Thursday, November 10, 2011

The meaning of life

Having a cause to stand for or to fight for can give meaning to life. As well as meaning and purpose, a cause can also confer on its upholders a sense of psychological security, a sense that one knows things that others are unaware of, that one is committed to something important which the mass of humanity does not recognize as such (or at least does not actively support). There is a danger of smugness, arrogance and complacency here, but such pitfalls can be avoided.

A cause also gives one allies and adversaries – even, in some cases, a sense of excitement and adventure. Think of communists (and fellow travellers) in Western countries during the Cold War. Just the right amount of secrecy and excitement, and no real danger to life and limb. (Professional agents on both sides did, of course, face great dangers. But then they were paid for it.)

The onetime MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service) agent David John Moore Cornwell (writing as John le Carré) depicted that world as one in which the moral and political issues were dark, complex and ambiguous, but his great creation, George Smiley, managed nonetheless to retain a simple sincerity and goodness.

In The spy who came in from the cold (1963), Smiley makes only a brief appearance as a colleague of the main character, Eric Leamas. Leamas also stands for certain moral values. There is a passage in which Leamas, waiting for an important and fateful meeting on the Dutch coast, thinks about a girl called Liz (a member of the Communist Party in Britain and so technically opposed to Leamas's cause) who had recently looked after him when he became ill in a rented room in London.

... At about eleven o'clock the next morning he decided to go out for a walk along the front, bought some cigarettes and stared dully at the sea.

There was a girl standing on the beach throwing bread to the seagulls. Her back was turned to him. The sea wind played with her long black hair and pulled at her coat, making an arc of her body, like a bow strung towards the sea. He knew then what it was that Liz had given him; the thing that he would have to go back and find if ever he got home to England: it was the caring about little things - the faith in ordinary life; the simplicity that made you break up a bit of bread into a paper bag, walk down to the beach and throw it to the gulls. It was this respect for triviality which he had never been allowed to possess; whether it was bread for the seagulls or love, whatever it was he would go back and find it ...

Le Carré seems to be suggesting that the real meaning of life is not to be found in causes and grand designs but in the mundane, apparently pointless details of ordinary life. It is tempting to go along with this line of thinking, but perhaps it is just a bit too facile.

The dichotomy between activism and quietism, between cause- or ideology-driven behaviour and the still passivity of just being, does not in fact demand an evaluative choice – activism bad, quietism good, or whatever. It is not a question of either/or but of both/and.

As we shuttle between conviction and doubt, activity and stillness, sickness and health, a sense of meaning and well-being just bubbles up from time to time.


  1. Vermeer was a master of making a lot out of little things. Or, of drawing our eye to the little things that matter.

  2. Just about all the art that matters to me is like this. It can reassure us that there is value in ordinary life.

    Interestingly, art and ideology don't mix - or at least when they do the quality of the art usually suffers.

  3. Whether or not we actively impose meaning on it, ordinary life acquires meaning. Consider one's childhood home, where stangers now live and whose exterior one might not have seen in decades. An act of vandalism on that home would affect us more than vandalism elsewhere. Why? Not because of any effort we made as a child to imbue the home with meaning or because of any inherent meaning bound up in its wood and brick, but because meaning inexorably bubbles up, as you put it, from the still passivity of being. Perhaps we appreciate artists like Le Carré or Vermeer because they make us conscious of the meaning we unconsciously acquired from events that we'd otherwise consider insignificant.

  4. Yes, Cyg, attachments of various kinds - to people and (as you suggest) to places - certainly create meaning. But such attachments are not always sufficient to create a sense that one's life is meaningful. I think this is what drives many to religion or to ideological commitments.