life, the universe, and everything
All life is meaningless
Posted: 2005-03-24 01:03
4 comment(s)
Author: Phil Gengler
Section: Philosophy

As someone who seems incredibly prone to having bouts of both optimism and pessimism, I think I have an interesting perspective on life. It may be because I'm currently feeling pessimistic, but life is basically meaningless. I think it was nicely summed up in the Law & Order episode "Empire;" I don't have the exact quote, but the gist of it is that a hundred years from now, people are not going to remember or care about what was said in a courtroom, but a particular stadium (which was being planned during the episode) will be.

I certainly agree with the sentiment that the actions of now will be almost certainly be forgotten in a hundred years' time; indeed, I think most things will take even less time than that. I don't agree with the idea that a stadium, or any other structure, for that matter, is going to maintain its significance in the future, at least in the intended sense.

History is certainly not an authoritative record of events; there is bias in all of it, hence the quote that "history is written by the victors" to indicate that history slants to favor the winners of conflicts such as war. Through the years, as firsthand sources disappear, history depends greatly on what was recorded by the people who witnessed it. This carries a bias, as does the selection of what parts of it will be presented to the general public.

What's the point in all this? While we may name a stadium, or a building, or a statue, after someone of significance now, perhaps to memorialize someone or to commemorate someone's role in a particular event, years from now, the person it was named for will be forgotten. People will remember the particular circumstances and events surrounding the naming of the structure, but every other aspect of that person's life is basically neglected. For those who have their name attached to such things, this seems a good thing; after all, structures aren't named after someone because of the bad things they did, they're named because of the positive contributions of that person. Nearly all of the negative aspects of it are left out of consideration.

In that sense, buildings are a lot like history books (at least the ones that provide a general history, and not biographical histories). The people who receive mention in these books are known for something particularly famous, whether it be a good thing or a bad thing. Any other aspects of that person's life are extraordinarily condensed, if they are even mentioned at all. For example, few people today would deny that Abraham Lincoln was a good person, and every school history textbook I have encountered has portrayed him as a powerful figure who fought for the freedom of all men and the unity of America. While this is true, this is so much more to his life than that.

I'm not trying to take shots at Lincoln's reputation. I could make the same point with any other historical figure. What survives of them is largely their reputation, which is often shaped by one or two events of large significance.

I want to get back to my original point, though. Some say that being a historical figure gives them some sense of immortality, and that they have such an effect as to shape life years after their death. Historical recognition does not provide immortality; at best, it may have the effect of "extending" one's life a few years beyond their death. Once you move more than a few years past that, what survives is whatever historians (and the public) want to survive. At the time of the execution of a traitor, the general consensus may overwhelmingly be that the traitor absolutely deserved what they got; perhaps fifty years later, when the social atmosphere has changed, people may look back and see that person as a martyr. There are plenty of cases where someone has been put to death while in a very negative light, with the hope that their death would further whatever cause they stood for. At the same time, there are plenty of cases when people have not sought to be martyrs for a cause; they were killed for the conflict of their opinions with that of society, and while they may have hoped for a change in the future, they were not expecting their death to be the basis of a movement to change things. So when a person in the latter case is used in such a way, the supporters of the cause portray that person as a martyr. To strengthen their cause, they will attribute to him all sorts of things which may or may not be true, and they will attempt to suppress facts which suggest anything to the contrary. Thus, the person died, and their life ended there. What carried on was the idea of cause, with their name attached. The circumstances of their life have very little to do with the way their image is used later.

Generally, the people who die in such ways are only known because a cause chose to use them as martyrs. There is often not any event in that person's life that would otherwise have made them of significance. However the image of their life may be viewed later, their life was still meaningless.

Very few people who die are "resurrected" as martyrs for a cause. Very few people who live achieve significance enough to be remembered at all beyond the generation which knew them directly. The few people whose memory lasts longer than that still do not live on in immortality; the contortions of history see to that.

Many people would jump at the chance to be remembered for something they did. Plato attributed to Socrates the idea that "the unexamined life is not worth living," implying that if there is not some event that a person can be remembered for, by anyone, then their life was without purpose.

Largely, however, there is no direct credit to anyone for the changes of society. History may associate someone (or some group of people) with a particular change, and to some extent, it may be correct. However, it is incredibly rare for any one person to singlehandedly change the views of a society. That one person may lead a group of people, which are mostly responsible for the change, but the group is never attributed. The individuals in that group may as well not exist outside of their role as a member of that group. Their lives are not recorded in history, nor are their lives examined. However, every member of that group shares some portion of the responsibility for that change.

Changes in the views of society are rarely quick. They can often take years, and be so subtle as to go unnoticed at the time. The people in the group that effects a change may be long dead before it comes to be; these people died without knowing the result of their work. To them, their life was meaningless, as they failed to achieve any change in society.

In hindsight, we may see that this was not the case, but can we really say that the meaning of one's life is often not realized until years after their death, if at all? The person living that life is still dead, and they still retained the idea that their life had no meaning. It is not possible for us to change the view of that person, but who else is capable to determining the meaning of that life?

This is some of what I consider when I contemplate the meaning of my life, or what I may achieve later. The inertia of society means that whatever I may do (and I may not do anything, as is the case with most people) and so I live my entire life under the impression that it was meaningless. It is unlikely that I would have accomplished anything large among the group of people who knew me directly; this group is small, and much more able to be changed. If something I did were to have an effect of this group, it would likely have been during my lifetime. Once we move past that group, and even to some within that group, any view of me is flawed. I cannot think of anyone who knows everything about it (excepting myself), and I do not think it likely that anyone ever will. Thus, any image of me is necessarily biased twice; once by what I choose to 'release' about me, and the second by the portions that will be recalled and exaggerated by those who know it.

With each day that goes by, I feel that my life matters less and less. Sheer probability dictates that I am unlikely to ever accomplish anything of significance, and my own view of self agrees. When I try to look at the small things, and to find meaning in them, I fail to see any of it as adding meaning to life. I sit at my computer and write this, yet it is a meaningless exercise; it will not make waves that will shake the foundations of society. It may influence the thoughts of a few random people, but it is unlikely it is going to redefine anyone's ethos. In fact, it is not likely that any significant number of people will even read it.

Everything in my life carries this same feeling; every action feels mundane, as though I am merely "going through the motions" and waiting for the inevitable death to come. I have the free will to do what I wish, but if none of it matters, then what is the point? I choose to try and stay reasonably fit, but for what purpose? Regardless of how fit or healthy I may stay, I am still going to die, and regardless of whether I am in perfect health or am comatose, there is no effective change in the meaning of my life.

It seems that for everything I do, where I may strive to be at the top, so that I might have some effect, there are always others who do the same thing, but do it better. I always view myself in competition with these people, because in reality, that is what life is. It is a competition to see who can do something to provide meaning to their life. Certainly, I could invent a specific categorization in such a way that I was the best, but this would have to be so narrowly defined as to exclude virtually everyone else.

Try as I might, I accept that I will never be the best at anything, at least not anything that matters. I cannot find anything I am remotely near the top of, and as such, likely to be able to use to effect change. Thus, it seems that my entire life will be meaningless. And so what's the point?