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Friday, September 16, 2011

The Meaning of Life

According to the medieval legend, the philosopher’s stone was capable of turning base metals into gold or silver. The philosophical articles now being featured by the New York Times under the title, The Stone, work in the reverse order. They take the gold of the Western philosophical tradition and turn it into the base metal of post-modern noodlings. Take, for example, the recent cogitations on the meaning of life by Clemson philosopher, Todd May:

The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre thought that, without God, our lives are bereft of meaning.  He tells us in his essay “Existentialism,” “if God does not exist, we find no values or commands to turn to which legitimize our conduct.  So, in the bright realm of values, we have no excuse behind us, nor justification before us.”  On this view, God gives our lives the values upon which meaning rests. And if God does not exist, as Sartre claims, our lives can have only the meaning we confer upon them.

This seems wrong on two counts. First, why would the existence of God guarantee the meaningfulness of each of our lives? Is a life of unremitting drudgery or unrequited struggle really redeemed if there’s a larger plan, one to which we have no access, into which it fits?  That would be small compensation for a life that would otherwise feel like a waste — a point not lost on thinkers like Karl Marx, who called religion the “opium of the people.” 

Keeping in mind that Christianity is doubtless one of the chief, if not the chief, target of this passage, the ignorance of it is astonishing. “Is a life of unremitting drudgery or unrequited struggle really redeemed if there’s a larger plan, one to which we have no access, into which it fits?” Well Pope Saint Cornelius, whose Memorial we celebrate today, certainly felt his life had been redeemed, even when he was dying a martyr’s death in exile at the hands of the Emperor Gallus. Martyrdom does tend to put a damper on one’s earthly expectations, yet Pope Saint Cornelius did not repine. He knew what gave his life true meaning, and what was so much chaff. He would have been appalled by the suggestion that the sad ending of his life called into question its meaningfulness. Indeed, he would have said that it was precisely his death that made his life meaningful. But Professor May blithely skips by the thoughts and feelings of two thousand years of Christian witness.

What’s especially curious is that Professor May’s remarks in the quoted passage begin by hypothesizing knowledge of God’s existence (“why would the existence of God guarantee the meaningfulness, etc.”), but then, a sentence later, he breezily refers to the “larger plan” affirmed by Christianity and other religions as one “to which we have no access.” So he begins by trying to imagine the issue from a theistic viewpoint, but then has to interject that, of course, “we” have no access to a God with plans for our benefit. Who is this “we”? The enlightened readers of the Times, no doubt.

But there is another “we.” The company among which Saints Cornelius and Cyprian stand. In this fellowship, the drudgery and struggle endured in this life, which from a certain point of view, and not necessarily an irreligious one (think of Job), seem to make of life a waste, are, as joined to Christ, the wellsprings of meaning, satisfaction, joy. 

*The image above is from the Catacomb of Saint Callistus outside Rome, where many of the early popes, as well as Saint Cecilia, are buried.


  1. It isn't shocking that he brings up Marx to counter Sartre. It is like listening to a Philo 101 "Professor" only to find out he is a PhD candidate trying to earn a few extra bucks.

    I immediately thought of Job, and I am glad you referenced him. This is the type of thinking that many students, if not most, get when they spend thousands of dollars on a "degree" from most universities. I never thought that I would be this type of parent, but I will do my best to steer my children towards institutions with a philosophical base rooted in truth.

    I always go back and forth on my decision not to transfer from my atheistic State university to either Hillsdale or a Catholic U. I think that there is something to "making it out of" a place that teaches in the quoted sections mindset, but I also wonder if I wouldn't have better been served at a place that at least strives from the truth?

  2. I'm tempted to commend the Times for at least engaging in some semblance of philosophy - however, I'm loath to read the rest of this article. Alas, I must.

    His confusion is plain: he'd like very much to declare religion bad (what else does one do in the times?) and so imports Marx's famous dictum, but neglects to follow the trajectory of attacking Christianity from the "wish fulfillment" angle. Instead, he doubts that Christianity even fulfills wishes, or compensates us in our "unrequited struggles" - and in doing so, confounds himself. Eternal glory and communion with the omniscient and all-loving creator of the universe - that hardly seems like it needs qualification as "worth it or not." Is this even a question? No thinker with any training in theology would wonder about whether heaven was worth it after all - though he might attack the notion of desiring, "inventing," or living for the perfection of heaven altogether.

    At any rate I'll have to read the article, but thanks for posting. I'm sure I'll find much to complain about in "the stone"!


  3. I agree, Matthew. I want to commend the Times for devoting such substantial space to philosophical arguments, it's really quite remarkable, but alas and unsurprisingly, as Joseph K comments, all they give us is the same swill being served up at so many universities today.