Tristram Shandy and the Humanity of Laughter


Tristram Shandy and the Humanity of Laughter

James Sloan Allen

Everybody likes to laugh. It feels good, and it can turn darkness into light. “Humor is the great thing, the saving thing,” said Mark Twain. “The minute it crops up, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.”  Comedy can even help cure illness or at least assuage pain. The renowned critic Norman Cousins demonstrated this when he curtailed a debilitating disease with funny films (and vitamin C), as he reported in Anatomy of an Illness.  Nowadays some hospitals offer an internal television channel of full-time comedy called the Chuckle Channel to spur health and counter the often unhealthfully disheartening TV fare of daily news and violent entertainment.

 No one has known the power—and humanity—of laughter better, or written about it with greater genius and deeper affection than that genial Anglican cleric and ribald comic novelist of the eighteenth century, Laurence Sterne. His Tristram Shandy remains the quintessential comic novel of all time.

Many people today find Tristram Shandy unreadable. Its abundant allusions to other books, its frequent breaks and odd punctuation, its blank, black, and mottled pages, its fractured chronology, and its long, tangled, Shandean digressions can try patience. But it lives as a book that everyone should read for many reasons. No less a reader than Sterne’s contemporary Thomas Jefferson said in a letter that “the writings of Sterne form the best course of morality that ever was written.”  Later Friedrich Nietzsche lauded Sterne (in Human, All-Too Human) as “the most liberated spirit of all time” for his unconventional prose and lively embrace of life’s ambiguities and vicissitudes.  Johann von Goethe declared (in Wilhelm Meister’s Wanderjahre) that Sterne was “the first who lifted us above pedantry and philistinism” and “was the most beautiful spirit who ever created; anyone who reads him immediately feels full and beautiful.”  That is all high praise, and it has continued on through later authors like Joyce and Woolf who found it inspirationally modern. In short, Tristram Shandy is a laughing book to think about.

I’ll briefly—with some Shandean digressions—take us through some of the things Sterne wants us to laugh at and think about down to a summation of Sterne’s liberated and beautiful spirit and his laughing and yet moral vision of life.

First a few words on comedy. For one thing, comedy is other side of tragedy. Both upset expectations of how life should be. We meet tragedy in literature and life when terrible things happen to noble or good or even merely innocent people, leaving lasting scars and sorrows. Comedy turns some of those same upset expectations—about truth, authority, morality, mortality, rationality, and other things that shape our lives—into laughter. And we laugh because we are not threatened. Whereas tragedy engulfs and harms us, comedy detaches us, manipulating recognizable situations to produce off-beat perceptions and give us a pleasurable emotional release in laughter, even at things we might fear. No wonder some religions have barred comedy for undermining piety and subverting their power.  The scholar Umberto Eco wrote a famous novel about this—The Name of the Rose, a medieval murder mystery centering on the Catholic Church’s suppression of a supposedly lost treatise by Aristotle commending comedy.

There are, of course, many kinds of comedy and many kinds of laughter, from loving to cruel. But the kinds that run through Tristram Shandy never sink to the mean-spirited, contrived to boost the laugher’s ego at other people’s expense. They always lift us up, as they poke gentle fun at our expectations of how life—and literature—work. As Sterne explained in an evocative sermon called “The Levite and the Concubine” (marked by his typical eccentric style) “there is a difference between…the malignity and the festivity of wit,—-the one is a mere quickness of apprehension, void of humanity,–and is a talent of the devil,… a setting up trade upon the broken stock of other people’s failings—perhaps their misfortunes;…it is a commerce most illiberal” and “has helped to give wit a bad name.… The other comes down from the Father of Spirits, so pure and abstracted from persons, that willingly it hurts no man” but helps “sweeten our spirits, that we might live with such kind intercourse in this world, as will fit us to exist together in a better.” Sterne’s mirthful, dancing mind skitters from laugh to laugh with this generous “festivity of wit” and reverence for humanity. And it makes Sterne’s comedy more than diversion. As he says in his dedication of Tristram Shandy, “whenever a man smiles—but much more so when he laughs—he adds something to this Fragment of Life.”

Sterne well knows that Tristram Shandy comes at comedy from a most unusual angle. Although he pays ample homage to his favorite authors—notably Rableais, Cervantes, Robert Burton,  and Swift—he tells us early on (through the voice of Tristram, who narrates the book) that “ in writing what I have set about, I shall confine myself “ neither to classical rules nor “to any man’s rules that ever lived” (4—all quotations from the Modern Library edition).  And he implores us to “laugh with me, or at me,” but “let me go on, and tell my story in my own way” (7).  But he later says, “I write a careless kind of a civil, nonsensical, good humored Shandean book, which will do all your hearts good—And all you heads too—provided you understand it” (349). And he adds, “I wish it may have its effect—and that all good people…may be taught to think as well as read” (45).  To do our hearts and heads good and teach us how to think and to read—these are unusual aspirations for a comic novel. Patient readers see how he succeeds.  

Look at how he begins. It is surely one of the strangest beginnings in literature. It has Tristram himself commenting on the ill-fated act of his parents’ conceiving him one Sunday night owing to his mother interrupting his father at the seminal moment by asking if he had wound the clock as he was supposed to do that night. That “very unseasonable question” (2), he says, caused his father’s concentration to go awry, dispersing the “animal spirits” and planting the seed of a literally misbegotten life. This epochal interruption of Tristram’s begetting signals Sterne’s most striking, and often confusing, way of telling his story: interruptions followed by digressions.

Anyone who has tried to read Tristram Shandy has seen how the story wanders from subject to subject sometimes aimlessly—and finally the book ends almost nowhere, anti-climactically as a professedly “cock-and-bull story.” It takes Sterne nearly a third of the book to get from Tristram’s account of his own conception to his account of his birth, while Sterne introduces us to a host of other characters and meanders through their lives and ideas and the events leading up to Tristram’s finally entering the world in a prolonged scene of comic tragedy. Then from there on we really don’t see as much of Tristram as we do of other characters. His “life and opinions,” as the subtitle promises, run in the background as the tale wends its twisty way to the much-anticipated love story of Uncle Toby—which occurred before Tristram was conceived—followed by the anticlimactic ending.

 Sterne is clearly making fun here of our expectations of how stories get told. But, lest the Shandean digressions throw us off, he tells us to appreciate them. For they give us a clue to how to read and think. “Digressions,” he says, “incontestably, are the sunshine,–they are the life, the soul of reading” (54). But none can be “a poor creeping digression…it must be a good frisky one, and upon a frisky subject too” (497). He even gives us a chart of how his story goes with its frisky digressions in loops and tangents defying straight lines. He also puts in a couple of mottled pages as the “motley emblem of my work. (176). And he says that anyone who wishes to understand human life, past and present, must think rather like that. “If he is a man of the least spirit, he will have fifty deviations from a straight line” (28) as he looks around and pursues this and that before he comes to the conclusion or gets where he is going.

 These Shandean digressions therefore do more than complicate the tale. They reflect the way Sterne believes human life unfolds and the mind works. And that is how they teach us how to read and think. The accidental, the incidental, the odd turn here and there lead us from one thing to another without design, accumulating consequences that shape our lives. Sterne traces a series of such accidents and incidents as he has Tristram tell of his own birth, invoking thwarted plans, missing mid-wives, an inept doctor, intractable servants, stubborn knots, mishandled forceps, and misunderstood names resulting in the child being born with a crushed nose and being christened with the wrong name. Such is life. A series of misadventures. “We live in a world beset on all sides by mysteries and riddles,” Tristam laments (507).

Amidst these mysteries and riddles the human mind tries to make sense of it all. It does this with ideas that link one experience to another, sometimes by intent, sometimes willy-nilly. These ideas draw our attention to things and prompt digressions. Sterne is playing here with John Locke’s influential theory of the Association of Ideas, which describes how our minds begin as blank slates on which experience then writes ideas, and as these ideas get associated with one another, we learn to think and understand the world. I said Sterne plays with this theory, and play he does. For he makes as much fun of it as he honors it.

It supplies the comedy that begins the book. Tristram’s mother interrupted her husband with the “unseasonable question” asked about the clock because he wound it once a month on the same Sunday they shared intimacy. That intimacy and the clock went together in her mind—an unfortunate association of ideas at an inopportune moment.

Tristram’s Uncle Toby becomes the fullest comic embodiment of the association of ideas. A former soldier who suffered a groin injury in battle, Toby develops an obsessive “hobby horse” about military matters, especially fortifications, as he reads voluminously while recuperating. Then, with his servant Trim, he constructs a vast fortress and reenacts military operations, and everything he does or thinks or hears or sees becomes associated in his mind with martial doings. Sensations remind him of his military past; conversations take him off to fabled battles; he even embarks on his love affair with the widow Wedman as a military campaign. It all makes for splendid comedy.

Sterne has fun with Locke’s theory throughout the book. But Toby’s hobby horse and  Tristram’s misconception give Sterne occasion to poke fun at more than Locke’s theory. They also let him show throw an unexpected light on military life and the act and consequence of procreation. In Tristram Shandy, Toby’s militarism is quite a laughing matter. And for all his preoccupation with it, Toby shows himself to be so unwarlike by nature that he literally will not kill a fly—of which more later. By the same token, while Sterne ridicules militarism he bestows a peculiar seriousness on sex, procreation, and childbirth, a reversal of common expectations of what matters most in history.  Tristram’s father, Walter, upholds those traditional expectations when he deplores what he judges to be the near bestiality of human procreation and extols the heroics of war and the “glorious…act of killing and destroying a man,” along with the “honorable…weapons by which we do it” (522).

But throughout Tristram Shandy Sterne delights in showing about how sex and its consequences can wield more importance than anything else. In fact, you can read Tristram Shandy as a serious comedy of sexuality, from the opening scene of Tristram’s begetting through the long metaphoric discourse on the historic influence of big noses to Toby’s failed love affair with widow Wedman from impotence and then the inadequate performance of the bull at the very end. But to dwell on that theme can obscure Sterne’s higher purposes. That said, one of these incidents does invite a few moments time because, besides the opening scene, it has won more sustained notice through the years than any other in the book. It is the vivid account of Trim’s first love. (Denis Diderot affectionately incorporated this almost word for word in the novel, Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, inspired by Tristram Shandy and modeled on the relationship of Toby and Trim,)

A former corporal wounded in the knee during a battle, Trim recovers in a peasant household nursed by a virtuous young woman referred to only as Beguine (a charitable lay-sister). One day “the fair Beguine” offers to ease the itching of his knee with massage. This she does—through a narrative of exquisite detail much abbreviated here—first with one finger, then two, then three, “till little by little she brought down the fourth, and then rubb’d with her whole hand.” Then slowly, “she passed her hand across the flannel, to the part above my knee…and rubb’d it also. I perceived, then, that I was beginning to be in love—As she continued rub-rub-rubbing—I felt it spread from under her hand…to every part of my frame—“ until “my passion rose to the highest pitch—I seized her hand–.” Here Toby, to whom Trim was telling the tale as reported by Tristram, breaks in to say in all innocence: “—And then, thou clapped’st it to thy lips, Trim,…and madest a speech.” Tristram declines to tell us “whether the corporal’s amour terminated precisely in the way my uncle Toby described it,” but concludes, “it is enough that it contain’d in it the essence of all the love-romances which ever have been wrote since the beginning of the world” (464, 465).  Has the erotic comedy of “love” ever been more artfully described?  After reading Trim’s tale, who could fall in love through caresses without remembering Trim’s knee and the gentle parody of love it holds?

Sterne clearly elevates sex and procreation and childbirth above the glories of war, while getting laughs from them all. Even Walter Shandy, despite his penchant to exalt the likes of warfare and theory, showed himself subject, rather embarrassingly, to the power of sexuality when mis-begetting Tristram.

This returns us to Tristram’s comical conception. Sterne’s elevation of this subject points to another bit of parody. That is, Sterne treats Tristram’s conception and birth with a comic seriousness that becomes a parody of tragedy.  Tristram’s mis-begetting, his mis-handled birth, and his mis-christening count as tragedy to Tristram’s father. Walter fervently believes large noses go with success in life—Sterne devotes chapters to this belief—as do appropriately dignified Christian names. When his mis-conceived child comes into the world with a squashed nose and then, instead of being nobly christened Trismigistis, a god-like name, he gets errantly given the lowly, sad moniker of Tristram because the priest has received faulty instructions, Walter thinks his world has tragically collapsed. Sterne makes comedy of his tragedy.

Walter’s efforts to compensate for the tragedy by providing Tristram an ideal education also becomes comedy. The theoretically-minded Walter decides to write a detailed child-rearing manual—an novelty in those days, capped by Rousseau’s Emile, published in 1764, three years after Sterne’s account—entitled Tristra-paedeia, to insure that Tristram will grow up well. But Walter’s labors go for naught because, while he consumingly devotes himself for three years to writing this book, Tristram develops with no paternal attention at all. Walter’s actions here, like his scholarly study of noses and many another instance, exhibit his penchant “to force every event in nature into an hypothesis by which means never a man crucified TRUTH at the rate he did” (521).

This crucifiction points to the target of Sterne’s humor more pervasive than any other. That is the collective follies of abstract theory, intellectual pretense, pedantry, high seriousness or “gravity,” and the hypocritical and inhumane attitudes that often flow from them. Sterne wants us to laugh at life and learn from our laughter (albeit not only from that) and shun pretentious philosophy, Pharisaic self-righteousness, melancholy theology, and all nonsense of what he derided as “learned blockheads” (Penguin notes, vol III, ch xxxi).

Consider the scene of Trim and his hat. This does not stir laughter, but it illustrates Sterne’s view of truth and pretense. The scene actually deals with death. Tristram’s brother Bobby has just died. And while Walter Shandy pontificates philosophically to Toby about death, all but forgetting his deceased son, the servants speak of it differently down stairs. There Trim comes in to learn the news and gives his own discourse on death. But nothing he says speaks as forcefully as a gesture he makes with his hat. “Are we not here now,” he says, “and are we not (dropping his hat upon the ground) gone! in a moment!” (287). Reflecting on Trim’s act Tristram observes that although Trim spoke commonplace words on life and death, “the descent of the hat was as if a heavy lump of clay had been kneaded into the crown of it.—Nothing could have expressed the sentiment of mortality…like it,–his hand seemed to vanish from under it,–it fell dead,–the corporal’s eye fix’d up on it, as upon a corpse…” (288). And Tristram concludes, “Ye who govern this mighty world and its mighty concerns with the engines of elegance,—who heat it, and cool it, and melt it, and mollify it,—-and then harden it again to your purpose–…–meditate—meditate, I beseech you, upon Trim’s hat” (289).

No comedy here, but the simplicity of Trim’s act spoke volumes about human mortality. Unvarnished perceptions and honest emotions take us closer to the reality of human life than any theory. As for those whose minds remain mantled in theory and intellectual pretense, Sterne snaps, “I write not for them” (156).

The whole book makes this case in a variety of ways. But Sterne gives us one character who particularly exemplifies it. It is the Parson Yorick, Sterne’s alter ego—Sterne published his own sermons under the pen name Yorick, as he did his last book, A Sentimental Journey.

Said to have descended from the jester of the same name in Hamlet, Yorick is also a jester despite being a cleric (like Sterne himself). A gangly fellow, Yorick rides around his parish on a skinny old horse said to resemble Don Quixote’s Rocinante. People laugh at him, and he joins “in the laughter against himself” because “he loved jest in his heart” (13). And his jesting heart cannot resist making light of seriousness and the attitude of “gravity” that he finds at once risible and hypocritical.

“Yorick had an invincible dislike and opposition in his nature to gravity,” Sterne writes, or rather “to the affectation of it…as it appeared a cloak for ignorance, or for folly….Sometimes, in his wild way of talking, he would say, that ‘gravity was an errant scoundrel’; and he would add,–‘of the most dangerous kind too,—-because a sly one’” since “the very essence of gravity was design, and consequently deceit;– ‘twas a taught trick to take credit of the world for more sense and knowledge than a man was worth” (19). Fired by this distaste for the affectation of gravity.Yorick skewered every sign of it. And he found plenty of them. Being “a man unhackneyed and unpracticed in the world” (19), he gave free reign to “his wit and humour,–his gibes and jests” (20) (like his namesake) at the expense of anyone affecting gravity to serve himself. But he failed to see that the sources of his jests didn’t laugh with him. Eventually, some of these aggrieved “Jestees” attacked him one night and gave him a thrashing. Although he survived the assault, he died soon afterwards, not from his injuries but, “as was generally thought, quite broken-hearted” (22). Mourners marked his grave stone in the church yard with an epitaph in the plaintive words of Hamlet: “Alas, poor YORICK!” (24) After these words comes a full black page of grief.

While Yorick exemplifies Sterne’s love of jest and antipathy to affected gravity, he also embodies some other virtues that Sterne commends. These include honesty, modesty, and charity—Tristram clelebrates him for skirting the appearance of self-righteousness by never telling anyone that he started riding his ramshackle horse in order to serve the old and sick reliably instead of having a better horse that less needy parishioners would borrow  and overuse). He was a well-intentioned fellow, if naïve about some effects of his jests. 

But more than Yorick, the moral center of Tristram Shandy is Uncle Toby. Toby and Trim ramble about the book like Don Quixote and Sancho. Don Quixote had his hobby horse in knight errantry, Toby has his in military affairs. But both are noble souls, brimming with humanity—Sterne even has Toby say that “the peerless knight of La Mancha…with all his follies, I love more and would actually have gone farther to have paid a visit to than the greatest hero of antiquity” (15-16).

Toby possesses a humanity rooted in innate honesty, simplicity, sincerity, humility, and charity. He is no jester, but he spurns affectation, pretentiousness, and hypocrisy—and he whistles a tune whenever he hears high-falutin’ talk, which happens a lot with his brother Walter. And his humanity shines brightest in his charitable generosity of spirit toward all living things. He is one of the truly Good persons in literature. That is not an easy thing to portray. Plato observed this when remarking that the rational and orderly life gives little to represent in literature, whereas conflicts and troubles provide endlessly arresting material. Dostoevsky tried to fashion a Good Man in the character of Myshkin in The Idiot, but he had to make him nearly mentally defective to do it. Tolstoy gave us a morally ideal person in Platon Karataev, a spiritually impeccable figure who calmly endures all suffering, but who has to live a rather other-worldy life to make that possible. Somerset Maugham thought he had presented a Good Man in the story “Salvatore,” whose title character has a simple goodness of heart, but he doesn’t have much of a life. Toby’s goodness has more vitality and illuminates the moral life at large.

Toby might be bit of a simpleton, but despite the goofy things he does—like Don Quixote—he teaches Tristram the humanity of moral goodness. He does this first in an off-hand incident that no one who reads it will forget. As Tristram recalls it, “one day at dinner” a pesky fly “buzz’d about his [Toby’s] nose, and tormented him cruelly.” Finally, Toby captured the pest, and “rising from his chair, and going a-cross the room, with the fly in his hand”  he said, “I’ll not hurt a hair of thy head:–Go, says he, lifting up the sash, and opening his hand as he spoke, to let it escape; go poor Devil, get thee gone, why should I hurt thee?—-This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me.”

Sentimentality?  Perhaps. And yet Tristram tells us that “I was but ten years old when this happened,” and “the lesson of universal good-will then taught and imprinted by my uncle Toby has never since been worn out of my mind.” He adds: “This is to serve for parents and governors instead of a whole volume on the subject”—like Trim’s hat (87). Later, Tristram—or Sterne—draws on Toby as his model for how to treat critics (some of whom had scoffed at the early volumes of the  book): “Never to give the honest gentlemen a worse word or a worse wish, than my uncle Toby gave the fly which buzzed about his nose at dinner time… ‘get thee gone,–why should I hurt thee? This world is surely wide enough to hold both thee and me” (127).  Another time, a second appearance of flies prompts Toby to scorn racial prejudice and mistreatment of the weak and to extol human sympathy. This occasion has Trim telling of his brother once encountering a “negro girl” in a shop who held a bunch of feathers “flapping away flies—not killing them.” At this, Tristram reports: “—’Tis a pretty picture! said my uncle Toby—she had suffered persecution, Trim, and had learnt mercy—.”  Then Toby and Trim begin discussing whether all people, including negroes, have a soul. Toby decides that they must, for God would have it no other way, and Trim agrees, otherwise “it would be putting one sadly over the head of another.” But then why, Trim asks, “is a black wench to be used worse than a white one?” And they agree again that it is “because she has no one to stand up for her.” So, Toby concludes, this “recommends her to our protection—and her brethren with her,” since only “the fortune of war” has “put the whip in our hands now,” and the future might remove it. In any case, they wind up, what matters is that those who have power never “use it unkindly” (491).

Sterne opposed slavery in his sermons, and gentle Toby, who would not hurt a fly, speaks for him here. Sympathy, mercy, generosity, all lived in Toby’s heart. To call it sentimentality misses the emotional matrix of morals—a subject of lively interest in Sterne’s day, as in Adam Smith’s Theory of the Moral Sentiments (1759) and Roussseau’s Emile (1764). Toby even considers military life not so much a source of glory as an aid to “the good and quiet of the world” by protecting “the lives and fortunes of the few from the plundering of the many” (494).

Tristram mentions such qualities of his uncle’s character many times, and he pauses his narrative in one place to observe a variety of Toby’s virtues. “Here it is,” he says “—my heart stops me to pay to thee, my dear uncle Toby, once for all, the tribute I owe thy goodness…

–Thou envied’st no man’s comforts,–insulted’st no man’s opinions. –Thou blackened’st no man’s character,–devoured’st no man’s bread: gently with faithful Trim behind thee, did’st thou amble round the little circle of thy pleasures, jostling no creature in thy way;–for each one’ service thou hadst a tear,–for each man’s need, thou hadst a shilling” (174).

 Who can resist Uncle Toby? As loveable as Don Quixote, he surpasses that knight in the unwavering tenderness of his soul and the universal generosity of his heart. We root for him to succeed in his Quixotic wooing of the very willing widow Wedman. And we smile at him at the end when he fails for reasons of sexual impotence he cannot grasp—in a subtly amusing scene where the widow, curious about his virility, delicately questions him about the location of his groin wound, and he naively responds by describing the location in the battle where it occurred—and then retires from the field to prepare a list of the widow’s virtues. Tristram tells us that the ever-forgiving Toby has no capacity for suspicion, resentment, or anger. Always he looks for the good and somehow finds it. “I love mankind” (493), he says earnestly, without pretense or the yen for abstract ideas that can induce a philosophical love of mankind blind to the lives of actual people. Toby demonstrates his genuine love of people again and again in little acts of humanity. 

For all of its wackiness, Tristram Shandy gives us a humane vision of life for sure. And it is no more simplistic than the book. It is a comic vision born of human experience, wide reading, philosophic ideas, and a moral imagination. This vision takes us from a perception of how life and thought unfold in unpredictable twists and turns and lengthy digressions, and it goes on to good advice about how we might live in this uncertain and often troubled world with generosity and laughter. I would sum up the best in Sterne’s Shandean vision like this:

 We come into this world with whatever our nature and circumstances provide us. And these can be mighty peculiar. We then live our lives “beset on all sides by mysteries and riddles” (507), as experience leads us on a meandering course that defies plans and lets seemingly random incidents often yield momentous consequences. At the same time, our minds flit from idea to idea with a logic of association that we do not entirely control as we respond to the rush of experience. This can make for a very muddled existence, fraught with disappointments and sorrows and warranting a tragic sense of life. But that is not Sterne’s conclusion.

His conclusion begins with the epigraph to volumes I and II. This  line from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus might be translated as: “The troubles of human beings come not from practical reality (pragmata) but from doctrines (dogmata) about reality.” Or more simply: It’s not life itself that causes us the most trouble but how we think about life. That means our challenge lies in thinking right about it (Buddhists have, of course, always said this; Walter Shandy could be a case study in wrong thinking). Sterne gave his own variation on this idea in a letter of 1764 (Penguin notes vol. VIII ch xliii). “In short,” he wrote, “we must be happy within—and then—few things without us make much difference—This is my Shandean Philosophy.”

When we ask how we should think about life in order to “to be happy within,” we learn what Sterne meant by teaching people not only how to read but how to think. That turns out to be not one way of thinking but a cluster of related Shandean principles. Sterne the cleric/novelist wove these principles through his sermons and his novels. Among these are the moral virtues he conferred on Yorick and especially the qualities of character he gave to Toby—the gentle and unassuming nature, the generous and forgiving heart, the innocent religiosity. Who can doubt that Toby was happy within?  (In a sermon on the deceptions of conscience that Sterne includes almost verbatim in Tristram Shandy as written by Yorick, he advises marrying humble religious belief to humane secular morality, which can temper each other and guard against both religious self-righteousness and irreligious self-assurance, while also fostering a generous humanity. 

But the more conspicuous Shandean way of thinking flows from Sterne’s zest for letting the mind wander happily in “the spirit of Shandeism” (as he wrote in a letter of 1761) —notice, by the way, that Sterne spells Shandeism with an e instead of a y in allusion to religion; to him, Shandeism was a kind of religion. Sterne says this spirit saved him from throwing in the towel at bad times because it kept him from dwelling for “two moments on any grave subject,” and soon he would always find himself to be “merry as a monkey—and as mischievous too, too” (Penguin notes vol. IV ch xxii). That is a virtue of the digressive mind.

Sterne put this virtue in a nice image in his sermon “The House of Feasting and the House of Mourning.”  Reflecting there on why “God made us,” he writes, “say we are travellers,” who, while mindful of “the main errand we are sent upon…may surely be allowed to amuse ourselves with the natural or artificial beauties of the country we are passing through,” for “it would be a nonsensical piece of saint errantry to shut our eyes.” In A Sentimental Journey Sterne/Yorick the traveler adds: “What a large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life by him who interests his heart in everything.” The Shandean journey of life wends where it will and gives the mind abundant subjects to think about and to laugh at.

Yes, laugh at. For wit, Sterne insists (contra Locke) holds no less importance in life than judgment and sometimes more. He even has the often mis-guided Walter Shandy concede: “Everything in this world is big with jest—and has wit in it, and instruction too—if we can but find it out” (312). Sterne found it everywhere. And he thought we needed to find it to fend off troubles and live well. As he says, Tristram Shandy “’tis wrote against anything,–‘tis wrote…against the spleen;–in order” through “laughter, to drive the gall and other bitter juices” from the body (237). Sterne judged laughter good medicine.

He actually dedicated the book to William Pitt with a testimonial to laughter (quoted in part earlier) as an antidote to life’s physical and other trials. “I live in a constant endeavor,” he says there, “to fence against the infirmities of ill health, and other evils of life, by mirth; being firmly persuaded that every time a man smiles,–but much more so, when he laughs, that it adds something to this Fragment of Life.”  Is there a more humane prescription for humor than that?  In the same spirit, begins the sermon above by saying that to believe “sorrow is better than laughter” might do for “a crack’d-brained order of Carthusian monks, I grant, but not for men of the world.” After all, he continues, consider “what provision and accommodation the Author of our being has prepared for us that we might not go on our way sorrowing…some of which he has made so fair, so exquisitely fitted for this end, that they have power over us for a time to charm away the sense of pain, to cheer up the dejected heart under poverty and sickness, and make it go and remember its miseries no more.” Sterne makes God as good-natured as he is—and in another sermon he says God must have granted human beings a great capacity for good because otherwise God could not expect people to become good.

Sterne brings these themes together in a celebratory conclusion at the end of volume IV. “True Shandeism,” he says, “think what you will of it, opens the heart and lungs” and “makes the wheel of life run long and cheerfully around.” And he has Tristram fantasize there that if he could, like Sancho Panza, choose a kingdom to rule, it would be “a kingdom of hearty laughing subjects” who are “as WISE as they [are] MERRY” and therefore “the happiest people under heaven.”

Here is the Shandean utopia of the Shandean religion. A place where everyone embraces the wandering journey of life with a cheerfully digressive mind; where laughter turns darkness to light, alleviates pains and sorrows, and nurtures a generous humanity; where wit and merriment aid judgment and wisdom, and where judgment and wisdom encourage wit and merriment. And where all agree that every time a man smiles,–but much more so, when he laughs, it adds something to the Fragment of Life. That is the humanity of laughter.




Skeptic:   I suppose everybody thinks about the meaning of life, but I doubt that anybody knows, or ever will know, what it is.

Humanist:  I disagree. I doubt that everybody thinks about the meaning of life, but I’m pretty sure everybody knows what it is without thinking about it.

           That’s nonsense.

H            No it isn’t. Everybody knows the meaning of life because we live it out every day. We might not know we know, but we do.

S            Don’t be glib. How can we live out the meaning of life if we don’t know what it is, or don’t know we know?

H            Easily. Because the meaning of life isn’t really a kind of knowledge—it’s a feeling. Essentially, the meaning of life is the feeling that our own lives have meaning. We might not think about that feeling, but it gets us up in the morning, and we have to have it or we stop living.

S            You think the meaning of life is just a feeling, an emotion?

 H            Not just a feeling. But the meaning of life is not some big cosmic truth out there waiting to be discovered like an island in the ocean, or something suddenly revealed as if we were Paul on the road to Damascus—at least not for most people. It’s more ordinary and interesting than that. Virginia Woolf, perhaps an unlikely source for wisdom on this subject, got it right, or partly right, when she had a character say in To The Lighthouse: “What is the meaning of life?…a simple question.” But “the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck in the dark.” I’d say the great revelation doesn’t come because the essential meaning of life exist not outside of us but inside in the everyday feeling that our own lives have meaning. Those “matches struck in the dark” just shed light on that feeling and perhaps help us see how we get it.

S            Wait a minute. Human beings have always wanted to know  the meaning of life in itself, and although I doubt that they’ll ever find it I think it’s very unlikely to be a mere emotion. Emotions are too unreliable. They come and go with our moods. They vary from moment to moment, person to person. They don’t tell us about anything but themselves and our susceptibility to them. They can’t tell us anything about the meaning of life itself.

           You’re not only a skeptic, you’re a cynic. And how wrong you are here. Emotions tell us a great deal about ourselves and our lives. Read Romanticism. Read Freud. We might not want to govern our lives entirely by emotions, since we need rationality to understand the world and to make good judgments. And I think one of the things rationality can teach us is the value of emotions and how we find the meaning of life in the feeling that our own lives have meaning.

S            You are trivializing the subject. And I’m not a cynic. Cynics are negative and self-satisfied and think they know things they don’t know—like Diogenes cynically searching for an honest man, who he’s convinced doesn’t’ exist.

           Triviality is not a sin. It can puncture inflated pieties, as Oscar Wilde knew so well. But I’m not trivializing anything here. Of course, people have always wanted to find the meaning of life in itself as some absolute truth about reality out there. But nobody has succeeded. Or, rather, I would say, people have claimed to find many different truths about reality and then conclude that these truths disclose the meaning of life. Not everyone can be right. And sometimes people disagree violently. But if people were to look for the meaning of life not as absolute, universal truth outside of themselves but as a feeling inside that everyone shares and acts on every day, then we could all agree on what the meaning of life fundamentally is. We might disagree over how to get it, but not over what it is. Religion is an obvious example of people sharing a feeling, but disagreeing over how  they get it.

S            Religion is not merely a feeling. It is a set of beliefs about human existence and the universe.

 H            Yes. But since religious beliefs, or dogmas, about human existence and the universe differ, they can’t all be true. And yet, they all give believers the same feeling that their lives have meaning. So all religions are true in the sense that they give believers the feeling that their lives have meaning, even though this feeling comes from disparate beliefs. But, if religious belief were itself the meaning of life, everybody would have to believe the same thing.

S            You think religion can’t provide the true meaning of life? How do you know? Tell that to the pious.

H            That’s not what I said. Quite the opposite. I said that all religions give us the true meaning of life because they give us the feeling that our lives have meaning. But beyond that, we cannot know what is transcendently or objectively true about the doctrines of any of them. You said yourself that feelings deliver no evidence of anything except feelings themselves. The feelings we get from religion prove only that religion can give us those feelings. But that’s not nothing. It is how religion can help us feel that our lives have meaning.

S            Hold on. When you say religion comes down to a feeling you not only slight religious belief and theology but also spirituality. You think spiritual life is merely emotion?

H            I challenge anyone to prove that spiritual life or spiritual truth is not an emotion. Or, to put it another way, one person’s spirituality is another person’s emotion or imagination, or even, as Ebeneezer Scrooge said of his ghosts, perhaps a bit of underdone potato. But let’s not get into that. I’m not trying to denigrate religion or the spirit or the soul. I only question how we can distinguish these from a kind of emotion. I would expect you to share that doubt. Believers in one religion declare that believers in other religions cannot possibly have the same spiritual experience, or possess the same spiritual convictions as  they themselves do because everyone else is deluded. But since we can’t very well compare these spiritual lives, we are left with what all too often is a tragic irony. That irony is this: religious hatreds have raged throughout history over people’s conflicting religious convictions, even though people probably feel essentially the same about those convictions. The blindness of people to this irony, or their denial of it, has brought untold misery to the world. And the irony clearly demonstrates that a religious belief doesn’t have to be true—who besides believers can say which one is?—for that belief to give people the feeling that their lives have meaning. It’s the feeling people live for, and some people will kill for it.

S            It’s obvious that people often deceive themselves into thinking they have religious truth when they don’t. That’s because they confuse knowledge with faith. Faith is a substitute for knowledge. When we know something to be true we don’t need to have faith that it is true, which is why science eschews faith. And when we can’t know something is true, but we still want to accept it as true, we rely on faith. Which is why scientists can still be religious. Honest people recognize the difference. But faith could nonetheless be more than a feeling. People need more than a feeling to give their lives meaning. They crave some kind of truth about the universe, even if they get it through faith. I see this all the time and question people about it. Besides religion, people turn to philosophy, science, and much of the rest of culture to find such truths. I don’t think they can find as much truth anywhere as they think they find, but I don’t think they can be satisfied with a feeling.

H            Yes they can. They’re searching for a so-called truth that will give them the feeling that their lives have meaning. Whether they find a verifiable truth or rely on an act of faith (which, as a good skeptic, you aptly distinguish) or anything else is less important to them than the feeling it gives them that their lives have meaning. Now, I grant that finding factual and abstract truths about reality is a good thing. Science does this for us all the time. But even the verifiable truths of science do not in themselves give us the meaning of life any more than do the unverifiable claims of religion. They can only help us feel that our lives have meaning—although, of course, it’s easier to get that feeling from the spiritual assertions of religion than from the more limited physical and testable discoveries of science. But I suspect that the scientists who pursue these discoveries get the feeling that their own lives have meaning more from the pursuit of truth, which ignites their hopes and animates their days, than from the actual truths they find. In the end, people just want to feel that their lives have meaning no matter how they do it. That is all.

S            You’re saying there is no true objective meaning of life? How do you know that?

           That’s not what I’m saying. To the contrary. There are many true objective—as you put it—meanings of life. But I doubt that we will ever find a single one, short of God coming here to show us what it is. You should agree with that.

S            I do agree. But how can you say there are many true objective meanings of life? That’s a contradiction. Life either has an objective meaning or it doesn’t. That is what an objective meaning of life is—one thing that is true and real. I may doubt that anyone will ever know for sure if there is such a truth, but I also doubt your confidence that there is none.

 H            Such a skeptic. You sound almost like Pyrrho himself, eroding all confidence in claims to  knowledge of any kind. But you really don’t understand how to think about the meaning of life. It’s good we’re having this chat. Let me clarify some distinctions.

           Please do. But don’t condescend.

 Two Meanings of Life

 H            I wouldn’t condescend. Just keeping the conversation light-hearted. I’ll start with this. When I say that the meaning of life is the feeling that our lives have meaning, I’m not saying this is a good thing or that it’s what people should want. I’m simply describing a fact of human life. A psychological fact. I’ll call it the subjective or psychological meaning of life. This is the psychological experience, or feeling, that our own lives have meaning. When we have that feeling, our lives do have meaning for us, because the meaning resides in that feeling itself. But there is another meaning of life, and this is what you have been driving at. Using your word objective, I’ll call it the objective or philosophical meaning of life. This is not a fact of human life. It comes from a value judgment. This is the judgment that certain things— facts, ideas, beliefs, etc.—are  true and therefore give a genuine meaning to life itself. Implicitly, we all adopt both of these meanings of life. That is because the subjective or psychological meaning of life logically follows from the objective or philosophical meaning of life. In other words, the feeling that our lives have meaning logically comes from our value judgments about what is real, and good, whether we deliberately think about these judgments or not.

S            So you concede that feelings are not enough, and they are secondary. But by equating the objective meaning of life with a value judgment, you imply that this meaning is as relative to us as our feelings. How could anyone accept that?

H            I concede nothing. The feeling that our lives have meaning is not secondary. Although it logically follows from what we take to be the objective or philosophical meaning of life, this feeling has more importance to us because it is what we live for. You can’t live for an idea or objective truth if it doesn’t give you the feeling that your life has meaning. This brings me to the issue of relativism. And a surprise. I think an objective or philosophical meaning of life is indeed relative to individuals because it comes from value judgments that individuals make about reality. In fact, when people claim to “discover” some truth about reality and then assert that this truth gives objective meaning to life, they are making two value judgments. First, they are deciding to trust some source of truth about reality, or way of knowing things—such as the senses or intellect or authority or spiritual revelation. Second, they are concluding that the “truth” they have discovered does truly give meaning to life. (I make such judgments, by the way, when I identify as a fact of human existence that the meaning of life is the feeling that our own lives have meaning.) This reliance on value judgments for our understanding of the world, by the way, happens in science, too. Even scientists have to judge what kind of evidence to trust and how to interpret it. And some people charge that this makes science no less a matter of faith than religion—the critics of biological evolution never tire of saying this. But since we do live in a physical world, scientific judgments about factual truths have more than faith to support them—try defying the facts of gravity. Of course, none of this is new to a skeptic. Anyhow, here is the surprise I promised: because any objective or philosophical meaning of life is a value judgment about reality, it is therefore relative to  individuals, but the subjective or psychological meaning of life is a feeling that is universal to all human beings. Therefore, objectivity goes with and relativity here, and subjectivity goes with universality. What do you think of that?

S            You’re playing with paradoxes and semantics.

H            Maybe. But it’s not only a game. Remember that Kant said the “disinterested pleasure” that beauty gives us is subjective yet universal because, although it’s a feeling, everybody feels it. But set that aside. Let me review what I’ve said so far about how to think about the meaning of life.

S            We need that?

H            Just follow me. The subjective or psychological meaning of life—which I’ll refer to from now on as simply the psychological meaning of life—is the feeling that our own lives have meaning, and this feeling is universal because everybody feels it  We get that feeling from what we take to be the objective or philosophical meaning of life—which I’ll refer to as simply the philosophical meaning of life. The philosophical meaning of life comes from value judgments we make about truth and reality and norms. We might not make these judgments consciously since they often arise from the lives we live. But conscious or not, they inspire or justify the feeling that our lives have meaning. We’ll need to talk more about this distinction later. But for now, we should see that the philosophical meaning of life is therefore both relative to individuals and various. It can be a spiritual truth, as in religion, or a set of physical facts, as in science, or a moral principle, as in ethics, or a personal aspiration, as in a profession, or an experience of pleasure, as in our response to beauty, or a social commitment, as in devotion to family, or practically anything else. And for normal human beings that meaning comes in several of these together. I might add that the classic humanistic writings of the world help us find philosophical meanings of life, too. They offer ideas about human life that show what might be “most important” to us, as Wordsworth put it. And when we find what is most important to us, we have found the philosophical meaning of life, and then we feel that our lives have meaning. That makes all of these humanistic ideas as true as are all religions. Different from each other as they may be, they can all help us understand our lives and find a way to feel that our lives have meaning. That’s why there are many philosophical meanings of life but only one psychological meaning of life.

 Finding Meaning in Survival and Happiness

S            Wait a minute. How can you say it doesn’t matter what we judge to be the philosophical meaning of life, and that the world’s classic literature and philosophy come down to the same thing? That’s morally questionable, in the first place, and logically absurd, in the second.

           I didn’t say it doesn’t matter what our value judgments about the philosophical meaning of life are, or that all classic writings all come down to the same thing. I said classic writings and our value judgments about reality give us different ways of finding the same thing—the feeling that our lives have meaning. And I should punch the point that just as these value judgments don’t have to be explicit, the feeling they give us or justify doesn’t have to be strong or upbeat. I said at the beginning that most people probably don’t think about the meaning of life, but they know what it is because they feel it and live out that feeling. This feeling can be exhilarating, like “the oceanic feeling” that Romain Rolland described as the religious sensation of being completely at one with the universe and God. Or it can be as lowly as the elemental desire to get through another day rather than perish. Think of Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich. Locked in a prison camp where he had nothing much to live for, he found the philosophical meaning of his life in hope for survival and in a bowl of watery soup that some days  had a little grass in it, which made it better than without the grass. He scaled down his expectations to almost nothing, and there, in survival and in little things like grass in his soup he found the feeling that his life had meaning. So the feeling that our lives have meaning, and the way we get that feeling, don’t have to be much. They only have to be strong enough to keep us going, otherwise we get depressed and eventually either change our lives or stop living.

S            Now you’re reducing the meaning of life to the mere will to live. That’s either silly or a tautology: the meaning of life is life itself.

           Didn’t Goethe say something like that? Anyway, it can be true. Not a truism. But I don’t want to lean on this. The fact is, the most elemental feeling that our lives have meaning comes from no more than the judgment that the philosophical meaning of life is simply to live.  Most people who live for survival alone—and that might be most of the world’s population—probably don’t think about the meaning of life at all. They just get up in the morning and struggle on. Thinking about the meaning of life is more or less a luxury of people for whom survival itself is not a problem. Look at aristocratic Pierre in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. He keeps wondering about the Why? of life, as he dubs it, in part because he doesn’t have to worry about the How?  But once he faces death and must struggle to survive he learns that the meaning of life lies more in the How than the Why—the Why takes care of itself. Socrates, of course, based his moral philosophy on the Why? Survival itself seems not to have been a problem for him, since he whiled away his days in the sunny agora of Athens asking people about truth and goodness and the meaning of life. Maybe that’s why he could conclude that the meaning of life is not just to live but to live well. He lived up to this, too. After annoying people with his badgering questions and getting convicted by the court of religious heresy and corrupting the young, he chose not to live at all if he couldn’t live well by freely seeking the truth and cultivating his soul. So he drank the hemlock. It was a philosophical suicide over the meaning of life.

S            Yes, which proved Socrates defined the meaning of life intellectually, not emotionally. Feeling had nothing to do with it.

H            I agree that Socrates’ defined the meaning of life intellectually, not emotionally or psychologically. But I think that living out that meaning by pursuing truth and cultivating his soul gave him the feeling that his life had meaning. And he knew he wouldn’t have that feeling if he couldn’t live this life. So, he lived and died for the psychological meaning of life after all.

 S            Socrates was too philosophical to be guided by his feelings. He even warned people against emotions because they lead people astray, as in art.

 H            Yes, he distrusted emotions, or at least Plato did. But remember the Phaedrus and Symposium, which extol the erotic quality of beauty and how the Beautiful can lead to the Good. This suggests Plato and Socrates recognized that emotions can serve truth. At all events, I think no one can deny that thoughts and feelings often work together to teach us many things. Wordsworth thought their convergence show us what is most important in life. Aristotle went almost as far.

S            Aristotle knew everything, but aren’t you straying from the subject?

           How could I? Our subject encompasses all others. Aristotle saw that emotions play an important role in finding the meaning of life and living it out. You see this, for instance, in his idea of happiness—a topic that didn’t matter as much to the morally idealistic Socrates and Plato, although they assumed it would come with living well. Aristotle said happiness is the meaning or goal of human life because that’s what people say they want most.

S            That’s an easy thing to say. Lots of people have said it. But it’s usually vacuous.

 H            Not when Aristotle said it. His Ethics is a book of philosophy on the feeling of happiness. He not only says that the meaning or goal of human life is happiness because that’s what people want. He tells us how to reach that goal by understanding human nature and satisfying our human needs. But I’ll come back to this later. You know, Freud also said that happiness must be the meaning of human life because that’s what we seem to live for. And he wrote voluminously about how we try to be happy—or to avoid unhappiness. But I wouldn’t equate the feeling that life has meaning with happiness alone. As I’ve said, we can feel that our lives have meaning when we are just struggling to survive, and happiness has nothing to do with it. Which brings us to Buddhism.

S            Buddhism?

H            Yes. Buddhism sheds light on how we can find both the philosophical and psychological meanings of life without happiness. And it shows us how decisive our subjective perceptions of the world are in doing this. Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha by claiming to have discovered the objective meaning of life in the Four Noble Truths: life is full of suffering, suffering comes from desire, to end suffering we must extinguish or at least control desire, and to control desire we must follow the Eight-Fold Path of self-mastery. In short, Buddha said the objective meaning of life is not to gain happiness but to diminish suffering, and because suffering (like many other things we think are objectively real) is largely a subjective perception of our minds, it can be ended by mastering our minds. Some Buddhists came to believe that there is no objective reality out there at all. But that was fairly late in the game. In the beginning, Buddha just said the philosophical meaning of life is a truth about human nature and suffering that tells us to conquer suffering by controlling desires.

 H            But how does that give us your so-called feeling that life has meaning when it’s just a denial of desires and absence of pain?

 S            To be a good Buddhist you have to strive to become detached from all things external and internal. That means detaching not only from the world outside but from desires and emotions and ideas and even from oneself. This detachment doesn’t require that you cease feeling anything or caring about anything. It requires only that you not  get attached to what you feel or care about. Let it go. Control your mind and you can achieve detachment and a state of relatively painless tranquility even while living in the world. That’s the Middle Way of Buddhism by contrast to the life-denying asceticism of Hindus. The Buddhist way is not easy. But I’d say that these Buddhist ideas can give us both a philosophical meaning of life in a truth about human nature, and a psychological meaning of life in the feeling that our lives have meaning as we try to live out these Buddhist ideas.

 S            Plausible perhaps. But, to repeat a previous criticism, if what you call the feeling that your life has meaning comes from an objective truth about reality—like the Buddhist idea of human nature—then that objective truth takes precedence over the subjective feeling. So in Buddhism, or in anything else, in order to get that feeling we would still have to find the objective meaning of life in something out there.

 H            That’s logically correct. But it’s not always true to life. As I’ve said, the psychological meaning of life does indeed logically follow from the philosophical meaning of life. But the psychological meaning can chronologically precede the philosophical meaning. In other words, we can feel that our lives have meaning without knowing why we have that feeling. When we discover why we have that feeling, we have found the philosophcial meaning of life for us. This often involves memory and finding some need of our own natures that has gained satisfaction. That is exactly how Wordsworth discovered the objective meaning of his life—searching his memory for the “spots of time” that had given him the joyous feeling that his life had meaning. Proust did something like that, too, as he searched for clues to the meaning of his life the past. And Freud derived psychoanalysis from a variation of it. In fact, most psychotherapy tries to get people to sort through their lives and learn what they want most in life, even if this comes down to just quelling emotional conflicts and reaching a kind of emotional equilibrium. Pop-psychology promises more than this by urging people to believe that the philosophical meaning of life is satisfying their true selves and being happy all the time. That almost sounds like Aristotle, since he said we must know our own natures in order to fulfill ourselves and find happiness. But Aristotle didn’t exalt self-centered narcissism like moderns do when they treat the individual psyche as the measure of all things.

 S            But don’t you share that modern habit when you insist that the meaning of life is essentially a feeling about one’s own life?

           Not really. I said the feeling that our own lives have meaning is simply a fact of human nature that we must recognize. This is not the same thing as commending navel-gazing narcissism. I also said that we can get this feeling from various places besides the needs of our own natures, including the assertions of religion, the love of family, and sheer survival. Wherever we get it is the philosophical meaning of our lives, whether we discover this before we have the feeling or after. And, there is another way we can find a philosophical meaning of life besides discovering it either inside or outside.

S            You mean we just take life as it comes and let it go at that?

           No. I’m not referring to people who never wonder about the meaning of life—which might be most people. I’m thinking of people who want to know that meaning but who don’t try to discover it as an objective reality.

S            What do they do?.

H            They create that meaning.

S            Create it?

Creating a Meaning of Life

H            Yes. Instead of looking for a truth or reality that already exists to make us feel that our lives have meaning, we can simply imagine something up to do that for us. And then with an exercise of will we can make it work.

S            Now you’ve taken your relativism to the absurd. How can anyone adopt as the true objective or philosophical meaning of life something that they know they have just made up?

H            Ah, human beings are more malleable than you think. Our perceptions of life are a fabric woven of both fantasy and fact. And often more of fantasy than fact. Freud thought so. In any case, it is not so strange a thing to invent or arbitrarily pick an objective meaning of life to try out. We might not be entirely aware of what we are doing, but we do it all the same. And if it works, it becomes true for us.

           Sounds like existentialist pragmatism.

           I suppose it is. But that’s no strike against it. Existentialism and pragmatism go together and have much to commend them. In fact, we are all both existentialists and pragmatists. Jean-Paul Sartre said that everyone invents an philosophical meaning of life because there is no such meaning until we do that. No god to give us purpose, no human nature to follow. And we’re kidding ourselves if we think otherwise. We make it all up as we decide how to live. Those decisions define the objective meaning of life for us and then make us feel that our lives have meaning. I wouldn’t go as far as Sartre in throwing out human nature and all the rest, but the act of creating a philosophical meaning of life is much as he described it.  As he said, “You’re free. Invent. Create.”

S            No one is that free.

H            You’re not enough of an existentialist. The truth is, people invent philosophical meanings of life for themselves all the time, whether they know it or not. All that matters to any of us is that these inventions give us the feeling that their own lives have meaning. This applies to meanings we invent no less than to those we claim to discover.

S            I doubt that invented meanings could ever work for long. They’re mere fictions. After all, people who think they have discovered an objective truth about reality can convince themselves that they have the truth. A fiction is not a truth.

           Don’t count on it. Fiction can become truth. Think of idealism. Ideals are fictions that become truth when we live them out. Socrates and Don Quixote proved it.

           You live in a very amorphous world. It’s all feelings and fictions and value judgments that you equate with reality.

H            Not really. But it’s the world where we find the meanings of our lives. To return to existentialism, Sartre said something else that we should remember. It is that when we create the meaning of our lives through choices of how to live, we must take full responsibility for every choice we make. We can’t hide behind the excuse that someone or something or even emotions made us do anything. We choose what to do ourselves, and we must never deny that our choices are free and are our responsibility or we are “liars” and “stinkers.” That responsibility is a burden, but if we accept it we will feel that our lives have meaning with every choice we make as we invent our lives and ourselves. That is the existentialist way.

 S            You’re overlooking a flaw in Sartre’s argument and yours. Despite rejecting human nature and insisting that we invent the meaning of life through existentially free choices, Sartre actually based his entire philosophy on the ostensible discovery—not an invention—of the truth of human existence. This “truth” is the idea that human beings exist in the universe without god or human nature and so on, and are therefore existentially free. But this so-called “truth” makes existentialism no truer than religion: both depend on unverifiable claims about the objective reality of the universe. So Sartre contradicts himself and  doesn’t help your case.

           I’ll concede that existentialism does depend on an assumption of truth about the universe. But that assumption aside, existentialism tells us that the meaning of human life is to create any meaning for our own lives that we want and to take responsibility for the choice. Only then can we truly feel that our lives have meaning. That’s Sartre’s ethic. And it’s a good one, demanding as it is.

S            Arbitrarily inventing a meaning of life is a precarious maneuver at best.

           Aha! You’re edging in my direction. I agree that it’s precarious. And, as Sartre knew, it takes not only a lively imagination to make up a good meaning of life but a strong will to make it work. Don Quixote did it. He consciously invented an philosophical meaning of life in his a new identity as a knight errant, and he had the will to make it work, so he felt his life had meaning every day—until the end.

           Don Quixote an existentialist? That’s rich. Delusional people might invent philosophical meanings of life for themselves and feel that their lives have meaning as a result, but you surely wouldn’t say they confirm your theory.

H            No, I wouldn’t. But that is because the philosophical meanings of life invented by delusional people don’t really work for them. I’ll come back to this later. But I don’t think Don Quixote was delusional. A little quirky to be sure. Still, he knew what he was doing. “I know who I am!” he proclaims to one doubter. And the ending of the book confirms it. I’ll come back to this, too. But first, I want to emphasize that, unlike Don Quixote, most people who invent a philosophical meaning of life probably don’t say that’s what they are doing. They might not even be entirely conscious that they are doing it. Instead, they just choose to live in a way that they think will make them feel that their lives have meaning. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Or it can work for only a while. If it doesn’t work, or stops working, people realize that they don’t feel their lives have meaning, or not as before. When that happens, people change their lives, or worse. Don Quixote invented a meaning of life but finally lost it and died because of the loss. And so, to take a couple of female literary characters, did George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

 S            Why them?

H            They just come to mind. But they illustrate the point. Dorothea decided early in her life that the objective meaning of life is to do noble deeds. This was a kind of invention. To live that out, she married the high-minded scholar Casaubon, convinced that helping him in his work would be a noble deed and give her the feeling that her life had meaning. It did that at first. But before long she learned that he was an intellectual fraud, and her feeling of meaning slipped away. She went into a funk. But then, after Casaubon died, she recovered that feeling by marring a young man whom she can improve while also doing small—rather than noble—good works for others. She adapted her invented meaning of life to new circumstances so she could feel that her life had meaning again.

 S            I don’t think she invented anything. She thought she had discovered a truth.

 H            Well, at first she thought it was true only for herself. She wanted to be a saint. That’s an invention for sure. But later she concluded that the greatest virtue for her and everyone is to further the “growing good of the world” through “unhistoric acts.” That was a concession to reality, but a good one. Anna Karenina is a sadder case. She decided that the philosophical meaning of her life was to become a wife, mother, and socialite. She became those things, and they seem to have made her feel that her life had meaning, until she met and fell in love with Vronsky. Then she swiftly learned from this love that she had never felt so strongly before that her life had meaning. That new feeling led her to give up her marriage, her child, and her social status. But eventually, the love affair went bad, and that intense feeling of meaning dissolved. Seeing no way to renew that feeling, she lost all meaning in her life and threw herself under the wheels of a train.

           A rather simplistic version.

           But you get it. Anna lost the feeling that her life had meaning twice. The first time, when her invented meaning of life amidst family and society ran into the reality of passionate love, she left her family and society for Vronsky. The second time, when that love died, she killed herself. But hers was no philosophical suicide, like Socrates’. It was more a suicide of anomie.

S            Anomie?

 Anomie and the Meaning of Life

H            Anomie is more or less the opposite of the feeling that life has meaning. It’s a feeling of emptiness, or lack of purpose and direction in our lives. When we feel that our lives have meaning at best we have a buoyant sense of purpose that makes us glad to get up in the morning. Anna must have felt this with Vronsky at the beginning. Surely Don Quixote felt it while he was sallying forth as a knight errant to right wrongs and gain renown. But both Anna and Don Quixote wind up as victims of anomie. When Don Quixote gave up that invented identity he felt his life had no meaning, and he died of melancholy. That’s anomie in the extreme. Anna Karenina went farther. She suffered such anomie that she deliberately killed herself. Actually, his melancholy death may be a purer case of anomie than her grisly suicide, but Anna shows us something else we should see in the relation of anomie to the meaning of life.

 S            I’m sure you’re going to tell me what it is. But I still think Don Quixote doesn’t help you because he was nuts. And Anna was trapped in a loveless marriage to an unloving husband. Her fate makes her a tragic heroine, not merely someone who lost the feeling that her life had meaning.

           I’ve said crazy people don’t count and that I don’t include Don Quixote among them. But remember, Freud put them at one end of a continuum with everybody else—and not far from religious believers—as people who find the meaning of life in escaping from the constraints of everyday reality altogether. They live in their own worlds, but they can’t live in this world—unlike Don Quixote. That’s why their meanings of life don’t really work for them. As to Anna Karenina, she not only shows us the worst that can happen when we lose the feeling that our lives have meaning, she also gives us a paradoxical clue to how that feeling can arise in the first place, and how we can then unexpectedly lose it and suffer anomie. She’s not alone in this. The same clue comes from any number of literary characters—Ivan Denisovich is one of them.

S            We could quarrel about literary characters all day. Let’s not.

           Fair enough. But here is Anna’s clue. Before she fell in love with Vronsky, she had managed to feel that her life had meaning even in an unhappy marriage. How was this possible? It was possible for the same reason that anyone can come to feel that his or her life has meaning in unhappy circumstances. That reason has to do with anomie. You know the word anomie comes from the Greek for being without law or without constraint. And that is what Emile Durkheim had in mind when he adopted the term in his classic book on suicide. We feel anomie, he said, when we lack constraints, and that is half of what having a purpose in life gives us. Paradoxical isn’t it? Our ideals and purposes—which amount to our philosophical meaning of life—play two contrasting roles for us. On the one hand they give us some goal to pursue, and this lifts us up. On the other hand they constrain us, actually limiting what we allow ourselves to think is possible, and this limitation helps give us confidence that we can indeed achieve our goals. When we have the confidence that we can achieve our goals, at least to some degree, we feel that our lives have meaning. Again, that confidence, and therefore the feeling that our lives have meaning, depends on the constraints that realistic goals provide. Consequently, when we are in difficult circumstances, those circumstances will limit our possibilities, and when we accept those limitations and set our goals within them we gain confidence that we can achieve those goals, and that makes us feel that our lives have meaning. This is why Anna’s life had more meaning in her unhappy marriage than it did when her love affair died. She had constraints in her marriage that she could live with—family life does this for most people—but none later. That’s anomie. A profoundly revealing formula. Durkheim learned it from Rousseau. He could have learned it from Buddhism, too.

S            You’re over simplifying again. It doesn’t sound so simple. But dare I ask what Buddhism, and Rousseau have to do with it?

 H            They share a psychology. Like Buddhism, Rousseau saw that our discontents come largely from unsatisfied desires. He didn’t advise extinguishing desires, as many Buddhists did, but he pointed out that whenever our desires outstrip our powers, we feel impotent, frustrated, hopeless, and unhappy. That’s where Durkheim got the idea of anomie. He saw that we can get these unhappy feelings not only when we have no purpose in life but also when we set our goals too high or make them too vague for us to sufficiently attain them, or for them to sufficiently constrain us. Our goals, desires, and expectations have to be close enough to our lives and to our powers of attaining them to make us feel that our lives have meaning. Otherwise, we lose that feeling and sink into the frustrations and unhappiness that Buddhists and Rousseau thought come with all unconstrained desires.

S            You’re lumping these things together rather casually. And you seem to discourage people from dreaming and hoping for the best. Young people are supposed to believe anything is possible, aren’t they? Teachers encourage them to do that all the time. Do young people feel anomie because of it?

 H            As a matter of fact, a lot of them do. They expect too much too soon in life and succumb to feelings of powerlessness and dejection. And some commit suicide because of it. It is one thing to say hopefully that “anything is possible,” but it is another to decide what is possible today and tomorrow and how to achieve it. And that often requires limiting our goals and expectations to fit our reality, as well as coming up with new goals and expectations when we achieve the limited ones we have set. For instance, mothers feel post-partum depression—which is a kind of anomie—after childbirth because they have reached a very definite and life-defining goal, and now they face the vague, open-ended responsibilities of motherhood. To overcome this condition, they must set new specific and attainable goals to give fresh but limited purpose to their lives. The same can be said for anyone who works hard to accomplish an important task and then afterwards feels anomie because no new task or purpose exists to direct and constrain their lives. Or think of the many retired people, especially professional men, who looked forward to retiring but who later feel at loose ends and get bored and wish they could go back to work. That’s anomie. They had failed to see that even though they didn’t like their work it had given meaning to their lives from day to day, if only through the constraints of their daily efforts to earn money and save for retirement. I might add that prisoners in jail can find this same meaning by counting the days until they get out—but then when they’re out they often feel anomie because their prisoner’s meaning of life is gone and they have nothing to live for but aimless freedom. Soldiers know this, too. They can feel that their lives have intense meaning amidst the most terrible, frightening conditions of surviving gunfire and courageously risking their lives for comrades, while awaiting the day when they can go home. But when they get home they might find that they don’t have as much to live for as they did in war—not that they want to go back, but they miss the strong sense of purpose and camaraderie that had given their lives such a keen feeling of meaning every day. The anomie of returning soldiers is a common malaise. Mid-life crises are symptoms of anomie, too. But this anomie doesn’t come from leaving the meaning of an old life behind; it comes from feeling that the life you are living has lost the meaning it once had. In fact, we all experience anomie sometime from one cause or another. It can secretly creep into even the most seemingly satisfying lives. You know its there when you gradually feel adrift, unfocussed, dissatisfied, and a little depressed for no clear reason. The remedy is  simply to give your life some new constraints—that is, new purposes and attainable goals that will get you out of bed in the morning with something to achieve and the renewed feeling that your life has meaning. We can even do that with what Henrik Ibsen called the Life Lie—a deliberate and energizing self-deception about our lives that becomes one of those invented meanings of life. We need a little of Don Quixote in us for this.

S            That’s a mouthful. OK. Anomie is a familiar thing. But I think you overstate the danger of desires and unrealizable ideals. What about Socrates and Plato? They said ideals like Truth and Goodness are beyond this world and can never be attained here. But they kept pursuing those ideals and urged everyone to do the same. They didn’t have anomie. Why not?

           A good question. Yes, they said that such ideals are too far beyond this imperfect world for us to ever achieve them here. And that would seem to be a prescription for anomie. But Socrates and Plato knew better. They understood that even though we cannot achieve ideals in this world we can strive toward them through intellectual inquiry and moral discipline, and this will give us something to live for everyday. By the way, Twelve Step programs systematically follow this same psychology. They explain that to shake an addiction—which is behavior that gives self-destructive meaning to your life—you can’t expect to change your entire future life all at once. That’s too much to ask and would only discourage you and give you anomie. You have to limit your goals and your horizon to things you can accomplish in your life from hour to hour and day to day. When you can do this, you feel that your life has meaning because you are conquering your addiction and gaining control of your life every day. That might not give you a buoyant feeling of meaning, but it is enough.

           We’re back to the prison mentality and the meaning of life amounting to not much more than getting through the day.

           Don’t knock it. It’s more powerful and common than you think. You not only underestimate the value of feeling that our lives have meaning, you fail to see how small achievements can give us that feeling. We can feel very strongly that our lives have meaning just by setting limited goals, no matter what our circumstances. We could call that the prison camp psychology. But, as I’ve said, whatever our goals and circumstances may be, the feeling of meaning that we set differs more in quantity than quality.

           Do you mean to say that Ivan Denisovich grimly eating his soup and a religious believer celebrating God have the same feeling that their lives have meaning, except for a possible difference in the quantity of that feeling?  I don’t accept that.

H            I didn’t say it is altogether the same for everyone. I said it can be as exalted as the religious oceanic feeling or minimal as the will to survive. But I think it is fundamentally the same feeling—not counting the delusions of the deranged.

S            Well, we can’t settle this unless we can measure feelings, which we can’t. But there is a more important issue here that you ignore. Morality. By reducing the meaning of life to a feeling that you say is largely the same for everyone, you neglect morality. You can’t reasonably say that someone with a religious oceanic feeling and another person who is a prisoner or a serial killer or a tyrant are morally equal because they all feel that their lives have meaning. That would justify the worst moral relativism and bring moral anarchy. I don’t care what you say, feelings are not morals. You have to judge peoples’ actions and lives.

Morality and the Meaning of Life

H            Feelings might not be morals, but they can inspire morality. Remember Romanticism  and empathy. But you are right that there is a moral issue here, and that it deals with actions and lives not feelings themselves. We do not judge people by their feelings or inner selves; we judge them by their actions. The same can be said of ideas. We might judge some people’s ideas to be morally wrong, but we don’t judge the people themselves morally by their ideas. We judge them morally by their actions. A person can think and speak ideas that we judge to be highly immoral or criminal, but if that person does not act on those ideas we cannot say he or she is immoral or criminal. That is why in our democratic society we don’t prohibit people from thinking and saying almost anything. Of course, there can be a fine line between expressing ideas and doing it in a way that becomes an action. Propagandists and preachers often tread that line, and “hate speech” is said to cross it. But most of us probably know people whose ideas we abhor but whom we still like because their ideas are only ideas, not actions. But back to feelings and your criticism of my ideas.

S            You do digress.

H            The topic lends itself to it. You said that my definition of the meaning of life as a feeling amounts to moral anarchy. I disagree. Here’s why. Let’s take three types of people: those with the oceanic feeling, serial killers, and tyrants. And let’s look at their feelings that life has meaning and how they get those feelings—that is, their psychological and philosophical meanings of life. If, as I suggested earlier, the oceanic feeling is perhaps the most intense and exalted feeling of meaning in life, that would make it the most satisfying psychological meaning of life we can have. But this would not necessarily make it the best psychological meaning of life for us, or make the religious beliefs that arouse it be the morally best philosophical meaning of life. That’s because that feeling and those beliefs might have consequences that are not good. Freud certainly thought they weren’t. When he talked about this in Civilization and Its Discontents—which, incidentally, is all about how we find the feeling (and he meant emotions) that our lives have meaning—he allowed that the oceanic feeling might be very enthralling, but he considered it an infantile sensation of union with God, the cosmic father-figure. And he thought living for this infantile feeling brings self-satisfied illusion and blindness to the realities of life.

           Freud was hardly fair to religion.

H            True. But I wouldn’t expect you to endorse religion either.

S            I question religion’s claims to truth, but I can’t say I know they are all wrong.

H            An honorable skeptic. And you surely see that religion can be dangerous precisely because its claims to truth can give people such an intense feeling of meaning in their lives that they will do anything to serve that feeling. Fanatics kill people for having religious beliefs different from their own. That’s why even though we can’t morally judge anyone’s feeling that life has meaning, we can judge that feeling by its consequences and therefore by the way a person gets or justifies it. Let’s take an example of this kind of thing outside religion. John Marcher in Henry James’ story “The Beast in the Jungle.” Marcher is not religious, but he lives for a firm conviction. It is the conviction that his own life is marked for something unique to him alone. And he lives in wait for this “beast in the jungle” of his life to spring. Finally, it dawns on him that the unique event he was waiting for is not an event at all but the accumulating reality that he would be the one man to whom nothing would happen at all because he had done nothing in his life except wait. There are a couple of fine ironies here. One is the obvious irony that although he was right about being unique, he was wrong about what was uniquely in store for him. The deeper irony, though, is that even while his conviction of being marked for something unique deprived him of living a real life, it nevertheless gave him a strong feeling that his life had meaning every day. John Marcher is the model of all those who feel intensely that their own lives have meaning and who judge their lives to be good because of that feeling, but who fail to judge the source of that feeling and its consequences in life. That is where morality comes in. Living for the feeling that our lives have meaning has effects in the real world. We must morally judge those effects and their causes. John Marcher got the feeling that his life had meaning from a bad place, which led him to misspend his life—and to consume the life of a woman who loves him.

S            At last you’re admitting that the meaning of life is not all about feelings.

           Once again, I never said it was all about feelings, only that feelings are its heart. Morality is another matter.

S            But now you seem to imply that morality actually eclipses the feeling you’ve been extoling. How do you make moral value judgments that don’t do that?

 H            Morality and emotions have a very intimate and complex relationship, like members of a family. Emotions often give birth to morals. The French moralists La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère spun witty epigrams out of this fact. Romanticists celebrated it. And Nietzsche played philosophically upon how emotions and morality are always tangled in our lives. In any case, I’d say that when we feel that our lives have meaning we make the value judgment that our lives are good, or at least worth living. But, like John Marcher, we can be wrong. We should all be alert to that possibility and judge our feelings of meaning by their consequences in the lives we live. Now let’s turn to your serial killers. They are obsessed people who, I assume, get up in the morning and go through the day thinking about the thrill they will get from committing their next crime. Those thrills and the thoughts about them give these people the feeling that their lives have meaning. But exciting as this feeling may be to them, it is tainted by obsession and self-destruction. I suspect that serial killers suffer conflicts over this, aware that their lives are going awry and yet they are unable to stop because of the thrills. Being out of control is an inevitably unsuccessful way to feel that your life has meaning. Addicts learn this. The addiction gives meaning to their lives until it destroys them or forces them to change. Serial killers are like that—obsessives in the grips of a ruinous addiction, so they probably don’t feel all that great about their lives in the first place. They are close to the deranged. And if we could actually measure their feelings of meaning in life, I think we would see that.

S            Your back to feelings again. And you’re contradicting yourself. You said the feeling that life has meaning is the same for everybody, differing only in quantity, not quality. Now you’re speculating on the low quality of a serial killer’s feeling that his life has meaning. Your argument’s unraveling.

H            I’m not contradicting myself. I think a serial killer’s feeling that his life has meaning is essentially the same as everybody’s else’s—it gets him up in the morning and through the day. But I also think it’s probably compromised by the killer’s being out of control on a self-destructive course. He might even have some moral guilt for what he is doing and hope to get caught. Or, if he’s truly deranged he lives in  his own world and we would judge him accordingly. To tell you the truth, I would like to think that a person can’t fully feel that life has meaning if the consequences of living out that feeling are bad for himself or others.

S            A touching sentiment. But are you serious? History roils with evils perpetrated by people who seem to have felt fine about doing harm to others.. Look at Islamic suicide bombers today. They feel that their lives have meaning, and they judge the consequences of that feeling, which is to kill infidels and themselves, to be good. They dramatize the moral flaw in your entire argument about the meaning of life being a feeling. You can’t trust feelings. They are bad maps to morality.

H            There you go slighting feelings again. I readily concede that there are people who don’t feel bad about doing bad things—I wish they did. But I think they do this through moral rationalizations. They define “bad” and “good” in their own self-serving way. And those rationalizations—or often delusions—are exactly what enables them to feel that their lives have meaning. Islamic suicide bombers get their feeling of meaning from the delusions of religious fanaticism. But they are a special case, too. On the one hand, they surely have a strong feeling that their lives have meaning because they think they possess transcendent religious truth and are acting for God. On the other hand, they think that truth tells them the meaning of life is to hate life in this world and to leave it by murderous suicide. To feel that your life has meaning only because you are going to kill people and yourself so you can go to paradise is not the same thing as feeling that your life has meaning in this world. It’s a perversion. And a kind of madness.

S            You keep dismissing inconvenient cases as madness. But what about the leaders? They’re not suicidal. They just persuade others to be. And they must have an intense feeling that their lives have meaning—to serve Islam and destroy Western civilization. Isn’t their feeling morally equivalent to that of anyone else who wants to help humankind?

H            No, it isn’t. Because here we come to the tyrants I said we’d talk about. The leaders of Islamic extremism are like other tyrants, messianic figures, and fanatics whose lives have meaning because they think they can change or conquer the world. Whether or not they enfold themselves in some higher moral purpose—as Islamic extremists do—they feel that their lives have meaning fundamentally because they think of themselves as superior and relish having power over other people. I doubt that the harm they do to others causes most of them any qualms. But they always make the world worse and come to bad ends themselves. Like John Marcher, their feeling of meaning may be intense, but it is misguided because it leads to ends they hadn’t wished for.

           This still sounds like you let morality eclipse feelings, as it must.

H            Well, I certainly am making moral value judgments here about the consequences of feelings. I’d sum up these judgments like this: although we can’t very well judge the morality of feelings in themselves, we can judge actions and the justifications for them. Therefore, if a person’s feeling of meaning in life leads to actions and consequences that harm that person or others, then those actions and consequences are morally wrong, and so is the philosophical meaning of life that justified them. Serial killers, suicide bombers, tyrants, and John Marcher all fail morally here, despite their feelings.

S            You really are a conventional moralist after all. But how do you know what “harm” and “bad” and “wrong” mean? You assert that people who do harm to others without guilt define “good” and “bad” self-servingly, but who’s to say what the truth is here? Don’t you define these terms self-servingly?

 H            Now who’s the relativist? Not me. But, to answer your question, I’ll have to talk more about how the meaning of life is both a feeling and a value judgment, and delve further into human nature and morality.

           Are we starting over yet again?

H            No. But we have to go back to Aristotle.

           You can always go back to Aristotle.

Human Nature, the Good, and the Meaning of Life

H            True. He did say a lot about the meaning of life. But we only touched on his idea of happiness. Now we go to his definition of good, which underpins his idea of happiness and his conception of human nature. Then everything I’ve been saying will come together and convince you I’m right.

           I doubt that.

H            Of course you do. But I’ll take the chance. Drawing on a common sense Greek definition, Aristotle said “good” means essentially that something fulfills its nature, or does well what it is supposed to do according to its nature. A good horse is one that does well what a horse should do according to its nature—run fast, carry riders, pull cargo, and so forth. A good road is one that does well what a road should do according to its nature—efficiently and safely transport travelers where they want to go. And a good human being is one who does well what a human being should do according to its nature. But human nature is more complicated than the nature of a horse or of a road, or of anything else. Human beings have many inherent needs that must be satisfied for them to fulfill their natures. For instance, human beings are not only physical creatures with an inherent need for physical health but also social creatures with an inherent need for family, friends, and society. They are also emotional beings with an inherent need for love and emotional contentment. But, above all, human beings are uniquely mental creatures with an inner life of mind, imagination, will, and the freedom to choose how to live. Therefore they have an inherent need to cultivate that mental life in order to make the choices that will satisfy their many needs. When human beings learn to do that and fulfill their natures, they are doing well what they should do according to their nature, and then they become truly good, possibly excellent, and happy.

S            You’re oversimplifying again. And it doesn’t sound very moral. Besides that, you rely on the doubtful premise that moral good derives from nature. You know where that can lead. The Marquis de Sade concluded that because cruelty exists in nature and can bring natural pleasure it is natural and consequently good.

H            The Marquis de Sade perverted the idea of nature. Nature as you find it in the wild is not the same as human nature. That was Aristotle’s very point about human beings. And I dare say all thinkers have based their moral ideas on some assumptions about human nature. Those who think human nature is irrational and bestial tend to value authority more than  freedom, whereas those who think human nature is more rational and benign tend to prize freedom over authority, or at least to advise teaching human beings to act on their own. Political conservatives and liberals have historically divided along more or less these lines. Politics aside, I’d say Aristotle, and later Rousseau—both leaning to the liberal side—gave perhaps the most persuasive arguments for how we should follow human nature to define morality and the meaning of life.

S            Rousseau once more? You do go in circles.

H            No. I’m just tipping my hat to some of the thinkers who tell us most about how to think about the meaning of life. Now, Aristotle says, in effect, that the best way to get the feeling that our lives have meaning is to satisfy our natural human needs in the right amount—not too much or too little, which is not the same as moderation—so we can become complete and consequently good and happy human beings. Anyone who gets that feeling from doing things that fail to satisfy these needs is wrong and will lose the feeling and become to some extent an incomplete, bad, and unhappy human being. That’s not Christian morality, but it’s Aristotle’s, and I think it makes sense. Rousseau agreed with Aristotle that we must fulfill our natures as human beings in order to be good and happy. And he stressed that we must acquire two qualities to do this: self-knowledge and self-mastery. This was his creed—it wasn’t to instinctually follow nature. He also thought self-knowledge and self-mastery were very difficult to achieve in modern culture because this culture pressures people to live for false values and unattainable desires, which leads them into weakness, insecurity, discontent, and amorality and prevents them from fulfilling their true natures as good and happy human beings. So Rousseau judged modern culture to be more wrong than right in its standards of the meaning of life. And he was probably more right than wrong.

           Anyone can define human nature. But who is correct, and how do we know? Human history has suffered mightily from people who claimed they knew human nature and derived their morality and politics from it. All political and religious fanatics do this. The debacle of Communism is a classic example.

H            True enough. I share your concern about the perils of asserting absolute truth about human nature or anything else, especially in politics and religion. Robespierre, by the way, twisted Rousseau’s ideas like that to justify his own tyranny during the French Revolution. And he got his head lopped off for it. It wasn’t Rousseau’s fault. Communism, well, it had the failings of an arch idealism paradoxically rooted in a theory of historical materialism. Anyway, I still say that Aristotle and Rousseau were on to something about how morality and the meaning of life are rooted in human nature. I don’t call this an absolute truth. It’s a useful idea.

S            But didn’t Aristotle also say that besides common human needs, individuals have different degrees of them that must be appropriately satisfied? This implies that someone could have a natural individual need to exercise power over others and become a tyrant. Does that natural need make it morally acceptable?

 H            No. And Aristotle wouldn’t think so either. Being practical minded, he recognized that people differ to some degree in their natures and therefore their needs. He would indeed admit that some do have more physical energy and will and strength than others and therefore a greater individual need to use those capacities. But he would deny that anyone has a natural need to dominate others or rule the world. He made a clear distinction here between needs and wants. Needs are natural and universal, and satisfying them in the right amount is good for us as human beings. Wants go beyond needs and can lead us astray from getting the right amount of what we need. For instance, a person might want more power than he or she needs. And if the person acts on that want and gets too much power, true needs will be neglected and the person will pay a price as a human being.

           So you think that history’s villains, like Adolf Hitler, have not fulfilled themselves as human beings, even though they had great individual needs for power or other things and felt that their lives had meaning?

H            Yes. I said this in part back with the tyrants and other bad guys. Even if they feel that their lives have meaning, such people are going beyond a human and individual need and acting out aberrant psychological wants that harm themselves and others. Do serial killers need to kill others? No, they want to, and acting on that want undoes them. This kind of thing unquestionably happened with Hitler. Nietzsche would say so. The Nazis took Nietzsche as a mentor for his bold ideas of the Will to Power and the Superman and the like. But he would have seen in Hitler and the Nazis not only a perversion of his ideas but the workings of resentment—which is a hunger for revenge and power born of weakness and hidden self-hatred. Nietzsche defined good quite like Aristotle did—both idealized  an aristocratic ideal of human excellence. Strong people, Nietzsche said, use their strength to fulfill themselves through severe self-discipline; and they call this good. That is their morality. They don’t need to dominate others. But weak people live to get revenge for their own inadequacies by dominating others. That resentment gives meaning to their lives, and they call it good. We’ve all known people like this. But theirs is a self-deceived, dishonest morality that falsely justifies their feeling that their lives have meaning. In the end, their feeling of meaning and its spurious justifications do no one any good. Nietzsche thought it was driving Western civilization into the ground.

S            How about Dostoevsky’s Underground Man? He felt resentment but knew it. And he defined human nature and morality in ways very different from you and your favorite philosophers. He said the essence of human nature is the freedom to make random, irrational choices, and not to follow rational self-interest, and he demonstrated this freedom by doing absurd, self-destructive things. What do you say about his version of human nature and morality?

           The Underground Man is an odd ball. And he said himself that he was a sick man. But he is not so alien to us as he might seem. I suspect that now and then we all do what he does. I mean, we do something risky and even possibly self-destructive just because we want to do it, and perhaps to prove to ourselves that we are free to do what we want to do, and secretly we think this freedom is good for us. And to some extent it is—we have a human need to make choices. This shows again how morality of any kind, as Nietzsche said, is fundamentally a value judgment that declares one thing good and another thing bad for us. Therefore, our moral judgments are judgments of psychological self-interest. And that’s what Nietzsche meant when he said that psychologically strong people adopt a morality that openly reflects and serves strength, whereas psychologically weak people adopt a morality that secretly reflects and serves weakness. There is more truth in this idea than most people would admit. But I would describe our psychological self-interest and moral value judgments a little differently from Nietzsche. I’ve suggested this already, but now we’re dealing directly with human nature and morality. I’d say we base our judgments about what is good and bad for us largely on what gives us the feeling that our lives have meaning. We implicitly say this feeling is good for us, then we say that the way we get that feeling is also good for us—and probably objectively and morally good at that. So Nietzsche was right: psychology trumps morality. Our value judgments about the meaning of life and what is morally good and bad will always ultimately have to satisfy our psychological need to feel that our own lives have meaning, or we will change those value judgments.

S            Now we’re back to those damn feelings. I thought you were going explain how you would judge the moral worth of anyone’s meaning of life.

 H            But I’ve been doing that. You don’t see it yet? I’ll sum it up with a simple answer to the question of how I define “bad” and “harm” and “wrong” and how my “theory,” as you call it, of the meaning of life jibes with morality. It is this: the feeling that our lives have meaning ought to be good for us as individuals and as human beings with all of those needs I mentioned. If that feeling leads to actions that harm us or others as human beings, then the way we got that feeling and the actions that follow from it are morally wrong. That’s it in a nutshell.

S            Maybe. Still very conventional and vague. You’ve tossed around some generalizations about what is good and bad for human nature as you and a few philosophers define it. But I want some specifics about how we can find a meaning of life that does not just feel good but has actual morally good consequences in the world, and I want to know what those consequences are.

H            Well, I don’t know how much closer I can come to that, but I’ll try. It’ll require more repetition, though. Can you take it?

           Just make it short and simple.

           You’ve become very demanding. Are you getting bored?

S            Let’s say I’m ready for the climax.

           It’s not very climactic, but I’ll be brief and give you a good ending. You’ll just have to be a bit patient while I fit the pieces together.

S            I’ll contain myself. But get on with it.

How Should We Feel That Our Lives Have Meaning?

H            All right. I’ll start with with this: three plainly stated and clearly related value judgments, which should now be familiar to you. First, our philosophical meaning of life (or the value judgments that create it) should give us a strong feeling that our own lives have meaning. Second, acting on  that feeling should enable us to satisfy our natural human needs, crowned by those of mind, imagination, and will, fulfilling us as human beings and individuals. Third, acting on that feeling should also contribute something to help other human beings fulfill themselves in the same ways. These three value judgments  clearly define a humanistic morality, or value system, because they root the meaning of life in human feeling, they make human beings responsible for getting this feeling through their own value judgments, and they take human nature as the measure of the good ways of doing that. But I would make these ideas more or less the measure for judging anyone’s morality and meaning of life.

 S            OK. A start. But still vague. Can you bring this down to the lives we live and give examples of how a person could find the kind of meaning of life that you say we should find?

 H            If I seem vague, that’s because I’ve only been trying to explain how to think about the meaning of life in general—as both a universal feeling and as the value judgments that give us this feeling. I have also identified in general the kind of value judgments I think we should make to get this feeling, but, as I keep saying, there are many equally good particular judgments we can make to do this. But since you insist, I’ll give you some examples to satisfy your hunger for particulars. And here I’ll have to underscore the distinction that everyone must make between indispensable needs and incidental wants. If, for instance, you are a person who deeply loves music and has musical talent, you have an indispensable need to somehow have a life in music in order to feel that your life has meaning. But if you want to live for music alone, and so you neglect your other needs and ignore or impair the good of other people, you will sacrifice the indispensable for the incidental and convert a good meaning of life into a bad one. Or, as I’ve already said, if you are a person with great energy and an ability to lead other people, you have an indispensable need to use that energy and ability in ways that make you feel your own life has meaning. But you should not let doing that induce you to want so much power that you eclipse the indispensable with the incidental, obscuring your other human needs and losing the good in your meaning of life. I would say much the same thing about religion. If you are a person with a deeply religious or spiritual nature, you have an indispensable need to make spirituality central to your life in order to feel that your life has meaning. But if you want so much spirituality that you deny your other human needs and become a fanatic who sparks conflicts with other people over religion, then you have traded the indispensable for the incidental, and you no longer have a good meaning of life. Here again I am making several humanistic value judgments about human nature and the good. And we can debate them further if you want. That is what the history of morality is: people making value judgments about what is good for themselves and other people.

S            You seem to echo the cliché that we should all just find our bliss. But, okay, now tell me this, what is your bliss, and how do you get it? Or, in your terms, what do you take to be the philosophical meaning of life that gives you the feeling that your own life has meaning?

H            I’d hate to think I’m a cliché after all of this. But the answer to your question should be obvious by now.  The philosophical meaning of my life amounts to the value judgments I’ve been making all along. I’ll string them together for you, which will involve some more repetition. But you asked for it. First is a pair of judgments about human nature that I made at the beginning. These are: (1) that the meaning of life is essentially the feeling that our own lives have meaning and (2) that human beings have an indispensable need for that feeling. Second is a trio of judgments about how we get, or justify, that feeling. These are: (1) that we get, or justify, that feeling by deciding what is true and good in human life, (2) that we make this decision best when we know the indispensable needs of our natures as human beings and individuals, and (3) that the way we get the feeling that our own lives have meaning should somehow help others do the same. Third is another trio of judgments, this time about myself. These are: (1) that I am a person whose individual nature is rather intellectual and quite curious about human nature and the meaning of life, (2) that I  therefore I have an indispensable need to satisfy these qualities of my nature (among others, but high among them) in order to feel that my life has meaning, and (3) that by getting this feeling in these ways, I am able to understand and fulfill myself, and to help others do the same. There it is, the philosophical meaning of my life.

S            You’re not just a humanist, you’re an idealist.

 H            I’ve already granted that, haven’t I? But I’m a pragmatic idealist, as everyone should be—otherwise I couldn’t have come to such a practical conclusion.

S            Never mind that. Go another step. Tell me precisely how you live up to your own theory—what exactly do you do to get the feeling that that your own life has meaning in ways that fulfill you as a human being and helps others do the same?

           You can’t see it? Or are you just being an intractable skeptic? In short, it comes down to this: doing what I have been doing here today. That is, because I feel that my life has the most meaning when I am learning and talking about human nature and the meaning of life, I do this whenever I can—like talking to you as I have been. Doing this not only takes me toward fulfilling myself, it also makes it possible for me to help others do the same. You, my friend, are a beneficiary.

S            Ha! Ingenious. But I don’t know how much I’ve benefited.

H            It might take time to work on you. Not that this would change you much. It would only show you more clearly how you live out your own philosophical meaning of life, which I would say is largely this: you are a person with an intellectual nature, too, but whereas I have a humanistic curiosity you have a skeptical mind. So, you have an indispensable need to use that mind. Therefore, you feel your life has most meaning when you are doing what you have been doing today—skeptically questioning someone else’s way of thinking. You judge doing this to be good for you and for other people. And you are right. There’s your meaning of life, philosophically and psychologically, but I suspect you haven’t been aware of it until now.

           Ingenious again. But I still question your theory.

 H            As a good skeptic, you could do no less. I respect that. But it’s not a theory. It’s a set of descriptions and value judgments for thinking about the meaning of life. Here’s a tidy formula that puts it all together, and that you can question all you like.

 1.To think clearly about the meaning of life, we have to start by recognizing the importance in human life of feeling that our own lives have meaning.

2. If we do not have this feeling, our lives don’t have meaning for us and we will either change our lives to get that feeling or stop living.

3. This feeling is a psychological fact of human life and is basically the same for everyone (apart from the deranged), but it can vary in intensity from exhilaration down to the sheer will to live.

4.  We might call this feeling the subjective or psychological meaning of life.

5.  We can get this feeling in many different ways, such as religious belief, the love of beauty, professional accomplishment, attachment to others, following our deepest natures, or even from survival itself; and we normally get it in several ways together.

6. We can have this feeling without being entirely aware of how we got it.

7. To get this feeling most fully, we must satisfy the indispensable needs of our natures and not confuse these with incidental wants.

8. Whatever gives us this feeling, we implicitly or explicitly judge to be true and good.

9. These value judgments, however implicit, give us the objective or philosophical meaning of life.

10. These value judgments can involve a truth we consciously discover, as in religious revelation or learning the truths of our own natures, or it can be something we deliberately invent, as in imagining what we want to live for, or it can be something we do not wholly recognize, as in just living from day to day.

11. The psychological meaning of life is therefore universal to all people in the feeling that our lives have meaning. The philosophical meaning of life is relative to individuals in the value judgments of what gives us—or justifies—that feeling.

12. We might not be able to judge the moral quality of a person’s feeling that his or her life has meaning, but we can morally judge the effects of acting to get that feeling.

13. Because we can morally judge those effects, we can also morally judge how we got, or justify, that feeling.

14. How we get, or justify, the feeling that our lives have meaning is morally good if acting on that feeing has good effects on ourselves and others, and bad if it has bad effects.

15. Those effects are good if they help us fulfill ourselves as human beings and individuals in this world—satisfying our indispensable needs—and  help others do the same, and bad if they diminish our ability to do those things.

16. The best ways to get the feeling that our lives have meaning are those that make this feeling strong in us that also enable us to fulfill ourselves as human beings and as individuals—satisfying our indispensable needs—and to help others do the same.

 S            You call that tidy?

           I said you would question it. But it’s the best I can do. I only wish life were that simple.