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.  Continue reading

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Are You a Free Spirit?


A question for you to dwell upon tonight: are you a free spirit? Nietzsche argued that the greatest human beings were free spirits—those rare individuals who transcend mankind, who break free from the shackles of value systems, who no longer follow the herd, who fully embrace what it is to be human (all too human), creating their own values and making their own meaning; rising above what their culture or religion has determined to be right and wrong or beautiful. Does this sound like the type of person you strive to be?

People often tell me that they desire freedom from the constraints of organized religion or from puritanical moral systems, which they believe bring about oppression and unnecessary limitations upon mankind. Some perceive that religion imposes overwhelming intellectual limitations—that is, they believe that religion stunts their intellectual growth or somehow disengages their rational faculties. They want the freedom to believe whatever they deem to be true. Others perceive that religion brings about suffocating ethical limitations—they want sexual liberation, they want to lie and cheat and steal from time to time without feeling guilty about it.

Perhaps the most common form of freedom that people speak about is the freedom to make meaning. Have you ever heard someone say, “life is what you make of it” or “my life has meaning because I make it meaningful”? Statements like these illustrate the type of freedom that I’m referring to. It’s the idea that we have the freedom to make meaning for our lives apart from any standard or universal meaning which applies to everyone. We see this in art as well. There’s no longer a standard for what qualifies as art—art is simply an expression of someone’s inner feelings or emotions. Thus, anything can be art. A jar of urine is art if you feel that it is and attribute to it some form of meaning. There is a real resistance among modern artists to placing any definition, label, or limitations on art. There is a desire for freedom—an unlimited freedom to express whatever one wants however one wants to express it (whether that be through urine in a jar or oil on canvas). There is also a tremendous resistance to the idea that beauty is objective—that something can truly be said to be beautiful. We want the freedom to make that determination for ourselves.

I wonder, however, if Nietzsche’s free spirit is truly free? I wonder if those of us who strive for this type of freedom are actually placing ourselves into bondage? What if, in our desire to be free spirits, we have actually enslaved ourselves to one of the most tyrannical and destructive dictators of all? The dictator to which I refer is of course self love. By self love I do not mean having a healthy self image (something we all should have); rather, I mean the placing of our pleasures and our needs as the very end of (i.e. the purpose of) our existence. When we direct our lives in accordance with our unbridled passions; when we make decisions solely based upon what is beneficial to our own wellbeing or to what brings us the most pleasure or satisfaction–this is self love. Self love is all about fulfilling any sexual urge or fantasy we might have, expressing ourselves in any way we want (without recourse to the good, the noble, or the beautiful), and about living life to feed the ego. The free spirit, in her desire to break free from values, from universals, from absolutes, ends up in bondage to her own arbitrary emotions; to her own ego. Rather than being a rational human being, the free spirit is more akin to a horse following a carrot on a stick—wherever the carrot goes the horse goes.

A free spirit, enslaved to self love, ultimately brings bondage and enslavement to others as well. In the eyes of the free spirit, people become simply a means to an end—objects to be used for personal gain. This happens whether the free spirit is aware of it or not. For example, you begin to think–perhaps only in your subconscious–of your girlfriend as a sex object; of course she is a person, but in practice she is nothing but a means to satiating whatever sexual desires you might have. She, in turn, is obligated to fulfill your sexual desires no matter how uncomfortable or dirty it might make her feel if she wants to keep you. You degrade her (maybe you don’t even think of it this way); you reduce her to a mere tool for masturbation and whether you realize it or not, she has become your slave. But, perhaps, she has enslaved you too. Perhaps she knows–even subconsciously–she can get something she wants out of you (money, power, respect, companionship . . .) if she gives you the sex that you want? In this case, you are ultimately her slave–not unlike the lab rat that won’t stop pressing the button which gives it sexual stimulation (to the exclusion of the button which dispenses food) and, in the end, dies of starvation.

St. Paul spoke of this type of self love in his second letter to Timothy:

“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self,       lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (II Timothy 3:1-4)

This type of self love, which is the root of all sin, leaves us in bondage. We become slaves to sin–slaves to our unbridled passions, slaves to our ego, and slaves to each other. The freedom that we so long for turns out to be nothing but an illusion.

Freedom, true freedom, can only come through Christ. Jesus not only brings us forgiveness for the pain and suffering and oppression we bring into the world, but offers us an escape from the tyranny of self love. Jesus gives us the freedom to love what is truly beautiful and truly good–the Creator and sustainer of life Himself; and to love others who have been made in His image. This, in fact, is the essence of Christianity: to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).

The follower of Christ, imaging God Himself, makes love the end or, the purpose, of his existence. By love I do not mean some fluffy sentimentality or warm sensation that one experiences in his stomach. I mean the act of sacrifice–of self giving. St. John said: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). Later he states: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). God is love, not in some abstract way, but his very nature is love. Within the blessed Trinity we see the existence of three persons, joined together by nature and eternally pouring out themselves, sharing themselves, submitting themselves to each other. We see true love. In the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ we see this love, this self-giving, spilling out into creation–we see the Divine Logos humbling Himself, giving of Himself, even unto death. We see true love.

The true free spirit is the one who embraces this love, who breaks free from the chains of self love and into the liberating arms of self-giving. So, the question remains: are you a free spirit?

Random Musings: The Nature of Beauty


1)  Does beauty truly exist?

2)  Perhaps beauty is merely a feeling; an inner subjective experience; my impression of a perception . . . an emotion.  Perhaps beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder.  If this is the case, it is false to believe anything truly is beautiful.  When I look at the sunrise and exclaim in awe, “how beautiful!” I am merely expressing a feeling—I am communicating something private.  For the sunrise is not beautiful in any objective, concrete, sense; it is just an object within space and time.  Like all objects, it has no intrinsic value, no purpose, no meaning, it conforms to no pattern.  I, the observer, give it meaning . . .

3)  If beauty is simply a subjective experience, a feeling, then to speak of beauty is no different than to speak of indigestion.  In effect, the expression, “how beautiful,” is functionally equivalent to the expression, “my stomach hurts.”

4)   How wretched life would be if beauty did not exist!  I look at my wife, an angel, the radiance of the sun instantiated in human form . . . yet, this isn’t real.  The beauty of my wife is nothing but maya—an illusion.  In reality she is the endless shifting of atoms, the constant flux of matter and energy; as am I.  To say that my wife is beautiful is really to say that one shifting batch of atoms (my wife) collided with another shifting batch of atoms (my eyes) creating a chemical response in my brain and producing a particular emotion.  Her beauty is but one euphoric chemical reaction—an animal instinct, a sexual desire.

5)  In a world devoid of intrinsic value, beauty is degraded—it becomes something base.

6)   But surely beauty must exist!  Surely the sunrise is more than the endless shifting of atoms; more than the sense of awe engendered by a brute biochemical response to perception.  Surely such reactions occur in the presence of great beauty—a beauty woven into the very fabric of reality.  A form . . . an idea . . . a logos . . .