I will soon begin a new lecture series titled Meaning of Life: Perspectives from the World's Great Intellectual Traditions. I listen to these lectures when I walk my dog at night.
Before I begin the lectures, I thought I would describe my current view of the meaning of life, so that I can see how it changes throughout the thirty-six lectures. Here goes...
To live a happy, meaningful life, you must at some point decide whether you are going to be a participant in life or an observer of human life.
The essence of participating human is to create conflict where none exists. Peaceful college campuses contrive football games where men armor themselves and collide at full speed for no logical reason. Hannibal created and spread myths about his divinity both to intimidate the Romans and—in case he emerged victorious—to become a demigod. Bastiat became the founder of modern economics because knowledge was lacking and its provider would be crowned. Saint Francis loved unconditionally because so much love was conditional. The key is that all fight largely for the fight; there is no other reward. For life to have meaning it must accomplish something. To accomplish, there must be something inferior that is made superior due to human effort. Perfection, satisfaction: these only stand in the way of a virtuous life. Eve did not bite the apple because she was tricked by a snake. She ate because she was bored. Yet, participating human cannot admit his cause is ultimately pointless, and so affiliation and myth emanate. Every Alabama student and alumni were victorious when "their" team won the national championship. Roman citizens considered Augustus to be their father, almost literally. Saint Francis performed miracles, because there is nothing spectacular about a stinky, barefooted man simply wandering around, begging for food.
The observer, on the other hand, cannot participate in the fight because in his perennial reading, listening, and watching, he sees that humans create conflict solely for the purpose of conflict. He sees this over and over, in different places, times, and forms—but it is all the same. He records the creation of affiliation and myth out of nothing, because nothing is empty and human lives cannot remain empty. One becomes a visitor to another team's football game, a chronicler of an ancient history that can never be altered, and so he never feels the urgency in which participating human is called to fight. The observer's happiness in life comes from the observation. If history, sport, politics, war, literature, and science of every kind are not interesting to the observer, then he is left with nothing, and his life empty.
Both can be happy, and one is no more virtuous than the other. There is on peculiarity readers must beware, though. One can transform from a participating human to an observer. Indeed, many do in the latter stage of their life. The observer cannot become a participant though. His foot-tracks are covered. Unless the story of mankind is his pleasant companion, the observer is cursed with perennial loneliness.
The participant can always find a new cause. The observer is stuck with the universe he is given. I am one of these observers, and though I grow fonder of the human story the more I learn, I do know that if it forsakes, all is forsaken.
If I maintain this view on the meaning of life after thirty-six lectures I would be surprised. Not necessarily proud.
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