Saturday, January 08, 2011


I recently read Terry Eagleton's The Meaning of Life.

Even though the book contains some philosophical simplifications and common misunderstandings, it is an eminently readable book. I especially liked the final chapter (available in its entirety here), which echoes my current thinking that happiness is an interactive praxis, rather than just a state of mind.

A few excerpts:
The assumption that the meaning of life is primarily an individual affair is still alive and well. Julian Baggini writes that 'the search for meaning is essentially personal', involving 'the power and responsibility to discover and in part determine meaning for ourselves'. John Cottingham speaks of a meaningfullife as 'one in which the individual is engaged ... in genuinely worthwhile activities that reflect his or her rational choice as an autonomous agent'. None of this is false. But it reflects an individualist bias common to the modern age. It does not see the meaning of life as a common or reciprocal project, It fails to register that there can be by definition no meaning, whether of life or anything else, which is unique to myself alone. If we emerge into being in and through one another, then this must have strong implications for the meaning-at-life question.
What we have called love is the way we can reconcile our search for individual fulfilment with the fact that we are social animals. For love means creating for another the space in which he might flourish, at the same time as he does this for you. The fulfilment of each becomes the ground for the fulfilment of the other. When we realize our natures in this way, we are at our best. This is partly because to fulfil oneself in ways which allow others to do so as well rules out murder, exploitation, torture, selfishness, and the like. In damaging others, we are in the long run damaging our own fulfilment, which depends on the freedom of others to have a hand in it. And since there can be no true reciprocity except among equals, oppression and inequality are in the long run self-thwarting as well. All this is at odds with the liberal model of society, for which it is enough if my uniquely individual flourishing is protected from interference by another's. The other is not primarily what brings me into being, but a potential threat to my being. And this, for all his celebrated belief that humans are political animals, is also true of Aristotle. He does not regard virtue or well-being as inherently relational. It is true that in his view other people are pretty essential to one's own flourishing, and that the solitary life is one fit only for gods and beasts. Yet Aristotelian man, as Alasdair MacIntyre has observed, is a stranger to love.
The meaning of life is not a solution to a problem, but a matter of living in a certain way. It is not metaphysical, but ethical. It is not something separate from life, but what makes it worth living which is to say, a certain quality, depth, abundance, and intensity of life. In this sense, the meaning of life is life itself, seen in a certain way. Meaning-of-life merchants generally feel let down by such a claim, since it does not seem mysterious and majestic enough. It seems both too banal and too exoteric. It is only slightly more edifying than '42'. Or indeed, than the T-shirt slogan which reads 'What If The Hokey Pokey Really Is What It's All About?' It takes the meaning-of-life question out of the hands of a coterie of adepts or cognoscenti and returns it to the routine business of everyday existence. It is just this kind of bathos that Matthew sets up in his gospel, where he presents the Son of Man returning in glory surrounded by angels for the Last Judgement. Despite this off-the-peg cosmic imagery, salvation turns out to be an embarrassingly prosaic affair ... Anybody can do it. The key to the universe turns out to be not some shattering revelation, but something which a lot of decent people do anyway, with scarcely a thought. Eternity lies not in a grain of sand but in a glass of water.
After reading this book, and reflecting on my life at present, I remembered the final line of dialogue in Robert Bresson's Pickpocket: "Oh Jeanne, what a strange path I had to take to find you!";

And of course, the famous lines of Eliot's Little Gidding:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

(The title of this post, Ikiru, is the name of a profound film by Akira Kurosawa, and which means: To Live.)

1 comment:

Yayaver said...

you compile beautiful words together ! just brilliant.