I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. – John 14:6
When they hear the phrase “the meaning of life,” most people actually think of the ideals of life; that is, of that indescribable set of ultimate aspirations, based on feelings and values, according to which one sets their goals in life. Usually, an ideal to live by is expressed by a sophisticated motto, often in Latin: Per aspera ad astra, Memento mori!, Nihil sine Deo. Many of us have chosen such a motto—it is a cultural reflex. But what does the meaning of life entail, how does it connect to one’s ideals, and how can we find out for ourselves what it means to give meaning to one’s life?
Ideals and the meaning of life
We form our ideals gradually, as experience, education, and culture bring various possible choices to the fore of our consciousness. These choices turn into guidelines for the objectives and goals that determine our lives and futures. An ideal is a set of feelings and values, and can be of many kinds: professional, family oriented, erotic, or artistic ideals. An idealistic young man can resonate with Don Quixote’s dreamy exhortation: “…to touch the untouched star!”. An entrepreneur could take on the incentive of an advertisement: “Think big!”. An adventurer could easily pick up a motto from urban folklore: “Live life to the fullest!”. An athlete could live by the ideal: “Exceed your limits!”
Unlike ideals, which are coloured according to the personality of the person in question, the meaning of life is a philosophical construct. It differs according to philosophically different worldviews (materialistic, idealistic, immanent, transcendent, religious, futurological). These offer answers about the meaning of life not only for the individual, but for the entire human species, civilization, planet Earth, and the universe as a whole.
To summarise, let us say that the philosophical answers regarding the meaning of life aim at cardinal values, such as happiness, freedom, fullness of knowledge, progress, self-realization of the individual, salvation of the soul, doing good, virtue, self-knowledge, and so on. Their diversity and complexity make them difficult to compare. Simply put, different visions come from different values, having unfathomable roots in the soul, and have different scopes and implications for the ideals of those who adopt them.
To the Athenian philosopher Socrates, the aspiration to be a good citizen and to choose the Good meant he did not try to escape prison, and that he accepted his death sentence. To the reformer Martin Luther, the liberation of the believer through Biblical truth meant he had to confront an entire church and all of Catholic civilization. For the American writer Ernest Hemingway, his ideal of freedom meant he enlisted and fought in Spain on the side of the leftist Republicans.
Ideally, the ideals of our lives will be properly framed, woven into a comprehensive and holistic vision of the meaning of life. Romanian poet Tudor Arghezi had an expressive image for this, in the poem “Melancholy”: “The hours intertwined/their thread with the big thread…”. It is desirable that our destinies, no matter how ephemeral, take part and contribute, in a unique way, to the order of the world—the “big thread”.
Of course, one’s ideals can change throughout one’s life, and it is actually desirable for them to become more complex and open to more generous feelings and values than those of adolescence and youth, when the concern for society is not as developed. For example, someone who, at the age of 15, set themselves the goal of living without any regrets, and maintains this goal until the age of 45, is very likely morally childish, or even anti-social.
Your own vision of the meaning of life
It is necessary to use our own thoughts and feelings to filter the various visions regarding the meaning of life, in order to clear up for ourselves what kind of life is worth living. In this regard, I can recall my own path, which went through a few stages, specific to different ages and life experiences.
I reached my first outline of the meaning of life—self-knowledge and reconciliation—during adolescence, after reading a wise exhortation from Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet: ”This above all: to thine own self be true,/And it must follow, as the night the day,/Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
During my college years, I began to work on my self-realisation as a human being, associating three great categories of ideals with this task. I named them, in order, aesthetic, ethical and religious, borrowing this classification from the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. The content of these categories belonged to me. The aesthetic aimed at the ideal of happiness: I aspired to make a person happy, by myself. The ethical aimed at the ideal of creation: I dreamed of creating something that would contribute, however small this contribution would be, to the enrichment of our culture. The religious aimed at my relationship to the Divinity: I always wanted to draw closer to God, no matter how difficult it was.
Of course, looking at these ideals now, from afar, I can perceive many shortcomings: the exaltation and idealism that belongs to youth, innocence or naivete in relationships with peers, an exaggerated confidence in my strengths, an ignorance of my limits, human nature, and more. But, as I pointed out, changing the way I saw the world and life occurred gradually, over about two decades, as I approached God through prayer, faith, and attempting to know Him through His word.
The revelation that directed me to the meaning of life that I now embrace, with all my being, took place when I understood that the Logos contains all the cardinal values of Good, Truth, and Beauty in it. They cannot be separated, as theorists divide them between morality, knowledge, and art. Only by approaching them as a whole can we approximate, however vaguely, the greatness of the divine Word. This greatness places us in the proper, humble position of created beings, who gain value and power through God—for He is also Life.
I then set my ideals in life around becoming a child of God. I realised that only this identity can give me the noble self-realisation I aspired to. Thus, I understood that human limits can show those willing to see that the only One who knows us fully is God, and reconciliation with ourselves comes only through reconciliation with Him.
Also, because of the peace He bestows, true happiness comes as a divine gift, beyond our power and beyond our hopes. Likewise, creative power inspired by Heaven can also exceed the expectations and endowments we think we have been allotted. And regarding the ideal of not faltering spiritually, I can say that, in the forgiveness of so many falls and in His ever-present guidance, we see the incomprehensible love that gives us value as people and the highest meaning to life.
If I were to compare this meaning of life derived from closeness to God—aiming for self-realisation as His sons (not only in transcendence, but in everyday life, too)—with other philosophical visions, I would say that they only draw directions; guidelines at the crossroads. As detailed as they are, they ultimately prove to be only arrows pointing towards death. The meaning of human life is fulfilled in the Meaning of Life.
Corina Matei, PhD, is an associate professor at the Faculty of Communication Sciences and International Relations at Titu Maiorescu University.