“Culture arises only when the individual fulfills his cycle of obligations.” – Käthe Kollwitz



We have seen that, in my synthesis, purpose is the second key component of the meaningful life (the first being virtue). In turn the first two levels of human purpose concern the self and one’s contacts. At those levels purpose comes down to establishing a good life, improving the self, increasing understanding of the world, and pursuing happiness and meaning individually and reciprocally. A similar set of guiding principles informs societal purpose distilling into the question, “What am I uniquely positioned to do in society or for the advancement of civilization or for the future of humanity?”

We can bracket this question and pose its inverse, “What purpose does civilization or society serve for the individual?” By peering deeper we se that  civilization is not a mere fact of the world or random happening, but a functional product of the exertions of our ancestors and our contemporaries. As if by design its purpose emerges as the means to secure necessities and order, to transfer knowledge across generations, to improve the character and virtue of its citizenry, and as the platform for the quest for happiness and meaning by its members. Logic leads us to the conclusion that societal purpose for each of us must take the form of contributing to these functions of civilization – in short the answer to the first question is that we seek that unique and authentic role most apropos to our furthering the emergent purposes of civilization itself.

As Aristotle tells us, the state continues “for the sake of the good life” making it an uncanny mirror of the very purposes of the self and of our relationship with familiars. In return, he explains, the individual must remain an active member of the group, that is, fill a specific role in that community purpose. Here we find the rationale for an obligation to community that intersects with our personal need for a societal purpose in a meaningful life. Meanwhile Ernest Becker adds a further nuance; culture serves to validate our significance through our societal roles bringing individual and societal purpose full circle.

Unlike in the case of individual purpose, societal purpose is chosen not integral to rational existence itself. Thus it is variegated not uniform; such purposes range from manual labor or basic service for others to musical composition or philosophical inquiry. Societal purpose can be multiple  and can entail degrees of magnitude not seen with purpose at the level of the self. One may even choose to bypass societal purpose altogether and pursue cosmic purpose (the subject of the next section).

(continued next post)

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