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On Meaning

by Rick Lewis

Christmas ’94 is over and by the time you read this you will probably have recovered from your New Year hangover as well. I had a most enjoyable Christmas, thank you for asking, but as usual I felt slightly detached from the religious side of the season.

People complain that Christmas has become meaningless due to commercialism but this seems unfair. I suppose they are arguing that the ‘true meaning’ of the festival has been lost in all the noise of commerce, all the tinsel and latenight shopping. But for many of us the true meaning has been lost anyway, because we don’t believe, any more, that the Son of God was born as a human child in Bethlehem. It’s alright for all you Christians, but spare a thought for us poor humanists during the festive season.

We still celebrate Christmas – we’d be spoilsports not to when everyone around us is doing so. But we wonder what it is all for. Gradually the proportion of Christmas revellers who are just going through the motions in this way has grown from a tiny and discreet minority of freethinkers to possibly a majority. It is natural then that we should occasionally catch one anothers’ eyes during all this and wonder why we’re all still doing it.

I faced a tricky problem in December when the choir in which I sing was preparing for its annual carol service. I love carol singing – always have, since I was at school. But if I don’t believe in the Christmas Message, does this make it hypocritical for me to sing lines like “He came down to Earth from Heaven”? Of course, I’d have no problem with “Peace on the Earth, Goodwill to men”; I could really belt that out with enthusiasm. Perhaps an answer would have been to check the songs beforehand, and mark on the songsheet which lines I would sing and which I wouldn’t. However, this strategy would probably have incurred the wrath of the choirmaster, so in the end I decided to wimp out altogether. But in fact I wasn’t too worried about that angle – as Humphrey Bogart put it “A song is just a song”. You aren’t under oath when you’re singing. No one assumes you are a Believer just because you sing carols, so you aren’t misleading anyone (or even intending to mislead them).

But even if it’s OK, I can’t sing carols without a sense of meaninglessness. A sudden sense of absurdity: “What am I doing here? Why am I singing these words?”

And of course going to a candle-lit midnight mass to sing carols would seem the height of absurdity. Not only that, but for me the lack of meaning would rob the occasion of a lot of its beauty. Does that mean that beauty and meaning are connected in some way?

Fortunately, the fact that the carol service has become meaningless for me doesn’t imply that it isn’t still meaningful or beautiful to the other people taking part. Meaning depends on your viewpoint. “What does it mean to you?”

However, celebrating Christmas needn’t necessarily be irrational, even for non-Christians. Firstly, if various activities associated with it (going to parties, giving and receiving presents) are fun and don’t hurt anyone then it surely makes sense to do those things just for their own sake? Secondly, it is possible to reintroduce meaning into Christmas. People of a vaguely pagan bent are already doing this, self-consciously celebrating Christmas not as a Christian festival but as a mid-Winter celebration of the turning of the seasons. Each year I receive more and more cards with Happy Christmas crossed out and Yuletide Greetings or Happy Solstice written in instead. If celebrating the longest night seems a bit perverse to you, then you may find meaning, as I do, in some other aspect of Christmas such as celebrating the company of our families and friends.

Criticising Utilitarianism, the philosopher David Wiggins suggested that “philosophy has put happiness in the place that should have been occupied in moral philosophy by meaning.” He thinks we should be more concerned to lead meaningful lives than to lead happy lives. People often mention the legend of the Greek hero Sisyphus, condemned by the gods to spend eternity pushing a boulder up to the top of a mountain, then releasing it to roll back down, then pushing it back to the top again and so on for ever. The punishment was that Sisyphus’s life was devoid of any meaning. Richard Taylor claimed that even if the gods in a moment of mercy implanted a substance in his veins that made him enjoy rolling stones, this might make him happy but his life would still lack meaning, and presumably he’d be aware of this lack. People want to be happy but they also want their lives to be meaningful. I think it is usually this second need, not the first, which leads people to do philosophy.

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