The Human Situation – The necessity of meaning in life – the problematic nature of human existence – a thing that must be done by everyone – to have a human life we must philosophize. To live is to find meaning in this world and to decide what we shall be, what we shall believe, what we shall do with the life given us.
“To sensitive spirits of all ages life is filled with cruel contradictions and bitter ironies. Human experience is capricious and our finite minds are not able to see enough of life at one time for us to know for sure what is going on. We see only fragments of life and never the whole … Just under the surface of the active human enterprise implicit in all we think and do there lies the eternal question: What is the meaning of existence?”
J. S. Christian
Our life is a perennial surprise. The very fact that you and I exist at all is a continual surprise. But there is more to it. This life we are given, or are thrown into, is full of cruel contradictions and it does not lack the element of tragedy. Only a complete fool can live or rather vegetate and not see that we are appearing on the scene together with a host of other beings of all sorts: the universe, completely unprepared. We are not told beforehand that we are going to live. Nobody asks us whether we want it or not. Thus we are ‘thrown into existence’ willy nilly to be always puzzled by this “thrownness “and finally merge into the mystery of death. Mystery is our origin, mystery is our life and mystery is our death.From the Unknown we emerge, in an unknown we exist, and we go into an unknown. We are given few moments of surprised existing only to disappear into another sea of the mysterious past… Very soon we realize that we are imprisoned in many ways. We are ‘boxed in’ for few moments of time which is given to us – our lifespan. It is short and there is no escape from this prison of time. We are also imprisoned in space, because we are body – whatever this means – and every body is imprisoned in space. This spells our limitations: very little time in little space. We cannot do anything about it. We are doomed to be carried towards an end and we do not even know when this end will come. As Heidegger would say, we are “beings unto death.” Our experiences are so short and limited that it seems to be ridiculous to try to know, what is going on really. Then there are the contradictions we face: our absolute desire for “happiness” and the cruel disappointments, the frustrations. We realize that the brief moments of satisfaction leave us only thirstier, more dissatisfied. All our dearest strivings are often smashed against the inexorable wall of suffering, misunderstandings, cruelty of life and its transitoriness. Everything moves fast in-between our fingers: we cannot catch any moment of our existence. It will pass. So will we. The desire for more experience is denied. I have only this: my few moments of my existence and no more. I live now at this time, in this country, in this spot of the world. All this is given to me only once. I do not have much to say here. This is the element of fate in my existence.
My awareness is limited, my mind is limited, my knowledge is painfully small, and my whole existence seems to be a brief awakening to mystery without enough time or possibility to get a closer look…
This is the riddle of my life. The basic fact of my thrownness and brief co-existence with the world. The world will not let me rest for a while. I am someone who sees and loves, hates and desires this world. I move within it, I suffer it, I fight it… My life is given to me. It is finding myself in the world for a little surprised awareness. I am carried by this mysterious passing, which we call time, towards the unknown…This wonderful surprise of my bare and puzzling existence. This is my life. I am in it, I am it. I am my life. This is my human situation. It is exciting and mysterious, it is painful and sweet, it is comical and also tragic. It is wonderful, that is full of wonder! For yours and mine basic experience is wonder and surprise! Everything is a problem for a human being.
Being what we are, we want to know. All men by nature desire to know, said Aristotle many centuries ago. To be human means to ask. A stone does not ask questions. It exists without knowing that it exists. In a way of speaking it exists only for me, but not for itself.
It is radically different with humans. Enclosed in everything we do, suffer or experience in any way whatever – at the very roots of each moment of my existence – consciously or subconsciously there is the eternal question of all humankind: What is the meaning of existence?A quite popular book now, written by V. E. Frankl, bears the title: Man’s Search for Meaning. In this book the author relates his life in Nazi concentration camps and summarizes his observations of men and women in those most brutal and hellish camps ever designed by man for man’s victims. The basic message and conclusion of Frankl’s life is that the search for meaning, the need to have some meaning, is the most central and absolutely first and basic need in every human being. Perhaps the best description of man is > a searcher for meaning <. Give some meaning to human life and men will gladly give their lives for it, but take away this assurance of meaning of man’s existence and man must commit suicide, go insane, degenerate slowly and die anyway. This is true for every human life. Anything we do or suffer is done or suffered because it is somehow meaningful or seems to contain meaning for us. Without this belief in meaning of our lives there is no real human existence. This quest for meaning can be expressed in many ways but all of them can be reduced to the search for worth, importance, value of life.
“Is life worth living? What is the end of it all?” Without meaning man cannot survive and conversely, he will endure almost anything including torture, sufferings, humiliation and death as long as he sees some meaning in it.
To lose one’s life is a little thing and I shall have the courage to do so if it is necessary, but to see the meaning of this life dissipated, to see our reason for existing disappear, that is what is unbearable. One cannot live without meaning.
The absolute demand for meaning in life is so basic and strong that those who experience an existential vacuum, that is blindness to meaning of life, can think of only one thing: suicide. The awareness that life should be without meaning cannot be accepted seriously.
Leo Tolstoy when he was fifty and at the top of his literary fame, experienced a deep anguish that life actually may have no meaning at all. This deep anxiety ruined completely his desire for living.
“The force which drew me away from life was stronger, fuller and more general than wishing. It was a force like the former striving for life, only in an inverse sense. I tended with all my strength away from life. The thought of suicide came as naturally to me as had come before the ideas of improving life. …All that happened to me when I was on every side surrounded by what is envisioned to be complete happiness.
…I could not ascribe any sensible meaning to a single act, or to my whole life.
…The terror of the darkness was too great, and I wanted as quickly as possible to free myself from it by means of a noose or a bullet…”
Leo Tolstoy, My Confessions.
Tolstoy is only example. Each human being, because he or she is human, has this imperative hunger for meaning in the very center of his consciousness.Human existence, yours and mine and everybody else’s, is problematic. For the human mind literally everything is a problem: everything is a question mark. All questions human beings ever asked from the very appearance of the thinking man in the universe, are related to the question of the meaning of existence. Without meaning we cannot live and anything that can give meaning to my existence, to human existence is extremely worthwhile and extremely important. Since my experience of existence is a mystery, a problem, and since I am a human being, I must think and search for meaning. There is no escape from this under the penalty of not being authentically human. If I do not decipher meaning for my existence I perish, and after my mental suicide I shall fall
beneath the level of human life. But this search for meaning is exactly philosophy. Everyone therefore is a philosopher simply because he is human. Philosophy is simply: man thinking. This philosophizing is a mode of living.
Philosophy is a thing that must be done. It is as necessary as life itself. By the very fact that I am “thrown into” existence and live this existence as a human being I must philosophize, since, as Socrates remarked “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Each one of us wants necessarily to make life as meaningful as possible. This was true, is true and will be true about every human being and mankind as a whole. Each generation and each individual must go through this quest for meaning by himself or his life will appear a wasted, absurd tragedy leading nowhere. William James remarked very much to the point when he said,
Probably to almost everyone here, every one of us, the most adverse life would seem well worth living, if we only could be certain that our bravery and patience with it were germinating and eventuating and bearing fruit somewhere…
William James, Is Life Worth Living?
Each one of us has one existence only. This life which is given to me I must live myself. I myself must also make my life meaningful. The quest for my personal meaning is therefore a lonely search, which must be done by me, and only by me, alone. Since life without meaning I cannot bear – I must fill it with my personal meaning. I must live my life, not somebody else’s, and therefore the meaning of my life is unique to me, as I am a unique person. Philosophy is a personal attitude towards life as a whole, and the universe (all that exists) as I see it, and live it. It is a constant growth in developing my vision of me, the world in which I exist, and the meaning, which I try to realize and accomplish. This reflective-living-thinking is a heroic attempt to gain the vision of the whole experience of my adventure of existence as a human being. To live, we must think or perish, and therefore everyone is a philosopher by the very fact that he lives.
Philosophy is first of all, philosophizing, and philosophizing is undoubtedly a way of living – as is running, falling in love, playing golf, growing indignant in politics and being a lady in society.
Ortega y Gasset, What is Philosophy?
I said that everyone is a philosopher simply because he lives as a human being. As Ortega remarks, philosophizing is a way of living. Everything we do in our lives has some conscious or subconscious motive, a reason why we do it, a reason why we believe something. A reason why we feel this way, a reason why we are what we are. This is our philosophy. There is no life without it. Not a human life at any rate. Our life and our thinking, feeling and believing, our ways of behaving do not grow out of nothing. We are born into a definite – fated – environment. The childhood period is the time when we are molded almost entirely by the immediate world, and people closest to us. Those influences, and their name is legion, are all powerful. They make us what we are in the most true meaning of the word. As children, we imitate, and we believe, what the people in our immediate environment tell us. We do not have enough power of though and reflection to make the choice yet. Without criticism we accept the ways of living and acting in the small and narrow little world of our childhood. Our psyche, our behavior, our reactions, our beliefs are all taken in good faith from this small world of our birth and early upbringing. It must be this way. There is no other possibility open to us at this stage of our life.
But gradually we grow up: little by little. Our horizon of experience widens. We see more of the world, we meet different and new people. We learn that people live and think in very many different ways, and that our own way is not the only one possible. We start to compare, criticize, evaluate and very often we have to go through disillusionment, pains and doubts.
We realize that truth is not something that is ready made, waiting for us.
We realize that people differ profoundly
in ways of living
in ways of understanding the meaning of life
in their beliefs about themselves, the world, meaning of their lives.
It seems that there is hardly one truth to which everybody could agree. Examples are many:
1. Knowledge – Human knowledge is open to infinite progress.
1. Human knowledge is an illusion. A person really cannot have any certain knowledge at all.
2. Man – Man is the crown of all reality. He is destined to eternal bliss.
2. Man is an accidental byproduct of the blind forces of matter.
3. Meaning – All life is meaningful.
3. The appearance of humans is ultimately meaningless. Life is absurd.
4. God – There is an Infinite Divine Creator.
4. There is no God.
5. Immortality – Death is only a transition to a fuller and better existence.
5. Death is the ultimate end of human existence, the inevitable absurd ending of an absurd life. There is no afterlife.
Views, beliefs, visions of reality change in history and along individual lifetimes… It seems that truly everything is flowing, as Heraclitus taught.
Different traditions, customs, powers and institutions claim our allegiance and try to win us for their own causes. Our childhood’s naïve safety-feeling vanishes. We are awakening to reality, to ourselves. We cannot live someone else’s lives or take someone else’s beliefs and values uncritically. But we also realize that amid this confusion many people do not even truly try to examine their lives. They live sometimes their lives through without truly evaluating, examining themselves. They never grow up to authentic, reflective maturity. They lack the courage to think for themselves. We are tempted to join them. It is risky and frightful and painful to decide to be fully oneself, to truly start searching for one’s own personal meaning, one’s own personal philosophy. Why is this so? Because every growth is painful. The basic conditions here are:
(a) Determination for disciplined reflection
(b) Passion for truth
Courage; the capacity to face the unknown and to risk yourself, your so-called “security” of the “now”.
There is no way out. The very fact of our being alive in the world forces us to find our place in it, to decide what we shall believe, and what we will do with our lives. We said before that everyone is a philosopher simply because he is human and he lives. Each one of us however, is exposed to the temptation of an un-authentic living.
This un-authentic life happens whenever we do not decide at some point of our life to start truly the search, the personal search for our own meaning for own philosophy of life. It is extremely easy to fall into the trap of un-authentic existence. It happens automatically, unconsciously to us. Although we know that an unexamined life is not worth living, we may for irrational motives evade the facing of the basic problems of our existence. False concepts of security, emotional ties to unexamined values, and beliefs, ingrained prejudices, sloth of mind, lack of courage, to be fully oneself – all those factors are tremendous obstacles in our development towards our own philosophical life. Thus many people drift along as slaves of customs, fads and prejudices of their times, and are carried by time to their graves. The “common man” or the “faceless man” sells his time, his labor, his soul to powers and institutions and ideologies or mythologies which he really does not know. Nor does he care to know. This selling of himself provides him with false feelings of security, with false meaning of life. It is false because it has never been examined in depth. It has never been faced in an honest effort towards a true vision of the totality of the human experience of existence. Ultimately, it is something alien, imposed from outside.
An unexamined life is not worth living because it is a living in quasi-authenticity. Such a life ultimately leads to disillusionment, meaninglessness and tragic frustration. It cannot lead anywhere else.
To exist in the world as a human being means constant risking of oneself, constant deciding what we are, what we believe, what we do. There’s no escape since even if we evade making a decision we make a decision. We decide not to decide and that is a decision. Everyone is responsible at least to himself for his existence.
Since philosophy is essentially thinking and searching for the meaning of our lives, it must be done by everyone for himself, for the way we think determines the way we act and live and die.
is to explore life.
It means breaking free
to ask questions.
It means resisting easy answers.
is to seek in oneself
the courage to ask
The end of philosophy is not that we may know what men have thought, but what the TRUTH of things is.
Philosophy is the love of wisdom.
Its object is search for truth.
Wisdom is the art of happiness
TRUTH is the way to it.
Leszek Figurski "The Courage to Think For Yourself"
Leszek Figurski "The Courage to Think For Yourself"
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