What is ‘meaning’ and where does it come from?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 13, 2015

I have already argued that we must learn again to trust our own native ways of knowing, our own holistic human perception of reality, if we are going to discover meaning (see Opening Ourselves to Meaning and Purpose). Given a basic acceptance of our own humanity and a corresponding trust in it—without which a coherent life is obviously impossible—we are ready to consider the nature of meaning, and the sources from which we can acquire it.

I intend to proceed along the lines of the self-evident. That’s why we have to have a certain amount of trust in who we are; we have to be, in effect, comfortable in our own skin. For, clearly, things “mean” something only when we have a sufficient understanding of their particular reality to discern their place in the whole of reality and to apprehend their purposes and ends.

We already know that anything which lacks intellect and will cannot voluntarily pursue its own purposes. In fact, such things cannot fail to fulfill the purposes built in to their existence. But when it comes to ourselves, to persons who do possess intellect and will, this discernment of how we fit in to the whole of reality and this apprehension of our purposes and ends always resolves itself into a fundamental question: How do I pursue happiness? What do I need to know, understand, and do to fulfill myself, that is, to be happy?

The Question of the Good

Perhaps the first thing we notice about the question of happiness—once we think past our next ice-cream sundae or any other form of sensual gratification—is that our understanding of happiness is inextricably entwined with our understanding of what we call “the good”. The human person is as oriented toward the good as he is toward happiness. This is because complete knowledge always includes relationships, purposes and ends. We must, after all, have purposes and ends that we are capable of discerning and pursuing; else what would be the point of intellect and will?

Every people on earth has asked these questions, and every culture has been formed in large part by how they were answered. But the four cultures which have perhaps offered the most highly developed answers are the Greeks with their conception of the “good man” and the “good life”, the Romans with their formulation of a kind of universal rational law, the Jews with their emphasis on obedience to God, and the Christians who encompassed all of these achievements in love, by seeing them encompassed in Christ.

What is clear is that we humans are always haunted by the question of good and evil. We find fulfillment in a proper understanding of our purpose, and we understand that the purpose of any person must essentially involve striving toward his own perfection. In the last analysis, after a good deal of hemming and hawing, we recognize that attitudes and actions are good if they are conducive to our perfection, and they are bad if they tend to dissolve or undermine our perfection. I am proceeding very rapidly here, but can these broad statements be less than self-evident?

In the human person, then, purpose always has a profoundly moral dimension. It always involves striving for perfection according to the Good. This striving is self-evidently essential to human happiness, even if it is not always essential to human pleasure. Here we find the core of “meaning”.

Sources of Meaning

What, then, are the sources from which we derive meaning? So far we have been relying on personal reflection rooted in a combination of human intuition and human reason. Our intuitive “knowing” is always personal, but the addition of what we call discursive reasoning broadens it to include the common experience of mankind. It also leads us to conceptualize and articulate the nature of things, the relationships among things, the ends and purposes of the human person, and perhaps even of the universe as a whole. When we see a formal presentation of such reflection and reason, we call it philosophy.

But few people acquire meaning through reason alone, and we all have a very rich vein of laziness which leads us to take things for granted. More commonly, then, meanings are transmitted by the cultures in which we live. For better (in that wisdom is generally accrued slowly over time) or worse (in that cultures are always unevenly developed and may be blind to important realities), the prevailing culture in which we are grounded is the chief source of our understanding of natures and ends, values and purposes, and notions of perfection—that is, of meaning.

A third source is what we might call “existential” meaning—the personal meanings that we work out based exclusively on our own experience and in light of our own prejudices, without adverting to universal conclusions or to what is common to all. Our own experience is very important, but it is difficult to interpret without some frame of reference, and its interpretation, by itself, is extraordinarily vulnerable to our own fallibility. This can result in an idiosyncratic viewpoint. Worse still, a culture which has fallen into the myth that there are no natures and purposes must force each individual either to reject his cultural heritage or to create meaning for himself based on his own immediate desires. This is self-defeating.

These three “sources”, of course, are not really “sources” of meaning at all, but ways of accessing something that is already built into reality itself. This “something” cannot come from matter, which is insensitive to meaning and can possess meaning only in some larger scheme. So where would this larger scheme come from? This necessary question arises from the inescapable human intuition that there must be some essential personal existence on the level we refer to as God. If we acquire meaning from what God reveals of Himself through His creation, then we might also acquire it from some different kind of Divine revelation. In any case, we intuit that the ultimate source of meaning can only be God—which is why atheism is always accompanied by the denial of meaning.

This is why the human person thirsts for God, and why loss of meaning for any of us is profoundly self-alienating. This may also explain why—to recycle an old expression—there are two kinds of people in the world: First, we have those who ultimately accept some notion of God, however vague it may be; second, there are those who deny meaning and so find themselves inexplicably angry at the very idea of God, and at those who accept His existence.

The human person thirsts for God. But if all of this is obvious, I would like to return again to the question of why men and women today seem so reluctant to slake that thirst.

Previous in series: Opening Ourselves to Meaning and Purpose
Next in series: Our Failure to Penetrate Reality: The Role of the Examined Life

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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