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Happiness & Meaning

The Philosopher with a Thousand Faces

Alex Gooch on narrative, meaning, and the failure of philosophy.

What kind of life is the philosophical life? Is it, as Socrates proclaimed, the best life? Or is the philosophical life even capable of being a genuinely meaningful life? In this article, I will give an account of the philosophical life following two very disreputable guides: the popular scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell, and the controversial political philosopher Leo Strauss. I will argue that the philosophical project, eventually fails to bring meaning to the lives of those who practise it. This article has elements of intellectual autobiography, and is written in particular for others like myself who have struggled with the vocation of philosophy and the problems of meaning it presents. Many of the claims I make here are grounded in experience, and will be convincing only to the extent that they accord with the reader’s own experience or imaginative sympathy.

The Meaning of Life

A life without meaning will not be a good life. I will assume we can agree on this as a starting point. However, ideas about ‘the meaning of life’ can tend to be vague and unsatisfactory, for one thing because the phrase ‘the meaning of life’ has at least two major meanings. On the one hand, when we say ‘life has meaning’, we can be talking about the way we experience our lives. Someone whose energies and abilities are usefully focused on a task that matters to them, working towards a goal that they genuinely care about, will probably experience a sense of meaningfulness in their daily lives, even if their days are tiring and difficult. Conversely, someone who lacks direction, whose daily tasks do not move them towards any goal which seems important to them, is sooner or later likely to feel a creeping sense of meaninglessness, no matter how easy and pleasant their daily experience might be.

On the other hand, aside from this felt experience of meaningfulness, ‘the meaning of life’ can also point to a description of the world which we take to be the Truth-with-a-capital-T: the last word about how the world really is. A large-scale picture like this gives us a framework within which to see the world and make sense of it. It normally also provides a framework for our ethical lives, by telling us what we should and should not choose, and why. So we can say that Christians are those who hold Christian doctrine as the meaning of life in this sense, Marxists derive the meaning of life from Marxist doctrine, and so on.

Whereas the first form of the meaning of life is something we feel, the second form is something we understand. To distinguish between these two forms of meaning, I will speak of the personal experiential variety as ‘meaningfulness’, and the worldview-based understanding as ‘Meaning’, with a capital M not because it is more important than the other form of meaning, but because it is more ambitious, being concerned with ultimates and absolutes rather than the ordinary business of daily life.

Of course, this dichotomy between felt meaningfulness and Meaning is a very simplified approach to the issue of the meaning of life. However, for the sake of argument I will skip over the many ramifications and complications of this dichotomy and focus on just one issue: the relationship between meaningfulness and Meaning in the life of the philosopher. To do this I will need to say a little more about meaningfulness in general, before looking at how it manifests in the philosopher’s particular case.

Leo Strauss and Jospeh Campbell
Leo Strauss and Jospeh Campbell by Darren McAndrew

Meaning & the Hero Quest

In his seminal work The Hero With A Thousand Faces (1968), the literary scholar Joseph Campbell sets out his claim that a particular kind of story, the hero quest, is universal across all the world’s cultures, and that such tales follow a standard, predictable structure. (I’ll be presenting and using Campbell’s ideas uncritically, but I should mention that he has been roundly dismissed in various circles, and many regard his work as problematic in a wide variety of ways. These critiques of Campbell are easily found.)

Campbell actually divides the hero’s journey into seventeen distinct stages, but to put it in broad terms, the structure of these stories goes as follows: First we meet the protagonist in their normal, everyday life: “Once upon a time there was a boy called Jack, who lived with his grandmother…”. Then there comes a ‘call to adventure’, which might take the form of a problem to be solved, or something desirable to be gained, or both: Jack takes the cow to market, and there he meets a man selling magic beans. The protagonist then crosses a threshold from the ‘ordinary world’ into the ‘special world’, in which there are dangers, but also special possibilities: Jack goes up the beanstalk, into the giant’s realm. In the special world, the hero encounters a series of challenges, and often the help of mentors and allies; they confront enemies, and eventually defeat their nemesis and lay hold of a prize: Jack ‘liberates’ various treasures from the giant’s palace, and eventually kills the giant by chopping down the beanstalk. At the end of the quest, the hero crosses the threshold back into the ordinary world, bringing with them the ‘boon’ they have won, which will sustain and enhance life not just for them but for the wider community: Thanks to the goose with the golden eggs, and the other treasures Jack has ‘won’, he and his grandmother will no longer live in poverty.

We can see this story structure not only in children’s stories but in any form of popular storytelling: Hollywood movies, bestselling paperbacks, video games, and so on. We can also see it in the way we tell our own, autobiographical stories, to ourselves and to others. Usually, our own stories are more modest than the tales of Luke Skywalker or Jack the Giant Slayer, but the same formula is often to be found in our understandings of our own lives and their shape, especially when we feel our lives to be meaningful. Life presents us with a problem to solve, or a good thing to pursue; we go in search of that thing, whatever it might be; along the way, we face challenges which test our capacities, and if we’re lucky we encounter allies and perhaps even a mentor; finally (hopefully), we overcome the problem or satisfy the desire; then return to the ‘ordinary world’, having gained or learned something useful. If our lives seem to us to have more or less this shape – if we understand ourselves to be ‘on a quest’, even in a small way – generally speaking, we will feel our lives to be the more meaningful for it. Conversely, the feeling of meaninglessness is often associated with the sense that life is rolling on with no significant goal to pursue or quest to fulfil. Turning again to the movies, an extreme example here would be Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now falling apart in a Saigon hotel room while he waits for orders to arrive for his next mission.

The Philosopher’s Hero Quest

Just as the task of finding a romantic partner is a heroic quest which gives meaningful structure to the life of a lonely person, or ascending the corporate ladder and getting the corner office is a heroic quest which gives meaningful structure to the life of an ambitious person, so the task of philosophy is a heroic quest which gives meaningful structure to the life of a philosopher. Unfortunately, philosophy turns out to be an impossible, unfulfillable quest, but we will come to that.

In order to understand the specific shape of the philosopher’s hero quest, I shall be relying on the ideas of political philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973). Strauss’s writings concentrate on the relationship between the philosopher and society, but the foundation of his thought is an account of what it is to be a philosopher, and it is this foundation which is relevant to us (see especially Natural Right and History, 1953, and What is Political Philosophy? And Other Studies, 1988). Of all the many accounts of what it is to be a philosopher, I have chosen Strauss’s simply because it speaks directly to my own experience. You may have encountered depictions of Strauss as an advocate of political mendacity, and a sanctioner of imperialism and invasion; if so, I would ask you to bracket such received ideas, at least temporarily.

The lonely person is concerned with love and romance; the ambitious person is concerned with status and salary; the philosopher is concerned with worldviews and systems of beliefs – with Meaning in the larger, abstract sense mentioned above. This concern sets the philosopher off on a particular narrative arc, which I will attempt to trace by mapping Strauss’s description of the philosopher onto Campbell’s account of the hero’s journey. I should stress that I will be mingling Strauss’s analysis with Campbell’s, and the result will be a hybrid which may not be representative of either writer’s thinking.

At the beginning of the philosopher’s quest, the Straussian philosopher-to-be unquestioningly shares whatever worldview happens to be predominant in the society he or she happens to live in, or one of the predominant worldviews if there are several. The philosopher’s call to adventure comes the moment when they realize that this worldview is not necessarily the absolute truth about the world: it is open to question, and could be mistaken, and their reasons for believing it have probably little if anything to do with careful analysis and thinking-though, and much more to do with acculturation and the sheer accident of the circumstances into which they were born. In Straussian terms, the neophyte philosopher comes to understand that a major aspect of what he or she has believed up to this point was mere opinion; and opinion is a form of belief defined by the fact that it is open to question rather than being established beyond reasonable doubt. However, the philosopher finds mere opinion on this central issue inherently unsatisfactory, and feels the overwhelming need to replace it with knowledge, which is characterized by certainty, and is resistant to all foreseeable objections or refutations. So the philosopher sets out to find the ‘one thing needful’ – which is genuine knowledge of what the world really is like. At this point, the philosopher has crossed the threshold from the ordinary world into the ‘special world’ of philosophy, with all its dangers.

And dangerous it is: according to this Straussian-Campbellian account at least, in order to walk the road of philosophy, the philosopher must relinquish the worldview he or she complacently held at the beginning of the story. But this preexisting worldview was nothing other than the Meaning-with-a-capital-M dimension of meaning identified earlier, so to renounce it is to place oneself in grave danger of meaninglessness and personal disintegration. On the other hand, though, the philosopher is most definitely now engaged on an urgent quest, so the other form of meaning is very much in effect – the feeling of meaningfulness which comes with the thorough employment of one’s faculties in pursuit of an important goal. It is a cliché that ‘the meaning of life is the search for meaning’. In fact this describes the philosopher well in this state, in that the sense of meaningfulness in the philosopher’s life derives from the search for their Truth – the final, absolute Meaning.

In his or her search for knowledge, the philosopher is often aided on the way by one or more mentors. For example, Strauss took Plato as his mentor, and saw himself primarily as a Platonist, albeit of an unconventional kind. The philosopher travels in the company of allies (Strauss’s own special allies were Maimonides and Al-farabi, medieval interpreters of Plato from the Jewish and Islamic traditions respectively); there are battles with enemies: Strauss does battle with the ‘liberal’ tradition of political philosophy beginning with Machiavelli and Hobbes, as well as various movements in twentieth-century philosophy. Finally, many philosophers throughout history claim to have won through to the decisive victory, and to have returned to the daylight world with the prize that philosophy seeks – ‘the theory to end all theories’ or some other articulation of unchanging truth which will finally satisfy their philosophical longing. In Strauss’s terms, many philosophers claim to have returned from the underworld brandishing nothing less than knowledge of reality.

Vader vs Mill
Original Star Wars image © 20th Century Fox 1977

The Failure of the Philosopher’s Hero Quest

The hero quests from world mythology that we read about in Campbell, like the hero quests we watch in movies or enact in video games, are all ultimately successful quests. In all of them, the protagonist one way or another overcomes a nemesis, gains a prize, and returns to revivify the world. However, at the risk of stating the obvious, many real-world quests fail. Some quests fail simply because the reach exceeds the grasp, as when the mountaineer is unable to reach the summit and has to turn back. Some fail because the goal turns out to be impossible or non-existent. For example, in ancient China countless ships went searching for the Isles of the Blessed, somewhere in the north-eastern ocean, where the Herb of Immortality was believed to grow. All of course either returned empty-handed or never returned at all. When a quest fails and the hero has to abandon it, this inevitably spells the end of the sense of meaningfulness the quest brought to his or her life. There are also those quests in which the hero returns to the daylight world after many trials bearing something that he or she believes to be the sought-after prize, but which is actually no such thing. We might think of the mountaineer reaching a secondary peak and mistakenly believing it to be the true summit, or an ancient Chinese mariner finding a spit of land in the ocean, plucking a few leaves of a novel bush, and thinking that he has found the key to immortality.

Many philosophers claim to have returned from their adventure bearing final knowledge, the philosopher’s heart’s desire. However, the slightest glance at the history of thought makes it clear that every single such claim rings hollow, and that these philosophers are in the same position as the confused mountaineers and misguided sailors. In my opinion, the philosopher’s quest for final knowledge is exactly like the search for the herb of immortality, in that it is a search for something that does not exist.

The Straussian philosopher seeks certainty. He or she wants to know for certain that the account of the world they are discovering is the account that will never be refuted or overthrown. However, we can never exclude the possibility of what Alastair MacIntyre calls ‘epistemological crisis’: the moment when a catastrophic new piece of information emerges, or when one becomes conscious of a contradiction within one’s beliefs, and so has to go back to the drawing-board (‘Epistemological Crisis, Dramatic Narrative and the Philosophy of Science’, The Monist, 1977). Of course, many philosophers (including Strauss himself) go to great lengths to avoid this crisis. But when we do come to it, we realize that the philosophical quest can never be successfully completed. The philosopher wants certainty. However, even a belief that has stood firm for a thousand years could potentially collapse tomorrow in the face of a presently unknown unknown – an unexpected piece of evidence or a hidden internal contradiction. No ‘final truth’ can ever be invulnerable to the test of time except, arguably, the truths of mathematics and formal logic; but those are of little comfort to those seeking Meaning. As a philosopher, when one realizes that the goal of one’s quest is a mirage, then one’s higher structure of Meaning can no longer hold, and one faces despair. The possibility of a Meaning which could be genuinely satisfactory has disappeared, and since one’s feeling of meaningfulness hinged on it, one’s feeling of meaningfulness vanishes in the same instant. As we might say, the philosopher is now a lost soul.

A Final Note of Hope

Meaning in life is to be found in two interrelated forms: the large-scale abstract Meanings we believe in, and the sense of meaningfulness we feel when our lives are directed towards a purpose that matters to us. The feeling of meaningfulness often depends on our being able to understand our lives in terms of ‘the hero’s journey’. In these terms the philosopher’s life feels meaningful because he or she is on a quest for a final, definitive Meaning that is reliably resistant to all change or refutation. However, no idea of Meaning can possibly meet these criteria, and when the philosopher understands this, their quest will end and the sense of meaning which the quest conferred will dissipate.

There is hope. There are alternative traditions within what we broadly call philosophy which reject the false promise of ‘knowledge’ and teach us to embrace something more like ‘opinion’. There are also strategies for breaking the habit of compulsively grasping after Truth. But that’s another story.

© Alex Gooch 2021

Alex Gooch teaches at the Durham Centre for Academic Development, Durham University, and is a philosophical counsellor in private practice.

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