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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Finding One’s Purpose In Life–Is That Really Necessary?

David Brooks, writing in the New York Times (5.5.15) has expressed his concern about the lack of purpose and meaning in life.  Our life has become over-politicized, he says, and under-moralized.  Gone are the days when philosophers like Reinhold Niebuhr appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and when John Dewey and Hannah Arendt were popular authors.  We have increasingly led our lives an an atomized, competitive, and increasingly materialistic world, and we have lost our moral compass.

Reinhold Niebuhr

Brooks, however, senses that the tide has turned.  “People are ready to talk a little less about how to do things and to talk a little more about why ultimately they are doing them.”

I am not sure to whom Brooks is referring here, but certainly not the Kroger checker in Tupelo who works two jobs, depends on her mother to care for her young children, whose husband has been laid off from the plant, and who has no benefits.  Her life has no meaning other than metro, boulot, dodo – get up, go to work, and go to sleep.

The search for meaning is a luxury for those whose wealth, breeding, and education have given them breathing room. The Harvard Red Book, the publication which asks alumni to reflect on life every five years, is a testament to this intellectual and economic enterprise. Young graduates report on changing jobs, professions, and careers – not just bumps upward in the corporate ladder, but radical moves from law to theatre, finance to boat-building, literature to medicine.  They understand their privileged entitlement and take advantage of all of it.

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These Harvard graduates are not concerned with meaning, but fulfillment. It is enough to match ability with productivity - to find the career which best corresponds to talent, interest, and personality. 

Many philosophers, Nietzsche being one of the most notable, suggested that the expression of will is the only validation of the individual in a meaningless world. The ideal man was ‘beyond good and evil’ and acted out of supreme self-interest.  The ‘herd’ was only interested in following a moral code, corralled by social convention which inhibited true realization of the human potential.


Nietzsche, of course, was not sanctioning or prescribing an amoral life; and he knew that the instincts of the herd were strong enough to assure bourgeois compliance and sentimentality. His conclusions were elemental.  If life were indeed meaningless, and if there were no moral compass, then one’s only logical path would be one of determined expression of individual will.

Ivan Karamazov chides his brother Alyosha for his idealistic views and speaks with the voice of the Grand Inquisitor, a character he has created who challenges Christ for misleading humanity. “There would be no morality without immortality”, he says, echoing Nietzsche.  The Church holds out the hope of eternal life to pen in the sinful and to discourage disorder.

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     El Greco, The Grand Inquisitor

Brooks is not referring to Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Dostoevsky, Sartre, or Tolstoy when he remembers the philosophers of the past. These writer-thinkers had no use for ‘purpose’, and were interested only in how one squares one’s mortality in a purposeless universe.

Brooks must be thinking of religious philosophers like Aquinas, Augustine, Luther, and Barth whose universe is most definitely purposeful.  God’s existence and designs are unquestioned and absolute.  Man does indeed have a reason for being and that is to find, accept, and have faith in God.  The New Testament is compendium of sophisticated theology, moral prescriptions, and a roadmap to salvation.  Each of us has not only a purpose, but one purpose. The truly faithful will do everything within this context.

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Hinduism is no different. Since the world is nothing but illusion (maya) and the only reality is spiritual, then the devout Hindu has only once purpose in life – to reject the illusory, material world and focus only on individual spiritual evolution.

Every other philosophical consideration is either academic (Platonic duality, “I think therefore I am” metaphysics, deconstructionist linguistics) or moralistic.  The academic philosophers were interested in determining the nature of existence.  Bishop Berkeley and other phenomenologists challenged popular conceptions of the here-and-now. Who is to say, the argued, what lies outside of human perception? Modern-day philosophers have taken the argument one step further and have tried apply science to existential questions. Are mind and brain separate entities? And if they are is mind then soul?

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       Bishop Berkeley, John Smibert Google Arts Treasury

One branch of moral philosophy was really an offshoot of metaphysics. Kierkegaard and Augustine pondered the nature of evil. Was there such a thing, and if so how could it exist in a world created by a supposedly good God? Moral philosophers like Hannah Arendt are less concerned with the nature of evil than man’s inhumanity to man.  How could the Nazis have existed? And since they did, does this mean that we are all capable of evil?

Nietzsche and other nihilists dismiss the argument entirely.  Good and evil do not exist because the universe is meaningless and every action within it equally without meaning. Shakespeare and Tolstoy understood that human history was no more than an endless cycle of events produced by human nature.  Self-interest, self-protection, the expansion of territory, the accumulation of wealth, the pursuit of power and status were givens.  We are all the same.  Valueless human nature is common to us all.


Popular moral philosophers like Tony Robbins dismiss these dry evaluations of life and existence, but adapt them to their own personal vision of The Good Life.  In Robbins’ view, happiness does not come from fulfilling one’s purpose, but discovering and acting on one’s personal identity.  A very tame version of Nietzsche to be sure, this philosophy builds on the legacy of the Sixties, the self-directed if not selfish behavior of today, and religious principles of individual sanctity.  Robbins’ message resonates with the millions who feel dispirited, down on their luck, and a bit hopeless.  He does not ask anyone what their purpose in life is, but simply how to raise themselves out of the dregs of despair.

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                                         Huffington Post

It seems to me that there are only two questions to ask of anyone: First, “What is my relationship to God?” This inquiry requires exploring the nature of God and the nature of Man; and to try to decipher His purpose and then ours. Only then can one make adjustments or radical changes in behavior, belief, or attitude.

The second question is “How can the world become more moral?” The discussion of America’s ills remains superficial and political.  Despite the fundamental moral issues underlying social disorder, few observers wish to focus on them.  There is no doubt that the breakdown in moral behavior in dysfunctional neighborhoods is a contributing factor to civil unrest and disorder.  Without adherence to majority norms – honor, respect, justice, courage, compassion, and dignity among others – broken communities will never mend themselves.

Without some consideration of morality, the financial depredations of Wall Street will continue. Enron, Bernie Madoff, and tobacco’s Seven Dwarves will multiply There will always be a line between moral behavior and bottom-line behavior, even though that line will always shift, we should pay attention to it.

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Without some reflection on moral probity and rectitude, politics will always be the venal, smarmy business it now is.  Politicians run on programs, not principle.  Can anyone in todays electoral environment (mid-2015) clearly articulate Hillary Clinton’s moral principles? What she stands for as a person?

The older we get the more we turn to the first question about Being.  Before time runs out most of us want to at least come to some closure about the nature of God, existence, and eternity.  We have little patience for social morality. Life is fucked up and always has been.  Let someone else try to figure it out.

Young people are more interested in doing good, always their prerogative and inclination.

Everyone in between is slogging away at their jobs as clerks, checkers, truck drivers, assembly-line workers, and cold-callers.  They may occasionally ask, “Is this all there is?”, but most just get on with things.  Even Tony Robbins’s message has no resonance. The Church offers some solace and some hope of eventual salvation; but the fact remains that every day from 9 to 5, there is no purpose at all to existence except making ends meet.

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