“…what matters is not the meaning of life in general, but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment…” (Viktor E. Frankl)
When we speak of the meaning of life, it’s not because we lack topics for discussion, nor to satisfy our need for the unusual, and certainly not to indulge in elevated themes that might be too abstract for minds unaccustomed to intellectual activity. None of that. Simply put, we are faced with a theme that concerns us all, even if not everyone formulates it in the same words, or even if we don’t think about it every day. It can be translated into the simplest possible question: Why do we live? In other words: Does my life have a purpose (a meaning), or do I endure it simply because I was given the chance to live? So, can I live it haphazardly, live it as I please, or must it be lived in a certain way?
The need for the meaning of life
All religions and conceptions of the world and life—all philosophical systems—respond to these questions and others, stemming from the initial question, “Why do we live?” Of course, they don’t all offer the same answer. In a famous essay, “Alienated Society and Healthy Society,” philosopher Erich Fromm said: “Whatever their content, all systems of ideas respond to man’s double need to have a system on which to base his thinking and an object of devotion that assures him of the meaning of his existence and his situation in the world.” Put simply, what do these things mean? The human need is to have a coherent picture of the world, free of logical contradictions, from which they can deduce the purpose of their coming into the world, the place they occupy in this world, and the role that follows from this place. Fromm lists the need for the meaning of life among the four needs of people of all times, alongside the need for a unified picture of the world, the need for emotional security, and the need for devotion.
Among the early “elaborate systems of ideas” stands the philosophy of Aristotle (384–322 BC), one of the titans of ancient Greek philosophy. On their shoulders, all other thinkers of subsequent eras have risen, continuing their influence to this day. Aristotle’s system of thought astonishes with its diversity (logic, theology, politics, aesthetics, physics, astronomy, zoology, etc.). It formed the basis of medieval Christian and Islamic thought, serving as the axis of Western culture until the end of the 17th century. Aristotle laid the foundations of critical thinking, established formal logic, and composed the first treatise on ethics titled “Nicomachean Ethics.” This treatise is neither a guide to good manners, as is sometimes believed, nor a moralising essay. Aristotle systematically explores all possible answers to the question “How should we live?” Thus, the Nicomachean Ethics becomes a treatise on the ontology of the human, a theory of human existence here, in the world below the heavens.
Beyond the realms of theology, philosophical systems, and treatises on ethics, the meaning of life isn’t explicitly formulated. Rather, it manifests as an ideal of life—of which we are not aware point by point, and which is not consistently articulated.
According to Pierre Hadot’s perspective, the ideal of life is articulated and theoretically unfolded only in the case of professional philosophers—those individuals who can afford to spend a significant portion of their time becoming aware of and justifying their ideal of life. Hadot contends that the choice of a way of life doesn’t come at the end of philosophical activity but at its origin: “Thus, to some extent, this option determines the specific doctrine and the way this doctrine is taught. Philosophical discourse, then, originates in a choice of life and an existential option—not vice versa.”
Therefore, only professional philosophers can speak clearly and coherently about the ideal of life, and they aren’t always aware that they are doing so. Typically, philosophical discourse concerns existence (ontology), the human’s knowledge of it (epistemology), and the world of values (axiology). Only when the system includes ethics does the discourse systematically touch on the theme of the ideal of life. In this case, how do non-philosophers, i.e., the overwhelming majority of people, navigate this? For non-philosophers, the ideal of life resembles a sun glimpsing through clouds, as in Vasile Alecsandri’s poem “Winter”: “And the sun all round and pale, shows but glimpses through the sky/Like some dream of youth that’s flashing through the years which pass us by.” It becomes more concrete and observable through its consequences: our attitudes, decisions, and actions.
The ideal of life
If a public opinion poll were conducted with the question, “What is your ideal of life?” the responses would likely be similar and quite vague. Perhaps the most common formulation would be: “To be happy.” In fact, from the ideal of life, not always consciously realised and embraced, several purposes are deduced, from these, even more strategic objectives, and from these, in turn, more tactical goals. For most people, the spectacle of life is in the behaviour of others towards nature, society, fellow beings, and God. Can a hierarchy of life ideals be established? Are there higher and lower ideals?
The ideal of life depends a lot on the representation each of us has of the world as a whole. For some, the world is something to consume. These are the ideal customers of consumer society. For others, it is a “garden of earthly delights” (Hieronymus Bosch). They live by the motto “Amusing ourselves to death!” (after the title of Neil Postman’s book) and are the customers of the spectacle society, which sacralizes entertainment as the supreme value and ultimate purpose of our existence. For some, the world is something that needs to be transformed, hence the revolutionary ideal of many historical figures, and for others, it is a sacred thing that must be contemplated and by no means transformed (Hinduism). Finally, for the Man of Knowledge, the world is something that must be known—but not superficially, as everyone knows it, but in its essence, both at the level of immanent reality and at the level of the transcendent.
For someone lacking a stable belief system, devoid of a fixed reference point, such as the Christian God who declares of Himself, “I the Lord do not change” (Malachi 3:6), it is challenging to construct a hierarchy among the Fashionable, the Hedonist, the Revolutionary, the Contemplative, or the Man of Knowledge. By what criterion should they be ranked: the Good, the Useful, or the Pleasurable?
Each of these will apply its own criterion, subsequently devaluing others and enhancing self-worth. A hedonist will never comprehend why the contemplative abstains from “worldly pleasures.” The criterion of Truth is not relevant in matters of ideals, as the value of truth doesn’t apply here. In this situation, a very particular kind of reading comes into play: Christianity offers a significant opportunity for those unwilling to dissipate their lives on trivial stakes and cheap rewards. Jesus’s teachings provide us with a chance to build our house “on the rock” (Matthew 7:24).
From a secular perspective, the highest level an ideal of life can reach is the service of the common good: “The meaning of life is the good of the community, and those who do not attend to this good disappear without a trace.” From a Christian perspective, the warning of Jesus Christ is equally relevant today: “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matthew 16:26). Thus, two life ideals expressing, each in its own way, a given sense of life.
It’s evident that the two ideals are reached through different paths. If one of these paths is reading, we can conclude that those with different life ideals have engaged in different readings. If another path is personal experience, it’s clear that they’ve had different life experiences.
Reading and experience—sources of the life ideal
Reading and personal experiences reveal to us certain sets of values (ones we tend to internalise, to the detriment of others), a specific hierarchy of assimilated values (favouring some over others), certain value orientations (a preference for material or spiritual values, for the past or the future, for tradition or innovation), and certain criteria for evaluation (the criteria by which we judge whether something is valuable or not, where the line is drawn between values and non-values, etc.). All these elements are interconnected, influencing each other, forming a whole—hence axiology speaks of constellations of values (referring to systems in the universe, like our solar system, where celestial bodies are connected through relationships of conditioning and causality or by implacable laws).
This is why it matters what we read and what interpretive frameworks we apply when drawing conclusions from our own life experience or the experiences of others. It can be said, without exaggeration, that “you are what you read,” because our reading contributes to the birth of our constellation of values, i.e., our way of relating to reality, the world, and our own life.
Through reading, we get to know ourselves better, understand the world better, comprehend our place in the world, and the role that befalls us. Through reading, we identify various constellations of values that we share with others. It’s also through reading that we come to know God and learn how to establish a closer relationship with Him.
We start from the premise that perceiving reality is an interpretation, and we interpret it through pre-existing information, some of which comes from our reading, and others from our experiences. The more numerous the pre-existing information from reading, the more faithful, profound, and comprehensive the interpretation of reality will be. It’s a case of “circular causality”: reading contributes to the formation of an interpretation framework for reality and our own life experiences, and the new interpretation of the world and personal experience provides us with a new framework for interpreting our reading—reading that, in turn, offers a new lens for interpreting the world and experience.
What seems more challenging to comprehend is how reading reveals certain sets of values. As we know from Karl Popper, one of the thinkers who influenced the culture of the 20th century, values are part of the third world, the world of theoretical objects (concepts, theories, values), which communicates with both the first world (objects) and the second world (subjective experiences). Therefore, values are “theoretical objects” that exist objectively, regardless of our preferences, but cannot be perceived directly. Hence, they can only be transmitted through symbols (words, images, or sounds) and can only be identified indirectly in people’s attitudes and behaviour (decisions, actions, activities).
Undoubtedly, access to values can occur through life experience, by identifying them in others’ behaviour, through inspiration received from the Holy Spirit, or through dialogue with one of those “providential people” we have the chance to meet throughout our lives. Unfortunately, life experience is sometimes so limited that access to values is restricted or replaced with access to non-values.
I can’t forget the pity and compassion stirred in me years ago by a notorious figure in Romania’s public life who confidently asserted that “all people are for sale; it’s just a matter of the price.” Such a person is to be pitied because in their life horizon, they didn’t have the chance to encounter true people—that is, moral beings.
Overcoming a limited life experience can be achieved through reading. This is one of the gifts received from God, helping us surpass ourselves, grow, and build.
In broad terms, the process looks like this: the reading experience generates certain representations of the world (objects and phenomena, natural or social processes, events or individuals). These representations generate certain evaluations of these things (positive or negative) and certain feelings about them (positive or negative). These evaluations and feelings determine certain attitudes towards them (also positive or negative), and attitudes transform into behaviour (conduct, actions, deeds, activities). This is why the Bible says that “faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26) because actions help us identify and evaluate faith, just as in other domains certain parameters and indicators help us identify and measure a certain quantity (such as the intensity of electric current or blood pressure). In the absence of actions, faith cannot be “shown” in any way: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds” (James 2:18). Therefore, we speak of the “deeds of faith” as empirically observable indicators of faith, which are necessary because good deeds can be done out of conformity, mimicry, or self-interest without any connection to faith in God, faithfulness, and obedience.
In conclusion, what we read, what we think, and the things we meditate on significantly influence our criteria for evaluation and choice. Through reading, we come to know ourselves better, understand the world better, comprehend our place in the world, and discern the role we play. Through reading, we identify various constellations of values that we share with others, and through reading, we get to know God and learn how to establish an increasingly close relationship with Him. In other words, reading helps us lead a fulfilled life. Ultimately, reading determines the choice of the constellation of values in which we position ourselves and inhabit throughout the years, decades, or our entire lives—sometimes even beyond this life…
Dumitru Borţun engages in the quest for answers to some immense questions: “Why do we live?” or “What makes life worth living?” His exploration is systematic and sensitive, providing the reader with a fruitful moment of reflection.