Defining what it means to exist as a human being has never been straightforward. Some define the meaning of a human existence as a gift from God, others as a biological product of millions of years of evolution. What ‘being’ is,however, is no easy question. It may be a state, a state of consciousness, a state of bodily function, or a state which is primarily to do with the soul. It may be, though, that being is an action, rather than a state, something is achieved through doing, and may only be attained by a few, rather than many. Anything that exists can be said to have ‘being’, but what human ‘being’ consists of is a hazy concept.
Hegel distinguished between the being of objects and being as human, but concluded that attaining any meaning from ‘being’ is difficult since it lacks a predicate (‘I am’ without a predicate means very little, if anything at all). Being may in fact be just as meaningless a term to us as non-being, even if we exist, because it is so intangible to define it-it is so subjective. Although we have a concept of what non-being might be like, we really have no experience or tangible idea of what it is or what it consists of. Being for humans may be defined as consciousness or sentience, yet this comes with a bundle of moral dilemmas and problems. Being cannot be clearly defined, since being may either something very simple or something very complex, so complex that it is subjective.
What it means ‘to be’ cannot be easily defined, and being without a context may in fact be a meaningless term.
Schopenhauer believed that the best moments in life are when we are no longer aware of ourselves and are so engrossed in some activity that we cease to be self-consciousness for some period of time. Ligotti wrote that ‘most people learn to save themselves by artificially limiting the contents of their consciousness’. Socrates believed that one should know oneself, yet this can only go so far. Too much knowledge, too much self-awareness, and it may result in nothing but scorn for the human being. It is unclear what consciousness is, what it means to be conscious, and what its limits are. Nevertheless, one might conclude that, paradoxically, our consciousness strives to flee itself. This is because life is suffering. It is not easy. It’s fight or flight. It takes less of an effort to be pulled under than go over. Jordan Peterson reconciles the bleak pessimism of Schopenhauer with the naive optimism of Socrates. Yes, life is suffering, and yes, if one has not contemplated that being itself may not be worthwhile, that it may be better for there to be nothing rather than something, then one has not looked both at oneself and the world properly. But despite this, life is worthwhile. It is worthwhile if there is some meaning, some goal that works toward a higher good, and if unnecessary suffering is eliminated as much as possible. The opposites of chaos and order, of Apollonian and Dionysian, are coupled to formulate a life that justifies its existence. Consciousness can be a terrible, terrible thing, yet it shouldn’t be eliminated for this reason. If it can be manipulated as a potent force for good, then it may justify itself, and we may not have to flee so far from it so often.
The extent to which we have control over our lives is somewhat more limited than what we might perhaps first assume: Where, when and how we are born, how we are brought up, who our parents are, how our childhood pans out. All of these are clearly beyond our control, yet it would appear that the same non-existence of control holds for ourselves- Do we have free will? Do I have any control whatsoever over anything? Is talk of ‘I’ meaningless?
A hard materialist would say that free will is an illusion which we experience when conscious, perhaps because this illusion is in fact incredibly pragmatic-it enables us to feel in control of our lives, gives us a sense of responsibility, and allows us to hold others accountable for their actions. Nevertheless, an illusion is all it may be. First, if we are free, this must mean that there is some part of us which is not bound by the natural world, which can separate itself from the scientific laws and rise above them-something non-physical. There is no hard evidence for such a faculty (because of its nature). Second, the talk of ‘I’ is ambiguous. One might argue that ‘I’ can choose freely without being controlled by external factors, such as one’s environment, one’s memory, one’s state of mind (e.g. homicidal), yet what is the ‘I’, if anything at all, but the amalgamation of all these and more?
It could perhaps be said that free will is an illusion if the brain is responsible for our mental states (which evidence suggests it is), but that it is an illusion that we cannot do any with. A sense of morality would collapse, and society could no longer justifiably punish anyone because they were guilty. Freedom may be an illusion, but a necessary one.
Never before has it been easier to live a life of simple pleasures without hardship and without hard work. One can be lazy and still survive. Mediocrity is the easiest way of life, and provides an existence free from pain, danger, and suffering. Yet at its centre, it is a life of mediocrity, a form of life that Nietzsche detested. He said ‘I abhor Christianity with a deadly hatred’ because it puts the crowd above the exceptions, and mediocrity is worshipped and heralded. He criticises the idea of moderation, saying that this is mediocrity feigned as a moral virtue. For Nietzsche the answer to a meaningful existence was to live dangerously-to embrace the pain and suffering and to make something of it, rather than cowing away from it. We can never be great if we are satisfied with a painless life without any real toil.
Taking risks is dangerous, but it is what distinguishes people and leads to the recognition of a fruitful life. At the end of one’s existence, it may be haunting to realise that we did not take enough risks, that we did not push ourselves out of comfort, and that our sense of security held us back from becoming the best version of ourselves.
Guy Debord wrote about media and the concept of representation in the Society of the Spectacle, a book which was heavily influenced by the thought of Karl Marx, most particularly the ideas of commodities and fetishism in culture and capitalism. Debord believed that the spectacle had become an integral part of society, and that what one had become more important than who one was. It is no longer about what experiences are, but how they are perceived, particularly by other people. Experience, and thereby existence, has become a commodity, something that is represented and ‘sold’ as something for people to watch. The spectacle is for Debord a ‘wish for sleep’, and, like Marx’s idea of religion, holds people back, numbing them and preventing them from truly living.
There is little doubt that Debord would despair at how the spectacle has developed. Image and representation is more rife than ever in the form of social media, the news, and television. The spectacle has grown immensely, shown since the mediation of images having become so common in people’s relation to each other. He writes ‘this society eliminates geographical distance only to produce a new internal separation’. The emergence of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat may prove Debord more true than ever. We can through technology reduce our geography from each other, yet we remain separated nevertheless, since all we are seeing is a representation of something or somebody, leaving users in a state of restlessness and dissatisfaction.
Literally a ‘lover of wisdom’, the philosopher can be defined in many ways. Some imagine a philosopher as someone sitting around thinking about abstract concepts which have very little relevance to real life (Marx said that philosophy is to the real world what masturbation is to sex), others may view the philosopher as an antisocial outsider who does not participate in anything public, or as an exclusively academic position. Perhaps the most notable description of what a genuine philosopher is comes from Nietzsche, who wrote that living “as a philosopher” ‘hardly means more than living “prudently and apart”.’ He argues that the genuine philosopher lives “unphilosophically” and “unwisely”-‘he risks himself constantly, he plays the wicked game.’ The wicked game, it seems, is the game of making a judgement, ‘a Yes or No, not about the sciences but about life and the value of life’. The philosopher doubts his ability or even duty to this judgement, but he must seek this right ‘only from the most comprehensive-perhaps most disturbing and destructive-experiences, and frequently hesitates, doubts, and lapses into silence.’ Genuine philosophising involves delving into the darkness of existence, and not only contemplating it, but experiencing it. The Yes or No judgement, perhaps the greatest judgement of all, is incredibly complex and not at all straightforward. The answer is unclear, and may remain elusive for great periods of time, perhaps for one’s whole lifetime, yet only through experience and feeling ‘the burden and the duty of a hundred attempts and temptations of life’ can a person begin to become a true philosopher.
Aquinas’ via negativa is well-known. We cannot say what God is, only what he is not. Aquinas is also notorious for his Five Ways. Aquinas seeks to prove the existence of God, claims to have done so, yet also says that God’s nature cannot be known. This seems to be mistaken, however. If one claims to have knowledge that a being or thing exists, then it necessarily follows that one must also have at least some knowledge about that being or thing’s essence. If you claim that X exists, you must have at least some concept of what X is, otherwise you could not claim that X exists, since knowledge of X’s existence includes a minimum amount of knowledge about what X is. One might say that this is only true for things in the universe (contingent), and that God is an exception (necessary), yet this only makes God even more estranged from the universe, making it seem that a deist belief is as far as one can go before stretching beyond the realms of evidence or logic.
Cicero was a Roman lawyer, philosopher and orator, who was rather Stoic in his thought, and who lived from 106 BC-43 BC. Cicero emphasised the importance of friendship, arguing that ‘friendship improves happiness and abates misery, by the doubling of our joy and dividing of our grief.’ Why must friendship, an inherently social relationship, be a great source of happiness? Because for Cicero ‘happiness would lose all its joy if nobody rejoiced with us.’ This maintains Aristotle’s idea that man is by nature a social animal. If this is the case, then it would follow that happiness is to be found in what is social. For Cicero, ‘life is nothing without friendship.’
The explicitly Stoic part of Cicero’s thoughts about happiness are clear when he wrote ‘a happy consists in tranquillity of mind.’ This is an idea prominent in the writings of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, who both argued that happiness relies on the internal, rather than the external-we ultimately rely on ourselves for happiness, and although there are external aids and necessities that must be fulfilled, the happiest person is ‘the one who depends on himself only’. It is our state of mind, then, which deems whether we are happy or not. So we should strengthen our mind, so that we can become a fulfilled human being. How is this possible? For Seneca, it would be through philosophy. For Cicero, well perhaps one should start by reading books. For as he said, ‘if you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.’
We can’t be sure. Yet the Fall represents the development of self-consciousness of man-Adam and Eve are aware of themselves, just like we are aware of ourselves. We know that we will die, we don’t know why we live, and we know that this causes us a great deal of anguish. Self-consciousness has led to the creation of music, art and the inventions of a great deal of technologies we use today. Self-consciousness is simultaneously a brilliant and tragic thing. Consciousness brings both anxiety and hope. Thomas Ligotti wrote that ‘most people learn to save themselves by artificially limiting the content of consciousness.’ Ironically, we manipulate our consciousness so that we can limit our consciousness. Because consciousness brings with it so many troubling questions, such as ‘is death the end? does life have any meaning? who am I? does God exist?’, we have created a multiplicity of distractions so that these questions rarely arise in us. Most of these distractions lie in the realm of technology. Thinking is not easy, and can be painful, and so in many different ways we go to great lengths so as to save us from having to think-believing in God without really questioning his existence (or the opposite), blindly supporting a hopeful yet unrealistic ideology (e.g. communism), spending hours playing video games or browsing social media-the list goes on. We try to limit thought-a state similar to that of Adam and Eve before the Fall. But constantly striving to prevent thought does not lead to much-hedonistic mindlessness works, but only for a short time. After a while it results in depression, anxiety, hopelessness and nihilism. Thought is painful, yes, but life is meant to be painful. That’s what life is. Limiting consciousness, trying to return to the Garden of Eden, is life-negating. Although it may be easier not to think, it may not be better. Non-thinking alone results in destruction, as does thinking. Therefore, a balance between the two must be sought.
It might have been better for consciousness never to have arisen, yet we must not ignore the fact that it has, and we must therefore act on this reality.
George Santayana (1863-1952) was a Spanish philosopher who, although an atheist, valued Catholicism in terms of its practices, rituals and values. He seems to have been influenced by the ancient materialist philosophers Epicurus and Lucretius, who maintained that the world consists of a finite number of atoms. Santayana said that ‘knowledge of what is possible is the beginning of happiness’, which suggests him being influenced by the Stoic Epictetus, who famously said that ‘some things are within your control. And some things are not.’ There must be some kind of detachment from the world for Santayana, John Gray noted, if we are to be happy. Happiness is the ‘only sanction of life’, and so we must become happy, otherwise ‘existence remains a mad and lamentable experiment.’
But how exactly are we to become happy? The basis of happiness is character, an idea Santayana probably developed from Aristotle. He compares happiness to a flower-it withers when plucked. Therefore, happiness is not a single moment, it is a gradual development that must grow and strengthen over time. Why does Santayana, an atheist, believe in the possibility of happiness? Because happiness becomes a reality ‘if one cultivates intuition and outlives the grosser passions, including optimism.’