Meaning and meaninglessness: a loving and transcendental path out of meaninglessness

Meaning and meaninglessness: a loving and transcendental path out of meaninglessness

“…There is decidedly nothing in the whole world that would make men love their fellow men,” said Ivan Fyodorovich, a character in the Fyodor Dostoevsky novel “The Brothers Karamazov.”

“Were mankind’s belief in its immortality to be destroyed…everything would be permitted…”

I sincerely apologize to my readers for bringing us so swiftly to such a dark perspective on our human condition, though I see it as a good starting point for understanding a crisis—a crisis of the soul—that we are currently experiencing (and have been for a long time): finding meaning in an otherwise seemingly meaningless world. 

For the last 2,500 years, mankind has been grappling with certain existential questions: What is the meaning of life? Why must I suffer? Why must I die? What is real? What should I do?

To some, these questions may mean very little: “Why should I care? I still need to go to work…”—an understandable position (and a worthy philosophical question). But to others, like myself, these questions can be paralyzing, demanding and crushing. 

More specifically, the question I will be exploring is  one of meaning and its various angles: “is life meaningless? What is meaning itself? What should I do about it?”

For readers who struggle with this question, as I believe many of us naturally do, I must make a few things clear from the beginning. I will not be able to provide in this article alone (or even in a Ph.D dissertation) a mathematically-sound proof that life is or isn’t meaningless. 

However, I can try to plant a seed of doubt in the minds of those who feel that life is meaningless.

So to begin, I ask what meaning is and why we come to believe that life is meaningless. 

It can be debilitating to go through everyday life without proper reason behind daily actions. It can make it difficult to get anything done, to find joy in life, to have motivation regarding things like going to college, doing homework or getting a job.

Dr. Marta Kunecka, a senior instructor in the philosophy department at Oregon State University, said that it is “hard to find meaning in a world where the truth is so blurred.”

It is easy to fall into meaninglessness and despair and there are a plethora of reasons why one might come to such a position, but I will be focusing on only what is common to most people.

Widespread materialism, the belief that nothing exists beyond matter and its change and movement, is a view that most people seem to hold.

This can lead to a feeling of meaninglessness because it nullifies a lot of our raisons d’etre: reasons to be. If the only things that exist are concoctions of atoms and cells, then there is no God, our emotions, stresses and toils are just changes in the position of matter (such as chemicals moving from one part of the brain to the other), and there is seemingly no underlying or transcendental cause of struggle, suffering, death and toil. 

That sucks, really. Such a realization can for some be unacceptable and overwhelming. It can make us feel like our suffering has no meaning, which only makes our suffering worse. 

The most uncomfortable part of this belief is that whether or not pain is merely the movement of atoms, it still hurts. 

Feeling like life is painfully meaningless is a symptom of materialism. So what should we do?

About a year ago I too was crushed by these seemingly obvious worldly observations. It was difficult to find reason to go to school, do my homework or even hang out with friends. This was different from depression, rather, it seemed to be in deep correlation with my beliefs about the nature of the universe: I was a strong materialist. 

But I was able to find a path out of materialism, a couple of paths, and I would like to share them with you in this article. 

Plato was a philosopher who lived from 429 BC to 347 BC. He was a student and disciple of the legendary Socrates, the father of western philosophy. 

Through reading the works of Plato, I learned compelling reasons to doubt my materialistic worldview. I gained a perspective that comfortably erred on the side of rationally believing in some sort of transcendental nature to our reality. 

It would be impossible to summarize all of his views in one article, but rather I will share with you his core contribution to philosophy: “the Forms.” This philosophical observation showed me that, through human reason alone, I could conceive of things existing beyond the physical world, which surely changed my life for the better. I will try my best to explain the theory of “the Forms:”

Let’s start with a circle, try to get a picture of a circle in your head. What is a circle? Well, it is a shape whose boundary is made up of points that are equidistant to its center. 

When we think of a CD, we are thinking about matter: the atoms, metals and elements that make up the CD. But what are we thinking about when we think about a circle? What is the material object of a circle?

Well, there isn’t one. In fact, there has never been and will never be a circle on earth. It is impossible to produce materially a shape that has a circumference perfectly equidistant to its center, even down to the atomic level. No matter how advanced our machines get, this will likely never be achieved. There will always be an error. 

So then what is a circle? How do we know what a circle is if there has never been a circle actualized on earth? Circularity is not made up of atoms, metals and elements. It does not have a size or texture and does not play Abbey Road when put into a stereo. 

So “a circle” cannot exist on earth. Does it exist then in the mind? 

At first, I was inclined to think it does. But interestingly, this is not the case, according to Plato. 

It surely cannot exist in the mind because our minds can create false ideas and circularity, as a form, cannot be false. Our minds can only create ideas or hold opinions that cannot be proven true until they are judged by how well they conform to their conceptual objects. 

For example, let’s say we picture the Empire State building to be 10 feet tall. This could or could not be true––we won’t know until we compare this idea to the real object in question.

We could, theoretically, believe that a circle could have points not equidistant to its center, but this would be proven false because we know that circularity involves points all equidistant to its center. Our ideas about these truths or objects may change, but circularity itself will never change. 

So if circularity doesn’t exist in reality or in the mind, where does it exist? 

In a mysterious and unknown “other world”. The “land of the Forms” or as the Greeks call it, “the Logos.”

When I first fully grasped this idea, it instantly destroyed my materialistic worldview. Understanding this “other world” or this “Logos” can be an eye opening and life changing experience. Dr. Kunecka says of the Logos that it is “the world to which we long.” 

“We feel meaningless because [we] don’t have that part of [us] nourished,” Kunecka said. 

But what now? This theory will not be able to instantly give your life meaning (how could it? Should I become a circle?) Rather, it should serve to instill just a bit of doubt about how we truly understand our world. There are things that exist outside of the material world and outside of our minds, and that is intense, beautiful and daunting. We may not know everything about them, but they exist. 

If you are interested in this and want to learn more, I recommend reading Plato. Start with his four dialogues on the death of Socrates: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito and Phaedo. They are commonly sold together (get the Hackett edition). Or, to learn more about “the Forms,” read his “Allegory of the Cave.”

But again, what now? While I cannot provide a definitive answer to the question of meaning (as it is, of course, still contested to this day), I can provide you with an answer, one that I find very dear to me. It is Dostoevsky’s answer. 

Fyodor Dostoevsky was a Russian author who lived from 1821 to 1881. He is famous for such books as Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov and The Possessed (also translated as Demons or Devils).

I would like to include a passage he wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, specifically a sort of analysis of this “other world” or “Logos” (or heaven).

“Much on earth is concealed from us, but in place of it we have been granted a secret, mysterious sense of our living bond with the other world [the Logos], with the higher heavenly world, and the roots of our thoughts and feelings are not here but in other worlds,” he says. “That is why philosophers say it is impossible on earth to conceive the essence of things. God took seeds from other worlds and sowed them on this earth, and raised up his garden; and everything that could sprout sprouted, but it lives and grows only through its sense of being in touch with other mysterious worlds; if this sense is weakened or destroyed in you, that which has grown up in you dies. Then you become indifferent to life, and even come to hate it. So I think.”

These were the moving words of the Elder Zosima, one of Dostoevsky’s characters. He saw hope in this other world, hope for the truth of love to be realized on earth. 

William Hubben, in a commentary on Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Kafka (all famous existentialist philosophers and writers), noted that Dostoevsky believed “the Truth” of this other world would be revealed to you to the degree to which you practice love

But what is love, specifically active love? It is unqualified, radical love for every human being that comes before you. 

You can center your whole life around this concept, and it can serve as your meaning. 

I believe that Dostoevsky himself would say that love is the path to the highest Good, the Form of the Good. If you place love as the cornerstone of your life, it can serve to give you a raison d’etre

Love is not just a chemical change in the brain. The Truth of Love lies not in our world but in the other, the Logos, and it gains its essence by being in connection with it. Love itself has a Form, just like a circle does. 

Kunecka wisely remarked that while it may be raining down here on earth, “the sun is always there…I think of the platonic forms in that way.”

Love is always there, far above the rain and the clouds, above the hate and pain that stands between us, above the untruth and blurred ideology of our time, and most importantly, above us, stronger than us, unchanging in form, waiting for us to accept its Truth and realize paradise here on earth.

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