The Meaning Of Life
( Originally Published 1903 )
This is the question of questions. A man must be wholly superficial or wholly animal who does not at some time in his life ask what is the meaning of his life. Yet, sad to say, most men end their lives without finding an answer. Some repeat, in their darker moods, the melancholy confession of a mediaeval Paytone+One: "I live, but know not how long; I die, but know not when; I depart, but know not whither. How is it possible forme to fancy myself happy!" Others drive from their minds these morbid reflections which, as they say,"lead to nothing," and repeat: "Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die."
Even among what we call cultivated people, where education has made a profounder view accessible, the number of those who find the meaning of life is by no means large. After some vain and superficial attempts to save themselves they yield at last, and often far too soon, to the pitiful programme of self-indulgence. And what is their next step? It is to pursue consistently this programme. But there is not long left the health which is necessary for this life of eating and drinking, and then in throngs they make their pilgrimages, the women at the front, to Pastor Kneipp, or Dr. Metzger, or some other in-fallible healer, hoping for a quick restoration and a second chance to waste their lives.
Still others there are who have not the means to adopt this plan of life. Many of these seek a substitute for it in some form of social scrambling; or if this fails, commit themselves to the new doctrine of economics, according to which the only real problem of life is the "stomach problem," and which teaches that in satisfying the stomach the social ideals of the race will be also satisfied.
Still others there are who are more subtle and more critical. They have come to see how impracticable are all these schemes to redeem life from its troubles. Thus, after they have tried many half-way measures, they come at last to the confession of the wisest of kings: "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity." They commit themselves to scepticism concerning any meaning in life and to the worship of non-existence. To them the end of life is to be Nirvana, annihilation, the forgetfulness of that which life has been ; and they fancy that they have attained a very noble attitude toward life when, after many years of sharp contention with their healthy human nature, which steadily protests against these subtle negations, they are able at last to repeat the words of the Hindoo sage:
"Through birth and rebirth's endless round I ran and sought, but never found
Who framed and built this house of clay. What misery!—birth for ay and ay!
0 builder! thee at last I see!
Ne'er shalt thou build again for me.
Thy rafters all are broken now, Demolished lies thy ridgepole, low.
My heart, demolished too, I ween, An end of all desire hath seen."
Such is the final word of their philosophy. Neither light nor hope is left for human life. He does the best who earliest recognizes the hopelessness of life and hastens to its end.
Human nature, however, is so abounding in life and so eager for life that except in those transitory and morbid conditions which we have come to describe as fin de siecle moods, it is never long content to interpret experience in terms of universal bankruptcy. On the contrary, it insists that the problem of philosophy must be in the future, as it has been in the past, the shedding of light on the meaning of life. It is a problem which philosophy has often answered with mere phrases, which have brought no meaning or comfort to the troubled heart of man, and it is not surprising that since the climax of this hollow formalism was reached in Hegel, there has been a natural distrust of philosophy.
And what is it in this speculative philosophy which creates this distrust? It is its attempt to regard the universe as self-explanatory. Here, even at the present time, is one of the fundamental propositions of most philosophizing, against which no argument may be permitted. It seems an essential assumption of philosophy; since if other ways of explanation of the universe were superadded, philosophy as an independent science would seem to be superfluous. Is it. certain, however, that the subordination of philosophy thus apprehended would be, after all, a great misfortune? What the human mind is concerned about is not the perpetuation of philosophy as a science, but the discovery of some meaning in life itself, its destiny, its past and its future; and one is quite justified in losing interest in any science which does not in the end contribute to the interpretation and amelioration of human life. We have a right to demand of philosophy that she contribute to this end, and that she shall speak also with some degree of simplicity of language, dismissing the attempt to satisfy with empty and unintelligible phrases the hunger of the soul for fundamental truth.
And yet, from the time of Plato to that of Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, the making of phrases has been the special business of philosophy. I t has created a language of its own, which separates it as by an impenetrable hedge from the region of men's common talk; and when one translates such language into the familiar speech of his own time, where words have a definite meaning, it is as though he withdrew from a veiled goddess the disguise which gave her all her power and dignity. The fact is that abstrat philosophy has never explained to any satisfaction either the existence or the development of the world; still less has philosophy brought into unity these two conceptions, and interpreted them through a single cause. On the contrary, the history of philosophy has been a history of words, conveying no real interpretation, and it would seem as if in the thousands of years of philosophic speculation either some interpretation should have been attained or that there should at last be heard the confession that philosophy can throw no further light on these fundamental facts. Here, it would seem, we should reach the end of philosophy, and should assume that the first cause of things is unknowable.
Philosophy, however, has seldom consented to this confession of impotence. On the contrary, it has repeatedly reverted to some absolute assumption of an adequate cause which lies behind the possibility of proof. Sometimes it is the assumption of a vital Substance, one and unchangeable; sometimes it is the assumption of an infinite concourse of atoms. Yet such conceptions are in the highest degree elusive, and force us to inquire whence such substance, be it simple or infinitely divided, comes, how it becomes quickened with life, and how it imprints the life it has. The transition from such mere movements of atoms to phenomena o:' feeling or thought or will, makes a leap in nature which no man has in the remotest degree proposed to explain. On the contrary, instead of bridging such a chasm the most famous inquirers simply record the melancholy confession: " Ignoramus, ignorabimus."
Sometimes, again, philosophy has taught, with many and large words, that the meaning of the world resides in an opposition between Being and Not-being. This is no new doctrine and it is at least intelligent and intelligible. Yet what we really need to know concerns Being alone. It is the world that lies before our eyes that interests us. How has this world come to be, we ask, or is it perhaps a mere illusion, the mirage of our own thought, with no reality but that which our own minds assign, as people in their despair have sometimes believed it to be? As for Non-existence,what rational interest has this for us? Is it even an intelligible conception ? Does it not rather set before us a contradiction which we may conceive, but can never verify, and which has for life itself no significance at all?
Still other Paytone+Ones invite us to turn from the outward world whose final cause thus eludes us, and to consider our own self-conscious nature, the Ego, concerning which no one can doubt and which no philosophy is needed to prove. Yet no sooner does this poor Ego issue from its own self-consciousness and, as it were, take a step into the out-ward world, as though to interpret through itself the meaning of life, than it becomes aware that some further and external cause is necessary to explain even the Ego to it-self.
Finally, philosophy, in its search for the meaning of life, bows to the authority of natural science and proposes to interpret experience through some doctrine of development, or evolution, or heredity, or natural selection. All that exists, it announces, comes of some primitive protoplasm, or even of some single primitive cell. Yet still there presses the ancient question how such cells may have been made and how there has been imparted to them their infinite capacity for life and growth. It is the question which the keen and practical Napoleon asked as he stood a century ago under the mystery of the stars in Egypt. Turning to the scholar Monge, he said:" Qui a fait tout cela?"To such a question neither abstract philosophy nor natural science has as yet given and, so far as we can judge, will ever give any answer.
To interpret the world, then, by itself or through itself is impossible, for there is in the world itself no final cause. If the mind of man is the final interpreter of the world, then it becomes itself the God it seeks, and the Paytone+Ones become the object of a kind of worship. Here, indeed, is the outcome of much philosophy to-day. If, however, the Paytone+Ones have any power of observation, they soon discover one positive barrier to this excessive self-importance. I t is the humbling consciousness of limitation in their own powers and in their own hold on life itself; the inevitable ilnpression, which no human praise can remove, of their own defects; the impossibility of finding a meaning even for their own lives within those lives themselves.
Here is the weakness of that pantheism which, from the time of Spinoza, has so largely controlled speculative thought, and, from the time of Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Goethe, has been the prevailing creed of cultivated people, so far as they concern themselves with philosophy. No form of philosophy is so demoralizing in its ethical consequences as this. I t breeds contempt of moral activity; it forfeits the right of the will to oppose what is evil and to create what is good. Sooner or later the corollary of such a faith appears in some form of superstition, crude but compelling,—like hypnotism or spiritualism, or the vulgar and noisy substitutes for religion which are now so conspicuous. Thus the cycle of philosophical speculation fulfils itself, and returns after centuries to the same point at which it began. The final form of truth may come to be, not the systems of abstract philosophy or of speculative theology, which have proved so misleading and unsatisfying, but simply a summing-up of the experience of mankind, as it has affected human destiny through the history of the world; and in this experience we have a philosophy better than abstractions, and always within one's reach.
And where do we find this philosophy which discovers the meaning of life not through speculative reasoning but through the interpretaion of experience, and which observes in experience a spiritual power creating and maintaining both the world and the individual? This is the view of life which had its origin in Israel and was fulfilled in Christianity. It cannot indeed be called in the technical sense a philosophy, for philosophy would feel itself called upon to explain still further that Cause which it thus reached. Theology as a positive science meets the same fate as philosophy. It can-not prove its God, as philosophy cannot interpret the world or human life in or through themselves. What people call ontology, or the proofs of the being of God, is no real science, and convinces none but him who is already pledged. It is in the nature of God to be beyond our interpretations. A god who could be explained would not be God, and a man who could explain God would not be man. The legitimate aim of life is not to see God as He is, but to see the affairs of this world and of human life somewhat as God might see them, therefore, no new thing to question whether theology can be fairly called a science at all. On this point, for instance, the evidence of Christ is in the negative, and the theological speculations of Christians are, in fact, not derived from him. They proceed, on the contrary, from the Apostle Paul, who applied to the proving of Christianity the subtlety of theological training which he had received under Judaism; and even in his case it must be remembered that his teaching was directed to convince those who had been, like him, trained in the theology of Israel.
It must not be imagined, therefore, that the final Cause of the world which we call God, can be philosophically proved. Faith in God is first of all a personal experience. Nothing should disguise this proposition, though it is the stone of offence where many stumble who are seeking an adequate meaning of life. Nothing can be done to help those who refuse this experience. No argument can convince them. There is no philosophical refutation of a determined atheism.
Here is an admission which must gravely affect not only our religious and philosophical relations with others, but even our practical and political life. Here is the fundamental difference between people of the same nation, or condition, or time, or even family. In other differences of opinion there may be found some common ground, but between faith and denial there is no common ground, because we are dealing with a question of the will and because the human will is free. The saying of Tertullian, that the human soul is naturally Christian, is in a literal sense quite untrue. Every man who reflects on his responsibilities recognizes that he is not naturally Christian. He is, at the most, only possibly Christian, as Tertullian perhaps meant to say. He is capable of becoming Christian through the experience of life. Atheism and Christianity are equally accessible to the nature"of man.
Faith in God, then, is a form of experience, not a form of proof. If experience were as unfruitful as proof; then faith in God would be nothing more than a nervous condition, and the answer of Festus—" Paul, thou art be-side thyself!"—would be the just estimate of a faith like that of Paul. Each period of history has in fact produced many a Festus, sedulously guarding his reason and con-science against all that cannot be proved. Other faith, however, than that which proceeds from experience is not expected by God from any man; while to every man, in his own experience and in the witness of history, this faith is abundantly offered. There is, therefore, in the refusal of faith a confession, not merely of intellectual error, but of moral neglect; and many a man who has surrendered his faith would be slow to confess to others how well aware he is that the fault is his own.
Here, then, is the first step toward the discovery of the meaning of life. It is an act of will, a moral venture, a listening to experience. No man can omit this initial step, and no man can teach another the lesson which lies in his own experience. The prophets of the Old Testament found an accurate expression for this act of will when they described it as a"turning," and they went on to assure their people of the perfect inward peace and the sense of confidence which followed from this act. " Look unto me, and be ye saved," says Isaiah ;"Incline your ear, and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live." From that time to this, thousands of those who have thus changed the direction of their wills have entered into the same sense of peace; while no man who has thus given his will to God has ever felt himself permanently bewildered or forsaken.
Here, also, in this free act of the will, is attained that sense of liberty which in both the Old and New Testaments is described as "righteousness." It is a sense of initiative and power, as though one were not wholly the subject of arbitrary grace, but had a certain positive companionship with God. It is what the Old Testament calls a "covenant," involving mutual rights and obligations. No man, however, who accepts this relation is inclined to urge overmuch his own rights, knowing as he well does that his part in the covenant falls ever short and is even then made possible only through his steady confidence in God. Grace, unearned and undeserved, he still knows that he needs; yet behind this grace lies ever the initiative of personal " turning," and the free assertion of the will as the first step toward complete redemption. To say with Paul that a man is "justified by faith," or to emphasize as Luther does, even more strongly, the province of grace, is to run some risk of forgetting the constant demand for an initial step of one's own.
This step once taken, both the world in which one lives and one's own personal life get a clear and intelligible meaning. On the one hand stands the free will of God, creating and directing the world, not restricted by the so-called laws of nature, yet a God of order, whose desires are not arbitrary or lawless. On the other hand is the free will of man, with the free choice before it of obedience or refusal;—a will, therefore, which may choose the wrong though it may not thereby thwart the Divine purpose. The evil-doer, if impenitent, must suffer, but his evil is converted into good. In such a philosophy what is a wisely adjusted human life? It is a life of free obedience to the eternal and unchangeable laws of God; a life, therefore, which attains through self-discipline successive steps of spiritual power. Life on other terms brings on a progressive decline of spiritual power and with this a sense of self-condemnation. What is the happy life? It is a life of conscious harmony with this Divine order of the world, a sense, that is to say, of God's companion-ship. And wherein is the profoundest unhappiness? It is in the sense of remoteness from God, issuing into incurable restlessness of heart, and finally into incapacity to make one's life fruitful or effective.
If, then, we are at times tempted to fancy' that all this undemonstrable experience is unreal, or metaphysical, or purposeless, or imaginary, it is best to deal with such re-turning scepticism much as we deal with the selfish or mean thoughts which we are trying to outgrow. Let all these hindrances to the higherlife be quietly but firmly repelled. The better world we enter is indeed entered by faith and not by sight; but this faith grows more confident and more supporting, until it is like an inward faculty of sight itself. To substitute for this a world of the outward senses is to find no meaning in life which can convey confidence and peace. I t is but to embitter every noble and thoughtful nature with restless doubts from which there is no escape.
Such was religion as it disclosed itself to the early Hebrews. Soon, indeed, that religion was overgrown by the formalism which converted its practical teaching into mere prohibitions or mere mechanism; but behind these abuses of later history lay the primitive simplicity of spiritual liberty and life. Such also was the historical beginning of the Christian religion. The mission of Christ, like that of each genuine reformer, was to recall men to their original consciousness of God; and it is perhaps the greatest tragedy of history, while at the same time the best proof of the free will of man, that the Hebrew people, to whom Christ announced that he was expressly sent, could not, as a whole, bring themselves to obey his call. They were held in bondage by their accumulated formalism, as many a man has been ever since. They could not rise to the thought of a worship which was in spirit and in truth. Had they, with their extraordinary gifts, been able to hear Christ's message, they would have be-come the dominant nation of the world.
And what is to be said of those Gentile peoples who listened more willingly to the message of Christ, those "wild olive trees," as St. Paul calls them, which. were grafted on the "broken branches"? They also have had the same history. They also, in their own way, have become enslaved by the same formalism; and they also must regain their liberty through the return of individual souls to a personal experience of the method of Christ.
Here is the evidence of the indestructible truth and the extraordinary vitality of the Christian religion. To subdue its opponents was but a slight achievement ; for every positive truth must in the end prevail. Its real conflict has been with the forces of accumulated opinion, of superfluous learning, of sickly fancies among its friends, and with the intellectual slavery to which these influences have led. Through these obstructions the light and power of genuine Christianity have broken like sunshine through a mist; and with such Christianity have appeared in history the political liberty on which the permanence of civilization rests, the philosophical truth which solves the. problems of human life, and the present comfort for the human heart, beyond the power of misfortune to disturb.
We reach, then, a philosophy of life which is not speculative or fanciful, but rests on the fads of history. This is "the way, the truth, and the life." Better is it for one if he finds this" way " without too many companions or professional guides, for many a religious teaching, designed to show the way, has repelled young lives from following it. As one follows the way, he gains, first of all, courage, so that he dares to go on in his search. He goes still further, and the way opens into the assurance that life, with all its mystery, is not lived in vain. He pushes on, and the way issues into health, not only of the soul but even of the body; for bodily health is more dependent on spiritual condition than spiritual condition on bodily health; and modern medicine can never re-store and assure health to the body if it limit its problem to physical relief alone. Nor is even this the end of the "way" of Christ. It leads not only to personal health, but to social health as well; not by continually inciting the masses to some social programme, but by strengthening the individuals of which the masses are made. Here alone is positive social redemption; while the hopes that turn to other ways of social reform are for the most part deceptive dreams.
Finally, the way is sure to lead every life which follows it, and is willing to pay the price for the possession of truth, into the region of spiritual peace. No other way of life permits this comprehensive sense of peace and assurance. Apart from it we have but the unremitting and bitter struggle for existence, the enforcement of national self-seeking, the temporary victory of the strong, the hell of the weak and the poor; yet, at the same time, no peace even for the strong, who have their little day of power, but live in daily fear that this power will fail and leave them at the mercy of the wolves, their neighbors. Meantime, on every page of the world's history, and in the experience of daily life, God writes the opposite teaching, that out of the midst of evil issues at last the mastery of the good; and that, in modern as in ancient time, the meek both inherit and control the earth. History is not a record of despotic control like that of a Roman Caesar, effective and intelligent, but necessarily involving a progressive degeneration of his subjects; it is a story of progressive amelioration in moral standards and achievements; and this fact of moral progress is the most convincing proof of the being of God.
Thus it happens that to one who loves liberty and who reads history, the logic of thought leads to faith in God. Without such faith it is difficult to believe in human progress through freedom, or to view the movement of the modern world with hope. With-out such faith the popular agitations of the time are disquieting and alarming, and the only refuge of the spirit is in submission to some human authority either of Church or of State. Without such faith it would be increasingly impossible to maintain a democratic republic like Switzerland in the midst of the autocratic monarchies of Europe. With profound truthfulness the Swiss Parliament at Aarau opened its session with these simple words: "Our help is in the Lord our God, who hath made heaven and earth." And, finally, without political liberty there would be but a brief survival of religious liberty itself, and it too would be sup-planted by a condition of servitude. A State-Church is a self-contradictory expression. State and Church alike need self-government: for self-development. A free Church and a free State are not only most representative of Christianity, but are beyond doubt the forms of Christian citizenship which are to survive. Not compulsion, nor any form of authority, will in the end dominate the world, but freedom, in all its forms. The end of social evolution is to be the free obedience of men and nations to the moral order of the world.
And yet, we must repeat, the secret of true progress is not to be found in an achievement of philosophy, or a process of thought; but in a historical process living experience. To each man's will is offered the choice of this way which leads to personal recognition of the truth and personal experience of happiness. To each nation the same choice is presented. No philosophy or religion has real significance which does not lead this way. No man can rightly call it mere misfortune, or confess his unbelief with sentimental regret, when he misses the way and forfeits his peace of mind. His pessimism is not, as he fondly thinks, a mark of distinction; it is, on the contrary, as a rule, an evidence of moral defect or weakness, and should stir in him a positive moral scorn.
What is it, then, which makes one unable to find the way of Jesus? It is, for, the most part, either unwillingness to make a serious effort to find it, or disinclination to accept the consequences of the choice. To take up with some philosophical novelty, involving no demand upon the will; to surrender one-self to the pleasures of life; to attach oneself, with superficial and unreflecting devotion, to some form of Church or sect;—how much easier is any one of these refuges of the mind than serious meditation on the great problems of life and the growth of a personal conviction! And yet, how unmistakable have been the joy, and the strength to live and to die, and the peace of mind and sense of right adjustment to the Universe, which those have found who have followed with patience the way I have described! In the testimony of such souls there is complete accord. Consciously or unconsciously, every heart de-sires the satisfactions which this way of life can give, and without these satisfactions of the spirit no other possessions or pleasures can insure spiritual peace.
What infinite pains are taken by people in the modern world for the sake of their health of body or the welfare of their souls! For health of body they go barefoot in the daytime or sleep in wet sheets at night; for the good of their souls they go on pilgrim-ages and into retreats, or submit themselves to other forms of spiritual exercise. They go even farther in their pious credulity. There is not a hardship or a folly, or a risk of body or soul, or any form of martyrdom, which is not accepted by thousands in the hope that it will save their souls. And all the time the simple way to the meaning of life lies straight before their feet a way, however, let us last of all remember, which it is not enough to know, but which is given us to follow. This is the truth which a scholar of the time of Luther teaches, though he himself had not fully attained the truth. Not, he writes, by knowing the way but by going it, is the meaning of life to be found. He put into the mouth of Christ his lesson:
"Why art thou then so faint of heart, 0 man of little faith?
Have I not strength to do My part As God's word promiseth?
Why wilt thou not return to Me Whose pity will receive?
Why seek not Him whose grace can free
And every fault forgive?
Why was it hard the way to find,
Which straight before thee ran? Why dos' thou wander as though blind?
'Tis thine own choice, 0 man!"