Giving Meaning to Meaninglessness
How do we give meaning to a meaninglessness life, and what gives our life its purpose? So often in life people seek to find the meaning in their predicaments, often in situations involving suffering. What I will do in this essay is argue that we must have faith in our ability to make decisions and argue that we are in charge of giving meaning to our existence. I will begin by explaining the concept of absurdity as it is illustrated by Albert Camus in his novel, The Stranger. From there, I will discuss Friedrich Nietzsche’s warning to atheists about the moral meaninglessness he hopes they will avoid. Then I will begin to offer my solution to meaninglessness by way of examples. I will use the examples of Albert Camus’, The Myth of Sisyphus, followed by an example from the book of Genesis, and lastly I will finish with Kierkegaard’s look at Abraham and Isaac. Then I will reiterate that we are the ones who must give meaning to our own lives, and take confidence in our own decisions.
French existentialist, Albert Camus, offers a good example of the silence and emptiness one is met with when one seeks meaning in life, hoping some higher power will offer it to him. In Camus’ novel, The Stranger, the main character, Meursault, is presented as being somewhat amoral, and highly complacent. In the plot of the novel, Meursault kills an Arab man, and is then put on trial. Throughout the trial, his own lawyer, and the prosecution are trying to come to some explanation of why Meursault committed the murder, while not even Meursault himself can explain his actions. The basis of the novel is rooted in absurdity. Camus wants us to be left guessing as to why Meursault murdered the Arab, his point being to say that sometimes things happen for no reason.
Another piece of existentialism that I want to draw attention to now is Friedrich Nietzsche’s, Parable of the Madman. In this parable, a madman runs into town, carrying a lit lantern in broad daylight. He comes to a marketplace where atheists have gathered and he cries out that he is seeking God. The atheists mock him a bit, after which this scene follows:
“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘Whither is God?’ he cried; ‘I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
’How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.’” (Modern History Sourcebook)
Here, Nietzsche is attempting to draw attention to the contradictions within atheism that existed in his time, some of which continue on even today. Nietzsche is saying that, on the one hand they’ve liberated themselves from a controlling Heavenly force, yet they still adhere to Him in their morals. Even though society has declared itself secular, all of its concepts of good and evil are grounded in a Christian framework which derives its meaning from God. The contradiction is that these atheists whom the madman is talking to, on the one hand profess not to believe in God, while on the other ascribing to the moral values that come out of a framework which defers to Him for all things.
What Nietzsche hopes will happen, and he is simultaneously warning atheists about, is that they will abandon the religious framework of morality they are currently using. The warning is that, once atheists realize that all of their moral meanings come from a God deferring framework, they will suddenly find themselves in a state of moral ambivalence. Suddenly what was handed to them as right and wrong no longer work for them.
It is in this moment, that they will have to come to the conscious realization that they must decide, what is good and evil. They must create that meaning, drawing from within their own selves. If they look outward to the universe, hoping that a higher power will tell them they’re on the right track, then all they will get in return is silence. If they continue to seek answers out of this silence, then they will be living in the absurd world that Albert Camus paints in his novel, The Stranger, where things happen without any definitive cause. Whereas, if they take the time to recognize their own experience, and name it, definitively, then they will be able to create their own purpose from scratch and in so doing they will no longer be lost.
Albert Camus is highly fascinated by the character, Sisyphus, from ancient Greek mythology. In the version of the mythology that Camus discusses, he explains it as follows:
“It is said also that Sisyphus, being near to death, rashly wanted to test his wife’s love. He ordered her to cast his unburied body into the middle of the public square. Sisyphus woke up in the underworld. And there, annoyed by an obedience so contrary to human love, he obtained from Pluto permission to return to earth in order to chastise his wife. But when he had seen again the face of this world, enjoyed water and sun, warm stones and the sea, he no longer wanted to go back to the infernal darkness. Recalls, signs of anger, warnings were of no avail. Many years more he lived facing the curve of the gulf, the sparkling sea, and the smiles of the earth. A decree of the gods was necessary. Mercury came and seized the impudent man by the collar and, snatching him from his joys, led him forcibly back to the underworld, where his rock was ready for him.” (BW, 490)
Sisyphus is sentenced by the gods to roll this rock up a hill, only to watch it roll back down again, and repeat the process once again, forevermore. Camus is fascinated by the absurdness of this story. There is a sense of meaninglessness to the punishment, since it is in no way corrective (Sisyphus will never again be faced with an opportunity to do what got him in trouble with the gods in the first place). Camus wants us to focus on that moment when Sisyphus is able to reflect to himself regarding his situation, at that moment when the rock has rolled downhill and he is walking down toward it. Ultimately, Sisyphus is happy, as he rolls the rock back up the hill joyfully. This is how Sisyphus defeats the punishment that has been placed before him. However there is more to it than that, he isn’t just defeating the punishment, he is re-defining it. The gods gave that eternal task to Sisyphus under one purpose, and Sisyphus has given to it a different purpose. What Sisyphus has done here, is rather than looking up to the sky, and asking why he must endure this punishment, he has created a meaning for his predicament on his own. He looked inward for meaning, rather than outward, for the purpose of his life.
Now I would like to draw your attention to the Bible, in the book of Genesis 2:19:
“And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.” (Cambridge Ed.)
Here Adam is naming the animals, which is a very significant thing. By naming the animals, Adam is also defining them, in a sense determining their purpose, at least from his own perspective. Notice that when Adam is presented with a beast, Adam does not look to God for hints on what the correct name is, this is because Adam isn’t seeking the correct name; he is giving the animals their correct names. Adam is giving meaning to creation, and he is doing so by taking that meaning out of himself and he is not waiting for advice either from God or the rest of creation on as to what that meaning he gives should be.
Kierkegaard also bears a little bit of relevance on this subject. In his, Fear and Trembling, he talks about the conundrum faced by Abraham, when God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Kierkegaard uses this story to elaborate on the difference between what is moral and what is ethical. In this moral dilemma that Abraham is facing, he is placed in a situation where, because God is the one causing the moral dilemma, Abraham is on his own to decide. There isn’t any higher moral authority that Abraham can look to for guidance. If Abraham were to have no confidence or faith in himself, he would be lost in that moment. He cannot look to his son Isaac for guidance because Isaac is an equal to Abraham in terms of his moral authority, on other words Isaac isn’t a moral authority for Abraham.
Kierkegaard writes, regarding Abraham:
“He acts by virtue of the absurd, for it is precisely the absurd that he as the single individual is higher than the universal. This paradox cannot be mediated, for as soon as Abraham begins to do so, he has to confess that he was in a spiritual trial, and if that is the case, he will never sacrifice Isaac, or if he did sacrifice Isaac, then in repentance he must come back to the universal. He gets Isaac back again by virtue of the absurd. Therefore, Abraham is at no time a tragic hero but is something entirely different, either a murderer or a man of faith.” (BW, 11)
Again, we see here that, while there is an absurdity to Abraham’s situation, Abraham is able to navigate this ambivalence, because he is able to decide and he is able to have faith in his own decisions. Abraham obeys God’s commandment with confidence, rather than timidity. In Abraham’s decision he becomes, “either a murderer or a man of faith”, but in either case these are meanings given to his predicament which are ultimately of his choosing. Abraham encounters the absurd and he does not look to the sky asking why he must suffer. If Abraham wanted to, he could see the absurdness of the situation he is in and decide his suffering is meaningless, but he does not. Rather than regard his suffering as meaningless, Abraham gives meaning to his suffering through his faith. He is not looking for some other high-power to confer upon him what is his purpose, instead he chooses and maintains his faith in his ability to make decisions and in so doing he chooses his own purpose.
What we have seen in these examples is that when we are faced with the absurd, we must defeat it by calling out our experience and naming it. When we do this, we cannot look outwards, hoping for the universe or some higher-power to tell us if we’ve named correctly. Rather, we have the ability to define and provide meaning to our own experience, and in so doing we can give meaning to the meaningless. Our lives are meaningless only if we are expecting our purpose in life to be given to us by some authority. What we must do, is make our own choices, with faith in our ability to decide. We must create our own purpose to give meaning to our existence.
- Marino, Gordon Daniel. Basic Writings of Existentialism. New York: Modern Library, 2004. Print.
- Halsall, Paul. “Internet History Sourcebooks.” Internet History Sourcebooks. N.p., Aug. 1997. Web. 15 Mar. 2013. <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/nietzsche-madman…;.
- The Holy Bible: King James Version. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011. Print.