The Meaning of Life

Alexei Kirillov in Dostoevsky’s The Demons insists that people don’t commit suicide because of the fear of pain. I suspect the fear of the unknown plays a part as well. Dante, in strict accordance with Catholic dogma at the time, places the suicides in the seventh circle of his Hell where they take the form of thorny bushes tormented by Harpies who eat away at them, causing them untold pain. They have denied their bodily form in life and are therefore denied human form in Hell. Sartre somewhere says that the meaning of life consists in asking ourselves from time to time why we don’t commit suicide. Perhaps it is the fear — of pain, the unknown, or the possibility of becoming a thorny bush tormented by Harpies.

For my own part I am convinced that, given the unfettered greed and sheer stupidity of a significant portion of the human race, there is a large probability that one way or the other the planet on which we depend will not survive — a likelihood that increases daily with the crowding human population, the manufacture of every new nuclear bomb, the next outrageous comment from the mouth of a politician, the determination of so many of us to settle our differences through violence. I find myself, like Sisyphus, living in an absurd world in which we all move huge boulders up the hill only to have them roll to the bottom each time, demanding that we start again. Despite all this, (as Camus admonishes me to do ), I imagine Sisyphus  to be happy.

I am also happy in spite of the above absurdities and bleak prognostications, because I have determined in my old age that happiness does not consist in how much money one has, the power or status he or she may have achieved, but in the small things that surround us and invite our delight. I speak of the Monarch butterfly that miraculously finds its way to Central America each year, the white-tail deer that disappears in the distance, leaping effortlessly over the log, the returning smile of the little girl in the store as I smile and wave at her, the quiet moments with my wife of more than fifty years as we sit together in the evenings and watch British mysteries and play the “I know her” game — “wasn’t she the one….?”

Moreover, despite the fact that there are so many people that are, let us face it, wicked and self-serving — and stupid enough to think that a man bloated and blinded by his own self-love can save the world — there are good people who want to do the right thing. Each in his or her small way seeks to make a difference and face life’s uncertainties with optimism, hope, and inner strength. Some of these people write blogs and I read them and find myself also filled with hope. Others gather together and wave their fists at injustice and wickedness. Others quietly and out of view, take care of the sick and wounded, animals as well as humans. Yet others paint and sing to reveal to us the world around his that we have tried to shut out.

In a word, the meaning of life — to use that ponderous and even pompous phrase — consists in the small things that surround us, the things we ignore as we go about our daily business of increasing our security and our pleasure. It consists in hanging onto the thread of hope woven by the beauty and goodness that exists all around us — if only we take the time and trouble to pause, perceive, and reflect.

Lost Wisdom

Many years ago, when I was working my way through J.D. Salinger’s novels, I recall that Franny (of Franny and Zooey)  dropped out of college because she hadn’t heard anyone speak about wisdom. That impressed me at the time and I heard it later echoed in T.S. Eliot’s provocative question, “where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?” Indeed. Our schools teach information and knowledge, but they do not teach about wisdom. Where, then can it be found? One would think the philosophers would have a firm grasp of the elusive creature, because they are, presumably, “lovers of wisdom.” But aside from Socrates, and perhaps Kant and maybe Albert Camus, I can think of few philosophers whom I would regard as truly wise. In fact, the wisest person I have encountered in my intellectual journey is a woman who called herself George Eliot — because she wanted to be taken seriously by those who read her works. Indeed, Eliot was so wise that readers sent her scores of letters asking her advice about everything from soup to nuts. And, apparently, she always attempted to answer the queries.

The “Book of Job” tells us that the price of wisdom is above rubies, yet as Franny says, no one seems to want to talk about it. There are books that contain a great deal of wisdom, including but not limited to the Bible and George Eliot’s novels. Cervantes was a supremely wise man, as was Jonathan Swift, in his way. The writers are out there as are the books from which we can learn a great deal about our world and the folks who people it. But we waste so much time reading whatever is the latest fashion on the supposition that what is newer is better, or what confirms my predispositions is what is worth reading. To which I say “bollocks!” What is older is better, whether we like what it says or not, since it has withstood the test of time. We know, or can soon find out, who the wise writers were. They are the ones who have been read by the wise persons who have followed them, like Winston Churchill, who learned at the feet of Shakespeare.

I have said some demeaning things in past blogs about the military mind, questioning whether the phrase “military intelligence” might be an oxymoron, for example. It is a concern I share with many. But there have been a few wise military men, including George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower. And I would hasten to add to the list Omar Bradley who had this to say about wisdom: “If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom and prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner.” Now that’s worth pondering. And it is precisely those insights and profound observations that comprise wisdom. They disturb us and force us to think, whether we want to or not.  They go well beyond mere information or knowledge  — which is what we teach in our schools to Franny’s chagrin. Perhaps it is time to return to those who have looked long and hard at the human condition and returned to us on the pages of their books with words that will enable us to stand on their heads as we seek to look further.

We hear at every turn that there are so many books and so little time. This is true, but the important question is how many of those books are worth reading? I suggest there is plenty of time to read good books because most of what is out there is not worth reading. Not even if Oprah makes the recommendation!

Tragedy and Conservatism

I wrote in yesterday’s blog that my adviser at Northwestern, Eliseo Vivas, developed a notion of “unmitigated tragedy” that is based on his conviction that evil is simply a part of the world we live in. It is in each of us and it is in the natural world as well, in our hearts and in the natural catastrophes that destroy lives and property on a grand scale.

This conviction formed the basis of Vivas’ conservatism, and he was welcomed into the bosom of conservative groups as one of the true believers. He argued in print that his conservatism was grounded on his conviction that there is evil in the world and there is nothing we can do about it other than accepting the fact and trying to move on, not to attempt to justify the evil or explain it away, but to reconcile ourselves to the fact of evil if we can. He faulted liberals for their futile attempts (as he saw it) to eradicate evil from the world root and branch. It is a profound notion but one that I doubt is shared by a great many other conservatives whose ideology is based pretty simply on the desire to protect their wealth — and expand it if possible. Vivas called these people “dollar conservatives,” and refused to be grouped with them.

But in any case, as much as I admired and respected Vivas, I think he was wrong. I agree with Camus that we can recognize evil in the world and in ourselves as a necessary part of who we are and where we live. Much, if not most, cannot be justified or explained away. But we don’t have to simply accept it, as Camus himself showed in his brief life by fighting against the death penalty. Indeed, I would argue that we have a moral obligation to reduce suffering wherever possible and try to alleviate wrong wherever we find it — knowing that the problems will never go away completely. Vivas’ thinking smacks of bifurcation: evil is a fact. Either reconcile yourself to it it or despair. There is a middle ground. We can struggle against it wherever possible, even though we cannot hope to eradicate it “root and branch.”

This was Camus’ insight into human existence that he formulated philosophically in his brilliant if somewhat opaque essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” In that myth, Sisyphus pushes a huge rock up a hill only to have it roll down again when it nears the top. But, paradoxically, Sisyphus returns to the bottom of the hill and starts again, knowing the same things will recur. “And we must imagine Sisyphus happy,” concludes Camus. Existence is absurd, but we must push on. Stegner shows the same sort of resignation in the novel I mentioned yesterday, All The Little Live Things. After the trauma of his dear friend’s awful death, and the death of her unborn child, the narrator reflects:

“I do not accept, I am not reconciled. But one thing she did. She taught me the stupidity of the attempt to withdraw and be free of  trouble and harm. . . . There is no way to step off the treadmill. It is all treadmill.”

Life goes on and we must continue to weed the garden. And do what we can to lessen the suffering of those around us. It defines us as human beings who belong on the earth in ways that no amount of wealth and possessions can.