As we each navigate through our troublesome existences, we do, at times take a few moments to stop and reflect. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to really think about what it is we’re doing with the time we’ve been given. What do I want from life? What is my purpose? What is the meaning of it all? These are all questions that, on occasion, we can become prisoners to from the moment our heads hit the pillow to when we are spared by the sweet reprieve of sleep.
Anxiety-inducing thoughts beat down on any sense of certainty we’ve ever had and we fall into the trap of questioning everything we’ve ever known. Our days are packed to the brim with activity, leisure and information and as a result, we don’t have the time to process our thoughts in an appropriate manner. When it’s time to rest, we end up having to make sense of the events of the day, with our minds racing to often premature conclusions.
One consistent thought that we seem to revisit is the idea of meaning. Our existence is complicated. It is compiled of many layers and intricacies that to many of us seem unfathomable, leading to the assumption that we are simply not equipped with the mental tools to understand their nature. We’ve grown up in an era where we are taught to approach scenarios in a rational manner. When we are then faced with ideas that cannot be logically explained, many of us are faced with a dilemma. When so much of our day to day lives can be explained, it seems bizarre that our own existence doesn’t have a concrete answer that we can turn to. At our lowest points, we question why we are here, what our purpose is and whether there is any point to what we do.
Whether we care to admit it or not, the vast majority of us have fallen into the trap of searching for meaning. For some, solace is found through religion; a topic that for decades now has seen an evident decline in its popularity as the primary way of life. The emergence of scientific thinking has given rise to the concept of Atheism, and a move towards finding a more ‘logical’ or scientific answer for our existence. This body of opinion has emerged and developed as a follow on from Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. The opinions of Darwin have led to a revaluation from people on what to believe and as a result, the search for meaning has become a tad more complicated. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, the percentage of the British Population which does not attach themselves to any religious belief rose from 31.4% to 50.6% between 1983 and 2013. A prevalent modern view is that religion represents backwards ideologies that have brought more harm than good for the world. Whether there is any credibility to that statement is a debate for another time, but what cannot be denied is that the concept gives people hope. Religion blesses its subjects with the certainty that no modern scientific school of thought can provide. It acts as a moral compass, with rules set out in religious texts acting as guidelines for its disciples to follow. Therein lies the answer to some; the idea that there is a higher power to whom we answer to. A being that keeps our existence in check is a comforting idea and one which a large majority of the population abides to.
But what about the rest? On the report of Pew Research Center’s study of the world’s nations we find that 16% of the global population does not affiliate itself with a religion. That is objectively a large number of people who do not have a definitive answer to their existence. So why is this an issue? We are living in an unprecedented period in modern human history. For most of us, the last six months have been unlike any we have experienced before. Idleness has become a major part in our lives, and idleness breeds passivity. We are then challenged with the impossible task of suppressing our minds from wandering. It is therefore inevitable that we are led to the slightly uncomfortable inquiry into meaning. While the rise of Atheism is the primary contributor to the increase in uncertainty, a case can be made for the increased deference of traditional life scripts. More people are following different life plans. There has been an evident decline in the number of people staying in their local areas. The International Organization for Migration estimated that approximately 3 million people are moving into cities every week. 54% of the world’s population lives in cities as of today, a stark increase from 30% in 1950. We can then infer that there are less people staying in their towns and basing their lives around their local towns and villages. The idea of going to work there, heading to the local church, mosque, temple or synagogue every week and being an active member of the community is one that is not as popular in this day and age. For the majority of people in these situations, they are fulfilling their purpose by contributing, building and developing a community. The shift to the urban world makes it significantly more difficult to consolidate and solidify a sense of meaning, with the community atmosphere not as prevalent in major cities.
The idea of meaning is one that has existed from the very foundation of humanity. Renowned Ancient Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, believed that everything had an essence, creating the concept which is today known as essentialism. The philosophical definition of essence is as follows:
‘A property or group of properties of something without which it would not exist or be what it is.’
In simpler terms, it can be defined as the intangible feature, which if not present, means we are something else completely. Plato and Aristotle believed that our essence is predetermined and is instilled within us even before birth. The takeaway from this school of thought is that our essence is our meaning; we were born to be a certain thing and we must aim to adhere to our essence.
For millennia, this was a concept which was universally accepted whilst also being relatively feasible. However, the last few centuries have seen the rise of numerous theories and ideas with several philosophers scurrying to give their two cents on the matter. One of the more significant of these was 19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who paved the way for the ground-breaking albeit extreme proposition of Nihilism. Nihilism can be explained with, at first look, a slightly bleak definition. It is the belief in ‘the ultimate meaninglessness of life.’ In his book ‘Will to Power’, written in 1883, Nietzsche says
“every belief, every considering something-true is necessarily false because there is no true world.”
He refused to believe that there was any objective structure in this world. Any meaning that it does have, is the meaning that we choose to give it. Therefore, Nihilism can be seen as the abandonment of any sort of social order in the world, with everything that we consider to be true being baseless in its foundation. A more thorough delve into Nihilism can leave the subject feeling an immense sense of purposelessness. The revelation that any sense of order is man-made, and therefore collapsible can very easily be a reason for despair. Take any question that you may ask yourselves. If you keep asking why to every answer you give, you will find yourself at the inevitable point where there are no answers. That is the basis of Nihilism. So why is it being spoken of here? A concept of such bleakness would surely just hinder the search for meaning, because it assumes that there is no real answer. And that is exactly it. There is no answer. At least, none that can satisfy every single one of us. This brings us onto the idea of the ‘Ubermensch’, a word used by Nietzsche which roughly translates to ‘Superman’. The word relates to the idea of overcoming this sense of purposelessness. Instead of succumbing to the lack of given meaning, an ‘Ubermensch’ attempts to instil his/her own meaning into their lives. The responsibility is given to the owner to make life what they will. Nietzsche’s intention with his work was to give his readers the initiative ‘to be who they really are.’ While some of his opinions can be viewed as extreme and are subject to constant scrutiny (such as his strong disdain for religion), Nietzsche’s ‘Ubermensch’ is a concept that we can all incorporate into our daily lives. We must attempt to overcome any sense of purposelessness by understanding that we are responsible for whatever purpose we choose to follow.
However, the primary idea of essence was later revisited by Jean-Paul Sartre, a French philosopher in the mid-20th century, who arguably gives us a more conclusive take on the topic. Sartre felt that we were born with no hardwired or predetermined purpose. Rather, we are given existence first, and it is then our responsibility to find our essence through our lives. This idea acts as the foundation for Existentialism, the thought that we are ‘painfully free’, as Satre puts it, and the paths that our lives follow are solely determined by what our intentions are. While we may succumb to positions of authority to lead us on to a set path to follow, we must understand that they do not have the answers either. Any answers that they do have could not possibly apply to our lives, because they can only really be incorporated by the owners of those answers. He goes against the theory presented by Plato and Aristotle and argues that existence precedes essence, as existence is required to allow us to achieve our essence.
There is a whole lot in these ideas that we can use to incorporate into our own lives. While many of us can be prisoners to our inquiry of meaning, it is important to understand that there is no outcome that can lead to our contentment. However, a delve into the works of Nietzsche and Sartre may allow us to come to terms with an answerless world. Instead of searching for answers, we must take the initiative to create and find purpose ourselves. It could in the form of religion, creativity, artistic expression, social justice or any other way of life. There is no real authority or answers we can turn to, and while some may see that as a curse, we must choose to view it as a blessing.