Thoughts on Life’s Meaning

I continue to think about life and what it means for me and others. The choices that people seem to make regarding their life’s purpose, if any, seem to fall into 4 broad categories.

The first category would be the nihilist view of life, with an emphasis on self-indulgent and/or narcissistic behavior. This seems to fall into a spectrum – life has no meaning so why live, through to life has no meaning so why not enjoy myself to the fullest while I am here. The consumerism that underlies the modern society (from the 1800’s onward) has at first slowly, and in the past decades more quickly, replaced traditional religious/cultural values with a “me first” perspective.

The explosion of anxiety/depression in the populace, especially among younger generations, and the pharmaceutical industry that has evolved to treat it, if not create it, is an indication of the depth and breadth of this trend. As youngsters are exposed to the blatant consumerism of society, while having no backstop of tradition/culture to counter it (due to the explosive growth of broken families and the disintegration of the extended family), they seem to succumb either to hedonism or despair if they cannot find meaning in traditional religions.

Religions then are the second and smaller category of how people establish meaning in their lives. In some cases, they either come to religion after not finding satisfaction in the nihilism of the first category, or they grew up in it and have been indoctrinated by it. From this point, they seem to either drift out of religion to the first category based on the rejection of the dogma of their religion, stay with it throughout their lives, or for what I believe is a very small number, evolve to the 3rd category of Skepticism.

In the 3rd category (which I count myself in), I have come to the point of rejecting both nihilism and religion, finding both lacking in terms of providing meaning for my life, and in being obviously detrimental to humanity as a whole (when the accelerating personal/societal strife is considered and the extent to which these events can be traced back to those who are living with the world view of the first two categories).

In my view, the study of philosophy can provide the foundation for a meaningful life and happiness as a consequence, not as an objective. In my case, it is the study of the Stoic philosophy and the adaptation of it to my circumstances (as I have related in other posts) that has been successful for me.

In some ways, this is the most precarious category, as it rests on neither the firm foundation of nothing (or the rejection of dogma), or a firm foundation of dogma. Constant learning, questioning, and adjusting is my life in this state, with what I thought true at one time being updated in new directions as I learn and live more.

Finally, there is I believe a 4th (and thankfully small) category of those who have gone beyond both dogma and skepticism through to full-blown psychosis in believing that they have the answer for how others should live their lives and life’s meaning, and have therefore become the founders of new religions with their own dogma that brooks no objection. Whether this is the spin-off of an existing religion or the start of a wholly new one, the results are the same from the standpoint of limiting human growth and potential.

Those in the 4th category tend to pray on those in the first, and in this regard, all categories are in a circle, with one’s own place on the circle subject to evolution as they mature, though hopefully from first to third, and not first to fourth.

Why

My core virtues, that I use to guide my daily decisions, are courage, compassion, and critical thinking. CCC.

Why not justice as defined by the ancient stoics? Because I believe using justice as a guide to all decisions leads to judgmental and moralistic behavior. That does not mean I will not pursue justice, either for myself or others. However I will not let it be a core guide to my decisions. All too often, “justice” becomes a euphemism for the moralizing enforcement of behavior.

What then is the purpose of my life? My core virtues are the guideposts of my decisions, but not the drivers of them.

Certainly the “pursuit of happiness” or “the secret” appear to me to be the worst paths possible, as they lead to lives of constant disappointment. Even when successes are achieved they are never enough and just reenforce the need for more, while every failure reenforces a feeling of inadequacy. The celebrity life is a mirage.

Purpose then for me is the constant improvement of myself (I), supporting others in their journey (S), and promoting my philosophy (P) for the betterment of the world. There are no fixed rules of how I should do the above or too what limits, other than through the application of my core virtues. To develop rules and guideposts falls into the trap of dogma – “not being a good stoic”.

I will promote my philosophy in three ways: by building awareness of it’s existence (A), by supporting others in their adoption of it – community (C), and finally through my example in my own life (E). Not by setting myself on a pedestal, but rather through living my life and letting others draw their own conclusions as to its applicability to theirs.

Everyone’s circumstances are different. The concerns of a beggar are different than those with wealth, and to define the goals for either is ridiculous. Rather everyone should chart the course that is meaningful for them. Who am I to say that the beggar will not go farther on the path when not encumbered with the baggage of wealth. Likewise, who can foresee what wealth can achieve when it is applied for the greater good and not the promotion of one’s ego.

My motivations

”But, in the first place, even though virtue is sure to bestow pleasure, it is not for this reason that virtue is sought; for it is not this, but something more than this that she bestows, nor does she labor for this, but her labor, while directed toward something else, achieves this also.  As in a plowed field, which has been broken up for corn, some flowers will spring up here and there, yet it was not for these poor little plants, although they may please the eye, that so much toil was expended — the sower had a different purpose, these were superadded — just so pleasure is neither the cause nor the reward of virtue, but its by-product, and we do not accept virtue because she delights us, but if we accept her, she also delights us.

The highest good lies in the very choice of it, and the very attitude of a mind made perfect, and when the mind has completed its course and fortified itself within its own bounds, the highest good has now been perfected, and nothing further is desired; for there can no more be anything outside of the whole than there can be some point beyond the end.

Therefore you blunder when you ask what it is that makes me seek virtue; you are looking for something beyond the supreme. Do you ask what it is that I seek in virtue? Only herself. For she offers nothing better — she herself is her own reward. Or does this seem to you too small a thing? When I say to you, “The highest good is the inflexibility of an unyielding mind, its foresight, its sublimity, its soundness, its freedom, its harmony, its beauty, do you require of me something still greater to which these blessings may be ascribed?”
Seneca, (On the Happy Life, 9)

I struggle with the motivations for my decisions: am I doing what is best for my self and others because it is right decision, or because I am seeking to be seen by others as a good person (and therefore have the excuse to tell myself I am)? I have come to the conclusion that in the end it does not matter. I am unlikely to ever achieve perfect altruism in my actions, and to attempt to do so wastes my mental energy and time in useless self analysis.

I will do the right thing because it is right, not for the praise I give myself or expect from others. Rather than analyzing the decision beforehand for the motivation, I will look to how I feel about the reactions of others (or lack thereof) afterward.

If I am largely indifferent to the reactions (or lack of reaction), then my motivations were properly for the best. If I am offended by criticism, self satisfied by praise or annoyed that no one noticed, then I know my motivations were more driven by my self interest (the monkey mind seeking praise and self importance) than by my rational self.

This does not mean that I cannot do things that benefit myself – if anything most decisions and actions that I take are for my benefit. What I need to watch for however is my inner motivation – whether it is to feed my monkey through expected praise or the congratulations/envy of others, or because it is the right thing to do, regardless of whether others notice. That is what I will strive to make my benchmark.