PURPOSE AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – OTHERS – FAMILY – PART II (continued)

Last time we looked at finding purpose through others from the standpoint of extended family focusing on metaphysical and ethical dimensions. We continue now with the other considerations.

PSYCHOLOGICAL

No matter the philosophical depth of one’s living, I suspect the quality and meaning of life always includes a psychological component, which it seems to me is most pronounced in relationship to family. The School of Life notes one of the great values of family is ‘unashamed nepotism’ – meaning the reciprocal, justifiable, and socially approved preferential status we give to our relatives. Included in this is a willingness to overlook unfavorable traits. The result is an environment which meets what Baumiester and Laeary call the ‘fundamental need to belong.’1. There we are offered a level of understanding of “the underlying atmosphere of our lives that others will almost certainly lack.” 2

Family also permits otherwise uncharacteristic opportunities for us to spend time with types of people we otherwise would not as for example that between persons of marked age disparity as seen with grandparents and grandchildren. Family allows an unusually close interaction with members of the opposite sex in a safe forum.

SOCIAL/PRACTICAL  

If one of the components of a meaningful life is understanding one’s origins and place in the world, then another purpose of family relationship is the part played by shared and sharing of cultural origins. Closer family members give us the greatest context of our lives, but more distant relations, especially those through marriage, provide valuable comparison backgrounds which offers contrast and diversity in understanding the human condition in the safest environment possible.

As Aristotle explains, families serve the practical purpose of wealth acquisition and assistance with everyday needs whereas the State exists to create the conditions for a good life.3 Purpose for the family member then includes the rewards of familial sharing of wealth and professional opportunities as well as the obligation to aid other relatives as one’s own circumstances allow.

THEOLOGICAL

For Christian readers (and perhaps others) there is another purpose of family – the recognition of its divine origin.  Thomas Aquinas expounds on the duties of care and obedience which binds family members together.4 And of course there is also the escatological purpose – the desire to spend the eternal afterlife together. Metaphorically, this is reflected in the phrase “blood is thicker than water,” and mirrored in the attempt of so many families to place the remains of its members in the same cemetery or mausoleum. No matter your religious beliefs, you likely will admit if there were an afterlife, you would seek to reconnect with your ancestors and with your existing relatives.

—————————————————————-

1Saphire-Bernstein, Shimon and Taylor, Shelley E., Close Relationships and Happiness in The Oxford Handbook of Happiness, edited by Susan David, Ilona Boniwell, and Amanda Conley Ayers. Oxford University Press, 2015. Chapter 60; page 823.

2The Meaning of Life, from The School of Life, 2019. ISBN 978-0-9957535-4-9, page 29.

3Adler, Mortimer J, et. al., The Great Ideas – A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, Volume II, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1952. Page 488.

4Ibid., page 489.

PURPOSE AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – OTHERS – FAMILY – PART II

“I think the primordial reason of living is love. Love for the family is the best known and the easiest.– Gina Lombroso, 20th century Italian physician and writer.

 

 

Last time we looked at the formation of a family through permanent coupling and procreation and ended on the note that family is traditionally considered more extensive than spouse and children. As adults many of us have living mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, grandparents and cousins. These relationships are fundamentally different from spousal and parental ones but become increasingly purpose filled as we mature. On thinking long about this, it seems to me a discussion of family purpose breaks into five parts:

METAPHYSICAL

We start with the fundamental nature of existence – dualism versus materialism. Plato argues that humans have a soul, but that a soul is singular and unbreakable. Thus while the physical body of the child may share contributions from both parents, the soul is of another origin and occupies the body temporarily. In an earlier section, I dismissed the human soul as separate from the body, rather reflecting the non-physical manifestations of selfhood, will, and mind. Nonetheless as one contemplates purpose at the level of family, especially parents, it is worthwhile to recognize  metaphorically Plato’s teaching, that is,  the physical part is wholly the contribution of the parents while the non-physical part as independently formed and of more obscure origin.

A second metaphysical dimension is free will and fate. Clearly we lack the freedom to choose to whom we are born and to which biologic family we belong, but we exercise free choice in later association with and closeness to family. There is also the issue of fate – each of us more or less fortunate in the family we were born within, and even tied in some cases to the unpredictable future of our clan. At a minimum there is biological fate, the inheritance of certain physical traits and potential medical conditions.

Third there is the issue of identity. This seemingly internal enigma of what makes for the continuation of myself bleeds over into the family. Does the family play a part in my identity? Do we share some level of identity, or is complete disassociation possible or even healthy for us? Purpose springing from one’s perceived identity extends outward to our origins and those who claim us as one of them.

ETHICAL

We grow up in an immediate family whose older members grew up in an immediate family that includes our more distant relatives creating overlapping ethical beliefs. Shared values are the glue that holds the extended family together. Purpose and thus appropriate conduct for the individual is guided by many of those values including one of the most important – what value is placed on the family itself and on familial relationships. From this arises an unwritten understanding – we must contribute as possible to the good life, personal improvement, happiness, and meaning of recognized family members. In turn we expect or hope for their reciprocation.

(continued next post)

PURPOSE AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – OTHERS – FAMILY (continued)

Last time I reviewed the limited sense of external purpose and family typically experienced by the child, adolescent, and young adult. At some point but at varying ages, the majority of adults will seek to couple with another. The fortunate experience this as the permanent solidification of authentic love in  matrimony. For others marriage is arranged, a matter of convenience or necessity, or simply the best alternative to continued singlehood. Whatever the circumstances, marital union is highly purposeful: establishing an obligation to help the spouse have a good life, to permit their flourishing and self-perfection, and to contribute to their happiness and meaning.

But of course there is an additional and unique contingent purpose – the procreation (or adoption) of children – the tipping point where a couple becomes a family. Parenting is part role and part ultimate purpose – an undeniable opportunity to feel one’s life makes a difference. The parent is “spared the slightest doubt as to our significance or our role on Earth.”1 John Locke tells us “the end of conjunction between male and female [is] not barely creation, but the continuation of the species.”3 Add to this the dependency of the infant and the small child, and we see that an enduring relationship between spouses is a directive of Nature.

Will Durant goes even further, “marriage is not a relation between a man and a woman designed to legalize desire; it is a relationship between parents and children, designed to preserve and strengthen the race.”4. In this sense marriage originated in the necessity of human survival at a time when human lifespans were remarkably brief. It is only when modernity increased the human lifespan that the concept of marriage began to emphasize personal gratification.

Parenthood we see then is the convergence of biologic purpose, the expression of selflessness in regard to the child, and the identification and facilitation of the good life and happiness of one’s offspring. Our carefully cultivated internal virtue and purpose extends first to a mate and from there to the most tangible meaning life is likely to offer – children. Of course family is more than spouse and children; we will take up other familial relationships next time.

——————————————————————————

2The Meaning of Life, from The School of Life, 2019. ISBN 978-0-9957535-4-9, page 36.

3Adler, Mortimer J, et. al., The Great Ideas – A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, Volume II, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1952 page 486.

4Durant, Will, The Pleasures of Philosophy. Simon and Schuster, New York, N.Y., 1981. ISBN 0-671-58110-4, page 143.

PURPOSE AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – OTHERS – FAMILY

The data on happiness consistently point to the importance of relationships and family, and the potentially damaging impact of long-term trends towards increases in family dissolution.” – Geoff Mulgan.1

 

We have seen that purpose at the level of proximate reality distills down to relationships and that romantic love of another person offers profound degrees of metaphysical meaning and transcendence. Today we investigate the purpose family relationships fill in a meaningful life.

For the vast majority of mankind, the first arena of relationship experienced is that of the family. We awake from the blank consciousness of our infancy into a cognizant childhood already within a family unit – typically made up of a mother, father, and often siblings – though of course other compositions are not uncommon. To the developing brain of the child, purpose is perceived as ‘place’, that is, the child identifies its location in the family’s dynamics, one which it did not freely choose and which it is too weak to alter or escape. As the child’s ‘place’ feels largely imposed by more powerful persons, purpose is experienced as passive. In my own case, I was the fourth of four boys followed by three girls – thus I recognized the fractional attention possible by my parents, my reduced capabilities and thus necessary deference to my older brothers, and my place as buffer and support for my younger sisters.

By adolescence we begin to express our free will in rejection of a specific place, but for the most part accept the next phase, that of ‘role’ – to wit; whatever one’s personal preference, we concede a duty to fill certain functions in the family – completing chores, helping younger members, and complying with parental rules to the extent needed for family harmony and stability. There is an increasing understanding of extended family – uncles, aunts, grandparents, and cousins, where again filling a role is in play. Purpose at this stage for most is limited essentially to performing the minimum duties that avoid punishment or sanctions. Understandably, most young people will be hard pressed to find greater purpose in their familial relationships.

Stepwise the young adult achieves independence from the dominance of family, develops increasing inner strength, and identifies the internal purposes listed earlier. He or she likely will look first to romantic love and friendships (the subject of future blogs) for externalized purpose. Somewhat later, the mature adult most often feels a desire and senses a purpose in reconnecting with family and recreating a family unit of his or her own.

(to be continued)

——————————————————————————

 1Mulgan, Geoff, Well-being and Public Policy, in David, Susan A. et. al., The Oxford Handbook of Happiness. Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K., 2014. ISBN 978-0-19-871462-0, pages 521. (Mr. Mulgan is a representative of The National Endowment of Science, Technology, and the Arts (NESTA), London, U.K.)

PURPOSE AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – OTHERS – ROMANTIC LOVE – PART II

Absurdity is king, but love saves us from it.” – Albert Camus, Notebooks 1935-1942, (June 1938).

Last time we explored some of the thoughts of great thinkers on the purpose of romantic love in the understanding and experience of the meaningful life. Today I wish to express some personal views on the metaphysical implications of true love between two people. While infatuation with another person offers some clue as to these principles, people who have been deeply in love know that they are fully realized only in its pure form.

We start with Kant who declares that a key a priori proposition of reality is that all events occur in space and time, which is to say that no matter the truth of any statement about any event, we know that at a minimum it will occur in space and time. But love transcends space and time; thus time with one’s beloved passes quickly while time apart passes slowly, and no matter how recently you first met, internally you sense you have always known each other and time before that meeting becomes attenuated. This kind of love never wanes, in fact, one cannot imagine an eternal afterlife without the one we love.

Likewise transcendence of the spatial dimension is the reason you can never be close enough to the one you love and why no distance diminishes your love for them (making love in this sense stronger than any force in the universe).  There is another way in which love violates metaphorically the laws of space that most come to experience; what I call the two world theory. That is, lovers live in two worlds: the large world of family, society, occupation, politics, and humanity; and the little world – a world of just two – a world where lovers sometimes find themselves unexpectedly, and the one they to which they learn to retreat. Purpose then comes down to prioritizing the little world over the large one. All of these transcendental qualities of love then are a powerful means to escape the material reality encased in space-time.

Free will, fate, and fortune also are amplified in the realm of romantic love. On the one hand those in love feel an inescapable force willing them to love the other, while on the other hand, true love permits complete freedom as no actions by one of the pair diminish the love of the other. Meanwhile most persons in love feel their love is fate or destiny, while simultaneously being awed by the incredibly good fortune to have met their soulmate.

Love includes other remarkable features. For example the sudden falling in love is an accessible instance of the Zen concept of the grasping of reality;  at thunderbolt speed, one loves without full knowledge but with complete knowing. Also love is a spiritual pairing an affirmation of the dual nature of reality (material and immaterial), a powerful example of the enigmatic deconstructed soul. In profound moments some may experience dissolution of identity, as one’s identity is inescapably altered by merging with another’s.

Regrettably some never come to know metaphysical love while others choose to forego it. I suspect a meaningful life is possible in the absence of romantic love, but it is a purpose not to be missed lightly.

PURPOSE AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – OTHERS – ROMANTIC LOVE

“Omni vincit amor” – Virgil.

We start the area of purpose in the realm of others with the intimate relationship. There seems to be no question that by adolescence or early adulthood most of us recognize the importance of intimacy and finding of the specific individual for romantic love as a vital purpose of our existence. There is of course the instinctual drive to sexual gratification and reproduction, and the deep thrill of sharing another’s physical person, but this seems to me to be the lower dimension of this form of relationship. Rather the bonding of oneself to a single person seems to most poignantly resolve one of the great challenges of being human – loneliness and disconnectedness. As Plato tells us in Symposium, love originates in the desire to complete oneself by finding our spiritual ‘other half ’ in order to become metaphorically whole.2

Love is not mainly the desire to possess another, but more so the concern for another – a locus where internal purpose crosses over to external purpose. Intimate relationship offers a greater understanding of the human condition. Uniting with another creates feelings of an interconnectedness of all things thereby “shrinking the ego to the vanishing point.”3 Gabriel Marcel contrasts the extreme of self-consciousness with strangers to the intersubjectivity of shared experience among intimates and the power of the deep experience of another person as a safe harbor in the ‘struggle for existence.’4 Love of another diminishes the narcissism of the individual and offers the extremes of pleasure and pain; a bittersweet mix of joy and suffering. Dante tells us suffering because of love is analogous to the suffering of the martyrs – “an abnegation of the self for a value that transcends egoism.”5

Plato also reveals that in the sense of the forms or the ideal, love is ultimately the search for the beautiful,6 another impulse pursued at the level of proximate reality. Here we stumble upon an enigma – is a person loved because she is beautiful or beautiful because she is loved? This seemingly rhetorical question is resolved in the essential duality of love and beauty, that is, the answer to both questions is yes. However, beauty at the level of the ideal extends beyond the exterior. For instance, sexual and spiritual love become analogous to the ‘beatific vision’ in The Song of Solomon.7

To recap, romantic love is shared pleasure and pain, the desire to be united with another physically and spiritually, escape from isolation, an opportunity for understanding what it means to be human, a shrinking of the self in a deep connection with being, and the experience of the beautiful. It comes as no surprise that so many of our predecessors found these attractions of love as the highest purpose in proximate reality. Next time I will offer some of my own thoughts on the metaphysics of love before we move on to family.

—————————————————————————

1”Love conquers all.”

2The Meaning of Life, from The School of Life, 2019. ISBN 978-0-9957535-4-9, page 19.

3 Needleman, Jacob, and Applebaum, David (editors), Real Philosophy. Arkana (Penguin Group), 1990. Page 189

4Ibid.

5Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 5, page 92.

6Ibid., page 89.

7Ibid., page 92.

PURPOSE AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – PROXIMATE REALITY – OTHERS

“You can make life better within yourself only by destroying the barriers that divide your life from that of other beings, and by regarding others as yourself and loving them.” – Leo Tolstoy.

 

We saw in the last section that, for the most part, purpose is internally defined or subjective, but externally directed. External direction includes four realms or levels of reality – proximate, cultural, cosmic, and ultimate. I define proximate reality as that portion outside the self and within the range of immediate contact or sensory experience; but in practice it refers to other people with whom we have direct interactions. Purpose at the level of proximate relationships then is the subject of this section.

It is worth pausing to collate internal purpose with proximate purpose. The four components of purpose at the level of the self in fact overflow into our immediate relationships. For example making a good life for oneself is balanced with the complementary purpose to add to the good life of others around us or at a minimum not to diminish the quality of their lives. Our individual efforts at self-perfection include of course self-improvements that benefit others, but also the ancillary purpose of modeling perfectibility for them. The purposes of internal happiness and meaning are mirrored in the external purposes to contribute to the happiness and meaning of others, including accepting their need for solitude.

We will analyze these dimensions for each of the five types of relationship that comprise our purpose at the level of proximate reality. These include:

1.   Romantic love

2.   Family 

3.   Friends 

4.   Acquaintances 

5.   Strangers

In other words, proximate purpose revolves around one’s place in the quality of life, improvement, happiness, and meaning of the person we love intimately, our family, our friends, less familiar acquaintances (such as teachers, most co-workers, regular service providers, etc.), and incidental contacts. There is a large body of philosophical, religious, and psychological literature that addresses human purpose for several of these forms of relationship. Join me next time as we take up romantic love and the purpose of life.

PURPOSE AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – INTERNAL REALITY – PART IV

“Ordinary men hate solitude. But the Master makes use of it, embraces his aloneness, realizing he is one with the whole universe.” – Laozi.

So far we have looked at internal purpose as the goal to make a good life for oneself, self-perfection, and personal happiness with contented solitude. Today we look at the fourth component of internal purpose, the search for meaning.

MEANING

In earlier posts we saw how the meaningful life is at least partly a subjective appreciation of meaning within one’s life. In this view, one selects those aspects of life which add meaning to it. However, ultimately meaning is most often based on relationship to the external world. We may internalize meaning, but we seek it externally in the other levels of reality. Therefore I can find meaning in playing a beautiful piano piece for myself, but a greater meaning seems to come from sharing that experience with others (assuming sufficient skill and an appreciative audience). And of course practicing piano is best done alone and offers meaning through the development of greater skill and in preparation for performance for others.

In addition to subjective essence of the word meaning, there is a second dimension again deriving from solitude, that is, meaningful activities best done when alone. Among these are writing, creating art, and perhaps study, particularly philosophical study. Lars Svensen offers the example of Marguerite Duras who in her book, Writing, says:

“The solitude of writing is a solitude without which writing could not be produced or would crumble, drained bloodless by the search for something else to write…The person who writes books must always be enveloped by a separation from others.”1

The same I suspect can be said for all art – the painter or sculptor finds her greatest creativity in moments of freedom from the distraction of watchful eyes. The composer needs quiet and sequestering to do his greatest work. Likewise the philosopher requires sequestration in order to fully process and meditate on the meaning of great philosophical works.

CONCLUSION

To summarize, purpose in human meaning begins with internal reality, privacy, solitude, finding inner creativity, and personal meditation. Authenticity requires identifying for oneself what makes a good life, honing and purifying oneself towards perfection, defining happiness and meaning for oneself, and sufficient solitude to achieve freely chosen goals. Such purpose cannot be the injunctions of others, but can be shared with others. Time alone should not be due to unsociability, nor can it be so extreme as to lead to loneliness or isolation. Following these parameters, the attainment of internal purpose takes one a long way on the path to a meaningful life.

————————————————————-

1Svendsen, Lars, A Philosophy of Loneliness. Reaktion Books, Ltd., London, 2015. ISBN 978-1-78023-747-3, page 123.

PURPOSE AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – INTERNAL REALITY – PART III (continued)

Last time we ended on solitude as a means towards internal happiness. John Stuart Mill waxes poetic in his agreement:

“It is not good for man to be kept perforce at all times in the presence of his species. A world from which solitude is extirpated, is a very poor ideal. Solitude in the sense of often being alone, is essential to any depth of meditation or of character; and solitude in the presence of natural beauty and grandeur, is the cradle of thoughts and aspirations which are not only good for the individual, but which society could ill do without.”5

As long ago as 1937, the great British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, bemoaned his concern that modernity had lost solitude. This is obviously more evident today with pervasive technology that effectively makes it impossible for us to ever be truly alone. One solution is to withdraw from excess community and turn off the technology. A second is learning to find solitude within the group setting. Just as one can feel lonely in a group, so when can self-sequester to achieve a component of solitude, although this is a skill not easily acquired. Seneca states this clearly, “The time when you should most of all withdraw into yourself is when you are forced to be in a crowd.” Marcus Aurelius agrees,

“Retreat into yourself, no retreat offers more quiet and relaxation than that into your own mind, especially if you can dip into thoughts there which put you at immediate ease…the doctrines you will visit there should be few and fundamental, sufficient at one meeting to wash away all your pain and send you back free of resentment of what you must rejoin.”6

In summary, happiness at the level of self results from the good life one chooses for oneself, the psychological choice to be happy (as the choice of sadness is irrational), a good conscience through moral rectitude, and a balance of solitude and sociability. Particularly important in our time is the ability to disconnect enough from technology and sequester oneself to find solitude at will.

Next time we look at the fourth component of internal purpose – inner meaning. Join me then.

———————————————————

5 Svendsen, Lars, A Philosophy of Loneliness. Reaktion Books, Ltd., London, 2015. ISBN 978-1-78023-747-3, page 121.

6Meditations, Book 4:3.

PURPOSE AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – INTERNAL REALITY – PART III

“It is sweet, solitude,

as long as the way back

to others

remains open.

After all, you don’t shine

for yourself.” – Olav H. Huage

After reviewing the first two components of internal purpose – the goal of a good life and the ceaseless effort at self-perfection –we come to the third component, the aspiration for internal happiness.

HAPPINESS

This third purpose at the level of the individual means not transient feelings of happiness, but rather the experience of the totality of one’s life as a happy or fulfilling – what the ancient Greeks called Eudaimonia. In one sense happiness is derivative of the previously discussed concept of making a good life for oneself. From a psychological standpoint, happiness can be seen as a state of mind, perhaps even a simple choice, and thus is intimately related to self-perfection. But Kant offers an alternative view – since we do not or cannot know what will make us happy, our goal or purpose is rather to be worthy of happiness. For me this contains a reflexive corollary – our individual purpose includes the goal of a globally happy existence instantiated in actions we believe merit the reward of happiness.

A second dimension of internal happiness as purpose is the exercise of solitude. Separation from others can of course be negative as in isolation or loneliness, but some prefer solitary time or even a solitary life. In solitude one finds pleasure in the escape from human distractions and worldly influences and the opportunity for knowing oneself better and for grasping the cosmos and the divine. Internal happiness ultimately requires being comfortable by and with oneself as many philosophers tells us including Descartes, Montaigne, Emerson, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Thoreau, and many others.

In his book, The Philosophy of Loneliness, Lars Svendsen, a Norwegian philosopher, tells us solitude is “an indefinite openness to a variety of experiences, thoughts, and emotions.”1 He believes it is a general human trait perhaps more pleasurable for older individuals than the young who are more likely to identify time alone as loneliness. Referencing Johann Georg Zimmerman (author of Solitude, a 1600 page tome from 1784), loneliness comes from idleness, misanthropy, ennui, and melancholy, while solitude implies freedom and independence, although it is still best combined with human interaction.2 Kant appears to agree; solitude cannot be shyness or dislike of others, but self-sufficiency without unsociability borders on the sublime.3 Martin Heidegger points out an irony of human existence; death, the focal point of life, is experienced individually while only in solitude can you become who you are.4

(continued next post)

———————————————————

1Svendsen, Lars, A Philosophy of Loneliness. Reaktion Books, Ltd., London, 2015. ISBN 978-1-78023-747-3, page 108.

2Ibid., page 109.

3Ibid., page 110.

4Ibid., page 115.