Picking up on the theme found in both Tennyson and Kazantzakis, the French author Andre Maurois (1885 -1967) wrote that the meaning of life is found nowhere else but in our living struggles, in the experience and activity of life. To illustrate he tells the story of a group of Englishmen who establish a colony on the moon, but do not hear anything from the Earth for many generations. Some of their descendents now doubt the story of a king who lives on the earthly orb they see in the night sky, others still believe. Then a philosopher among them utters:
Why search for the meaning of life outside of life itself? The King of whom our legends speak—does he exist? I do not know, and it does not matter. I know that the mountains of the moon are beautiful when the crescent of the earth illuminates them. If the King remains, as always since my birth, invisible and silent, I shall doubt his reality; but I shall not doubt life, or the beauty of the moment, or the happiness of action. Sophists teach you today that life is only a brief moment in the trajectory of a star; they tell you that nothing is certain except defeat and death. As for me, I tell you that nothing exists except victory and life. What shall we know of death? Either the soul is immortal and we shall not die, or it perishes with the flesh and we shall not know that we are dead. Live, then, as if you were eternal, and do not believe that your life is changed merely because it seems proved that the Earth is [the Heavens are] empty. You do not live in the Earth [the Heavens], you live in yourself.[i]
Maurois also tells another story of a philosophical ant who discovers that there is no Great Ant above all others; and that hers is one among millions of ant heaps which are just drops of mud in an endless universe. This philosophical ant counsels her sisters to stop working, to stop being slaves, as life is apparently pointless. To this a young ant replies “This is all very well sister, but we must build our tunnel.”[ii] We find meaning it seems, in what’s in front of us.
Maurois’ insights preview those of another Frenchman, Albert Camus. When a priest visits Meursault—the protagonist of Camus’ novel The Stranger—before Meusault’s impending execution and makes metaphysical promises, Meursault responds “none of his [a priest’s] certainties were worth one strand of a woman’s hair.” Camus sees that abstract ideas bring about a distance from the world; they draw us away from the actual. But we must always come back to the commonplace for meaning, to what surrounds us, to what we previously called the ordinary extraordinary. No theory or abstract truths mitigate existential realities. He also put the point clearly in his essay Summer in Algiers. There amidst sea, sun, sand, and sex he mused: “Between this sky and these faces turned toward it, nothing on which to hang a mythology, a literature, an ethic, or a religion, but stones, flesh, stars, and those truths the hand can touch.”[iii]
[i] Will Durant, On the meaning of life (New York: Ray Long & Richard R. Smith, 1932), 52.
[ii] Durant, On the meaning of life, 56.
[iii] Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955), 151.