Meaning of Life, Essay Example

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Essay

The search for meaning in life is humanity’s age-old quest, embodied so concisely in the saying, ‘How then shall we live?’ This is the very question that so many poets, prophets, mystics, messiahs, reformers, hermits, and countless ‘everyday’ women and men have sought to answer. Implicit in this question is the search for justice, and the recognition of the need for a way for human beings to interact with each other in an ethical and equitable fashion. The way of the secular saint is one answer, and it is an answer I find compelling: the secular saint is open to this central mystery, and seeks to construct an answer through dialog and interaction with others. ‘As iron sharpens iron’, as the proverb has it: by learning from others, by treating others as human beings worthy of respect and courtesy, we learn how to live together more justly. To my mind, then, the meaningful life is the examined life, as Socrates had of the Delphic oracle: the life that does not shrink from critical examination in the search for meaning.

In the realm of political philosophy, the figures of Plato and his mentor Socrates stand out like twin colossi. In his great work The Republic, Plato used his beloved mentor as the central figure in his dialogues, articulating a sophisticated theory of politics grounded in wisdom and justice (Perry 55). He was responding to twin calamities, one personal, the other political: the execution of Socrates by the Athenian state, and Athens’ ruinous defeat in the terrible Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) (55). For Plato, Athens’ political problems had moral roots: Athenian politics had become corrupt as a direct consequence of the lack of moral character in so many Athenian citizens (55-56). A seminal problem, in his view, was democracy: democracy empowered a citizenry in the affairs of state, but that citizenry could not be expected to have an intelligent and sound understanding of the affairs of state (56). Worse, democracy allowed such people to vote candidates into office based on such dubious qualifications as “persuasive speech, good looks, wealth, and family background” (56).

Though the elitism in Plato’s view is undeniable and speaks to his own aristocratic background, it is difficult not to gainsay him his cardinal point: the wellbeing of the citizenry suffers under foolish or tyrannical or simply corrupt rulers (Perry 56). In The Republic, Plato uses Socrates to defend a concept of governance predicated on the art of justice. Socrates’ interlocutor, Thrasymachus, argues for a view of “justice” as nothing more than “the interest of the stronger”: in other words, ‘might makes right’ (12). With great patience, Socrates exposes the errors of Thrasymachus’ argument with a well-crafted analogy: just as the physician is “a healer of the sick” rather than “a maker of money”, just as the pilot is “a captain of sailors” rather than “a mere sailor”, so too is the ruler—the just ruler—one who serves the interests of the ruled, rather than their own interests (15-17).

It is a profound concept indeed, but Thrasymachus is far from done: he then changes tack slightly and argues that “the just is always a loser in comparison with the unjust” (Plato 18). Thrasymachus’ argument merits some elaboration: he is arguing that the unjust, the cheat, the knave, successfully advances their interests at the expense of the just (18). Cheaters and free-riders take advantage of others’ trust and cooperation, thereby making for themselves a tidy profit (18). Socrates responds by returning to the analogy, and explains that like the other ‘arts’, governing is a responsibility, which is why those who rule must be compensated by means of “one of three modes of payment, money, honor, or a penalty for refusing” (21). Only the good must be compelled to govern, as money and honor hold no appeal (21).

But there is much more to Socrates’ argument. After all, thus far he has not refuted Thrasymachus’ central contention that the unjust will always profit over the just. Firstly, he defends justice in terms of wisdom and goodness, because the just does not seek to be or have more than the just, but only the unjust: it is virtue, goodness, and wisdom that set the just apart from the unjust (23-25). Then, Socrates plays his ace: because injustice is inherently unstable, occasioning as it does “divisions and hatreds and fighting”, while justice “imparts harmony and friendship”, even an unjust “state, or an army, or a band of robbers and thieves” must be just towards each other (26). Justice wins, because it is inherently better, and it is necessary for the construction of a harmonious society (26-27). This is the founding principle of Plato’s vision of a just state: a state ruled by the just, by an elite selected and trained in philosophy to be the ‘guardians’ of the state (Plato 46-48).

The Prophet Muhammad of Islam was also concerned with justice and the meaningful life, though his answers, like the context of the world inhabited, were quite different from Plato’s. Islam is the last of the three great monotheisms, along with Christianity and Judaism, and it draws richly on this heritage. The first of Islam’s Five Pillars is the shahadāh, the declaration of faith in Allah, the single god, and Muhammad as his messenger (Delong-Bas 3, Kennedy 45). Muhammad taught that the souls of the faithful would depart to a verdant, paradisiacal garden, replete with lovely virgin consorts, while the wicked would suffer the fiery agonies of hell (Kennedy 45, Rodinson 87). The other four pillars complement and enhance this vision: Muslims are to pray five times a day (salat), give alms (zakat), fast during Ramadan (sawm), and make hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca at least once in their lives, if they are able (Delong-Bas 3).

Though for many Westerners the mere mention of Islam conjures apocalyptic imagery of jihad and terrorism, in truth Muhammad’s vision reflects a deep concern for social justice: as Karen Armstrong explains, even the five pillars contain astonishing innovations designed to create a more equitable and cohesive community in the Muslim ummah, the body of all Muslim believers (6). In particular, the prostrations required by prayer were designed to teach humility to an increasingly arrogant and self-sufficient society in Mecca (6). Almsgiving was a way of providing for the poor, for whom Muhammad was especially concerned (6). Fasting during Ramadan is intended as a way for all Muslims “to remind themselves of the privations of the poor” (6). Indeed, Muhammad did not shy from using the threat of hell to attempt to compel the rich to give to the poor (Rodinson 76). The Quran condemns the uncaring rich in scathing terms, and praises the just for their charity to the needy (89).

From the Prophet Muhammad, I learn the importance of charity to any conception of justice. There is great meaning in a vision of life driven by a heart of compassion for the unfortunate. It is a truth that Saint Francis of Assisi understood as well: for him, as for Muhammad, his love of God went hand-in-hand with a love of others. Turning his back to his successful family, Francis abandoned any thought of worldly success or advancement to become a mendicant friar (Thompson 14-16). It took him great effort to overcome his abhorrence of lepers. In his own words: “’And the Lord himself took me among them, and I showed mercy to them. And on leaving them, what seemed bitter to me had turned for me into sweetness of body and soul’” (qtd. in Thompson 16).

Francis found God’s calling in serving others: by giving to the poor, caring for lepers, and generally dedicating himself “to every kind of underdog” (House 81). Though the exact text is long lost, the rule of his order is believed to have been: “Poverty, Chastity, Humility, Obedience to God, Prayer, Work, Harmony, Preaching” (87). And in an age characterized by patriarchal chauvinism, Francis was not afraid to “give expression to the feminine aspect of his own nature” (97). His central message, as House explained, was that the only way to alleviate the great sufferings in the world lay in “persuading people to love God and their neighbors without reservation” (101). Francis is also famous for loving animals: on one occasion, he even took a worm from a road lest it be trodden on (108).

From Francis I learn much: the meaningful life is found, not in mere striving for worldly gain, but rather in the nurturing of a compassionate and charitable soul. It is our kindness to others that matters, not the greatness of our social standing or material possessions. Kindness, compassion, charity: all these things matter because they make a tangible difference in the lives of others, and because they transform us for the better.

Fyodor Dostoevsky also confronted injustice and suffering. In his short novel Poor Folk, Dostoevsky explores themes of “social humiliation and injustice”, a study in the disintegration of a mind, an entire personality, in the face of disappointment and betrayal (Freeborn 25-26). During his formative childhood years, Dostoevsky was exposed to the peasant serfs, the lowest class of Russian society: his positive experiences with them informed his socio-political sensibilities later in life (Frank “Writer in His Time” 15-16). In fact, Dostoevsky’s compassion towards the serfs later led him to participate in Russia’s own version of the revolutions that swept Europe in 1848: the Palm-Durov Circle’s attempt to spark a revolution against the Tsarist regime and free the serfs (Freeborn 31). He paid dearly for these efforts: a mock execution, followed by imprisonment and hard labor in Siberia (Frank “Writer” xv, Frank “Mantle of the Prophet” 10). In 1861, serfdom was abolished by Tsar Alexander II (“Mantle” 10).

In his great novel Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky drew on his own experience of hardships: poverty and debts that had reduced him to begging, and the death of his wife (Breger 16). His indebtedness and feelings of guilt were the emotional template that gave the novel form: his protagonist, Raskolnikov, is also an indebted man, one who resorts to the murder of a pawnbroker to whom he is indebted, and the theft of her valuables (18, 21). As Breger explains, Raskolnikov, like his creator, is “caught between fantasies of greatness and humiliating poverty” (18). The moral core of the novel is a profound exercise in examining the costs and consequences of self-indulgence: Raskolnikov’s crime ultimately leads to guilt and the need to confess (18). Moreover, Raskolnikov is a sort of would-be ‘superman’: comparing himself to Napoleon, he fancies himself a new law-giver, a new arbiter of good and evil (Lavrin 77).     

But it is in The Brothers Karamazov that Dostoevsky assayed perhaps his greatest engagement with themes of justice and the search for meaning. Dostoevsky used the character Ivan Karamazov to express the need for justice, a need born from great compassion towards the suffering in the world (Lavrin 70). Ivan’s character is obsessed with the ‘problem of evil’ that informs theodicy: “’I must have justice, or I will destroy myself. And not justice in some remote time and space, but here on earth and that I could see myself’” (qtd. in Lavrin 70). Lavrin explains that Dostoevsky explores two possible outcomes of Ivan’s atheistic line of thinking: the “God-struggler”, a Promethean figure who loves humanity and demands “an account for the last suffering creature,” and the nihilistic “’satanist’”, who is willing to inflict suffering in order to dethrone God (70). The cardinal difference is that the former is motivated by compassion and humanity, the latter by defiance and selfishness.

From Dostoevsky I learn again the importance of compassion and justice in the search for meaning. I learn also the folly of self-indulgence, hubris, and facile justifications for bad, let alone terrible, conduct. There is no small resonance here with the wisdom of William Faulkner, with his penetrating critiques of the folly and oppression in society. In his famous novel Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner explored the roots of brutality in antebellum Southern society (Kartiganer 42). His character Thomas Sutpen is brutal to the point of ‘primitiveness’, but his brutality is simply an exemplification of the brutality intrinsic to antebellum society, with its dependence on slavery (42). But Faulkner’s critique goes deeper even than an analysis of oppression in the antebellum South: what he is critiquing is social oppression, “the desire for order and ownership, for neat, unassailable boundaries on both land and human behavior” (43). The antebellum South is the vehicle by which Faulkner brings this story to life, the canvas on which he portrays this central problem of so much of human society in general (43).

The telling contrast here is Faulkner’s juxtaposition of the valley society, the world of the plantations, and the rougher, rawer world of the mountains: the former is a world ruled by the idle rich, who accumulate wealth from the labor of enslaved others, while the latter, though far from Utopian, is a world where people “are judged not by their birth or blood but by what they are” (Kartiganer 43). And race is central to Faulkner’s critique: after all, the antebellum South was built on racially-defined slave labor. Power, Faulkner is saying, social power is always built on the oppression and commoditization of other human beings (44-45). And in Go Down, Moses, Faulkner examined slavery, manumission, and race relations: his hero, Isaac McCasclin, refuses the inheritance of a plantation “’founded upon injustice and erected by ruthless rapacity’” (Taylor 59). Faulkner’s character Isaac speaks highly of African-Americans as a virtuous people, arguing that their only vices are vices they have acquired from whites, either by imitation or due to the exigencies of slavery (59). While I believe one should be careful not to idolize any particular ‘racial’ group, from Faulkner I learn the importance of a vision of social justice based on confronting oppression, and seeing past skin color, or any other attribute, to appreciate the value of every human being.

Compassionate and insightful, Simone Weil also confronted social oppression and articulated profound conceptions of rights, liberty, and meaning. Like Faulkner, Weil encouraged a critical analysis of culture: her philosophy, in Bell’s words, “makes us aware of our lack of attention to words and empty ideologies, to human suffering, to the indignity of work, to our excessive use of power” (1-2). For Weil, the struggle between communism and fascism was a “’murderous absurdity’”: they were all too similar in their oppressive use of state power under the control of a single party (Bell 3-4). Nor was capitalism exempt from her critique: she believed that it, like Marxism, placed too much emphasis on economic concerns in the social order (36). Moreover, the individualism which is the hallmark of capitalism could not but have a corrosive effect on notions of the common good (36). Where the liberal tradition, including the French Revolution of 1789, emphasized rights, Weil emphasized obligations: human beings, she believed, had a duty to respect each other (Weil 5). “This obligation is an eternal one”, Weil explained (4). “It is coextensive with the eternal destiny of human beings” (4). Respect born of compassion, Weil believed, was the foundation of social justice: “All Christians know they are liable to hear Christ himself say to them one day: ‘I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat’” (5).

For me, all six of these remarkable people have many lessons to teach about the meaning of life. Plato’s argument for a just state; Muhammad’s founding of a religion that emphasized charity and togetherness as seminal values; St. Francis’s deep love of God and others, manifested through his care of the lepers; Dostoevsky’s sophisticated examinations of suffering, crime, and the human condition; Faulkner’s critique of social oppression and injustice, and Weil’s philosophy of compassion and respect as the foundation of social justice, all speak to me of important core values in the quest for a meaningful life. The meaningful life is the life lived with compassion for others, with concern for their welfare. It is found in the heart that gives abundantly, not simply with material things, but with the treasures of the soul: kindness, generosity, and liberality toward all. In giving abundantly of one’s self, one can find reward not only in the thanks of others, but also in the beauty of the transformed life.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History. New York: Random House, 2002. Print.

Bell, Richard H. Simone Weil: The Way of Justice as Compassion. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998. Print.

Breger, Louis. Dostoevsky: The Author as Psychoanalyst. 1989. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2008. Print.

Budd, Louis J., and Edwin H. Cady, eds. On Faulkner. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1989. Print.

Delong-Bas, Natana. The Five Pillars of Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.

Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002. Print.

—. Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010. Print.

Freeborn, Richard. Dostoevsky. London, UK: Haus Publishing, Ltd., 2003. Print.

House, Adrian. Francis of Assisi: A Revolutionary Life. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2001. Print.

Kartiganer, Donald M. “Absalom, Absalom!: The Discovery of Values (1965).” Budd and Cady 42-57.

Kennedy, Hugh. The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In. Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press, 2007. Print.

Lavrin, Janko. Dostoevsky: A Study. 1947. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2005. Print.

Perry, Marvin. Western Civilization: A Brief History. 7th ed. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2011. Print.

Plato. The Republic. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2000. Print.

Rodinson, Maxime. Muhammad: Prophet of Islam. New York: I. B. Tauris & Co., Ltd., 2002. Print.

Taylor, Walter. “’Pantaloon’: The Negro Anomaly at the Heart of Go Down, Moses (1972).” Budd and Cady 58-72.

Thompson, Augustine, O. P. Francis of Assisi: A New Biography. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012. Print.

Weil, Simone. The Need for Roots. 1949. Trans. Editions Gallimard, 1952. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.

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