Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Meaning of Life

Today was the last meeting of the year for the Prindle Institute student interns; we gathered together to discuss a short essay on the meaning of life that drew heavily on philosopher Susan Wolf's latest book, Meaning in Life and Why It Matters. The claim by Susan Wolf that we were discussing was that a life that is meaningful requires both subjective attraction (you find something that you really care about) and objective attractiveness (you care about something that is indeed worth caring about). A life is less meaningful if one of these two conditions is unmet. You might devote your life to something that is clearly worth doing, such as feeding the hungry, but just not happen to be that "into" it yourself. Or you might devote yourself to a true passion, but a passion for something pointless, like playing tiddly-winks.

The student interns were asking what makes an activity pointless. It seems that we have some fairly obvious examples. A passion for shopping at the local mall seems not to be an objectively worthwhile activity. Another one that was mentioned was counting all the tiles in every ceiling. But the more we thought about it, the harder it was to come up with any reasoned way of drawing the meaningful/not meaningful line.

Rousseau spent his last years obsessed with botany. He writes, "I was determined not to leave a blade of grass without analyzing it." Is this pointless, to try to observe every blade of grass? Someone in our discussion suggested that it would be pointless to try to COUNT every blade of grass. Maybe. But what if while you counted it, you let yourself LOVE it? Is God wasting His time by numbering every beloved hair on our heads? I thought of the artist in the Denver Art Museum who paints exquisitely detailed close-up paintings of different clumps of grasses. Why not spend a lifetime observing blades of grass?

What makes this different from shopping? Maybe it's that we feel that the shopper doesn't really LOVE each item in each store in this kind of intense, attentive way. Or maybe we feel that the shopper could love shopping only if she were conditioned to do so by a consumerist culture. Or - ?? It does seem to me that all those blades of grass and hairs on our heads are worth loving in a way that all those i-pods and i-phones are not.

We didn't settle the question of the meaning of life this afternoon. I have Susan Wolf's book on my shelf in my Prindle office right now, waiting to be read, and maybe she'll settle it for me. But it was a good conversation on a gray December afternoon, by the fireplace.

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