Recently, I came across two different blogs with postings titled ‘The Meaning Of Life’.
I don’t know what is the meaning of life, except that I should live my life as consciously as possible right now because I have no idea what holds for me tomorrow.
I also re-read several beautifully written passages in Somerset Maugham’s novel, Of Human Bondage – about Philip Carey’s (the protaganist) self-discovery regarding the purpose of his existence.
While I can roughly grasp the points made by the author; I haven’t quite figured out whether they make any sense to me personally.
Cronshaw: But pray tell me what is the meaning of life?
Philip: I say, that’s a rather difficult question. Won’t you give the answer yourself?
Cronshaw: No, because it’s worthless unless you yourself discover it. But what do you suppose you are in the world for?
Philip: Oh, I don’t know: I suppose to do one’s duty, and make the best possible use of one’s faculties, and avoid hurting other people.
Cronshaw: In short, to do unto others as you would they should do unto you?
Philip: I suppose so.
Philip: No, it isn’t. It has nothing to do with Christianity. It’s just abstract morality.
Cronshaw: But there’s no such thing as abstract morality.
Cronshaw: Have you ever been to the Cluny, the museum? There you will see Persian carpets of the most exquisite hue and of a pattern the beautiful intricacy of which delights and amazes the eye. In them you will see the mystery and the sensual beauty of the East, the roses of Hafiz and the wine-cup of Omar; but presently you will see more. You were asking just now what was the meaning of life. Go and look at those Persian carpets, and one of these days the answer will come to you.
Philip: You’re a cryptic.
Cronshaw: I am drunk.
He (Philip) thought of Hayward and his eager admiration for him when first they met, and how disillusion had come and then indifference, till nothing held them together but habit and old memories. It was one of the queer things of life that you saw a person every day for months and were so intimate with him that you could not imagine existence without him; then separation came and everything went on in the same way, and the companion who had seemed essential proved unncessary. Your life proceeded and you did not even miss him.
Philip thought of those early days in Heidelberg when Hayward, capable of great things, had been full of enthusiasm for the future, and how, little by little, achieving nothing, he had resigned himself to failure. Now he was dead. His death had been as futile as his life. He died ingloriously, of a stupid disease, failing once more, even at the end, to accomplish anything.
It was just the same now as if he had never lived.
Philip asked himself desperately what was the use of living at all. It all seemed inane.
It was the same with Cronshaw: it was quite unimportant that he had lived; he was dead and forgotten, his book of poems sold in remainder by second-hand booksellers; his life seemed to have served nothing except to give a pushing journalist occasion to write an article in a review.
And Philip cried out in his soul: ‘What is the use of it?’
Thinking of Cronshaw, Philip remembered the Persian rug which he had given him, telling him that it offered an answer to his question upon the meaning of life; and suddenly the answer occurred to him: he chuckled: now that he had it, it was like one of the puzzles which you worry over till you are shown the solution and then cannot imagine how it could have escaped you.
The answer was obvious. Life had no meaning.
On the earth, satellite of a star speeding through space, living things had arisen under the influence of conditions which were part of the planet’s history; and as there had been a beginning of life upon it, so, under the influence of other conditions, there would be an end: man, no more significant than other forms of life, had come not as the climax of creation but as a physical reaction to the environment.
There was no meaning in life, and man by living served no end. It was immaterial whether he was born or not born, whether he lived or ceased to live. Life was insignificant and death without inconsequence.
Philip exulted, as he had exulted in his boyhood when the weight of a belief in God was lifted from his shoulders: it seemed to him that the last burden of responsibililty was taken from him; and for the first time he was utterly free.
His insignificance was turned to power, and he felt himself suddenly equal with the cruel fate which had seemed to persecute him; for, if life was meaningless, the world was robbed of its cruelty.
What he did or left undone did not matter. Failure was unimportant and success amounted to nothing.
He was the most inconsiderable creature in that swarming mass of mankind which for a brief space occupied the surface of the earth; and he was almighty because he had wrenched from chaos the secret of its nothingness.
Thoughts came tumbling over one another in Philip’s eager fancy, and he took long breaths of joyous satisfaction. He felt inclined to leap and sing. He had not been so happy for months.
‘Oh life,’ he cried in his heart, ‘oh life, where is thy sting?’
For the same uprush of fancy which had shown him with all the force of mathematical demonstration that life had no meaning, brought with it another idea; and that was why Cronshaw, he imagined, had given him the Persian rug.
As the weaver elaborated his pattern for no end but the pleasure of his aesthetic sense, so might a man live his life, or if one was forced to believe that his actions were outside his choosing, so might a man look at his life, that it made a pattern.
There was as little need to do this as there was use. It was merely something he did for his own pleasure.
Out of the manifold events of his life, his deeds, his feelings, his thoughts, he might make a design, regular, elaborate, complicated, or beautiful; and though it might be no more than an illusion that he had the power of selection, though it might be no more than fantastic legerdemain in which appearances were interwoven with moonbeams, that did not matter: it seemed, and so to him it was.
In the vast warp of life (a river arising from no spring and flowing endlessly to no sea), with the background to his fancies that there was no meaning and that nothing was important, a man might get a personal satisfaction in selecting the various strands that worked out the pattern.
There was one pattern, the most obvious, perfect, and beautiful, in which a man was born, grew to manhood, married, produced children, toiled for his bread, and died; but there were others, intricate and wonderful, in which happiness did not enter and in which success was not attempted; and in them might be discovered a more troubling grace.
Some lives, and Hayward’s was among them, the blind indifference of chance cut off while the design was still imperfect; and then the solace was comfortable that it did not matter; other lives such as Cronshaw’s, offered a pattern which was difficult to follow: the point of view had to be shifted and old standards had to be altered before one could understand that such a life was its own justification.
Philip thought that in throwing over the desire for happiness he was casting aside the last of his illusions. His life had seemed horrible when it was measured by its happiness, but now he seemed to gather strength as he realised that it might be measured by something else.
Happiness mattered as little as pain. They came in, both of them, as all the other details of his life came in, to the elaboration of the design.
He seemed for an instant to stand above the accidents of his existence, and he felt that they could not affect him again as they had one before. Whatever happened to him now would be more motive to add to the complexity of the pattern, and when the end approached he would rejoice in its completion.
It would be a work of art, and it would be none the less beautiful because he alone knew of its existence, and with his death it would at once cease to be.
Philip was happy.