“Our deeds determine us as much as we determine our deeds.”– George Eliot.
In the last eleven blogs I detailed the purpose of civilization as a preface to our quest to identify individual purpose at the level of cultural reality. We come now to analysis of the nature of such purpose for ourselves, particularly looking at its differences compared to inner and proximal purpose. There are seven characteristics I would like to assess – choice, viability, magnitude, number, satisfaction, desirability, and necessity.
Inner and proximate purpose are fairly fixed and universal. Inner purposes – (1) making a good life for oneself, (2) self-perfection, (3) happiness, and (4) meaning – appear to be common to all people. These intersect in an ultimate goal variously called ‘self-actualization,’ ‘eudaimonia,’ or ‘enlightenment.’ This then is the inescapable purpose of our inner life, although it clearly depends on achievements at other levels. Differing beliefs about one’s purpose at other levels of reality guide the specifics rather than define the final goal. A similar truth applies to proximate reality. Here purpose revolves around those with whom we have contact, which for most of us will include romantic partners, family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers; and comes down to reciprocal contributions by oneself and one’s contacts to the quality of life, personal improvement, happiness, and meaning of each other. While each of us may have varying depths and quantities of such relationships, the purpose is universal or nearly so.
This uniformity is not true with societal purpose. For instance, some may choose to devote their lives to curing cancer, others to educating and inspiring the young, some to fighting social injustice, and still others to creating timeless art. There is no fixed formula and no right answer for everyone, only a specific path each of us must choose and doggedly pursue. This element of choice is defining for purpose at the level of cultural reality.
Another distinguishing characteristic is viability. Inner purposes are all in effect viable, as they depend only on our own efforts and attitudes. Self-perfection is elusive, but self-improvement requires only desire and effort. A good life can be created or, if all else fails, one’s life can be viewed as good, because life itself is good by definition.1 The same applies to happiness and meaning as they are ultimately subjective, not objective. We may fail in all of these, but they are under our control. With respect to proximal purpose or relationship to others, viability is nearly automatic (unless one is a complete hermit) since even if one has no romantic partner, friends, or family, still there are acquaintances and strangers.
Cultural reality is more problematic however; it turns out the element of choice increases the chance of failure. We may choose the wrong goal or profession to achieve a sense of significant accomplishment. We may lack the talent, ability, or even sufficient health to succeed. But most importantly, external conditions out of one’s control may undermine one’s decided purpose. The Alzheimer’s researcher may lose her funding through no fault of her own and the missionary may be impeded by political obstacles in a third World country.
(continued next post)
1Recall for that this site good is defined as that which contributes to the happiness, well-being, longevity, pleasure, or knowledge of oneself and others or at least does not diminish these for others; or which promotes existing non-human reality in the universe.