(Author’s note. I have added a brief introduction to this series of posts.)
Insignificant mortals, who are as leaves are,
and now flourish and grow warm with life,
and feed on what the ground gives,
but then again fade away and are dead.
Life is hard. It includes physical pain, mental anguish, loneliness, hatred, war, and death. But mere words cannot convey the quantity and intensity of human suffering. Consider that persons are starving, imprisoned, tortured, and suffering unimaginably as you read this; that our emotional, moral, physical, and intellectual lives are limited by our genes and environments; that our creative potential is wasted because of unfulfilling work, unjust incarceration, unimaginable poverty, and limited time; and that our loved ones suffer and die—as do we. Contemplate the horrors of history when life was often so insufferable that death was welcomed. What kind of life is this that nothingness is often preferable? There is, as Unamuno said, a “tragic sense of life.” This idea haunts the intellectually honest and emotionally sensitive individual. Life sometimes seems not worth the trouble.
Of course the above does not describe all of human life or history. There is love, friendship, knowledge, play, beauty, pleasure, creative work, and a thousand other things that make life, at least sometimes, worthwhile, and at other times pure bliss. There are parents caring for their children, people building homes, artists creating beauty, musicians making music, scientists accumulating knowledge, philosophers seeking meaning, and children playing games. There are mountains, oceans, trees, flowers, and blue skies; there is science, literature, and music; there is Darwin, Shakespeare, and Beethoven. Human achievement inspires us. Life sometimes seems too good for words.
Assuming that we are born without physical or mental maladies, or into bondage, famine, or war, in order to survive, we then must be fed, clothed, and sheltered. For many years we must rely on others to meet these basic needs, but as we mature we increasingly try to fulfill these needs on our own. The society in which we live may help us satisfy our basic needs, but many societies actively impede our attempt to live well. Thus we often fail to meet our basic needs through no fault of our own.
But even if born healthy and into a relatively stable social and political environment, and even if all our basic needs are met, we still face pressing philosophical questions: What is real? What can we know? What should we do? What can we hope for? And, most importantly, what, if anything, is the meaning of life? This is the ultimate question of philosophy. Fortune may shine upon us, but both we and those we love will suffer and perish. And, if everything ultimately vanishes, then what, if anything, does it all mean? It is to this question we now turn.