Don’t discount meaning. It leads to happiness.
I’m gazing out a window overlooking Willsboro Bay on Lake Champlain. I have an opportunity to do this for a few days most Summers, because my mother-in-law has a “camp” up here. Each time I do so, I am struck by the beauty of the place. And each time I experience this beauty, it renews my conviction that life has meaning.
At the practical level, every sane person acts as if life has meaning, and also as if he can freely choose to act on the meaning he discerns. On the theoretical level, though, a recognition that life has meaning is hard to come by in our time. The result is that many of us are afraid to spend much time thinking about the meaning of life. Yet its presence is impressed upon us at stray moments, especially when we experience flashes of goodness or beauty. The true points to the beautiful and the good, and the beautiful and the good point to the true.
In fact, we frequently postpone reflection on the meaning of life because we fear that genuine understanding will invite some sort of commitment, interfering with whatever we desire at the moment. We may not recognize this in ourselves, but we quickly learn to recognize it in others. I mean the tendency to rationalize our desires, investing them with a goodness they may not possess..
But there is a consequence to this refusal to understand. Meaninglessness produces anxiety. The longer we put off exploring the meaning of our lives, the greater the chance of attempting to stave off anxiety through profligacy or addiction. Losing ourselves in stimulation tends to ease the angst imposed on us by meaninglessness. But this is inadequate to the task, and despair follows in its wake.
What Are Things For?
We live in an age which prides itself on knowing how things work. This leads to technological mastery, which in turn fosters the feeling that we are in control, and that our own lights are sufficient to guide that control. Yet a moment’s reflection reveals that all the knowledge of structures and mechanisms in the world is merely a kind of studied ignorance, if we do not know what things are for. That’s the question that unlocks meaning. It is also the question that enables us to discern whether “things are working properly”.
For example, if we find some sort of mechanism while exploring an old house, we may see that its parts have certain characteristics and can be manipulated in specific ways. But we will not really understand the “thing” in itself—that is, it will have no meaning for us—unless we are able to discern what it is for. The same thing is true of ourselves. To understand ourselves, we must know “what we are for”. This is so true that we simply cannot avoid terrible anxiety until we know the answer to this question.
Once we know the answer, we can embark on a satisfying life, by which I mean a life full of meaning. Significantly, the history of Western philosophy from the ancient Greeks through the thirteenth century is essentially a history of jettisoning false leads and developing a realistic, cohesive understanding of the nature of things based on the ultimate purposes they were designed to serve (in other words, based on what things are for).
A keen appreciation for this question, maturing through such figures as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, was slowly developed into a kind of perennial philosophy, both enlightened and confirmed by Divine Revelation. This intellectual and spiritual patrimony not only contributed a great deal to abstract understanding but also facilitated the recognition of a comprehensive moral framework which we call the natural law. The natural law lay at the very root of the surprising Western ability to transcend human culture without abandoning it: Articulating absolute values, distinguishing right from wrong, and effectively balancing the legitimate needs, goals and authorities of the individual person, the family, the social order, the civil order, and the Church.
After the Natural Law
Unfortunately, the continuation of these developments in our own time is seriously hindered by the prejudices of modernity. We live and move and have our being today in what we might call the aftermath of the natural law. We have become once again culture-bound, and our culture denies the pervasive evidence for the natural law in favor of philosophies which serve particular passions, mostly having to do with a flight from God, the pursuit of power and wealth, and the unquenchable desire for utopia, by which we mean a world made in our own image.
How has this come about? How was such a great synthesis, forged over nearly two thousand years of brilliant thought and insight, torn apart over the next seven hundred years, leaving us with essentially nothing? The question is pertinent, for the “nothing” that we have now inherited looks surprisingly like the nothings that were being proposed in ancient Greece before the great Western philosophical tradition began to develop.
Talk about going back to the future! If we go back far enough we arrive at where we are today, imagining the twin deceptions of “no matter and never mind”. Either everything is materialistically determined (never mind) or everything is whatever we project it to be based on our desires (no matter). Given the intellectual achievements of our past history, it is astonishing that in the twenty-first century we have no greater grip on reality than had the Greeks before Socrates! (And no greater than the pagans before Christ.) Perhaps it is time to freshly examine how Western civilization escaped despair and futility in the first place, and to reconsider what went wrong.
Fortunately, we now have a clear and readable book which does exactly this, exploring the rise and decline of the quintessentially Western understanding of reality beginning in the sixth century before Christ. In some 275 luminous pages, John Lawrence Hill of the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law connects all the dots with such clarity of thought and expression that the subject matter, which readers might otherwise find confusing, is always deeply engaging. The book was published this year by Ignatius Press. Its title is After the Natural Law: How the Classical Worldview Supports Our Modern Moral and Political Values.
Hill gives us not only Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas and the other great contributors to the Western synthesis, but also William of Ockham, Descartes, Locke, Hobbes, Mill, Kant and others who largely dismantled it, without solving the problems it had so successfully addressed. The story is riveting because it explores the fundamentals of human existence—the very fundamentals we are so desperate to grasp today. Can we know reality? If so, is there such a thing as truth? Do we have a purpose? If so, are we capable of choosing our ends and means in any meaningful way? Are we free merely for nothingness? Or are we free at all?
You might think that this would be a depressing account. After all, over the past seven hundred years Western culture has destroyed most of its own achievements. We cannot help but wonder why this should have happened, and whether it is possible to turn back from such a long decline. Hill focuses on the philosophical story, exploring the linkages among the ideas. It would require a very different book to discern why the dominant ideas of a particular culture should shift in this way over time.
One can point to warfare among Christian princes, the worldliness of the Church, the Protestant revolt, the discoveries of new territories and cultures, religious war, the rise of skepticism leading to a greater emphasis on the empirical, the shift in concentration to material reality as grasped through scientific reason, technological success, a growing confidence in purely human power, immense prosperity and the concomitant reluctance to let it go for any reason whatsoever. Relativism is, after all, the religion of the wealthy.
But no matter how many factors one identifies, the progress of civilization remains a mystery. A full understanding of the ebb and flow of the human grasp of truth, including religious faith, remains hidden in the workings of Divine Providence. This makes it even more helpful to focus on the path followed by the ideas characteristic of the Western synthesis, the better to grasp how we should start thinking about things now. Again, it is precisely this story of rise and fall—of construction and deconstruction—that Hill tells with such admirable clarity.
Even better, what we see in this account is that hope is not lost. Quite the contrary. Not only does Hill enlighten in a wholly positive and encouraging way, but he also knows that those who have pronounced the Natural Law dead have made a premature diagnosis. In fact, quite a number of scholars have been quietly at work on a significant reconstruction for the past fifty years. It is true that the loss of meaning that characterizes Western intellectual life today is still pervasive, but there is rapidly growing energy on the other side—even as those who have abandoned meaning drift slowly into irrelevance.
I do not know the future, but I think it can be glimpsed in this welcome and even remarkable book. After the Natural Law is a brilliant lesson in intellectual history, but it is also much more. It is a vision of meaning, and a marking of the path that leads to it. While reading John Lawrence Hill, it is easy to remember that meaning is never purely abstract, purely intellectual. It informs all of life. It enables us, at long last, to be fulfilled. The apprehension of meaning is quite simply how we “taste and see the goodness of the Lord” (Ps 34:8). And as the Psalmist says in the very next verse: Happy indeed are those who take refuge in Him!
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