It’s very commonly said that the root of most human unhappiness is the sense that one’s life has no meaning. This is, I suppose, most frequently said in circles interested in psychotherapy, because the feeling of meaninglessness is often equated with the existence of neurosis. And so many activities into which one is encouraged to enter, philosophies one is encouraged to believe, and religions one is encouraged to join, are commended on the basis of the fact that they give life a meaning. And I think it’s very fascinating to think out what this idea itself means, or what is intended when it’s said that life has to have a purpose.
I remember so well as a child listening to sermons in church in which the preacher would constantly refer to God’s purpose: “For you and for me.” And I could never make out what it was. Because when questioned about this, the reverend gentleman seemed to be evasive. What is the purpose of God for the world? We used to sing a hymn, too: “God is working His purpose out as the year succeeds the year.” And the nearest clue one got to it was in the (sort of) refrain of the hymn: “Nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be, when the Earth shall be filled with the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea.” And, of course, that raises the question: what is the glory of God?
Well, now, it’s pretty obvious, I think, that when we talk about life having or not having a meaning, we’re not using quite the ordinary sense of the word “meaning” as the attribute of a sign. We are not saying, are we, that we expect this natural universe to behave as if it were a collection of words signifying something other than themselves. It isn’t a point of view which would reduce our lives in the world merely to the status of signs. And it’s obviously in some different sense than that that Goethe wrote his famous lines at the end of Faust: “Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis”—forgive my pronunciation of German—“All that is mortal (or all that is perishable) is but a symbol.” And so: a symbol of what? What do we want to feel, what would satisfy us as being the meaning behind this world?
It’s so often, you know, that we don’t follow our ideas and our desires through. Most of the things that we want very fervently are things that we’ve only half-glimpsed. Our ideals are very often suggestions, hints, and we don’t know really exactly what we mean when we think about it. But there is this obscure sense in which we feel that life ought to have significance and be a symbol in at least that sense—if not just so arid a symbol as a mere sign. Or it also may mean that life is meaningful; an individual feels that his life amounts to something when he belongs and fits in with the execution of some group enterprise. He feels he belongs in a plan. And this, too, seems to give people a sense of great satisfaction.
But we have to pursue that question further, too. Why is it that a plan, why is it that fellowship with other people gives the sense of meaning? Does it come down, perhaps, to another sense of meaning that life is felt to be meaningful when one is fully satisfying one’s biological urges—including the sense of hunger, the sense of love, the sense of self-expression in activity, and so on? But then again, we have to push that inquiry further: what do our biological urges really point towards? Are they just, however, things always projected towards a future? Is biology and its processes nothing but going on towards going on towards going on?
Or there’s a fourth and more theological sense of the meaning of life. In all theistic religions, at any rate, the meaning of life is God himself. In other words, all this world means a person, it means a heart, it means an intelligence. And the relationship of love between God and man is the meaning of the world. The sight of God is the glory of God, and so on. But again, here, there’s something to be further pursued. What is it that we want in love with a person, and even a person in the sense of the Lord God? What is the content of it? What is it that we are really yearning after?
Well, now, if we go back to the first point—taking Goethe’s words that all that is transitory is but a symbol, and that we want to feel that all things have significance—it does seem to me that there’s a sense in which we often use the word “significance” where the word seems to be chosen quite naturally, and yet at the same time it’s not quite the right word. We say, for example, often, of music, that we feel it to be significant, when just at the same time, we don’t mean that it expresses some particular kind of concretely realizable emotion, and certainly it’s not imitating the noises of nature. A program music, you know, which simply imitates something else, and it deliberately sets out to express sadness or joy (or whatever), is not the kind of thing I mean.
So often when one listens to the beautiful arabesque character of the Baroque composers—Bach or Vivaldi—it is felt to be significant not because it means something other than itself, but because it is so satisfying as it is. And we use, then, this word, “significance,” so often in those moments when our impetuous seeking for fulfillment cools down, and we give ourselves a little space to watch things as if they were worth watching. Ordinary things. And in those moments when our inner turmoil has really quietened, we find significance in things that we wouldn’t expect to find significant at all.
I mean, this is, after all, the art of those photographers who have such genius in turning the camera towards such things as peeling paint on an old door, or mud and sand and stones on a dirt road, and showing us there that, if we look at it in a certain way, those things are significant. But we cannot say significant of what so much as significant of themselves. Or perhaps significance, then, is the quality of a state of mind in which we notice that we’re overlooking the significance of the world by our constant quest for it later. All this language is, of course, quite naturally vague and imprecise, because I think the wrong word is used—and yet, not entirely the wrong word because, as I said, it comes so naturally to us.
It was Clive Bell, the great aesthetician, who wanted to say that all the characteristic of art, especially the characteristic of aesthetic success in painting, was the creation of significant form. Again, a very vague, imprecise expression. But it certainly is an attribute not only of those moments in which we are tranquil inside, but also of moments of deep, spiritual experience—of what would be called mokṣa (or “release”) in Hinduism, or satori in Zen. That, in those moments, the significance of the world seems to be the world, seems to be what is going on now. And we don’t look any further. The scheme of things seems to justify itself at every moment of its unfoldment.
I pointed out that this was particularly a characteristic of music. It’s also a characteristic of dancing, and in the sensation of belonging with one’s fellow man; in the carrying out of some significant pattern of life, which I mentioned as a second sense of the world being meaningful. Again, the character of this feeling is, again, something that is fulfilled in itself. To dance is not to be going anywhere. When we dance in the ballroom, we don’t have a destination, we’re just going around the room. And it’s in doing this—it’s in executing the pattern, in singing the music with other people—that, even though this does not point to anything else outside itself, we again get the sense of meaning. And this is also obviously the case so often in the satisfaction of the biological urges. Does one live to eat or eat to live? I’m not at all sure about this. I’m sure I very often live to eat because, sitting around a table with people (I don’t like eating alone) and enjoying food is absolutely delightful. And we’re not thinking when we do this—at least certainly I’m not—that we have to eat because it is good for us, and that we have to throw something down the hatch, as Henry Miller said, and swallow a dozen vitamins just because our system needs nourishment.
I remember, quite recently, there was an article in the Consumer Reports about bread. And there had been some correspondence and protest, saying that the bread one bought (white bread one buys in the stores) is perfectly inedible and lacking in nutrition, and that it’s much better to eat peasant-type breads: rough pumpernickel and things of that kind. And the experts replied that our white bread is perfectly full of good nutrients and there’s nothing really the matter with it at all. Well, I felt like saying: it isn’t a matter, perhaps, of the bread being deficient in the essential vitamins. Bread isn’t medicine, it’s food. And one’s complaint against it is that it’s bad cookery. It tastes of nothing. And we do tend, don’t we, to look upon food so often for what it will do for us rather than the delight of eating it.
But if the satisfaction of biological urges is to mean anything, surely the point of these urges is not the fatuous one of mere survival. We might say that the point of the individual is simply that he contributes to the welfare of the race. And the point of the race is that it reproduces itself to reproduce itself to reproduce itself and keep going. Now that isn’t really a point at all, that’s just fatuous. Surely the race keeps going because going is great, because it’s fun. If it isn’t and never will be, then there’s no point, obviously, in going—I mean, looking at it from the most hedonistic standpoint. But then when we come to the question: what is fun? What is the joy of it? Again we come to something that can’t very well be explained in the ordinary language of meaning of leading to something else.
And this, I think, becomes preeminently true if we think of it in theological language: that the meaning of life is God. In any of the theistic religions, what is God doing? What is the meaning of God? Why does He create the universe? What is the content of the love of God for His creation? Well, there’s the frank answer of the Hindus that the godhead manifests the world because of līlā, which is the Sanskrit word for “play.” And this is likewise said in the Hebrew scriptures or the Christian Old Testament, in the Book of Proverbs, where there is a marvelous speech by the divine wisdom, Sophia, which in describing the function of the divine wisdom in the creation of the world—the world, in other words, is a manifestation of the wisdom of God—wisdom uses the phrase that in producing men and animals and all the creatures of the Earth, wisdom is playing, and it was the delight of wisdom to play before the presence of God. And when it is likewise said in the scriptures that the Lord God created the world for His pleasure, this again means, in a sense, for play. And certainly this seems to be what the angels in Heaven are doing according to the traditional symbolic descriptions of Heaven: they are ringed around the presence of the Almighty, calling out “Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!” through all eternity. Well, “Alleluia” may have meant something originally, but as it’s used now it doesn’t mean anything except, well, in our own slang, “whoopee!” It is an exclamation of nonsensical delight. And it was Dante in the Paradiso who described the song of the angels as the laughter of the universe.
Now, this sense of nonsense as the theme of the divine activity comes out also very strongly in the Book of Job. I always think that the Book of Job is the most profound book in the whole Bible—Old Testament and New Testament—because here is the problem of the righteous man who has suffered, and all his friends try to rationalize it and say, “Well, you must have suffered because you really had a secret sin after all, and you deserve the punishment of God,” or rationalize it somehow. And when they’ve had their say, the Lord God appears on the scene and says, “Who is this that darkeneth counsel with words without knowledge?” And then proceeds to ask Job and his friends a series of absolutely unanswerable conundrums, pointing out all the apparent irrationality and nonsense of His creation. “Why,” for example, He said, “do I send rain upon the desert where no man is?” Most commentators on the Book of Job end with the remark that, well, this poses the problem of suffering and the problem of evil, but doesn’t really answer it. And yet, in the end Job himself seems to be satisfied. He somehow surrenders to the apparent unreasonableness of the Lord God. And this is not, I think, because Job is beaten down and that he’s unduly impressed with the royal, monarchical, and paternalistic authority of the deity and doesn’t dare to answer back. He realizes that somehow these very questions are the answer.
I think, of all the commentators on the Book of Job, the person who came closest to this point was old G. K. Chesterton. He once made the glorious remark that it is one thing to look with amazement at a gorgon or a griffin, a creature who doesn’t exist, but quite another thing to look at a hippopotamus, a creature who does exist, and looks as if he doesn’t. In other words, that all this strange world with its weird forms like hippopotami, and when you look at them from a certain point of view (stones and trees and water and clouds and stars), when you look at them from a certain point of view and don’t take them for granted, they’re as weird as any hippopotamus, or any imagination of fabulous beasts of gorgons and griffins and things like that. They are just plain improbable.
And it is in this sense, I think, that they are the “alleluia”—as it were, the nonsense song. Why do we love nonsense? Why do we love Lewis Carroll with his
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.
All mimsy were the borogroves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Why is it that all those old English songs are full of “Fal-de-riddle-eye-do” and “Hey nonny-nonny” and all those babbling choruses? Why is it that when we get hep with jazz we just go “Boody-boody-boop-de-boo” and so on, and enjoy ourselves swinging it? It is this participation in the essential glorious nonsense that is at the heart of the world—that isn’t going anywhere, that is a dance. But it seems that only in moments of unusual insight and illumination that we get the point of this, and find that thus the true meaning of life is no meaning, that its purpose is no purpose, and that its sense is non-sense. But still, we want to use about it the word “significant.” Significant nonsense? Yes! Nonsense that is not just chaos, that is not just blathering balderdash, but that has in it rhythm, fascinating complexity, a kind of artistry. It is in this kind of meaninglessness that we come to the profoundest meaning.