I stumbled upon an old essay yesterday. I wrote it 5 years ago in school. The essay was for a philosophy class called Intro to Ethics. I liked the class a lot, partly because I did well in it. This essay got an A. It was about finding meaning in life. I called it Finding Meaning in the Absurd. It is when life seems most absurd that it becomes most difficult and important to find meaning in it. For many people around the world, life has never felt quite as absurd as it does right now. This felt like a serendipitous time for me to stumble upon my old essay, and a sensible time for me to share it. I hope you find it worth your time to read.
Finding Meaning in the Absurd
Many people feel sometimes as though life is absurd. Thomas Nagel suggests this uncomfortable feeling is rooted by the fact that people inevitably take some things seriously in life, but that even the things they treat most seriously are at any moment open to their own incredible and inescapable human capacity to doubt. Nagel argues that when these two mutually unresolvable traits of seriousness and doubt collide, people become momentarily consumed by the feeling that life is absurd. Many manage to ignore this feeling and continue with their commitments through struggles with a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives. Albert Camus suggests that the human struggle to greater heights alone is enough to satisfy a person to feel meaning in life. Susan Wolf counters Camus’ argument stating that the struggle itself is not enough. Wolf believes that to find meaning in life, people must actively engage in projects that are objectively considered valuable. If Nagel and Wolf’s points are defensible, then to find the most meaning in life, one must actively engage in commitments that contain objective value least open to doubt, and in absence of the ability to make that distinction, one must choose the commitments they have the greatest passions to actively engage with.
Thomas Nagel raises the disturbing question of whether it is even possible to find meaning in a human life. He supports the idea that human life contains a sense of groundlessness but disagrees with the most common forms of reasoning for it. Many believe that this feeling of groundlessness is due to the fact that “what we do now won’t matter in a million years” or that, “we’re just too small in comparison with an infinite universe”. Others suggest that human life is meaningless because “we all die eventually” but even this idea does not seem to be rational as a possible cause for the feeling that life can sometimes seem absurd. More logically, Nagel argues that people feel on occasion that life is absurd when there is a “collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary, or open to doubt.” (TA, 718) In other words, humans must inevitably be serious about some things, and yet we also have this inescapable capacity to doubt absolutely anything, including our most core beliefs and commitments which we treat with the utmost seriousness. Even the most ironic person in the world, for instance, must be serious about being ironic, and even the most seemingly certain observation such as, “the sky is blue”, could be theoretically doubted and considered an illusion or something of that nature. According to Nagel, it is the irreconcilability of these two inescapable human inherencies, seriousness and doubt, that gives people the occasional feeling that life is absurd.
Albert Camus considers the famous story of Sisyphus to be a metaphor for the human life, which he views as a repetition of struggles that has no ultimate resolve. He goes on to argue that “the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart” and so “one must imagine Sisyphus happy” as he rolls a boulder up a hill for all of eternity. (TMOS, 123) Susan Wolf counters Camus’ position with a more demanding view. She argues that there are two interrelated criteria for a meaningful life. The first, a passionate attachment to some commitment or “active engagement” as she calls it, is satisfied by Sisyphus and his rock rolling. The second of Wolf’s criteria, however, deems Sisyphus’ rock rolling insufficient to provide meaning in his life. She argues that “meaningful lives are lives of active engagement in projects of worth” (EE, 458), defining worth as an objective consideration of value, independent of the individual’s preferences and enjoyments. While it is difficult to objectively make the distinction that some engagements are more valuable than others, such a process can be more easily accomplished in considering two extremes.
Consider an example in which two thirty-year-old twin brothers have grown up very differently since a time when they both excelled incredibly in computer engineering during their first few years of college. From that point forward, one of the brothers committed nearly the entirety of his days to playing World of Warcraft on his computer. The other brother spent the decade after graduation inventing revolutionary software while working for a non-profit organization and improving technology on a global scale. The first brother wasted his talents and engagement on fantasy gameplay while the second actively engaged in a valuable career and maintained phenomenal relationships as he kept in touch regularly with family and friends. In this example, the second brother clearly pursued his natural tendencies and most valuable strengths to live his life actively engaged in projects of worth. Contrarily, his detached brother spent years absorbed in a fictional gameplay that addicted him so heavily that he failed to ever realize his playing of the game contained virtually no value outside of the game. Logically, it is safe to assume that most would objectively consider a career spent revolutionizing technology and maintaining close relationships to be more valuable than a devotion to World of Warcraft, and in this way, one could objectively make the distinction that the second brother experienced a more meaningful life.
In other instances, the distinction of objective value is not so simple to make, but rather impossible. In these cases, when the objective value of varying activities is more difficult to determine, one must choose to pursue the commitment they are most passionate about and thus most inclined to actively engage with. Consider a second hypothetical in which a college senior has a passion for writing and teaching others but also happens to excel in finance and business, though the latter is less engaging of an activity for him. In aiming to choose a career, the young man receives offers to work at three of the top banks, but has difficulty escaping his feeling of doubt that aside from the money, a career in business will only lead to a long career of boring work. He understands that he has the potential to be a phenomenal businessman but does not believe he could fully engage himself in the career and suspects he might end up simply going through the motions. He has no feasible route to begin a writing career but he contemplates the idea of writing on the side while pursuing a career in teaching because he is truly passionate about both writing and teaching. The task of objectively assigning more value to the writing and teaching option as opposed to the banking alternative is difficult, but the confidence that the young man has in his passion and ability to truly engage in writing and teaching gives that option the distinct advantage. This sense of certainty regarding one’s passion and ability to engage becomes the key to finding meaning in life when the values of opposing ways to move forward are objectively indistinguishable.
There may be no issue more central to the human life than the determination of how one can go about finding meaning within it. Nagel and Wolf provide a framework through which one can defend a system to guide decisions towards creating the most meaningful life possible. One must first consider, in the moment of any major decision, which option contains objective value that is least open to doubt. The second consideration must regard the level of one’s passion and capability of actively engaging in the relevant commitment or activity. Finally, the decision that will provide the most meaning for the individual’s life will be the one in which the objective value or personal passion is superior for one option in comparison to the other. In a world of uncertainty, one must strive to prioritize objective value and passion in an effort to choose the most meaningful path for a life, and pursue it with vigor.
Camus, Albert. “The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. Justin O’Brien.” New York: Vintage (1955): 119-123.
Nagel, Thomas. “The absurd.” The Journal of Philosophy (1971): 716-727.
Wolf, Susan. “Happiness and meaning: two aspects of the good life.” Social Philosophy and Policy 14 (1997). (via Exploring Ethics: An Introductory Anthology)