‘The patient must minister to himself’
‘Gentlemen, [and ladies], you must excuse me from philosophizing’.
(Fyodor Dostoyevsky, (1821–1881), ‘Notes From Underground’).
What is the meaning of life? To answer that question we first need to answer: what is the meaning of meaning?
According to Morris Raphael Cohen, (1880–1947, the American philosopher, always advisable to include his middle name, to avoid confusion with Morris Cohen, the American spy): ‘anything acquires meaning if it is connected with or indicates or refers to something beyond itself, so that its full nature points to and is revealed in that connection’. But that cannot be right as far as the meaning of life is concerned. Even if we look toward a transcendent God to give our life meaning, the meaning of life is not to be found outside of life, but within life itself. To suppose otherwise leads to a philosophy of the absurd (life is meaningless), whether you believe a transcendent God is there or not.
For Albert Camus, (1930–1960), atheist, proponent of a philosophy of the absurd, there is this dichotomy between individuals, with their rational faculties, and the physical world they inhabit, each side of the dichotomy in confrontation, rather than defining each other. He wrote: ‘What, then, is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life? A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity’. The absurd man and existential hero of Camus’ novel, ‘The Outsider’, contemplating his life and imminent death, reports: ‘I looked up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world’.
For Søren Kierkegaard, (1813–1855), very devout theist, also a proponent of a philosophy of the absurd, the individual is forever externally related to something that transcends him or her, to which he or she is a stranger. Individuals are ‘characterized as beyond the pale of Truth, not approaching it like a proselyte, but departing from it’. Being outside of truth, truth is not possessed by the individual, truth is brought to the individual from outside. And for the individual to recognize the truth, the truth cannot be brought to the individual by another person, because they are outside of truth also, it has to be brought by God: ‘One who gives the learner not only the Truth, but also the condition for understanding it, is more than teacher…; if it is to be done, it must be done by God himself’. Abraham, willing to sacrifice his son, is therefore an absurd man, being outside of truth his behaviour cannot be made intelligible (not to us anyway, it is intelligible to God); he is thereby the father of faith, as Kierkegaard explains: ‘Faith is this paradox… the individual cannot make himself intelligible to anybody. People imagine maybe that the individual can make himself intelligible to another individual in the same case… But the one knight of faith can render no aid to the other. Either the individual becomes a knight of faith by assuming the burden of the paradox, or he never becomes one. In these regions partnership is unthinkable’.
To avoid being led toward a philosophy of the absurd, the meaning of life is therefore to be sought within life itself, whether we are atheist or theist. But where to start? I would say with Martin Heidegger’s, (1889–1976), characterization of our emotional engagement with life as a way of being ‘attuned’ to the world, as he puts it; it is this engagement that provides our lives with meaning. Such ‘attunement’ (sometimes translated as ‘mood’, although that is to make this particular affective trait and sensibility too narrow) discloses to us what matters, what is important, what is relevant. Depending on my mood, listening to the same speech given by smug-faced David Cameron (UK prime minister, of whom we know, thanks to Wikileaks, President Obama regards as a ‘lightweight’, at least one judgment of Obama’s that is not questionable), it can provoke in me irritation, or scorn, or indifference.
But then, if you are a fan of Star Trek, and Mr. Spock, (who is not the kind of person you would want to be stuck on a starship with), you may be thinking, are not our rational faculties and our emotions often in conflict? Do not our emotions need to be suppressed, or at least put under some kind of control, so that we can then think logically? Immanuel Kant, (1724–1804), stated that: ‘In order for a sensibly affected rational being to will that for which reason alone prescribes the ‘ought,’ it is admittedly required that his reason have the capacity to induce a feeling of pleasure or of delight in the fulfillment of duty, and thus there is required a causality of reason to determine sensibility in conformity with its principles’. And he warns us against the dangers of our emotions gaining mastery over us: ‘unless reason holds the reins of government in his own hands, a human being’s feelings and inclinations play the master over him’. Fleeting emotions can temporarily interfere with our rational reflection, in other words, and must be resisted.
David Hume, (1711–1776), on the other hand, famously said that: ‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them’. By which he means, reason only has an auxiliary role in human action, but the motivating force behind any action must come from the passions, from the emotions.
Both views are not only mistaken, but dangerous. This is particularly ironic in Hume’s case, because he also famously said: ‘Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous’. Such views split the soul into reason and passion, one being set against the other, in a struggle for control; no longer a harmonious whole we are instead at war with ourselves.
Friedrich Nietzsche, (1844–1900), however, (though there is a hint of a similar divide here), said that: ‘The function of reason is to allow expression of certain passions at the expense of others. A morality is a set of principles which restrict passions; a successful morality is one which restricts only the life-stultifying passions, which may be fatal, where they drag their victim down with the weight of their stupidity’. There are, that is to say, ‘life-enhancing’ passions, and ‘life-stultifying’ passions. Reason and the passions are not at war with each other; rationality serves to discriminate among the passions, rather than react to them as against a disruptive force, for ‘every passion’, (even the most idiotic and life-denying), ‘has its quantum of reason’, as Nietzsche puts it.
And some reasons are more rational than others.
Robert C. Solomon, (1942–2007, a philosopher I cannot recommend highly enough, he had the wisdom of his Biblical namesake), explains: ‘Every emotion… is a personal ideology, a projection into the future, and a system of hopes and desires, expectations and commitments, intentions and strategies for changing the world’. Our emotions constitute our world, they project our values onto our situations; not appraising an external world in a condition of critical detachment, for it is our world; emotions are concerned not only with the way the world is but with the way the world ought to be. Even feelings of shame, or sadness, that look to the past, also look to the future. What is to be done, now?
‘An emotion is a transformation of the world’, as Jean-Paul Sartre, (1905–1980), said.
We can therefore seek the meaning of life in our own emotional evaluations, though how to, or even if we should, express our findings, and what to do about them, requires further evaluations in itself. Marcel Proust, (1871–1922), points out: ‘The fact of the matter is that, since we are determined always to keep our feelings to ourselves, we have never given any thought to the manner in which we should express them. And suddenly there is within us a strange and obscene animal making itself heard, whose tones may inspire as much alarm in the person who receives the involuntary, elliptical and almost irresistible communication of one’s defect or vice as would the sudden avowal indirectly and outlandishly proffered by a criminal who can no longer refrain from confessing to a murder of which one had never imagined him to be guilty’.
But as a consequence of rational evaluation ‘life-stultifying’ passions can become ‘life-enhancing’ passions. Depression, for instance, how to cope with it? The question, often asked, is misplaced. Depression is not to be coped with, it is the coping, once life becomes unbearable. ‘This sadness will last forever’, claimed Van Gogh, (1853–1890). Artists are aware that depression, despite its debilitating effects, the morbidity, the self-loathing, can be something to hang on to, to nurture, … as it discloses doubts about themselves, their lives, their values, a disclosure that can serve their creativity. Self-realization may be painful, but values that were once taken for granted having become worthless, the motivation is there to find at least one value the worth of which cannot be questioned.
Depression can then be a ‘life-enhancing’ project, and this puts me in mind of Macbeth, as he questions the doctor, concerning his adorable lady wife’s declining mental health:
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas’d,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?
Therein the patient
Must minister to himself.
Throw physic to the dogs, I’ll none of it.
Not that I am proffering Macbeth’s last statement there as advice to those living under the ‘black sun’… ‘racked by melancholia’ … in ‘an abyss of sorrow’, experiencing that ‘noncommunicable grief…’, those ‘lethargic rays’ that pin them to their beds… compelling them ‘to silence, to renunciation’, (Julia Kristeva, (1941 — )); physic (medicine) has its place. But the emotions have their rationality, and ‘to him who looks upon the world rationally, the world in its turn presents a rational aspect’, (Friedrich Hegel, (1770–1831)).