Hazel Barnes (1915-2008) was a longtime professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She played a major role in introducing French existentialism to the English-speaking world through her translations and scholarship. (She did one of the first English translations of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.)
In her 1967 essay, “The Far Side of Despair,” Barnes asks why people assume that a lack of meaning or a grand purpose for the universe is bad. She argues that individuals project meaning onto a meaningless universe because of a desire for immortality, and a desire to share in the eternal goodness of the gods and their reality. The positive side to these beliefs is that it follows from them that what we do really matters, and a heaven awaits those who act correctly. The negative side is that there is a hell which corresponds to this promise of heaven. Of course, not all views of higher meaning depend on the idea of personal immortality—Aristotelianism and Hebraism do not—but most views of the meaningful life do suggest there is some proper place for humankind in the world.
Existentialism rejects all pronouncements of meaning. “Humanistic existentialism finds no divine presence, no ingrained higher meaning, no reassuring absolute.”[i] Still, it is a fallacy to draw the inference that my life is not worth living from the fact that the universe has no meaning. Our lives may have intrinsic value both to ourselves and to others, although the universe does not care about us. In this context, Barnes quotes Merleau-Ponty: “Life makes no sense, but it is ours to make sense of.” [ii]And Sartre argues: “To say that we invent values means nothing except this: life has no meaning a priori. Before you live it, life is nothing, but it is for you to give it a meaning. Value is nothing other than this meaning which you choose.”[iii]
To contrast traditional views of meaning with existentialist ones, Barnes compares life to a blank game board with pieces but no instructions. Theological, rational, and nihilistic views all suggest that unless we can discover the correct pattern of the board and the correct instructions or rules, there is no reason to play the game. In contrast, existentialists maintain that though there is no pre-existing pattern imprinted on the board and no set of rules provided, we are left free to create our own game with its own patterns and rules. There is no objective truth about how to construct the game or live a life, but if the individual who constructs a life finds value in the creating, making, and living of a life then it has been worthwhile. Creating our own lives and values gives us satisfaction, elicits the approval of others, and may make it easier for others to live satisfying lives.
Still, for many this is not enough; they want some eternal, archetypical measurement for their lives. Barnes acknowledges that life is harder without belief in such things, but wonders if the price we would pay for this ultimate authority is too high. Given such an authority, humans would be measured and confined by non-human standards. We would be like slaves or children, whose choices are prescribed for them. Humans “in the theological framework of the medieval man-centered universe has only the dignity of the child, who must regulate his life by the rules laid down by adults. The human adventure becomes a conducted tour … The time has come for man to leave his parents and to live in his own right by his own judgments.”[iv]
Another problem for many with creating your own meaning is the implied subjectivity of value. How do we understand that what some people find meaningful others think deplorable? Barnes responds that she welcomes the fact that we possess the freedom to create our own values and live uniquely, it is part of growing up.
A final difficulty manifests itself when we contemplate the future. What difference will it make in the end whether I live one kind of life rather than another? What is the point of anything if there is no destination, no teleology? Barnes counters: “If there is an absolute negative quality in the absence of what will not be, then there is a corresponding positive value in what will have been.”[v] In other words if nothingness is bad, it is so only because some existing things were good, and “The addition of positive moments does not add up to zero even if the time arrives when nothing more is added to the series.”[vi]
Barnes rejects the view that human life is worthless and meaningless just because it is not connected to a non-human transcendent authority. We are right to rebel against the fact that our lives must end, but we continue to exist after death in a sense because:
We live in a human world where multitudes of other consciousnesses are ceaselessly imposing their meaning upon [the external world]…and confronting the projects which I have introduced. It is in the future of these intermeshed human activities that I most fully transcend myself. In so far as “I” have carved out my being in this human world, “I” go on existing in its future.[vii]
Summary – We must grow up and create meaning for ourselves, rather than imagining some outside agency can do this. And through our projects, we have a kind of immortality.
[i] Hazel Barnes, “The Far Side of Despair,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D. Klemke (Oxford University Press, 2000), 162.
[ii] Barnes, “The Far Side of Despair,” 162.
[iii] Barnes, “The Far Side of Despair,” 162.
[iv] Barnes, “The Far Side of Despair,” 162.
[v] Barnes, “The Far Side of Despair,” 165.
[vi] Barnes, “The Far Side of Despair,” 165.
[vii] Barnes, “The Far Side of Despair,” 166.