In response to two recent post, “The Monotony of Work” and “Summary of David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Speech,” I received a perceptive comment from a reader. The commentor (C) is a well-paid software engineer who doesn’t look forward to thirty years of the same work. While thankful for gainful employment and recognizing the role that such works plays in sustaining civilization, what bothers him most is that his intellect is on loan to his employer, rather than being used in a search for truth and wisdom. And if he had a job that afforded this opportunity, he would be willing to make less money. (A better alternative would be to have a guaranteed minimum income to allow people to do what they enjoy.)
I was touched by the sorrow C feels in not being able to spend one’s life reading and learning precisely what one is most interested in and considers most important. I too felt that sorrow long ago and was fortunate enough to be able to pursue, and get modestly paid, for doing philosophy. I also relate to the pain he feels in knowing that he will never be able to know and be all that he want to be—a pain that all seekers of truth feel deeply.
C, who is about to become a father, believes that working to support his child will give more meaning to his work. He thinks that working for his child will be more moral and holy than pursuing “amor intellectualis Dei” (the intellectual love of God), for the latter is, after all, a selfish or hedonistic pursuit. Moreover, C had parents who sacrificed so that he was fed and educated. Thus he feels an obligation to do likewise for his own child. Perhaps then his own child to be able to both seek wisdom and be gainfully employed. As for C himself this probably isn’t possible, as his career demands too much of his psychic energy.
This last question particularly interests me. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard famously agonized over whether family life or being a philosopher was his better choice. Family life would impinge on the pursuit of truth and vice versa. Kierkegaard would choose philosophy over his love Regine Olsen, but he forever regretted his choice. Many of us face similar choices. I’ve had many students ask me whether they should major in something they loved with few job prospects like philosophy, or whether they should pursue something more financially rewarding but less interesting to them like accounting.
There are no easy answers to such questions. (I have addressed this topic in depth in “Should You Do What You Love?) What I can say is that even if one is lucky enough to pursue and be paid to do what you love—in my case to write, read, teach, and think about philosophy—one will find that there are unpleasant aspects to the job. You have to deal with uninterested or hostile students, dogmatic colleagues, disagreeable deans, unhelpful staff, boring meetings and more. This recognition might lead us to be more accepting of less than perfect jobs.
However C is correct that marriage, family and other outside interests do give us less time to pursue wisdom. Surely without a family and the demands of teaching so many college classes, nearly 250 in my career, I would have been a more productive philosopher. But would I have been a better one? Would I have gained more wisdom? I doubt it. There is a reason that Buddhist monks considers tasks like washing dishes, planting food, and other mundane tasks as opportunities for Enlightenment. We often find the deepest insights in the most simple things.
All of this reminds me of the words of one of my intellectual heroes, the historian, philosopher, and wisdom lover Will Durant. He says that we cannot definitely answer questions about the meaning of life or how we should live our lives—our minds are too small to entirely comprehend these things. Nonetheless, Durant believes we can say that:
The simplest meaning of life then is joy—the exhilaration of experience itself, of physical well-being; sheer satisfaction of muscle and sense, of palate and ear and eye. If the child is happier than the man it is because it has more body and less soul, and understands that nature comes before philosophy; it asks for no further meaning to its arms and legs than their abounding use … Even if life had no meaning except for its moments of beauty … that would be enough; this plodding thru the rain, or fighting the wind, or tramping the snow under sun, or watching the twilight turn into night, is reason a-plenty for loving life.[i]
We should be particularly thankful for our fellows; they are a primary reason for loving life.
Do not be so ungrateful about love … to the attachment of friends and mates who have gone hand in hand through much hell, some purgatory, and a little heaven, and have been soldered into unity by being burned together in the flame of life. I know such mates or comrades quarrel regularly, and get upon each other’s nerves; but there is ample recompense for that in the unconscious consciousness that someone is interested in you, depends upon you, exaggerates you, and is waiting to meet you at the station. Solitude is worse than war.[ii]
Love relates the individual to something more than itself, to some whole which gives it purpose.
I note that those who are cooperating parts of a whole do not despond; the despised “yokel” playing ball with his fellows in the lot is happier than these isolated thinkers, who stand aside from the game of life and degenerate through the separation … If we think of ourselves as part of a living … group, we shall find life a little fuller … For to give life a meaning one must have a purpose larger and more enduring than one’s self.
If … a thing has significance only through its relation as part to a larger whole, then, though we cannot give a metaphysical and universal meaning to all life in general, we can say of any life in the particular that its meaning lies in its relation to something larger than itself … ask the father of sons and daughters “What is the meaning of life?” and he will answer you very simply: “Feeding our family.”[iii]
Perhaps this is the best we can do to alleviate C’s worries. It may be a simple answer, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a profound one.
[i] Will Durant, On the meaning of life (New York: Ray Long & Richard R. Smith, 1932), 124-25.
[ii] Durant, On the meaning of life, 125-26.
[iii] Durant, On the meaning of life, 126-28.