Monday, November 7, 2011

How to Figure Out the Meaning of Life

In times of change, transitional times, I find that it is useful, and sometimes necessary, to re-calibrate my life, re-chart my course you might say. When the way things were going are no longer the way things are, it is like we are living in a different world, one in which the old status quo was merely a legend.

It is amazing how much of who we are rests on our income and position in the society in which we live. So when that particular rug is pulled out from under us, the whole business of living can come into focus.

I have been thinking about this lately, especially in the context of the Stoic daily readings, and the Stoic workshops. There are some definite advantages to following the Stoic path. A lot of discussion has preceded you, and you can dip or dive in at will. Getting involved in the Stoic conversation would be one way of looking at it. However, I have found that this exercise usually runs me up against the Mono-idealists (coined term). 

These folks seem to think that there is one pre-designed, pre-determined great plan and answer to life, the universe, and everything. Some of them wear the familiar garb of the mono-theists (though not all mono-theists are mono-idealists) but I am running into more and more who are dressed in a rainbow of philosophical garments. These range from the classical Stoicists (not practicing Stoics, but rather academics interested only in ancient Stoicism, usually from a specific period) to various ancient religious re-constructionists, and may even include some neo-pagans, hells bent on unearthing the ultimate meaning of all things, convinced that it exists.

It seems to me that these good folk (and many of them do genuinely good [aka virtuous] work in the name of their system of beliefs), while the differ widely in their approach, share a single framework. The seem to believe that one size fits all, the true way is static and we are tasked to find it and pin ourselves to it.

To my mind, there is an elephant in the room that we all seem to be ignoring. It is the actual human race, how we are born, how we grow, how we die. We don't exists by fiat, but rather something more closely resembling consensus. Studies have indicated that as collectives, we need each other to become something approximating human beings. Cutting off a single person from the group before the formation is complete results in everything from mental to actual physical deformities. We define what being human is together, by living together, communicating, supporting and destroying each other. 

Like all life, there is no ultimate 'template' of what a perfect X is. What is a perfect flower, or a perfect rock or a perfect star? What is a perfect human? The actual potential for humanity that exists in us individually is tested and brought out through our interactions with each other, through the languages and thought patterns we acquire, the habits of body and mind and heart that we adopt, reject, or invent. 

For me, this is the new Sage, the mythical perfect 'me.' Not a goal to achieve, but a direction to set. What is my personal potential? How did it get there, how was it set? A complex combination of chance, history, heredity, society and mystery likely had their hand in it all. 

Here is the point though. I can't really explore my potential alone. I need others to ask questions I haven't conceived of, share experiences I haven't dreamt of, and provide support and resources I could never manage on my own. And others need the same from me. We are all connected, through language, culture, and biology.

There is no single answer to the meaning human life, because there is no single human life. We are complex web of dreams and desires, hopes and fears, choice and potential. The only way we can figure out what the best kind of life is will be by more sharing, not less, by more exposure to the true depth of human experience, both the joy and the suffering. Only then can we start to get an idea of what we, as a species, are truly capable of. 

But here is the caveat. It is a living quest, and like the Sage, a direction not a goal. As each generation steps upon the stage, it will be up to them to take up the conversation, learn and challenge, adopt and reject.

In short, we will find meaning in our lives only when we share ourselves, our minds and hearts, meaningfully; we will learn wisdom when we engage in the Great Conversation.


  1. and what a Great Conversation it is. Let's always remember to keep the Conversation alive in our hearts, minds and homes, together. :)

  2. Such a wonderful perspective, and absolutely a "Great Conversation" ... a very good title for a book on this topic, btw. "The Great Conversation" ... :).

  3. Very true - but a very unusual perspective from a Stoic, who are often a) highly individualist and b) highly 'mono-idealist'.

    But I've come round to a similar view to yours.

    There's a lovely essay by Isaiah Berlin called the Fox and the Hedgehog which describes mono-idealists versus pluralists.

    Heres the question: if everyone has their own path and their own version of the good, then what does that mean for philosophical and ethical instruction? What right does anyone have to teach their particular path to others?

    Does that also mean governments should not try to teach the good life to young people in schools?

    And if we all have our different versions of the good life, doesn't that mean we are all quite separated from each other - I mean, compared to other societies, which have collective theories of the good life?

    These are questions I am pondering - help me out!

    All best


  4. Excellent question Jules! I guess what I am trying to say is that it takes not only a village to figure out what we are, but the whole species. I believe that only by sharing, conversing and challenging (kind of like your London discussions) are we able to approximate a path that make sense for all of us. That I why I believe Stoicism still has something to teach. The results of their own discussions are interesting, but for me it is the challenge to go on developing and investigating. Both Seneca and Epictetus were pretty clear that they though little of the idea of just adopting what the ancient Stoics believed, but rather encouraged people to experience and push out the boundaries for themselves, and then share those experiences. I guess what I am trying to say is that we all have to figure 'it' out for ourselves, but we have to do it together. Our brains aren't big enough, nor our lives long enough, to start from scratch. That is why I like the idea of a conversation. Does that make any sense at all or am I just rambling?

  5. Hi Michel

    I think the original idea of Stoicism was that we don't have to do it together. It grew up at a time when the old city-state was collapsing or being conquered - and promised its followers that they could follow the good life even if everything was turning to crap around them. Reading, say, Marcus Aurelius, you get a real sense of that individualism, that sense of being alienated from the values of the people around you, but still dutifully following the Logos on your own.

    Whats happening in modern Stoicism now is people (including you, Erik, and others) are trying to find out if and how it can be turned into a community - and how to incorporate more of a group discussion element, and how to question some of the dogmas of Stoicism.

    The broader question, I would suggest, is how to combine the benefits of pluralism (ie 'let everybody follow their own path') with the benefits of virtue ethics (ie 'some paths are better than others, because they bring out the best in our nature').

    The way I've tried to get round that, in the book I've written, is to not just write about the Stoic path (as I originally intended to do), but also the Epicurean, the Sceptic, the Cynic, the Platonic, the Aristotelian etc - all of which I argue are part of the 'Socratic tradition'.

    All these philosophies share common ideas about human nature and how we can transform it. But they have differing ideas about how we should transform it, based on their differing theories about God and politics.

    Thats one way to balance pluralism with virtue ethics...I don't know how successful it is.

    All best