. We say science has disproven His existence (though it has not and cannot), but this in itself negates our claim; science is nothing more than our quest for truth. We search for truth, for perfect truth, but never find it. Our theories are always evolving, always changing as we discover new things. Our quest for truth cannot be our meaning, because we’ve yet to find perfect truth. We search for beauty, but never find perfect beauty. We search for goodness, but never find perfect goodness. We search for love, but never find perfect love. Why is it that a couple can fall in love every day, more and more, and never reach a maximum for that love? Why is it that artists continue to paint, authors continue to write, and no one ever says, “This is the best thing ever, thus we have no need for more?” We seek after these things, but never find them. They cannot be a form, they cannot be abstracted, for abstracts are neither alive nor dead and therefore cannot speak.

“Strength and beauty are divine, but not in themselves: there is a strong and beautiful Deity whose strength is never exhausted and whose beauty never dies, for in Him strength and beauty are inseparable from the good.” – Vladimir Solovyov

We seek after perfect and eternal truth, perfect and eternal beauty, perfect and eternal love, perfect and eternal good; we seek after God. In our search for meaning we have always looked for a what, for an abstraction, when all the while we should have looked for a who. God is, by definition, perfectly good, perfectly truth, perfectly beauty, perfectly strong, and so on. In being perfect, it means that he is never ending, without barriers, without end, and maximal. Ultimately, any pursuit in the meaning of life will result in us finding that Life has pursued us. Our meaning is not in our quest, because our Meaning has quested after us. Humans were created in God’s image and likeness and thus removed from Him they have lost all meaning; our sin removed us from the Garden and God has done all he can to return us back to the Garden.

The meaning of life, ultimately, is found in a manger, on a cross, in an empty tomb; the meaning of life is when Meaning himself took on human flesh and breathed Life into it once again. Our pursuit is not after a thing, but after a person. We are in a cosmic tussle, a chase after God, a chase that we will one day discover was not us pursuing God, but God pursuing us. We have spent so much time in the coldness of meaninglessness, and God offers us the warmth of true existence. “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” This is the cry of Christ calling us back to meaning. 

It is okay to seek after beauty, truth, goodness, and so on. Yet, we must realize that such things culminate and flow from God. Jesus is the Tao, the ineffable way of unity, but he is a person and not an abstraction. Jesus is the good that Plato sought, but not an abstraction. Nietzsche was right to look to beauty and strength, but he failed in not going far enough; for both must culminate in Eternity himself. The meaning of life includes beauty, truth, goodness, but moves beyond such things. The meaning of life is a man, the God-man, whom we look to for the hope of perfection in all things for eternity to come.