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Wednesday, 28 October 2009

What is the Meaning and Purpose of Life?

William Shakespeare (Chandos Portrait)
William Shakespeare.
(Chandos Portrait)
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.
(W. Shakespeare, 'Macbeth'. Act v, scene 5)

A masterly description of the everlasting human grief at the futility of life. Indeed, there are two things that inexorably invalidate any purpose and meaning life can have: ageing and death (and all the suffering they cause). Still, I've been musing about this eternal and most transcendental question humans asked themselves as self-aware beings for as long as I can remember. It hurts to think that our life has no Meaning or Purpose at all, so we desperately try to at least build up an illusion. Throughout the history of mankind the belief in afterlife and eternal soul has arguably been the only source of desperate hope that what we do in our lives signifies something. Being unable to see the bigger picture, all we can do is merely speculate why we have been dragged into this vale of tears.
First and foremost, there’s no universal answer or single purpose that would suit everyone, but rather each to their own. Depending on the frame of reference we use, the purpose of life can be considered either "local" or "global" similarly to the parameters in the relativity.
Locally, the purpose of our life is, in part, defined, by our intellect, while in the celebrated passage above Shakespeare deals with "global" purpose. In other words, there’s a difference between objective and subjective meaning/purpose of life – what it is for you and what it is for the universe (or someone else). So each life has its unique purpose.

The most primitive meaning and purpose life can have is that of animals (well, inanimate things and any matter in general also have purpose – to provide the setting for the big show).
Their main aim in life is to survive and keep existing. Therefore the only thing they have to worry about is to satisfy their needs, that is, to feed (which includes the disposal of resulting waste), mate/reproduce, sleep and escape from predators.

Most bipeds follow the same pattern, just instead of wilderness we are in the middle of a concrete-metal-glass jungle, surrounded by sophisticated toys, such as cars, mobile phones, computers etc, and use TOOLS to do basically the same things (eat, sleep, mate, escape from predators).
While animals can do fine (and in fact are much better off) without humans, we can’t do without them (although we aren't fully aware of the fact). Animals are key to the natural balance of this planet’s ecosystems, apart from greatly contributing to its beauty, therefore their existence is the fulfilment of their purpose.

As for the humans, we are supposed to make something more than that of our lives, otherwise there would be absolutely no point in possessing a conscious intellect.
Could you think of any reason why God or who/whatever created us would go to the trouble of bringing into existence such a destructive, harmful and deficient species, when both the universe and this planet get by very well without any intelligent life at all (as they did for millions of years), if it weren't for some higher purpose? Let me know if you can.
Over the centuries the sages (like Shakespeare) claimed, and that's probably the most reasonable view, that we are here to provide a spectacle for God (and we do indeed make a spectacle of ourselves), or simply a game to play for more sophisticated beings (aliens?).
Well, others say it’s all due to a blind chance (the Big Bang? But who or what blew it up?), however I think any blind chance has a sighted drive — a sophisticated invisible "guidance system".
Chance is an unconscious necessity, probably determined by the circumstances and the individual's nature. In the end it all depends on the angle you look at the issue from — you just have to choose the purpose that most suits you.

The highest purpose and meaning a life can have is artistic creation. Lives of great artists were full of elevated meaning, since they imitated, though obviously on a smaller scale, the Maker’s activity. The principal difference, in my humble opinion, between humans and animals lies in the attempts to understand the world around us and the ability to create, not only tools, as some animals can do that too, but masterpieces of art (the latter belongs to the past – modern art definitely blurs the distinction between animal and human creations).

This doesn't mean that lesser mortals’ lives have no purpose at all.
Meaning and purpose of life. The dawn of new era
Meaning and purpose of life.
The dawn of new era.
When I was a child I imagined this life as a school where we had to get directions to a mountain only from the peak of which the true purpose of our lives could be seen or revealed, and logically enough only the best students would manage to climb it, but it could take more than one life to get to the mountain. While we are in the valley or at the foot of the mountain we can’t see what’s behind it – that is, the purpose of our existence.
Well, such was my childish take on the issue. Now I go by a much simpler and more succinct rule:

Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson
‘To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.‘Robert Louis Stevenson
There's a catch though, does the same apply to murderers and other wrongdoers?

So the best thing those of us who aren't endowed with great (I mean GREAT, not commercially profitable) talents can do is to try to develop whatever skills we possess to the best of our abilities, or at least acquire some, as soon as these skills aren't used to harm others (or so I believe).

‘Happiness consists in exercising without hindrance one’s abilities, whatever they may be.’ (Aristotle)

Once again, what about the malevolent people? What if their only ability consists in doing harm?
For religious (either lapsed or practising) people the supreme purpose of life is to seek God.
All these different paths lead to the same end — personal development and the joy of learning something new up until your death for those with the ability to do so.

That said, at the end of the day the only real purpose of life is to love, to feel the sea breeze, to listen to bird songs, to go to beautiful places, to build your home, to run across the poppy field, to sail etc, etc, etc, and, most importantly, to put passion into whatever you do — that is, to have fun!

In some circumstances life doesn't seem to make any sense at all (for instance, diseases); in such cases it depends entirely on a person's courage, aspirations, even fear of death that makes most of us cling to life at any cost, and ability to find something enjoyable that would take them out of themselves and keep their mind off the pain and suffering, although it simply serves to prolong the agony. It’s really hard to find any subjective meaning of the life of someone in an irreversible coma, for example. Death isn't always the worst finale.
At the other end of the scale are those whose only purpose in life is to screw others. Many individuals are apparently sent to mutually punish each other.

Socrates (Pio-Clementino)
Socrates. (Pio-Clementino)
There are cases when one person’s life has a meaning as long as it serves or helps someone else, I call this objective purpose — it seems the whole humanity exists as a background for the realisation of a few great persons and enjoyment of the well-off, and ultimately some alien race's or The Maker's entertainment.

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages.
As You Like It (W. Shakespeare)

To sum up, life has no raison d'être, no other purpose than the meaning you give it, which is brilliantly defined in my favourite work by F. Nietzche, The Birth of Tragedy:

"For this one thing must above all be clear to us, to our humiliation and exaltation, that the entire comedy of art is not at all performed, say, for our betterment and culture, and that we are just as little the true authors of this art-world : rather we may assume with regard to ourselves, that it's true author uses us as pictures and artistic projections, and that we have our highest dignity in our significance as works of art, for only as an aesthetic phenomenon is existence and the world eternally justified while, of course, our consciousness of this our specific significance hardly differs from the kind of consciousness that the soldiers painted on canvas have of the battle represented thereon. Hence, all our knowledge of art is at bottom quite illusory, because, as knowing persons, we are not one and identical with the Being who, as the sole author and spectator of this comedy of art, prepares a perpetual entertainment for himself. Only in so far as the genius in the act of artistic production coalesces with this primordial artist of the world, does he get a glimpse of the eternal essence of art, for in this state he is, in a marvellous manner, like the weird picture of the fairy-tale which can at will turn its eyes and behold itself; he is now at once subject and object, at once poet, actor, and spectator."

So if you can't avoid being part of the show, at least make sure you enjoy your own performance; be happy while you have a chance to find a subjective purpose of your life, make the most of every minute and have fun without harming other people or the environment, and above all don't take life too seriously — however long it may last, life's short and time is swift. 
Those who cherish ambitions of reaching the top notch of the scale, though, could adopt the following quote as their motto:
'The end of life is to be like God, and the soul following God will be like Him.'Socrates

Whatever you put love into is the purpose of your life.

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  1. I came to a similar conclusion that what ever you like is your life's goal. Sometime back I tried to my hands on the question and wrote a post on my blog (Or rather created the blog for the purpose of this post).

    I belive its a new way to look at the question and never heard that someone thought about the question like this ever before.

    Think you might be interested. The web address is

    In case you visit the Blog please leave the comment if it makes sense or even if its complete bullshit

  2. You've just quoted my favourite speech from Shakespeare, although I don't see it merely as an expression of grief. When I recite it (and I know it by heart), I feel that the human spirit transcends tragedy.

  3. Actually, any human life is in itself a tragedy for the mere fact that it's finite and in the big scheme of things almost certainly has little significance.


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