Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition.
~ Blaise Pascal
When I consider the brief span of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, now rather than then.
~ Blaise Pascal
We are not at one. We have no instincts
like those of migratory birds. Useless, and late.
we force ourselves onto the wind,
and find no welcome from ponds where we alight.
We comprehend flowering and fading simultaneously.
~ Rainer Marie Rilke
A precipice in front of you, and wolves behind you, in your rear; that is life.
~ Latin Proverb
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, war, hatred, anxiety, disappointment, and death. Life’s problems are so significant that humans try desperately to alleviate and avoid them. But mere words cannot convey the depth and intensity of the suffering in human life. 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 or degrading 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, honor, 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 art, science, literature, and music; there is Rembrandt, Darwin, Shakespeare, and Beethoven. Life sometimes seems too good for words.
Now assuming that we are lucky enough to be born without any of a thousand physical or mental maladies, or into bondage, famine, or war, the first problems we confront are how to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves. Initially, we have no choice but to rely on others to meet our basic needs, but as we mature we are increasingly forced to fulfill these needs on our own. In fact most human effort, both historically and presently, expends itself attempting to meet these basic needs. The structure of a society may aid us in satisfying our needs to differing extents, but no society fulfills them completely, and many erect impediments that make living well nearly impossible. We often fail to meet our basic needs through no fault of our own.
But even if we are born healthy and into a relatively stable environment, even if all our basic needs are met, we still face difficulties. We seek health and vitality, friends and mates, pleasure and happiness. Our desires appear unlimited. And presuming that we fulfill these desires, we still face pressing philosophical concerns: What is real? What can we know? What should we do? What can we hope for? And, most importantly, what is the meaning of life in a world that contains so much suffering and death? This is the central philosophical question of human life. Fortune may shine upon us but we ultimately suffer and perish, raising the question of the point of it all. If all our hopes, plans, longings, and loves ultimately vanish, then what does it all mean? Our question is not just academic; it penetrates to the core of human existence.
Given the gravity of our query, we propose a thorough investigation into the question of the meaning of life. We will look carefully at the ideas of those who have thought deeply about the question, allowing our own ideas to slowly emerge. In the process, we will follow the truth wherever it leads, never cheating like the youths that Kierkegaard described: “There are many people who reach their conclusions about life like schoolboys: they cheat their master by copying the answer out of a book without having worked the sum out for themselves.” We want to work out the answers for ourselves—so that the answers will be our own. Unsure of whether any answers will be forthcoming, we must hope that Rainer Marie Rilke was right when he said: “Live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers.” If we do not cheat, and if loving the questions leads to at least provisional answers, then with Francis Bacon we will be able to proudly claim: “Thus have I made as it were a small globe of the intellectual world, as truly and faithfully as I could discover.”
May 2012, Seattle, Washington