Many people believe they have a purpose. “What is the meaning of life?” They’ll ask. “It is finding your true purpose. The reason you exist. This all has to be for something. Everything happens for a reason.”
I find it interesting that many humans, myself included, find the need to see themselves as tools. If your life has a purpose it means that it is not a goal in itself, but that it happens for some ulterior motive. Your life, then, is a means to an end. And this makes you a tool.
The idea of purpose is of course very human. There is probably an evolutionary incentive to think in terms of purpose. Good things are those conductive to survival and propagation of one’s genes; bad things are the opposite. Things can then be seen as conductive to either. It makes sense, then, to attach a purpose to each object or act one encounters: things will either help to achieve gene propagation or they won’t. The fact that we use this label for ourselves and our own lives can, then, only be seen as an unintended consequence of this otherwise very helpful drive to classify things as useful or useless.
This image makes my point completely.
Finding the meaning of life through purpose seems to miss the mark, then. First, it uses a human concept which has nothing to do with the way the universe works. Second, it assumes some other entity for which we have a purpose: the purpose of that other entity is left undetermined, thus begging the question. Finally, it takes value from our life and puts it somewhere else, in the future. Why we would bother to go through our whole, value-less life to reach that future state, when that entity could have just created the final state directly, is unclear.
The obvious reaction to this is to take purpose out of the quest for meaning and return the value to the present moment, to the individual’s life. If life has a value on its own, it is its own meaning. There is no need for a purpose: life should be lived for its own sake. Every moment is as good as any other and placing our hopes in the future seems like a futile, life-denying exercise.
Speaking of futile exercises, what I am going to attempt now will probably end up in disaster, so I apologize in advance. See the end for more details.
Once one realizes the pointlessness of purpose and the importance of the present moment, there are two different, extreme routes one can take. Nietzsche would call them “life-affirming” and “life-denying.” Since that terminology is loaded, I will use instead “self-affirming” and “self-denying.”
I know, not very intellectual. I just had to add it. I just had to.
The self-denying route would go like this. First, one must realize most experiences in life involve suffering of some kind. Even happy moments are filled with fear: the fear which stems from attachment to that happiness and the possibility of losing it. Humans constantly strive for pleasure and run away from pain and thus are never content. The only way to place value in the moment is to stop the strife: to stop chasing the good and fleeing the bad. We can do this by training ourselves to observe our feelings without judging them: to observe them and watch their course without getting involved. This way, feelings lose their meaning, becoming just sensations, perceptions, which in themselves are meaningless. When the strife ends, we can just concentrate on the present moment, free from desire and free of suffering.
Even though the self-affirming and self-denying routes share the same starting point, the self-affirming route takes the opposite path. Instead of advocating distance, it advocates the opposite: taking a full dive on those emotions, embracing both the good and the bad ones, taking life in without discriminating, saying “yes” to experience. This may look similar to the self-denying route: after all, aren’t we accepting both pain and pleasure too? However, the similarity is only superficial. Whereas the self-denying view advocates distancing oneself from these emotions and watching them as one watches something external, the self-affirming view does exactly the opposite. If we watch our emotions from afar, we take the meaning away from them. When they stop being “good” or “bad” and start being a collection of events, their emotional content is lost. But living is precisely that emotional content: denying that is denying life. And life, argues the self-affirming view, is the ultimate value.
Now, the self-denying may not agree. Life is not the ultimate value. The concept of “value” itself holds no water. The only worthwhile struggle is being free from pain. Also, one may argue that what the self-affirming people are suggesting is impossible: if you embrace the good and the bad, you take the meaning away from them. The bad is precisely that which you run away from: if you stop running away from it, it stops being bad. In this sense, the self-affirming view is self-contradictory. To that, the self-affirmers may reply that, likewise, the self-denying philosophy is contradictory: a complete annihilation of the self would lead to the ceasing of all desire, which in turn would irremediable lead to the death of the individual. Both goals are unachievable, but seen as worth striving for.
Hamlet with Yorick’s skull (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Another key difference between these views is their attitude towards the world. In the self-affirming view, the individual has one drive: to impose their will on the world, which includes both their external and internal reality. It is this struggle between self and world which defines the individual and makes it grow. In the self-denying view, happiness is achieved when the struggle ceases. And, when it does, there ceases to be a difference between individual and world: those are then in total harmony and are thus indisti
nguishable. That is why I call this view self-denying: its goal is to erase the self. Once the self is erased, the will disappears; once the will is erased, the self disappears. The struggle against the world and the self are one and the same thing: the cause of our suffering.
Of course, the self-affirming would then claim that there are simpler methods for erasing the self, such as putting a bullet in your brain. If one is alive, one should embrace life and not run away from it, aiming to become like a stone. Why live, while trying to be like something that’s not alive? Why try to remove the borders between the self and the world, when it is precisely those borders which define the self? Why try to get rid of the self, if it is precisely the self who creates value? Remove the self and remove all value; remove all value and remove all meaning; remove all meaning and remove all life.
This was an attempt to summarize my doubts about both the Buddhist and the Nietzschean approach to life. For obvious space and talent reasons, I haven’t done justice to either point of view. In fact, I believe there are two bloggers who would do a much better job than I, each in their own niche: bloggingisaresponsibility and Tongue Sandwich. Since I’m still waiting to see a good discussion between them on this topic (I think I would honestly pay a substantial amount of money just to be able to read that exchange) I did the next best thing and started the ball rolling.
I am still trying to make up my mind (or even build a middle way, though honestly I wouldn’t know where to start) so any further thoughts will be greatly appreciated.