In the last post I summarized an essay/lecture by Jacques Barzun from 1969 on the question of whether life is worth living. Today I will add some of my thoughts on his thesis and its application to our time.
I agree that we have difficulty separating feelings which are visceral from thoughts which presumably rely on reason. With so little in philosophy being certain, feelings and opinion become inescapable default criteria in the reasoning process. Barzun’s belief that life for each of us is experienced individually rephrases a basic tenet of existentialism which when paired with Martin Heidegger’s observation that the self (or dasein) experiences itself as being-in-the-world, reinforces Barzun’s concern of society’s impact on the quality of our lives. But if we can only find meaning and happiness as individuals, society should be structured for every individual to succeed.
What is it about life that makes us wonder if it is worth living? Perhaps the answer is found in Buddha’s first noble truth; “Life is suffering.” In return for that suffering, man expects certain benefits – specifically the hope of happiness and meaning. Personal limitations, natural ills, and death can be accepted as unavoidable, but we seem unable to forgive the evils of the very society we created. For instance manners may appear superficial, restrictive, and inconvenient, but in fact Barzun, like Confucius, knows better – manners and respect for others is essential to their contentment. Immanuel Kant expands this into his categorical imperative: we must never treat another as a means, only as an end.
Meaningful work is tied closely to the need for individual purpose in the achievement of happiness. Here I wonder if Barzun is being completely objective; the agrarian life of our ancestors seems no more meaningful than modern livelihoods. Nonetheless it is undeniable that finding societal purpose through one’s vocation is a critical piece of a flourishing life.
With regards to democracy and capitalism, they appear to allow the highest quality of life possible so far, but the negative consequences of materialism and futile competition are a trap that stymies fulfillment. In a world where the competition for physical survival is muted, we must be reminded frequently that material competition is a dead end. Friedrich Nietzsche warns us that only through the careful examination of societal values and a powerful will to find our authentic role can we emerge from mediocrity.
It seems likely that within the near future (if not already), mankind will find the limits of secularism and humanism. Paul Tillich warns us repeatedly that the true ultimate concern must be identified for any hope of meaning in our lives. Humanism while noble seems to fail the test of ultimacy.
One place where I think Barzun can be challenged is on the end of great human causes. Hegel’s error on believing his generation was at the end of history should not be duplicated in our time. Homo sapiens is far too young to have mastered its mission as a species. There remains too much suffering in our world and danger to our planet, not to mention a universe only recently opened to our potential participation. Rather I suspect our immaturity as a species has left us unable to see through the miasma we have created by the failure to get our seven billion moving parts to work together.
I doubt Barzun would advise us to follow Arthur Schopenauer’s pessimistic path and repudiate society. Instead he may be urging us to recognize the need to treat each other as valuable and deserving of respect, to identify a meaningful calling within the larger world, to redirect democracy and capitalism to the benefit of every living person, and to find our way to an ultimate cause. Humanity has much to offer the universe – it is up to us to find the means to accelerate that purpose and make life worth living.