What is a Meaningful Life?

Revolution 36 by Darwin Leon


What do we mean when we say someone leads a meaningful life?

We mean his life is important, worthwhile, directed to a significant end, at least as far as he is concerned. Although others may disagree with his evaluation, its formal meaning is derived from the society which has communicated to him its values from the time of his birth.

A meaningful life, then, has a very high social value, the absence of which may cause a man to despair. Perhaps he has arrived at the conclusion that the world including society is deaf to him; that there is no god, or that god is the devil or could really care less about him; that mankind is really a herd of animals heading for the slaughter house; that all the ruminations about meanings are vain and indigestible.

The despairing man says life is meaningless, yet he may yearn for the Good Old Days, perhaps medieval days under the motto “universalia sunt realia” (universals are real), the Universal of universals being the Supreme Being. The extreme version of the motto, “universalia sunt ante rem” (universals exist before the thing) may be too far gone for him, but “universalia sunt in re” (universals are in the thing), will do nicely. Needless to say, “universalia sunt post rem” (universals are after things; i.e., are just their names), will not do at all, for that falls outside of the real Middle Ages, aggravating the very meaninglessness he abhors.

Ah, yes, the Good Old Days of Universals! And what was universal to the Gothic soul? What was meaningful? The meaning of medieval life was given in facts of belief rather than by scientific manipulation of the environment. The purpose of the medieval soul was its universal edification. We find a universal People, King, Church, Economy, Style (Gothic), Code (Chivalry), Science (Theology), Ethic (Evangelical), Law (Roman), Language (Latin). Yet in contrast–and the Middle Ages had its stark contrasts–the individual was certainly significant, as is obvious from the various confessions and works of art still available today.

In our own time, now that God is dead, Nature is dead, and Existence is almost dead, the despairing man may long for the Gothic time when man really believed in visions both true and false: in God and Devil, saints and witches, and, most of all, in himself, good and evil. Indeed, since God was real and the world was His work, shadowy and mysterious though He and His work might thankfully be, a man believed in everything; which is to say that he, like God, loved the world so much he sacrificed himself for it. So great was a man’s love for life good and evil, that he believed Love was the origin of everything; and he strove, like the Gothic Spire, to rise into Heaven to meet his Maker.

What joy, what optimism have those who truly believe and therefore lead meaningful lives!

Furthermore, the medieval soul did not care for trashy, mass-produced goods, but took pride in the crafts. Since standards of living were relatively fixed according to one’s secured station in life, there was no need for amassing surplus income. Mammon was the Devil, and many were the knights, scholars, clerics, beggars and troubadours who considered work to be a diabolical curse.

Well, now, perhaps scholars will beg to disagree with that assessment of the medieval genius, yet they will probably agree that the despairing man must believe there was or can be such a thing as a meaningful life; otherwise, he would have no complaint about its present meaninglessness. In other words, his meaninglessness has meaning.

What, then, is the difference between the man who commits suicide, perhaps killing others as well, because he says life has no meaning, and the man who would die for and kill others for meaning?

There may not be as much difference as we suppose, especially when we consider only the decaying bodies. However, suicide by one’s own hand instead of by others in battle does seem more absurd. Life must have meaning, it seems, or else there will be hell to pay. We assume that meanings are communicated by ideas, and that all thinking is FOR the thinkers. Medieval thinkers thought that knowing just to know was a pagan activity; modern thinkers think all thinking has a useful motive, although the thinkers might be unaware of it. It stands to reason, if a meaningless life is not worthwhile, then meanings are worth dying for. As I have said, there is even a meaning to meaninglessness, just as the idea of nothingness has meaning in relation to somethingness. So the suicide kills himself for meaning.

But alas, many ideas once valued at the risk of life and limb are now considered worthless or merely of historical interest, and we suspect many of our own precious meanings will appear ridiculous to our successors. So why should anyone want to risk his life for what may be an illusion or even a mass delusion? Are we that desperate to lead meaningful lives? for some illusion? for some delusion?

Indeed! Some philosophers say the world is an illusion; not that we should try to jump through walls; not that the world is not really a creation; but that our perceptions and conceptions of that creation are and shall always be distorted, and are often completely false. Why, then, would any sane man despair over his conceptions of mere phenomena, or why would he wind up killing himself and or others over them? A normal man has some cause for despair if he has no food and shelter and company, and cannot satisfy his needs for them. And he has reason to be angered by ideas conceived to deprive him of necessary property or of sufficient life and liberty to enjoy the necessaries and have some spare time to reflect. But for a man to chase after nebulous phantoms such as “success”, pursuant to some ideology of what a meaningful life is, and then to despair when the ghost is not apprehended, is even more absurd than the suicide who leaves his problems behind unvanquished.

Now, then, I realize we cannot go back and live in the Middle Ages, nor can we force ourselves or others to believe in something that no longer holds water for us or for them. How pathetic it is to see “faiths” argued, for there is no need to defend true faith by argument; the arguments are confessions of weakness and fear. Still, notwithstanding the death of the god, nature, and existence we were once so certain of, the Universal still presides whether we know it or not, and whether or not creation moves up or down to or from the Universal, or both.

As far as I am concerned, the most meaningful life is in the painful climb, in the attempted ascent through the hierarchy of universals to the Universal of universals. (1) It is only in climbing that I can tolerate the particulars below; otherwise, I might as well, in utter despair, start shooting at random from the hip; for what difference would anything make in the slime, or in the shark-eat-shark ocean, black-inked by cuttlefish? On the upper hand, if I may climb out of my own futility on the slippery slope where I can do no harm except back slide into other climbers, then I am confident I shall obtain a secure position to do some little good for everyone else on the Mountain above and below.

For I too am inspired by the Gothic Spire aspiring to the Infinite. Let anyone say, then, since I may never arrive at my destination, that I lead a meaningless life, and I shall reply, “That is exactly what I mean, and it is good enough for me.”


(1) Truth is a most exalted universal, yet it is found only in agreement, in the central love for one’s kind. Samuel Taylor Coleridge remarked on that truth in his political essays: “The world is a vast labyrinth, in which almost everyone is running a different way, and almost everyone manifesting hatred to those who do not run the same way. A few indeed stand motionless, and not seeking to lead themselves or others out of the maze laugh at the failures of their brethren. Yet with little reason: for more grossly than the most bewildered wanderer does he err, who never aims to go right. It is more honorable to the head, as well to the heart, to be misled by our eagerness in the pursuit of truth, than to be safe from blundering by contempt of it. The happiness of mankind is the end of virtue, and knowledge is the knowledge of the means; which he will never seriously attempt to discover who has not habitually interested himself in the welfare of others. The searcher after truth must love and be beloved; the general benevolence is a necessary motive to constancy of pursuit; and this general benevolence is begotten and rendered permanent by social and domestic affects.” Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, The Best of Coleridge, Thomas Nelson & Sons: New York 1934


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