Approaching my 72nd birthday I’ve come to realize that wisdom isn’t a function of age, but of the realization of how little you really understand about the Universe of which you are an infinitesimal part. Now don’t get me wrong I’m a pretty smart guy, an intellectual at least in my own mind, but as smart as I think I am, there is so much of life that I don’t understand and that I never will understand. Accepting that fact is what I think wisdom is, as opposed to a smug certainty that one has the answers to all the eternal questions. Those eternal questions are those the average human thinks to themselves at points in their life and they are the same questions, in fancier words, that some philosophers have purported to answer.
What am I?
Why am I here?
What is my purpose?
How do I interact with the world around me?
The phrase that sums up all those and other questions is “What is the meaning of life”? My belief is that question is one that humans began to ask themselves untold years ago as their brains began to enlarge to the point of self awareness and when their lives became something more than a constant search for food and sex. The byproduct of that earliest human pleasure, other than a tasty meal, no doubt also served to catalyze the question of life’s meaning, as they nurtured their progeny.
Back then life was violent, brutal and short. With an evolving intellect and an expanding brain, nurtured by a better diet, it was inevitable that human thought would turn to their children’s future. In my own experience there is a effect of child rearing that evolves into something beyond personal needs, or even self survival. I believe this is part of our hard-wiring, but I am hardly the expert, merely a maker of supposition. If I’m correct though, this offshoot of human breeding, in tandem with our large brains, led us to foresee a “future” beyond our own existence. However, this aspiration for the better lives of our offspring was only a part of the picture. The knowledge that we would all die, the fear of death and what lay beyond, if anything, no doubt cast a pall over all of human existence and spurred a need to somehow overcome our fate. The reality too was that back then life was short for many and the age of 40 was considered “old age”.
So our ancestors lived their lives weighed down with the knowledge that their time alive was finite and would end all to quickly. Whatever success we humans have achieved, however, is due to our flexibility, ingenuity and adaptability. The “thinkers” among our ancestors applied their minds to the problems of mortality and the future beyond ourselves, by inventing religion.
The situation of course wasn’t as simple as just fear of death and there was more entailed to the invention of religion than mere mortality, because beyond that was the prolonging of life and staving off the inevitability of death. Imagine that primitive, prehistoric world if you will, seeing all the possibilities of premature death that existed for our ancestors. Some of course were as simple as death through attack by the animals you were hunting, or were hunting you. Other deadly dangers came from other humans spurred by envy, animosity and/or the need to dominate. Those were foreseeable for our ancestors and thus understood as part of life’s “game”.
However, death, or danger, from the environment was something that could come out of a clear, blue sky. Back then we no doubt saw our environment as fraught with danger and innately hostile to human existence. It was easy to imagine that the dangers that plagued us had some purposeful force behind them and so we invented nature gods. These forces of nature it was thought must be hostile towards us and so needed to be propitiated. It was natural to anthropomorphize them into having human needs. “The Golden Bough,” the seminal work of modern mythology, by Sir James George Frazer opens with the tale of the Sacred Grove of Nemi, the site of an ancient Roman Cult.
Each year a King of the Grove was established by battle and that “Kings” duty was to defend the grove, a metaphor for the bounty of nature, until killed by another “King” after the passage of a year. From this seed Frazer developed his masterful work. Throughout the world, as Frazer and others showed, the origins of religions dealt with sacrifices to the nature gods in the hope that nature would assure the life sustaining harvests and the waters humans needed to exist. As time passed and human knowledge of the world expanded exponentially, our religious myths evolved to keep up with the evolution of our societies and of our knowledge. But still it all came down to explaining the meaning of life and keeping our Gods at bay.
While I might be alone in this belief, at least I haven’t seen any other source, the single greatest innovation of the Jewish Torah was the story of the aborted sacrifice of Isaac, by his father Abraham. It’s context was a world where human sacrifice to propitiate Gods was universal. While today we would look at the sacrifice of a bull to forestall a God’s wrath as pure savagery, back then it saved human lives. This innovation represented a seminal step in the evolution of religious belief. In some areas of Asia, there was also a repudiation of human sacrifice. Taking human sacrifice out of the religious equation led to expansion of religious philosophy into more sophisticated realms of thought. The “meaning of life” began to be explored at a deeper level than just keeping the hostile God’s happy and thus having human sustenance.
Unfortunately, at least from my perspective, that more sophisticated exploration of life’s meaning really haven’t supplied the answers necessary for my own intellectual satisfaction. God, in this new formulation, wasn’t some force of nature, but was a policeman/judge/jury/executioner protecting Itself from being affronted by human behavior prohibited by Its’ Laws. Now of course I understand that what was going on was far more complex than those basics and that those who formulated religion were seeking to impose a humane structure on human society. Their belief was that the primitive, reptile brain savagery that exists in all of us, would be mediated by a dedication to a higher, more ethical belief. However, no matter the sagacity of any religion, the “sacred” words meant to civilize savage humans, could be too easily interpreted to justify actions causing death, destruction and chaos. The problem was always in the definition of “the meaning of life”.
Thus in Judaism and its descendants, the meaning of life shifts from a selfish “Nature God” wanting supplication, to a “Universal God” wanting total dedication and worship of His prerogatives and dealing out eternal punishment for those who don’t live up to HIS Expectations. I understand that for many people, these beliefs brings them comfort and solace. I don’t begrudge them any peace that this brings them, nor any of the lessening of the human fear of death that it supplies them. The reality is that whether there is an afterlife beyond death is currently unknowable and I doubt the future will answer the question. For me personally the idea of Heaven and Hell never seemed credible and those threatening me with eternal damnation for my sexuality, fools.
My view of the history of religions is that in all ages much of the best of religious belief, such as the “Golden Rule”, has been subsumed by fanatics who use religion to frighten people into obedience, rather than lead them into happiness. Beware of those who would set themselves as prophets of the human future, if it somehow entails making all worship at the “feet of their God” and excludes from salvation those who see the world differently.
This brings me full circle to the question I’ve posed in this essay and since I’ve claimed the sagacity of age and intellectual curiosity, I must answer it personally applying the answer only to myself and my life. My best guess is that there is no meaning to life in the sense that there has been some guiding force that is pointing humanity in a specific direction. It seems that the evidence points to the vagaries of random chance that has brought this species called humans to this planet. The purpose of life is for us humans to define for ourselves what our often frightening existence means. The greatest wisdom I know is defined in the words of Rabbi Hillel the Elder “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” and “If I am not for myself who is for me? And being for my own self, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”. Notice though that those words that I try to live by don’t define the meaning of life, they only define perhaps how we humans should co-exist.
I personally have found the “meaning of life” to be encapsulated in my children, grandchildren and in my wife, who has loved me and kept me alive. It is further found in living with those friends and family I love, being with them through life’s vicissitudes until the end. I expect no life after I die, my life will have had no greater purpose then empathy for those I love and for all those suffering the pain of their human existence. That is more than enough meaning for me and frankly on this question it’s all I’ve got.