This blog is an analysis of the short essay of Richard Taylor’s, “The Meaning of Life”, from his book Good and Evil (2000). Questions of meaninglessness, meaning, will, existentialism, free will, determinism, despair, and hope are touched on. In the end, the questions are asked, what a human is meant for, what makes him truly happy; what makes her have the will to go on? It is an easy argument to follow, and the culmination is fairly hopeful. The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus is integral to the essay. Quotes about meaning bookend it.
The Myth of Sisyphus (1942 by French existentialist writer, Albert Camus) gets this summary on Goodreads (above): “Most of my friends will probably think I’m being sarcastic when I call this as good a “self-help” book as any I can imagine, but this essay honestly inspired in me an awe of human nature and its absurd indomitability. I think Camus gets a bad rap for being a cold, detached pessimist who only points out the meaninglessness of life again and again in his books.
OK, he may indeed declare life “meaningless,” but this book is passionately affirmative of life in the face of that void. Beginning as a refutation of suicide, the essay encourages an embrace of the absurdity of life and the refutation of hope for a future life (or afterlife) as the only ways to live with any liberty or happiness. While I ultimately don’t see eye to eye with all his thinking–and if you’re at all religious, you should probably save your self the agitation of reading this–but viewing human nature and activity through his eyes in this book has been immensely rewarding.
The question whether life has any meaning is difficult to interpret. The more one concentrates his critical faculty on it the more it seems to elude him, or to evaporate as an intelligible question.”
And now, the Richard Taylor essay (with his quotes in quotation marks, and my commentary not so):
- “If the idea of Meaningfulness is difficult to grasp … the idea of meaninglessness is perhaps less so.”
- Albert Camus’ character Sisyphus from The Myth of Sisyphus is cursed by the ancient Greek gods to “pointless toil, of a meaningless existence that is absolutely never redeemed” “…not even redeemed by death….”
- It would be redeemed if he awoke from the nightmare, or fell off the mountain, or something. Nothing. It goes on forever and has no meaning.
- Ancients: does the myth symbolize the day/night cycle, or repetitive waves?
- “Probably the commonest interpretation is that it symbolizes man’s eternal struggle and unconquerable spirit, his determination always to try once more in the face of overwhelming discouragement.” (He was supposed to be able to actually get it up over the hill, but, always failed to do so).
- A repetitious, cyclic activity that never comes to anything, akin to a relay race that never ends, or prisoners digging and then re-filling a hole, on ad infinitum…
- Persons in such absurd situations aren’t tortured per se, but they don’t need to be! Even if it were a little stone, Sisyphus still is required to do it repeatedly. Labor is one thing; the pointlessness of it is what smarts.
- What if the gods gave him a compulsive impulse, would THAT do the trick? Taylor calls that perverse and merciful. “He is absolutely guaranteed its endless fulfillment.” Could this be his meaning?
- In this case, “Exactly the same things happen as before. The only change is in Sisyphus’ view of them.” He writes: “Sisyphus has been reconciled to it, and indeed more, he has been led to embrace it.” BUT: “Not, however, by reason or persuasion….”
THE MEANINGLESSNESS OF LIFE:
- “Meaningless is essentially endless pointlessness, and meaningfulness is therefore the opposite. Activity, and even long, drawn out and repetitive activity, has a meaning if it has some significant culmination, some more or less lasting end that can be considered to have been the direction and the purpose of the activity.”
- In a series of caves in New Zealand exists: the creature called a glow worm has existed, for centuries and centuries. They catch flies with their evolutionary adaptation of glowing slightly. It looks like the heavens itself, it is told. “What great thing awaits all this long and repetitious effort and makes it worthwhile? Really nothing.”
- All living things are thus. The cicada. Fish. Migrating birds. “One is led to wonder what the point of it all is.” “The point of any living thing’s life is, evidently, nothing but life itself.” (138) “…a vast machine, feeding on itself, running on and on forever to nothing.”
- Does he say we humans are different, though? With our feelings and our romantic love and our stock portfolios? No. “…the differences are not so great as we like to think; many are merely invented….” None really cancels out the Sisyphean tragedy aspect of it all. We have to push our boulder up the hill, endlessly, pointlessly.
- We do have a history; we do have goals. That is only foolishly subjective, though. “We toil after goals, most of them – indeed every single one of them – of transitory significance and, as if that one had never been, with this next one being essentially more of the same. Look at a busy street any day, and observe the throng going hither and thither. To what? Some office or shop, where the same things will be done today as were done yesterday, and are done now so they may be repeated tomorrow.”
- If we think otherwise, “we simply have not considered the thing closely enough.” Family, for example, is just like succeeding generations of glow worms, not deeply different or significant. It is akin to us leaving our Sisyphean boulder to our children to roll up the hill ceaselessly! (139)
- What if humans built a temple, and it endured? Could it actually endure? COULD a temple be built? Is temporary beauty enough? “Nations are built upon the bones of their founders and pioneers, but only to decay and crumble before long….” Thus, Sisyphus represents individual man as well as
- Think of traveling along a country road and seeing “the ruined hulks of a house and once-extensive buildings, all in collapse….” It must have once been a thriving life, with purpose, but it is long-gone. That brings up a sense of sadness, and pointlessness. Maybe the kids live elsewhere, but what for?
- “The two pictures – of Sisyphus and of our own lives, if we look at them from a distance – are in outline the same, and convey to the mind the same image. It is not surprising, then, that men invent ways of denying it, their religions proclaiming a heaven that does not crumble, their hymnals and prayer books declaring a significance to life of which our eyes provide no hint whatever. Even our philosophies portray some permanent and lasting good at which all may aim, from the changeless forms invented by Plato to the beatific vision of St. Thomas and the ideals of permanence contrived by the moderns. When these fail to convince, then earthly ideals such as universal justice and brotherhood are conjured….”
- It is akin to a temporary pacifier.
THE MEANING OF LIFE
- “We noted that Sisyphus’ existence would have meaning if there were some point to his labors, if his efforts ever culminated in something that was not just an occasion for fresh labors of the same kind. But that is precisely the meaning it lacks. And human existence resembles his in that respect. Men do achieve things – they scale their towers and raise their stones to hilltops – but every such accomplishment fades, providing only an occasion for renewed labors of the same kind.” (140)
- Man’s state of mind is key. Say he constructed his temple; he could rest after and enjoy the results. Now, he experiences boredom! No new temples to build! This is essentially absurdity.
- I wonder, are we not freer than Sisyphus because of the fact that the gods have not in fact cursed us; that we are capable of sooo much more? Perhaps we are only really like Sisyphus if we fail to do what Camus suggested: find a decent alternative; picture Sisyphus happy.
- “Now in this picture we have a meaning for Sisyphus’ existence, a point for his prodigious labor, because we have put it there; yet, at the same time, that which is really worthwhile seems to have slipped away entirely. Where before we were presented with the nightmare of eternal and pointless activity, we are now confronted with the hell of its eternal absence!” This I agree does sound terribly absurd. So, is his obsession to roll not kind of a blessing?
- He refers to “our own wills, our deep interest in what we find ourselves doing.” “…the inner compulsion to be doing just what we were put here to do, and to go on doing it forever.” But, life has variety in reality, and we can choose – we weren’t put here to do a particular thing. We might experience pain and degradation and back luck, true, but barring that, does our sea not lie open? We can choose what to do, what to think of it, and technically, when to do something else. We can kill ourselves, or we can rebel, or we can take up a musical instrument. There really is no boulder.
- This is the nearest we may hope to get to heaven, and avoid a genuine hell, he says (141)
- “If the builders of a great and flourishing ancient civilization could somehow return now to see archaeologists unearthing the trivial remnants of what they had once accomplished with such effort…they could indeed ask themselves what the point of it all was, if this is all it finally came to. Yet, it did not seem so to them then, for it was just the building, and not what was finally built, that gave their life meaning.”
- “What was it all worth, if this is the final result?” (141) They worked hard, toward a goal, and “there was no need then to ask questions. There is no more need of them now – the day was sufficient to itself, and so was the life. This is surely the way to look at all of life….”
- Even glow worms, subjectively, have something good. “Their endless activity, which gets nowhere, is just what it is their will to pursue. This is its whole justification and meaning.” Worms catch flies and mate and evolve; birds evolve and fly ad infinitum. Humans do what? What have we evolved to do? What is our brain capable of? What fruits might we pick if we so choose? Far more than any cursed being, or worm.
- “The point of [a human being’s living] is simply to be living, in the manner that it is his nature to be living. He goes through his life building castles, each of these beginning to fade into time as the next is begun;….” Rest would be no salvation.
- “What counts is that one should be able to begin a new task, a new castle…. It counts only because it is there to be done and he has the will to do it.” A philosopher might not see the point, but “[t]he meaning of life is from within us, it is not bestowed from without, and it far exceeds in both beauty and permanence any heaven….”
There you have it: Richard Taylor’s take on Camus’ work, and my analysis of it.
Overall, I am in agreement with him, and see his argument as persuasive.
It can be a bit scary to think of life as meaningless or absurd, but perhaps the best we can do is indeed “begin a new task, a new castle…. It counts only because it is there to be done and [one] has the will to do it.” That might be the best we have (at least, if we are not believers in an afterlife controlled by a good and wise god).
His conclusion seems a bit different than Albert Camus’s, who thinks that it is “psychological suicide” to just go through life even though it is absurd. Camus, I think, believes that to rebel with a sense of “spite” is ideal. If one has to be in a Sisyphean situation, refuse to commit psychological suicide, and instead just make the best of it; try to be noble.
Eric L. Dodson says that if you were, say, put in prison for a long time, “the most defiant thing you could possibly do would be to enjoy the experience, because enjoying the experience actually negates the meaning of your condemnation, which you’re supposed to experience as a terrible form of suffering.” As Camus said, “There is no fate that cannot be overcome by scorn.” Thus, suicide (actual or psychological) is an escape, not a dealing with. It is actually by accepting how absurd life is that we can find the only true path, Camus believed. Incidentally, one of the “values of the wise” is acceptance of the absurd.
Here is another review of The Myth of Sisyphus from Goodreads: “Okay, so the basic premise in this book is that there are two schools of thought involved with becoming conscious as a man. There is one in which you become conscious of God, accepting faith as the channel between this world and the next. Existence is a matter of order, one that is concrete and follows the compelling obligations towards the God whom you commit your faith.
The other option is the absurd, for which this book is written. The problem asks is it possible not to commit suicide in a meaningless world and without faith in God. The absurd man simply states, I and my plight are ephemeral, but I still choose life. Why?
The comparison to Sisyphus is made through this absurd man. A man who is doomed by the gods to perpetually push a rock up a mountain which becomes steeper as it moves up. Eventually, slope takes the better of the effort and as a matter of prescribed definition the rock falls down the hill; to which, the man, Sisyphus, must start again. The absurd man follows the archetype of the Sisyphus myth of which Camus says is “wanting to know,” and in wanting to know realizing that the whole of existence is a continuous repetition, nothing is gained nor loss; “the sin of which the absurd man can feel guilt and innocence.”
This is not existentialism. It is presupposed in an existence without explanation that it is unreasonable to assume anything concrete. As Camus puts it, “the theme of the irrational, as it is conceived by the existentialists, is reason becoming confused and escaping by negating itself.” He confines the absurd to, rather than negation, setting up a “lucid reasoning,” or playground for activity, and merely “noting limits” so that you are free to work within your living situation.
It’s all about cheerful compliance. Realizing you’re in the situation and you’re damned to it. Fuck it. It’s not that I’m lost in this absent void of existence, with no telling of the future and no cause for impetus. I realize that there is a chance, be it strong or tiny, that there is a vastness far beyond the compelling straits of life that leave me wondering “what’s the difference?” If I do anything, I am compelled to the possibility of it not mattering.
Camus was talking about a “lucid indifference” to this. Saying, I live it. It would be a crime to strip my life of the possibility of something. Even if I am a slave I can sing. I give up on morality, a legitimization of my actions that either says this, based on prescribed foundations “okays” it or disallows it. Really, the impetus is for responsibility. What I do in this life is directly reflected in this life. If I steal, then there is recourse.”
I will end with a number of quotations on meaning and fulfillment:
“People are looking for something to believe in. They’re looking for meaning in life. They’re looking to be part of a broader project.”
“I hope you find joy in the great things of life – but also in the little things: a flower, a song, a butterfly on your hand.” ~ Ellen Levine
“No man is a failure who is enjoying life.”
“I have seen many people die because life for them was not worth living. From this I conclude that the question of life’s meaning is the most urgent question of all.”
“In the evening I go out to the desert where you can see the world all around, far away. The hours I spend each evening watching the sun go down – and just enjoying it – and every day I go out and watch it again. I draw, and there is a little painting, and so the days go by.”
“Life is enriched by aspiration and effort, rather than by acquisition and accumulation.”
“Only the consciousness of a purpose that is mightier than any man and worthy of all men can fortify and inspirit and compose the souls of men.”
“He who has never looked on sorrow will never see joy.” ~ Kahlil Gibran
“I see that in the future, things that we have lost in the past will be recovered. There’s a search for those things, a search for spirituality, for nature, for the goddess religions, for family and human bonding. All that has been lost in this industrial era. People are in desperate need of those things.”
“Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?”
“The examples [of Viktor Frankl and Leo Tolstoy] are taken from the writings of luminaries, but discussions I have had with laypersons who have told me that they stopped seeing life as meaningful also suggest that meaningfulness is based on value. For example, I talked with parents who told me that ever since they lost their child in a car accident, they had found it hard to see life as meaningful. There was something very valuable in their lives, and when this was gone, they experienced life as meaningless. They would see life as meaningful again only if they found other things that they took to be of sufficiently high value.” ~ Ido Landau
“Nobody can have the consolations of religion or philosophy unless he has first experienced their desolations.”
“In the work [the art] we create, there is always the possibility that others will find some meaning they have been seeking, that some new light may be cast on their darkness, or some thrill of recognition may occur as they sense their own feelings in the piece we have created.”
You will find about a thousand quotes on meaning and fulfillment and existentialism and free will here in The Wisdom Archive, always free here on Values of the Wise!