Nietzsche saw that there was no meaning to life, but that did not mean that action was meaningless. In fact acts of pure will were the only validation of the individual and the only way to make the claim, “I am relevant!”.
Kierkegaard, considered the first Existentialist also saw life as meaningless, but that engagement could mitigate the despair. He proposed that each individual—not society or religion—is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it passionately and sincerely, or "authentically."
Sartre expanded on Kierkegaard’s thesis with his principle of existence before essence – a state of existence precedes a state of becoming, and individuals are responsible for making themselves into essence. Individual worth or meaning was related to engaged action. By acting, one creates or contributes to the essence of society. Any individual action necessarily affects others. Freedom of choice enables the individual to make right decisions for society, not just for him. He has a responsibility before other citizens for his actions.
Tolstoy was a nihilist, at least until his conversion to faith if not afterwards; and believed that no individual act has meaning because it is determined or conditioned by the thousands which have preceded and influenced it. Yet individual action cannot be discounted. Although Napoleon was like every other man and simply a billiard ball hit and sent on its way with no purpose or no meaning, he was relevant. He was not a Great Man according to Tolstoy’s deterministic view of history, but an influential one nonetheless. There was only one Napoleon – an impossibly outsized personality with such overarching ambition, military genius, political savvy, brains, and courage who could never be ignored or overlooked.
Napoleon might have been a product of serendipity or blind luck, but he existed nonetheless. He was relevant to history because he influenced its course. Even if this course is like a meandering river which bends and straightens according to the laws of complexity and chaos, Napoleon did indeed determine the way it flowed in 1812.
Konstantin Levin, a principal character in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and his alter ego sought meaning throughout his life. He found it ironic that God had created man with intelligence, insight, passion, humor, and courage; but then after a few short decades condemned him to eternity under the cold, hard ground of the steppes. In the final lines of the book, Levin confesses that he has found no answer to the question that had bedeviled him for so many years, but that in order to be relevant, he must do good.
I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan theRelevance, not meaning, is what most men seek. Even though they may be troubled by existential questions – Why am I here? Where am I going? – they are more concerned with what they will leave behind. Legacy is far more important than meaning.
coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions
tactlessly; there will be still the same wall between the holy of
holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still
go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for
it; I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why
I pray, and I shall still go on praying; but my life now, my
whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every
minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has
the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put
Ivan Ilyich, the main character in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, surveys his life as he dies. He reviews the social architecture he has built to maintain order and his particular version of civility, and finds that although it sustained him when he was well and enabled him to squeeze a bit of freedom and independence from a very controlled and controlling life, it was nothing but a house of cards. People meant nothing. Society meant nothing. Actions themselves – especially those which involved intercourse with others – were senseless vanities. We all die alone, Ivan Ilyich realized in the moments before death. What others thought of him or what he thought of others lost all importance as he saw his end coming, an impossibly horrifying end and made more horrible because of its meaningless.
The horror of Ivan Ilyich’s final hours is so acute because he has found neither meaning nor relevance. He has not understood what life was or was not. No one cared about him and would forget him as soon as he was gone, and he cared about no one.
No one wants to die the death of Ivan Ilyich, which is why we try so hard to at least be relevant – to have influenced someone or something. To have left behind good works or works of talent or genius. We know that such a legacy means nothing, a few ripples on the dunes; and yet it is all we have.
Tolstoy spent his whole life looking for meaning. He studied history, science, philosophy, literature, and religion; but always came up short. No discipline offered even a glimpse of the truth, and in fact distorted it. The more he read, the more confused and disappointed he became.
It is not surprising that after his epiphany (A Confession) he turned to good works. Over the last 30 years of his life, Tolstoy established himself as a moral and religious leader. His ideas about nonviolent resistance to evil influenced Gandhi. He was never satisfied that he had found meaning, and even though he had become a recognized author, sought a more personal relevance, one that approached meaning.
There are few true nihilists in the world – those who disregard both meaning and relevance. Epicurus was a familiar guide to many such people. If life has no meaning and if individual action, no matter how well-meaning, can have no relevance in a meaningless world, then self-gratification can be the only solution.
We didn’t ask to be born, said Epicurus, and anticipated Descartes by his anti-Cartesian statement, “I feel, therefore I am”. The only validation of life is not thinking, nor the expression of will, nor leaving a legacy, but enjoying the satisfying sights, sounds, tastes, and sexual pleasures offered to us for merely existing.
It is hard for any Anglo-Saxon to follow Epicurus. His ways lead to dissolution and destruction at worst and a temporary deviation from the path to spiritual salvation at least, legatees of Puritanism (and Wahhabi Islam) claim. It is easier for Mediterranean Catholics to live and let live. A little sybaritic if not hedonistic life never did anyone any significant or long-lasting harm; and it is snap for animists for whom the natural world and its immanent spirits is the universe. Yet they too have their own pesky laws of right behavior, a social hierarchy to be respected and feared.
Hindus have perhaps the most reasonable vision of life. Not only is it meaningless but it is illusory. What we see does not really exist; so questions of meaning or legacy do not apply. One’s only responsibility is to bypass illusion and arrive at the only reality of any significance – becoming part of God.
Yet despite these sophisticated philosophies, we are damned to relevance. We simply can’t help ourselves. How will we be remembered? A good father, a philanthropist, a bon vivant, a great or even better than average thinker or writer? Will our sons and daughters cry at our funerals or be glad that we are finally in the ground? Did we make a difference to them?
If we’re lucky, we can look out the window and say, “It doesn’t matter”; but alas, most of us will conclude that not only does it matter, but “I matter!”.