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The Meaning of Life: A tribute to the late Douglas Adams
Did you feel a tiny bit frustrated when Douglas Adams told us in The Hitchhikers’ Guide To the Galaxy that the meaning of life was 42? Tim LeBon did and wondered what interplanetary wanderer Arthur Dent might have concluded if he’d met some real philosophers.
Five seconds after flicking the Infinite Improbability Drive to ‘Maximum Wisdom’, Arthur was amazed to find himself in Philos, the mythical planet where all the great philosophers of the past lived in eternal contemplation . “Here, at last, I shall finally get the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything” thought Arthur. “Who shall I visit first – maybe Socrates or Plato, maybe Descartes, or how about Bertrand Russell?”. But, before he had time to decide, a thickly-moustached man wearing a superman outfit, with a huge letter ‘N’ emblazoned on it, shouted out “The only aim of life is be to be a superman. Rise above the herd, unless you are a sheep!” Outraged, refutations of stunning wit and logic citing the essential equality of man before God started to form in Arthur’s mind. So it was rather a pity that the only sound which in fact came from his mouth was a sheep-like “Baaa”.
“If Nietzsche upsets my liberal sentiments”, mused Arthur, “maybe I should turn to modern philosophy for the answer”. So he visited Wittgenstein, who was in deep and abstruse conversation with Bertrand Russell about language. “The meaning of life ? You must be joking, we can’t even agree on the meaning of the word ‘meaning’. We’ve got a programme of a thousand years of linguistic analysis before we can get round to that sort of question.”
Next he met a hippy wearing a ‘Don’t worry, Be happy’ T-shirt – it was Jeremy Bentham, of course.
“The life of pleasure without pain is the life to be lived”, he exclaimed merrily, as one of his attractive female disciples handed Arthur a somewhat suspicious-looking cigarette. A child of the 1960s, Arthur was for a moment attracted by this unashamed hedonism. But then he remembered when Zaphod had stolen Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine, the gateway to perfect pleasure. Though it had been quite entertaining for a day or two – well alright, a millennium or two – there had to be more to life than pleasure – didn’t there ?
Arthur was just about to dismiss philosophers as either eccentric, irrelevant or both when he encountered a strange man with a pug face, a beard and a toga. He seemed pleased to see Arthur.
“Ah, a stranger in our city. I don’t get many new people to talk to these days”.
Arthur asked him the same question he had asked all the others, “What is the meaning of life?”
“We should investigate the question together.” said Socrates. “Two heads are often better than one.”
“You obviously haven’t met Zaphod Beeblebrox”, quipped Arthur.
“But first tell me how you found us here in Philos” asked Socrates.
“It’s a long story. Basically I was rescued from Earth shortly before it was destroyed, which coincidentally was just before it was about to reveal the ultimate question.”
“Don’t you mean the ultimate answer?”, interrupted Socrates.
“No, you see they’d already built a massive computer to find the ultimate answer, which had rather disappointingly pronounced it to be 42. So they had to build an even more expensive, organic computer – the Earth – to discover the question. I never did find out what it was, so I used the Infinite Impossibility Drive to come here to see if you lot could help. Simple.”
“But it sounds like you’ve already discovered the meaning of life.”
“Yes, the meaning of life on Earth was to find the ultimate question.”
“But … that’s like saying a turkey’s life is meaningful because it is going to end up as someone’s Christmas dinner. I want my life to satisfy things I value.”
“So being part of some great plan isn’t good enough. What then do you make of the answer the computer gave, 42?”
“Maybe it was saying that the question was a meaningless one which should be ‘unasked’.”
“Very good, Arthur – I suspected that you knew the answer all along. Instead of worrying about me meaning of life, you should be enhancing meaning in your own life. Tell me, what would you like written on your gravestone?”
“How about :– ‘Arthur Dent yet to be buried’.”
“But one day you will be buried”, Socrates continued solemnly, failing to be diverted by Arthur’s attempt at humour – “so you should make the most of your time and ensure what you would like written on your gravestone becomes true. Be the author of your own life. Become more aware of what you value and learn how to attain it. As I never tire of saying, the unexamined life is not worth living”
“Socrates, you are very convincing and I would believe you if only I hadn’t heard of the Total Perspective Vortex. That’s where you see the whole infinity of creation and a tiny speck showing yourself in relation to it. The shock of one’s insignificance is enough to kill most people.”
“Well it wouldn’t kill me. If I am insignificant from another perspective, why shouldn’t that perspective or what it thinks about me be equally insignificant to me?”
“A typical philosopher’s answer. But isn’t it unnerving that the things you think are incredibly important are trifles to someone else?”
“Of course, why else do you think we philosophers spend so much time trying to convince people about what matters? But if you are worried about not being as important as you would like, I suggest you visit Psycho, the planet of psychotherapists and psychologists. It’s only a twenty minute ride in a space-taxi.”
“But what about cosmic meaning, God and all that?”
“Even here on Philos we don’t have all the answers. Maybe the universe has an ultimate meaning, maybe it hasn’t. If you want to know the absolute nature of the universe you could always pop along to Cosmo, where all the great scientists live. But surely your own experience with Earth must have taught you that being part of some grand plan isn’t necessarily a good thing.”
It had, and anyway Arthur’s dim memories of Earth made him deeply suspicious of anywhere called ‘Psycho’ or ‘Cosmo’. So he decided to take Socrates’ advice to try to become the author of his own life. Like Socrates, he was really fed up with being the mouthpiece for other people’s opinions ….
© Tim Lebon 2001
Tim LeBon is a philosophical counsellor who lives and practises in London. His email address (for those who feel themselves to be in need of Help) is TLebon@aol.com.