Why you won't find the meaning of life
Much as I admire the late Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who turned his horrific experience at Auschwitz into clinical insights, the notion of "man's search for meaning" seems inadequate. Just what about man qualifies him to search for meaning, whatever that might be?
The German playwright Bertolt Brecht warned us against the practice in The Threepenny Opera:
Ja, renne nach dem Gluck
Doch renne nicht zu sehr
Denn alle rennen nach dem Gluck
Das Gluck lauft hinterher.
(Sure, run after happiness,
but don't run too hard,
because while everybody's running after happiness,
it moseys along somewhere behind them).
Brecht (1898-1956) was the kind of character who gave Nihilism a bad name, to be sure, but he had a point. There is something perverse in searching for the meaning of life. It implies that we don't like our lives and want to discover something different. If we don't like living to begin with, we are in deep trouble.
Danish philosopher, theologian and religious author Soren Kierkegaard portrayed his Knight of Faith as the sort of fellow who enjoyed a pot roast on Sunday afternoon. If that sort of thing doesn't satisfy us (feel free to substitute something else than eating), just what is it that we had in mind?
People have a good reason to look at life cross-eyed, because it contains a glaring flaw - that we are going to die, and we probably will become old and sick and frail before we do so. All the bric-a-brac we accumulate during our lifetimes will accrue to other people, if it doesn't go right into the trash, and all the little touches of self-improvement we added to our personality will disappear – the golf stance, the macrame skills, the ability to play the ukulele and the familiarity with the filmography of Sam Pekinpah.
These examples trivialize the problem, of course. If we search in earnest for the meaning of life, then we might make heroic efforts to invent our own identity. That is the great pastime of the past century's intellectuals. Jean-Paul Sartre, the sage and eventual self-caricature of Existentialism, instructed us that man's existence precedes his essence, and therefore can invent his own essence more or less as he pleases. That was a silly argument, but enormously influential.
Sartre reacted to the advice of Martin Heidegger (the German existentialist from whom Jean-Paul Sartre cribbed most of his metaphysics). Heidegger told us that our "being" really was being-unto-death, for our life would end, and therefore is shaped by how we deal with the certainty of death. (Franz Kafka put the same thing better: "The meaning of life is that it ends.") Heidegger (1889-1976) thought that to be "authentic" mean to submerge ourselves into the specific conditions of our time, which for him meant joining the Nazi party. That didn't work out too well, and after the war it became every existentialist for himself. Everyone had the chance to invent his own identity according to taste.
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