What kind of life is the philosophical life? Is it, as Socrates proclaimed, the best life? Or is the philosophical life even capable of being a genuinely meaningful life? In this article, I will give an account of the philosophical life following two very disreputable guides: the popular scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell, and the controversial political philosopher Leo Strauss. I will argue that the philosophical project, eventually fails to bring meaning to the lives of those who practise it. This article has elements of intellectual autobiography, and is written in particular for others like myself who have struggled with the vocation of philosophy and the problems of meaning it presents. Many of the claims I make here are grounded in experience, and will be convincing only to the extent that they accord with the reader’s own experience or imaginative sympathy.
The Meaning of Life
A life without meaning will not be a good life. I will assume we can agree on this as a starting point. However, ideas about ‘the meaning of life’ can tend to be vague and unsatisfactory, for one thing because the phrase ‘the meaning of life’ has at least two major meanings. On the one hand, when we say ‘life has meaning’, we can be talking about the way we experience our lives. Someone whose energies and abilities are usefully focused on a task that matters to them, working towards a goal that they genuinely care about, will probably experience a sense of meaningfulness in their daily lives, even if their days are tiring and difficult. Conversely, someone who lacks direction, whose daily tasks do not move them towards any goal which seems important to them, is sooner or later likely to feel a creeping sense of meaninglessness, no matter how easy and pleasant their daily experience might be.
On the other hand, aside from this felt experience of meaningfulness, ‘the meaning of life’ can also point to a description of the world which we take to be the Truth-with-a-capital-T: the last word about how the world really is. A large-scale picture like this gives us a framework within which to see the world and make sense of it. It normally also provides a framework for our ethical lives, by telling us what we should and should not choose, and why. So we can say that Christians are those who hold Christian doctrine as the meaning of life in this sense, Marxists derive the meaning of life from Marxist doctrine, and so on.
Whereas the first form of the meaning of life is something we feel, the second form is something we understand. To distinguish between these two forms of meaning, I will speak of the personal experiential variety as ‘meaningfulness’, and the worldview-based understanding as ‘Meaning’, with a capital M not because it is more important than the other form of meaning, but because it is more ambitious, being concerned with ultimates and absolutes rather than the ordinary business of daily life.
Of course, this dichotomy between felt meaningfulness and Meaning is a very simplified approach to the issue of the meaning of life. However, for the sake of argument I will skip over the many ramifications and complications of this dichotomy and focus on just one issue: the relationship between meaningfulness and Meaning in the life of the philosopher. To do this I will need to say a little more about meaningfulness in general, before looking at how it manifests in the philosopher’s particular case.
Meaning & the Hero Quest
In his seminal work The Hero With A Thousand Faces (1968), the literary scholar Joseph Campbell sets out his claim that a particular kind of story, the hero quest, is universal across all the world’s cultures, and that such tales follow a standard, predictable structure. (I’ll be presenting and using Campbell’s ideas uncritically, but I should mention that he has been roundly dismissed in various circles, and many regard his work as problematic in a wide variety of ways. These critiques of Campbell are easily found.)
Campbell actually divides the hero’s journey into seventeen distinct stages, but to put it in broad terms, the structure of these stories goes as follows: First we meet the protagonist in their normal, everyday life: “Once upon a time there was a boy called Jack, who lived with his grandmother…”. Then there comes a ‘call to adventure’, which might take the form of a problem to be solved, or something desirable to be gained, or both: Jack takes the cow to market, and there he meets a man selling magic beans. The protagonist then crosses a threshold from the ‘ordinary world’ into the ‘special world’, in which there are dangers, but also special possibilities: Jack goes up the beanstalk, into the giant’s realm. In the special world, the hero encounters a series of challenges, and often the help of mentors and allies; they confront enemies, and eventually defeat their nemesis and lay hold of a prize: Jack ‘liberates’ various treasures from the giant’s palace, and eventually kills the giant by chopping down the beanstalk. At the end of the quest, the hero crosses the threshold back into the ordinary world, bringing with them the ‘boon’ they have won, which will sustain and enhance life not just for them but for the wider community: Thanks to the goose with the golden eggs, and the other treasures Jack has ‘won’, he and his grandmother will no longer live in poverty.
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