the imaginative conservative logo

In the modern world, terms like “soul,” “spirit,” and the “life of the mind” sound antiquated, and there is no longer any sense that there is anything to life beyond the pursuit of hedonic happiness and the accumulation of money, property, and other markers of worldly success…

“To reform a world, to reform a nation, no wise man will undertake; and all but foolish men know, that the only solid, though a far slower reformation, is what each begins and perfects on himself. —Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present

“When the real is taken as unreal, and the unreal as real, the road is open to the madhouse.” —Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction

Inequality is all the rage. We have, of late, made a national pastime of comparing and contrasting the economic fortunes and social caché of classes, races, genders, sexualities, and religions. We are playing the game of who’s-on-top non-stop, watching out for power plays and calling out any and all who run afoul of the Byzantine restrictions proliferating out of the ever-thickening rulebook. People’s purported privileges are being tallied and turned against them. Capitalism itself is being questioned by both haves and have-nots.

I am not making light of these developments… or at least not entirely. Some probably reflect underlying political issues worthy of serious engagement. But my goal is different and more fundamental. The question I want to ask is, in essence, why now? Some forms of inequality may be on the rise, but not all, and those that are do not explain the explosion of identity politics—battles among what Max Weber referred to as “status groups”—that is defining our present era. What I want to argue is that, whatever else may be at work here, one large and largely overlooked factor leading us to claw away at each other with all the ferocity of “wild cats in a red-hot iron cage” is that we simply no longer have anything else to live for. Having turned the collective volume knob of our civilization past a decibel level at which reflection is no longer possible, we have given up on the pursuit of purpose, whether as a society or as individuals. That sense is crucial to our thriving, and when we lose it, we experience something that is even more fundamentally troubling than our much-bewailed crisis in the humanities: a full-on crisis in our very humanity, in the core inwardness—call it subjectivity, the soul, the Soul or what you will—that distinguishes our lives from successions of disconnected events structured solely by biological and chronological time and their many more or less meaningless milestones (births and deaths, birthdays, holidays and anniversaries, graduations, promotions and retirements, weekdays and weekends, sleep cycles and the cycle of the months and seasons, work and school and the rest of it all), vivified by little more than our empty hankering after status and facebookable, instagrammable, snapchatable, tweetable moments and thrills.

But before I go on, allow me to take a detour into the past to fill in the background.

*****

While we harbor the illusion of control over many aspects of our external environment, the Ancients—lacking the technology to deceive themselves into such hubris—realized from the very beginning that their best hope for a fulfilling life was to turn their highest aspirations inwards. They understood the importance of caring for their souls. Already in the sixth century B.C., the Spartan king Anaxandridas II (in a colloquy reported by Plutarch) expressed the view that care for the self should be our principal priority: “When someone inquired [of the king] why [the Spartans] put their fields in the hands of the Helots, and did not take care of them themselves, he said, ‘It was not by taking care of the fields, but of ourselves, that we acquired those fields.’” This advice is echoed in the Alcibiades, an early Platonic dialogue (possibly not actually written by Plato, but no matter), when Socrates tells the title character to leave the care of his body and his property to others and to focus on caring for his soul. In Plato’s mature dialogues, contemplation of the Forms becomes our highest human function. Aristotle followed Plato in holding contemplation superior to action because, among other things, contemplation is of the things that are most excellent in themselves.

The Greek and Roman Stoic and Epicurean philosophers likewise saw the care of the soul as a lifelong project. The Epicureans’ undeserved reputation for unabashed hedonism notwithstanding, Epicurus valued long-term pleasures over short-term thrills, while Epictetus, the most systematic thinker among the Roman Stoics argued that, though we can be deprived of our freedom and even our life, nothing can take away our sovereign soul. In accordance with this doctrine, the most politically powerful philosopher of all time, the Stoic Marcus Aurelius, advised himself, in his other capacity as Emperor of Rome and master of much of the known world, never to value what can be taken away.

For Plotinus, the greatest of the Neo-Platonists, our life’s work consists of endeavoring to elevate the soul above the realm of mere matter and back toward full unity with the Forms contained in the intellect. Plotinus’ successor Iamblichus, however, was of the view that we needed the gods’ help for our souls to ascend toward higher things, and so he recommended the practice of theurgy, through which we could resort to various “magical” measures—animal sacrifices and the like—to propitiate the gods to come on down for a visit and aid in the soul’s elevation in the process.

The Christians changed what god(s) were in charge but preserved Iamblichus’ basic principle: We are in need of the descent of a divine mediator—embodied, now, in the person of Jesus Christ—in order to raise us up from this debased earthly realm. Early Christian thinkers placed even more emphasis than the pagans on the care of the soul, with St. Augustine following in the footsteps of Plato (via Plotinus), the Desert Fathers and other early ascetics to lay the groundwork for those Christian theologians who came after by downplaying the significance of the earthly life, in which we neither can nor should hope to attain lasting peace and happiness, but instead, advising us to focus on preparing our souls for the everlasting glories of the next life.

This diverse array of ancient thinkers—and many others I could discuss here, such as the Gnostics—set the agenda for much of human history: even when, like the Stoics and Epicureans, they were thorough materialists rather than mind-body dualists, they distinguished between our physical existence, consisting of our property, our body and its incessant needs and desires, all subject to the whims of fortune, and a higher spiritual existence, whether conceived in terms of “the soul” or the contemplative life of the mind, which comprises our inner reserve against those bodily vicissitudes. This higher functionality is held to be our true essence, and we are advised, accordingly, to choose a life that prioritizes it, i.e., ourselves, over the competing bombardments and distractions of the less genuine physical, earthly life.

Fast forward some fifteen hundred years, and we can see, in considering human responses to the horrors of the twentieth century, how this same inner reserve can—precisely as the Stoics or the early Christians imagined—keep us from buckling under the weight of the most soul-crushing of circumstances. The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl and the writers Varlam Shalamov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Elie Wiesel, all prisoners in Nazi or Soviet labor camps, depict the existential crises suffered by their fellow inmates. On the one hand is the typical reaction of human beings to such inhuman circumstances. Shalamov, in his Kolyma Tales, describes the slow death of all meanings, values and purposes among the prisoners of gulags in Stalin’s Russia, as the lives of prisoners are reduced to the single-minded pursuit of self-gratification; prisoners are willing to go to any lengths to get an extra piece of bread or a smoke. Frankl describes the experience of American soldiers in German concentration camps in similar terms, when they had reached the point where “meaning orientation had subsided, and consequently the seeking of immediate pleasure had taken over.”

This may be contrasted with Solzhenitsyn’s description in The Gulag Archipelago of those who, armed with deep religious convictions, remained unbreakable even under the most extreme conditions they endured in Stalin’s labor camps. Because their faith kept what Frankl termed the “existential vacuum” at bay, the fatal impulse toward unmitigated instant gratification would not take hold. “Once an individual’s search for a meaning is successful, it not only renders him happy but also gives him the capability to cope with suffering,” Frankl writes in Man’s Search for Meaning, the 1946 book in which he describes his concentration camp experiences and lays the groundwork for his approach to psychology, known as logotherapy, based on the notion, partially rooted in Kierkegaard, that human beings have a fundamental will to meaning, with their psyches going off the rails when this will is frustrated by forces such as hedonism and materialism. In this respect, Frankl’s approach reflects a more expressly meaning-focused fine-tuning of traditional Freudian psychotherapy, which aims to do what Spinoza in his Ethics suggested could be done: to conquer suffering through the subject’s own work of understanding the self.

Contemporary research supports Frankl’s views. While much recent psychological research—subsumed under the umbrella label of “positive psychology” of the sort that conceives of itself as a welcome antidote to much prior going psychology that was busy diagnosing and addressing all the many ways our psychological lives go amiss—has focused exclusively on how we might maximize our moments of happiness, studies have shown that someone who merely maximizes happy emotions in pursuit of hedonic happiness exhibits the same gene expression as people exposed to chronic adversity.[1] This is because missing from the project of life that positive psychology evokes for us is the essential feature known as “eudaimonic happiness,” that same sense of purpose to which Frankl was referring. Other studies suggest that a sense of meaning helps us deal with life challenges, ward off mental illness, enjoy better physical and cognitive health and live longer.[2][3] And yet, as I will discuss momentarily, such thoughts and findings notwithstanding, the manner in which our lives are now being conducted in much of the First World and beyond makes it increasingly difficult for us to develop the sense of purpose we need to thrive.

*****

The world confronts us with a chaos of events and circumstances, some thrilling, some pleasant, some unpleasant, some terrifying, and most wholly irrelevant. To make meaning out of that chaos, we must reduce it to some manageable, digestible stream. This can be accomplished either by artificially restricting the influx or else by processing it into some set of meaningful patterns.

Religion is one strategy that generally employs the former approach. Most every religion erects barriers between us and our world. It tells us what is right and wrong, healthful and harmful, permitted and prohibited, significant and trivial. It posits a higher order of existence in which some supreme being or governing principle can guide us through the muck and murk of daily life. Religion adopts the strategy employed by the Ancients and contrasts the inessential realm of the material world with the essential soul, counseling us to simplify our lives, so that we might fortify and purify that inner essence. And through much of human history, that strategy was just fine for most people, more or less.

But that strategy also has a cost: To restrict and purify our daily chaos, faiths must endure constant bombardment by facts and circumstances that do not fit neatly within the picture of the world this or that religion would paint. As the empirical sciences have advanced and encroached on territory that once fell within the exclusive purview of faith, more and more people have been unable to withstand the pressure from what the sociologist Peter Berger called “competing nomoi.” Biology, physics, archeology, anthropology, history, and philology have produced understandings that are radically at odds with traditional religious conceptions of the world’s structure and origin, of the histories religions tell about themselves and even of the provenance of core religious texts. The predictable results have been, on the one hand, a drastic reduction in the number of believers and a still more radical dilution of traditional religious beliefs (so that many believers today embrace faiths that have made substantial compromises with modern worldviews) and, on the other hand, a desperate hardening of those who would cling to religions in their original forms, such that they embrace fundamentalisms ever more in tension with the apparent trajectory of modernity.

When religion started to lose its grip as the Enlightenment and its legacy spread throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries, another approach that, like religion, adopted the strategy of reigning in chaos by keeping the world at bay began to take hold. The evolution of the modern conception of the political state had, for a long time, followed Thomas Hobbes’ revolutionary re-imagining of the purpose of political unions to cast aside the view of the Ancients that the State existed to promote a larger vision of the good life for all. Instead, most modern polities had made the choice to shoot for more modest aims, providing for national defense, crime prevention, some public works, health, education, and that sort of thing. The quest for salvation, for a meaningful existence, was left to the realm of individual liberty and discretion. But, in the twentieth century, as the role of religion waned and individuals, left to their own devices, were showing themselves unequal to the task of realizing purposeful existences and, with little else to aim for, were increasingly focusing on their material lives and growing dissatisfied with the inherent limitations of those, totalitarian regimes appeared on the world’s stage. These regimes sought to impose comprehensive systems that governed nearly every aspect of life, stigmatizing and destroying whatever was inconsistent with such systems. As Hans Freyer, one of fascism’s leading theorists, argued, a sense of individual purpose comes from belonging to a larger community, with the State’s raison d’être being the propagation of that communal identity, whereas capitalism and democracy were, instead, creating class conflicts and offering a plethora of choices. Thus, fascist or communist, the new totalitarian regimes that emerged cultivated a robust sense of national purpose. They stood for something and made it clear what it was they stood for. But, like religion, because such regimes needed to keep at bay all the realities constantly threatening to encroach upon them, they had to wage perpetual war against their many real and imaginary enemies, both without and within. This type of never-ending vigilance and combat exacted a massive cost in and on lives. In time, these regimes buckled under the pressure. And we were left to our own devices again.

So what exactly were we left with? There are, as I have said, not one but two different strategies for dealing with the chaos with which the world threatens us. The first is to try to deny it access and shield ourselves from it, but the second is to process it into something meaningful to us. Science accomplishes this to some degree, but science deals with facts, not values. What we need is something that takes the brute stuff in the world—information of every sort—and processes it into the kinds of thoughts that matter to us, that give form to our longings and speak to them. This is accomplished by the humanities, and, most directly, by the as-yet-undeposed queen of the humanities: art.

As the critic Owen Barfield wrote in his landmark 1928 work, Poetic Diction, we have become “a civilization which must look more and more to art—to the individualized poetic—as the very source and fountain-head of all meaning.” Great art re-envisions and re-imagines our world. It has the power to uplift and ennoble, to redeem us from the terror, fallenness and chaos of reality and to nourish our souls, thereby saving us from the hedonic treadmill and the necessarily unfulfilling life of the body, to which we are otherwise condemned. But these lavish gifts do not come easily. We are not ready-made receptacles for greatness. Rather, the ability to receive many great works must be cultivated through years of education and steeping in the Tradition. As Marcel Proust wrote, “We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.” But the problem, as we march further onward into the twenty-first century, is that we are doing everything in our power to undermine our own capacities to learn what art has to teach and, by so doing, undermining art’s capacity to save us from ourselves.

*****

There are, as I said, two admissible strategies to deal with chaos. There is also a third, an inadmissible strategy. It is, in fact, not a strategy at all: We can simply let the chaos rush through the gates unchecked and unprocessed. The result will be malaise, apathy, and anomie. The result will be a crisis in the humanities. The result will be anger and conflict. These are all, one would think, unfavorable developments. And yet, we are adopting that strategy.

Where an existential vacuum takes root due to the gradual withering away of all sources of meaning, what we will get, on the individual level, is the maladaptive proliferation of pure self-gratification impulses that Frankl, Shalamov, and others described. On the societal level, what we will get is mass culture.

Like totalitarianism, mass culture is largely a twentieth-century development, and it is no surprise that it found its first and firmest stronghold in the U.S., which, unlike Europe and Asia, was never seriously threatened by totalitarianism. Its causes can be debated and range from greater mass liberty, literacy, cosmopolitanism, and spending power to the increasing inaccessibility of high art, culminating in Modernism, but above all, it is a manifestation of our growing existential vacuum. While high culture is meditative, requiring time and contemplation to work its magic, in our accelerating society, hardly anyone has the time or desire to read Proust’s 4,000-page masterpiece or even a one-page poem that might require hours, days or months of immersive musing to resonate. We have, as I have explained in some detail elsewhere[4], lost the capacity for this kind of immersive contemplation, and expect communication to be brief, punchy and immediately impactful.

Mass culture caters to this craving for instant gratification. It has less in common with art than it does with amusement parks, sideshows and circus acts. It stands in relation to art in something like the relationship that pornography bears to romance. It offers quick highs, cheap thrills, big bangs, and a lot of action, violence, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. The problem is not sex and violence and the like per se, but that, in the context of mass culture, these become ends in themselves, conveying no deeper value. It is sad that it needs to be said, that it is not obvious without reminders, but I feel the need to say it: There is a distinction between art and pornography; there must be a distinction. Porn, drugs, junk food, much of the internet and technology enabling instantaneous communication, video games and mass culture of all sorts that skips right to the punchline share in common that these are what the Nobel-prize winning ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen referred to as “supernormal stimuli” that exaggerate natural effects we have evolved to crave. When we are routinely subjected to such stimuli, we screw up our reward system, unbalancing us and leading to addiction.[5] In essence, we begin to crave more and more until we are finally left benumbed.

The viral spread of mass culture is, as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer famously argued, also driven by the entertainment industry, the same kinds of powerful corporate interests that profit from other means of instant self-gratification such as fast food, pharmaceuticals, alcohol, and tobacco. And yet, instead of working to combat its spread the way they have tried to combat these other societal ills, the “thinkers” currently amongst us have absurdly rushed to label every impulse to condemn mass culture as reactionary, elitist, racist, or ethnocentric. Critical perspectives that took root in the 1960s and after—post-structuralism, deconstruction, postmodernism, New Historicism, race and gender theory, and reader-response theory—advocated positions suggesting all works, great or otherwise, are, in some significant part, outgrowths of their creators’ prejudices, high culture is elitist, the author, like God, is dead, the work of art is “a text” (and, therefore, not superior to other texts) and all meaning in works of art is either socially constructed or else non-existent.

The predictable result of mass culture—dressed in jeans, G-strings or drag, Big Gulp and a grease-stained carton of fries in hand—unceremoniously barging in on the ball, pumping up the volume, putting on some twerkable tunes and getting a good old food fight going, with the whole shebang cheerily chaperoned all the while by those who were supposed to be serving as gatekeepers and guardians, is that art and high culture are well on their way to being thoroughly devalued. The crisis in the humanities is, whatever else it might be, a direct outgrowth of this devaluation. If Hamlet and Real Housewives or Beethoven and Beyoncé are conceived of as no more than alternative pastimes, a mere matter of “different strokes for different folks,” then we are at a point where the distinction between art and entertainment has effectively vanished, and with it, our last great refuge and potential source of individual and collective meaning and purpose. This is what Kierkegaard, in an earlier epoch, had already seen and predicted: a dramatic leveling of all meaningful distinctions in the world, leading inexorably to nihilism.

That same leveling of distinctions of quality and kind in our external environs leads, in turn, to a radical flattening of our internal landscape, to a conception of the self in which the distinction between surface and depth is significantly eviscerated. This is because the kind of hierarchical conception of the soul that thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, the Neo-Platonists, Aquinas, Descartes, Hegel, Dante, Milton and other literary figures and schools spanning all the millennia from Homer through Modernism argued for or took for a common-sense fact about the world necessarily entails the notion that some things in our midst are better, wiser or deeper than others. Our internal world can, then, be structured accordingly, so that the most superficial aspects of our being gravitate toward the satisfaction of unmediated desires and immediate cravings—food, sex, rest, slapstick humor and other simple pleasures—while the deeper inwardness we must work to attain is engaged in higher pursuits for truth and beauty, whether these be conceived religiously or secularly. Much postmodern thinking, however, is predicated on combatting the very existence of any such differentiation, or rather, on establishing its arbitrariness, while many Marxist and Marx-inspired approaches mount a critique that paints hierarchies of this sort as elitist products of class or other group interests. The result is a culture growing aesthetically debased and intellectually unmoored and an individual human being whose flattened-out subjectivity fosters a correspondingly flat and deflated experience of life, an existence that seems dissatisfying and directionless.

*****

For the first time in human history, many of us are living in societies in which that robust, age-old conception of a stark difference between a quasi-illusory and impermanent world within which our bodies and our possessions persist and a deeper reality corresponding to our soul or inner essence no longer prevails. There is nothing deeper or wiser than our ordinary selves. As reported in Scott Timberg’s recent book, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, the percentage of students across the country who wanted to have a “meaningful philosophy of life” went down from 86% in 1966 to half that number by 2013. To be sure, we are inundated with superficial correctives, whether advice on diet, exercise or other healthy habits, deracinated self-help-style spirituality or Quantified-Self-inspired biohacks. These promise to make us feel or perform better, lose a few pounds, win friends, woo mates, and earn plaudits from colleagues, be more resilient, get back in the saddle, find flow, sail smoothly over bumps in the road of life, and so on. Such measures designed to assert control over our bodies and environs are distinctly this-worldly. They are, recalling the Spartan king’s trope, about our fields, not about ourselves. Instead of working to expand and transcend the limitations of the self, we are brought up in an empty cult of self-esteem, the uncritical cherishing of the concrete self as given. Terms like “soul,” “spirit,” and the “life of the mind” sound antiquated, and there is no longer any sense that there is anything to life beyond the pursuit of hedonic happiness and the accumulation of money, property, and other markers of worldly success. In an environment as thoroughly Philistine as this one is, having depth involves little more than harboring strong attachments to family and friends.

When such earthbound dependencies fail us, as they inevitably do—and as every major strain of Western and Eastern spirituality and so many philosophers, writers and deep thinkers of all stripes repeatedly warned us they would—we have nothing left. And so, it should not surprise anyone that, having given up on the very notion of an inner life, and having put all our eggs in the basket of an intrinsically unsatisfying material existence, we have experienced such a dramatic escalation in social strife and become obsessively focused on inequality of every variety, as individuals, corporate interests, classes and racial and ethnic groups are left with nothing to do beyond competing against one another in a zero-sum game for the largest share of the spoils and taking umbrage at every little deficiency in what comes their way even as they seem blind to their own failings.

This is a recipe for disaster, and it cannot end well. It is exactly the kind of milieu that led to totalitarianism’s ascent in an effort to fill the void, except that now the penumbra of mass meaninglessness has spread still further while our instruments of social control and mass destruction have grown more pervasive and more deadly.

*****

Just like the pursuit of worldly happiness, the quest for the meaning of life is an elusive, unattainable goal. But there is a significant difference: While the pursuit of hedonic happiness is not satisfying in itself, the quest for meaning is itself meaningful, and all the bits and pieces of meaning we find along the way uplift and sustain us. This may be in part because understanding, as Hans-Georg Gadamer explained in Truth and Method, always involves an element of self-understanding. Proust makes a similar point: “Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. The writer’s work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book. The reader’s recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book’s truth.”

The humanities are, as I have said, our last and best defense against a meaningless existence. Because, as Owen Barfield, following Shelley, observes, “the [m]eaning of life is continually being dried up,” the ever-evolving, ever-self-renewing humanities are uniquely positioned to turn “a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits,” to quote Matthew Arnold. Moreover, unlike the sciences, with their (often dubious) pretensions to objectivity, and unlike religions, with their inherently fragile, faith-based assertions of access to the single path to truth, the humanities are forthright about their subjectivity. That is not a weakness, but rather, their greatest strength because it keeps them from taking on the needless burden of universality, even if the appeal of Homer or Shakespeare might be well near universal. It keeps them open to the world, able to take any of the nonsense and chaos the world throws at them and feed it back to us as sense and order heightened by the aura of aesthetic harmony. Contrary to what some of those who assail the humanities might think, between subjective meaning and the total lack of meaning is all the difference in the world. The former is necessarily framed by its ineffable interaction with a given subject, i.e., a particular human being, and yet, as Proust suggested, for that given subject, that subjective meaning can feel as if it is written in the stars, 100% meaningful and 100% true. Recognizing the subjectivity of truth in art and in the humanities does not, therefore, detract from the power of these disciplines to compel and inspire, and indeed, to do these things better than anything else we have presently got going.

But, having said that, I must also admit the danger posed by a certain slippery slope down which the many theorists of meaninglessness to whom I adverted above have helped us skid. Subjectivity is one thing, but meaninglessness is another, as is the suggestion that all meaning is relative to class, race, gender, sexual orientation, or what you will. The latter approaches substantially undermine the ability of works of art to perform their essential function of conferring meaning upon us. Such thinking leads, as I have said above, to the point where great works of art are equalized with or even subordinated to mass-culture kitsch and hence devalued.

Stanley Fish, one of the theorists of meaninglessness and instrumental in reader-response theory, has argued that “[t]he purpose of a good education is to show you that there are three sides to a two-sided story.” Perhaps this might be a good shibboleth to adopt in a repressive theocracy or totalitarian regime, where people are forced to believe in a single governing dogma, but in our chaotic, fragmented democracy, Fish could not be more wrong. The purpose of education is just the opposite: it is to teach the student to take a two-sided story and find the meaning in it, just one meaning, a unitary, persuasive, compelling meaning, one that enables the student to discover something new and profound about the story, about the world and about himself.

The humanities, and art above all, are our playground and laboratory for that journey of self-discovery that every human being has the absolute duty to undertake in order to realize his full humanity and without which he is little better than a pig wallowing in the small tract of mud within which it happens to find itself plopped. This must be preached as a truth; it must also be the humanities’ unabashedly grandiose mission statement proclaimed from the very first line of the very first page of their ever-shrinking sections of our college course catalogues, for, as the Nobel-prize winning Soviet poet Joseph Brodsky once said, “It is precisely in this… sense that we should understand Dostoevsky’s remark that beauty will save the world, or Matthew Arnold’s belief that we shall be saved by poetry. It is probably too late for the world, but for the individual man there always remains a chance….”

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Notes:

[1] Smith, Emily Esfahani “Meaning is Healthier than Happiness.” The Atlantic (Agust 1, 2013).

[2] Routledge, Clay “To Feel Meaningful Is to Feel Immortal.” Scientific American (November 3, 2014).

[3] Jacobs, Tom “Sense of Purpose Lengthens Life.” Pacific Standard (May 13, 2014).

[4] Zubatov, Alexander “The Advent of Virtual Reality.” The Montreéal Review (January 2014).

[5] “Supernormal Stimuli” Sparring Mind.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
12 replies to this post
  1. I found your essay to be very engaging, being that I am a firm believer that, like a coin, everything in life has two sides. In your bio, it states you are also a writer of polemics. For myself, I wish your essay was more polemically engaging. But, then again, I suppose my reply should address a few assertions you present, unfortunately after reading your wonderfully engaging essay, I am exhausted, in a good way!

  2. “While we harbor the illusion of control over many aspects of our external environment, the Ancients—lacking the technology to deceive themselves into such hubris—realized from the very beginning that their best hope for a fulfilling life was to turn their highest aspirations inwards. They understood the importance of caring for their souls. Already in the sixth century B.C., the Spartan king Anaxandridas II (in a colloquy reported by Plutarch) expressed the view that care for the self should be our principal priority: “When someone inquired [of the king] why [the Spartans] put their fields in the hands of the Helots, and did not take care of them themselves, he said, ‘It was not by taking care of the fields, but of ourselves, that we acquired those fields.’” This advice is echoed in the Alcibiades, an early Platonic dialogue (possibly not actually written by Plato, but no matter), when Socrates tells the title character to leave the care of his body and his property to others and to focus on caring for his soul. In Plato’s mature dialogues, contemplation of the Forms becomes our highest human function. Aristotle followed Plato in holding contemplation superior to action because, among other things, contemplation is of the things that are most excellent in themselves.”

    I’m not so sure about his, for at least three reasons.

    1. The Helots were slaves; this is often glossed over. The ancient “good life” in Greece and Rome was based on slavery; the ‘sub-humans” would do the dirty work, while the elites loafed about with their wine and talked philosophy.

    2. The self does NOT equal the soul. That is what the Gnostics thought. This paragraph does not say this in so many words, but the two terms seem to be used in an interchangeable manner, alongside a denigration of the body. Catholics teach that we are body and soul, not angels trapped in animal bodies. The “good news” of the Gospel is the news of the Resurrection of the body.

    3. Further, the higher life always involves a turning outward, rather then a turning inward; those who turn inward are found in Hell, those who turn outward are found in Heaven. We don’t worship God so that we become better human beings; we worship God because he is there, and deserves and demands all our love. Humanism is not enough.

  3. I found your article fascinating; I enjoyed your depiction of the problem, but I can’t say I’m satisfied with your solution. “The arts/the humanities” seem like a weak basis for life; we must have truth, not only beauty. You say that any solution requiring a doctrine or account of the world encounters epistemic defeaters and challenges; I would argue that this is only a problem if your doctrine is incorrect. Besides, surely we can have sufficient knowledge of the world to find meaning without being right about everything?
    You say that “the quest for the meaning of life is an elusive, unattainable goal” (I assume you mean that the meaning of life, not the quest itself, is elusive and unattainable). I am unconvinced; I believe I know the meaning/purpose of my life, and I find it, as many have, in religion, which you seem to dismiss awfully quickly. It is, quite frankly, sloppy to group all metaphysical accounts of the eternal into one group and then quickly say that “science” and “the Enlightenment” have destroyed their credibility; I certainly haven’t found that to be the case.
    One last note: you say that by elevating government or status groups to become the source of life’s meaning, we blow them out of proportion and become closed-minded. I see the same problem in elevating art or high culture to this status, though I will add a caveat: as I began this (rather long) response by saying, the humanities may be too vague to support such a robust position in our lives.

    • First off, thanks to you (and to all those who left such thoughtful and engaged comments) for reading the essay. I appreciate it.

      I am sure you and many others find religion to be a perfectly satisfying answer to the question, “What is the meaning of your life?”, and I am not in any way criticizing you or anyone like you who has found such an answer in religion. But my point in the article is that, ever since the Enlightenment and the incursions of various fields of empirical study upon the field previously occupied exclusively by religion, religion has steadily receded as a satisfying answer for many. I’ll quote the relevant paragraph:

      “To restrict and purify our daily chaos, faiths must endure constant bombardment by facts and circumstances that do not fit neatly within the picture of the world this or that religion would paint. As the empirical sciences have advanced and encroached on territory that once fell within the exclusive purview of faith, more and more people have been unable to withstand the pressure from what the sociologist Peter Berger called ‘competing nomoi.’ Biology, physics, archaeology, anthropology, history, and philology have produced understandings that are radically at odds with traditional religious conceptions of the world’s structure and origin, of the histories religions tell about themselves and even of the provenance of core religious texts. The predictable results have been, on the one hand, a drastic reduction in the number of believers and a still more radical dilution of traditional religious beliefs (so that many believers today embrace faiths that have made substantial compromises with modern worldviews) and, on the other hand, a desperate hardening of those who would cling to religions in their original forms, such that they embrace fundamentalisms ever more in tension with the apparent trajectory of modernity.”

      It is no accident that the percentage of believers keeps going down and down in the most technologically and scientifically advanced nations. So if I had simply said, “Okay, we need to go back to being religious,” the problem with that is that it would amount to asking many people to adopt belief systems that are at odds with many of their other deeply held convictions. The higher humanities, on the other hand, don’t run into this issue, as I tried to explain in what I wrote.

      You counter that the arts/the humanities “seem like a weak basis for life” because “we must have truth, not only beauty.” But you forget Keats’ (admittedly somewhat ironic) aphorism, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” In other words, just as religious believers can completely lose themselves in their faith and experience a profound, overwhelming sense of absorption in the touch of divinity, those who give themselves over to the experience of the aesthetic and devote themselves to the study of the infinitely many precepts this species of faith can teach will find nearly that exact same experience of feeling deeply within themselves the resonance of profound truths for which beauty serves as a vehicle. The trick is this, however: you can, if you are lucky, go to church for the first time in your life and feel something profound, but for most people to experience any sort of lasting transformation and reward from the practice of religion, it really has to be a PRACTICE. Believers need to WORK; they need to study the texts and and dig deeper within themselves and spend a lifetime trying to understand them. The very same thing is true of the humanities. Just like the novice walking into church, a dabbler in culture might go see some simplistic Steven Spielberg blockbuster and feel moved in the moment, but for anyone to really “get it,” for anyone to experience the higher, lasting rewards that culture brings, they have to devote their life to its study. This isn’t an easy thing, and in a society built on instant gratification that dumbs us down on every level and that is teaching more and more of us, both implicitly and explicitly, that culture has to come down to our level and cater to us and reinforce in us that which we already (think we) know, as opposed to being what Kafka called “an ice axe to break the frozen sea within us,” the humanities certainly will not seem satisfying. The fault, however, is not in the humanities; it is in us.

      • The fault, however, is not in the humanities; it is in us.

        What if, similarly, the fault of religion in not in religion, but in us?

        And my religion (I’m a Catholic) does not conflict with anything that has been found by any branch of modern science.

        And I still don’t see why humanism won’t stop humanists from setting up “labor camps” for “sub-human” slaves to do the dirty work while they contemplate art, or their inner souls. After all, that is what the original humanists did in Greece, as I point out above.

        • Agreed. The people who don’t take religion seriously are unlikely to take the humanities seriously, either. More likely, they will simply see “The Arts” as a way of showing off, to brag to their friends what new gallery they had gone to or new play they had attended.

  4. I should add to my above comment; the Spartans focused on their bodies, training themselves to be soldiers, while the Helots worked the fields. Other Greeks were more likely to drink wine and talk philosophy while their slaves worked the fields.

  5. If we really are left with the naked shingles of the world, then it wouldn’t matter whether they are painted with subtle beauty, or in the garish tones of a tabloid, or if the stark dreary abyss was left untouched for the strong-stomached to gaze into. But it does matter, doesn’t it? And here is why. Beauty, unlike narcissism and nihilism, is a brackish inlet of the Sea of Faith, a sea which has not withdrawn. We have merely withdrawn from it.

  6. Ever since I learned a few things about the so-called “subatomic quantum of action” and how everything in the physical world arises from that field of perfect chaos, I have had no trouble in believing that God our Father really did make a manifestation of Himself in the man known as Jesus of Nazareth who explained in childishly simple terms the majesty of the creation that God has drawn from the seemingly chaotic subatomic realm. “Consider the lilies of the field…”

    Regarding the overall philosophical tone of your essay, I offer this quote from a book you might find interesting: “Explaining Postmodernism” by Stephen R.C. Hicks:

    “[Immanuel] Kant’s contemporary Moses Mendelssohn was thus prescient in identifying Kant as “the all-destroyer.” Kant did not take all of the steps down to postmodernism, but he did take the decisive one. Of the five major features of Enlightenment reason–objectivity, competence, autonomy, universality, and being an individual faculty–Kant rejects objectivity. Once reason is so severed from reality, the rest is details–details that are worked out over the next two centuries. By the time we get to the postmodernist account, reason is seen as not only subjective, but also as incompetent, highly contingent, relative and collective. Between Kant and the postmodernists comes the successive abandonment of the rest of reason’s features.”

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: