Thursday, June 21, 2012

Our purpose in life.

So I've written about what our human essence is before (see here), but it was more creative writing than actual coherent thoughts. Recently the topic came up again in conversation with a close friend and I got thinking about human essence, fulfilment, and the soul once more. To use the melodramatic trope I got thinking about 'the meaning of life'.

Aristotle thought that the key to discovering how to live well was to first discover what the purpose (or ergon) of a human being is. I agree that this is a good place to start. Aristotle thought that the ergon of a human being is to use our faculties of reason in compliance with the virtues. This, thought Aristotle, would lead us to eudaimonia (which roughly translates to 'fulfilment'). I think Aristotle had a very worthy aim in trying to discover our purpose, however I disagree that reason and virtue are the exclusive tools available to us to reach fulfilment.

The way I imagine it is like this:

There are certain conditions in our lives that we have little control over. These might be biological (presence of disease, height, etc), environmental (country of birth, attributes of parents, etc) or emotional (a tendency towards anger, etc). 

Excluding the factors mentioned above we generally consider ourselves to be free to attempt to do whatever we like. Some of these attempts may never yield results (I can't achieve the logically or physically impossible) and some opportunities we might never consider; however these courses of action are still possible lives that we imagine we could live. 

Through a combination of introspection and experimentation we can learn which actions and experiences we find fulfilling and which actions and experiences tend not to enrich our existence. Here is where I depart from Aristotle. Whilst Aristotle believes that the virtues are essential to achieving eudaimonia I believe that happiness is the paramount ingredient (although for some people engaging in virtuous actions might be a tool to achieve happiness). It seems to me that a life of immense happiness will always be fulfilling because fulfilment is just another word we use to describe a certain 'flavour' of sophisticated, complete physical and cerebral happiness.
So what is this immense happiness or fulfilment? 

We can also imagine that for every person there is a 'perfect' existence. This type of life would be one in which no improvements can be made and it would be different for everybody. For example, the perfect life for somebody with an immense appreciation of music might be to spend a large amount of time in musical environments. If this person also values interpersonal relationships they might also have a very fulfilling relationship with an extremely compatible companion. And so on for everything that could ever bring this person fulfilment. The common link between each of our conceptions of the perfect life would be that we all want to feel a form of personal eudaimonia - Or as I see it, we all want a life in which nothing could be changed that would bring about a better outcome. This type of live is what could be called 'complete fulfillment'.

I seriously doubt that anybody has ever lived such an ideologically charmed life. However I think that there are ways to live that can (no matter what our biological, environmental, or personal restrictions are) help us move closer to this ideal conception of life. I think the key is to engage in endless discovery of the world and of ourselves. This type of life is an active life of varied experiences, but also a life of introspection. It is these our experiences in combination with our experiences that when combined can help us decide how to find personal fulfilment. I think it is our ergon to seek, and find, this fulfilment. The 'purpose of life' is to seek and discover what our purpose in life actually is. It's the searching that is important; perhaps more so than actually finding it. In a word, existence is discovery.

It might seem, at first, as if there are multiple paths to happiness and no 'singular perfect existence'. You might think that you could be equally fulfilled through a life of tasty food and sex as a life of satisfying learning and teaching. I would agree that the personal fulfilment from each of these lives might be the same, but argue that the life of learning and teaching would be preferable. The reason for this is that a life of teaching would probably help other people achieve their own personal fulfilment - They may wish to learn about things. In contrast eating tasty food rarely gives fulfilment to anyone but the person doing the eating. So. . . If the pleasure of two different courses of action is equally good for the agent in question we must look at the potential flow-on effects that each course of action might have on the wider community. If one of these options is more beneficial for the wider community than the other it is, in a sense, more fulfilling (on a sort of 'meta' scale).

 Although I rarely think about the 'soul' I would imagine that if there is such a thing it would be a manifestation of our 'perfect person' that resides in our subconscious mind. The immense, almost transcendental, pleasure that we experience when we bring a closely held desire into fruition might be due to a rarely occurring alignment between the desires of our souls (to live a life in perfect accordance with our ergon) and our actual lives. I've certainly experienced this feeling - a feeling of complete confidence that I have made the right decision. Of course, I could explain it all away with talk of brain chemestry and neuroscience (yada yada yada) but sometimes it's nice to think that there is a reason that you feel so at peace sometimes, and that the reason might be because you've managed to, for an ephemeral moment, solve the puzzle of just what the hell we're supposed to do with our lives  . . . But this is just speculation.


  1. Let's say my eudaimonia is you shutting up. But, because you like to philosophise, our perfect worlds conflict. Thus, I have just demonstrated there is no perfect existence that more than 1 person can participate in.

    - Nemesis

    1. There will most definitely be cases in which our fulfilled lives cannot exist together. If this is the point you are trying to make then I accept it. In fact, I don't think anyone is ever truly, perfectly, fulfilled in the ideological sense I describe. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't aim for that sort of fulfillment. As I said in the blog post, it's the seeking and discovery of our eudaimonia that is our purpose, not necessarily obtaining the fulfillment.

      Much of the time conflicting desires can be reconciled. For example if your fulfillment includes freedom from hearing my opinions and my fulfillment involves talking about my opinions then there is a simple solution: Simply do not read my writings. However, I feel that you get a sort of depraved enjoyment at posting your critiques here so maybe that's not necessary.

      Maybe you should start a blog Nemesis?