An unexamined life is not worth living.
Socrates proposes a somewhat cynical claim, but let us be honest—haven’t we all, at one point or another, thought about the meaning of life and such existential questions? Frequently we endeavor to avoid these questions, and sometimes we even convince ourselves that such efforts have been successful. The end result, however, is always failure. These inquiries live just beyond the horizon of our mind, lie outside the periphery of our intellectual vantage point, ever-present but also ever-impossible, it seems, to treat with any modicum of success.
In attempting to answer these questions, it is easy to become lost in thought. Such attempts lend themselves to a panoply of further inquiries, such as: Do the activities I undertake truly bring me value? Am I making the right choices? Upon making investigations of this nature, one often concludes, with a hint of not-so-trivial dismay, that all of one’s decision making is predicated on an individual, experiential foundation. One often concludes, furthermore, that the lens of purported objectivity with which one views the world may not be so objective after all. The effect of such conclusions is chilling at best, and veritably paralyzing at worst. Forced to stop and think, to contemplate the next step, one finds oneself in a state of momentary paralysis.
Consider, however, the possibility that this quest for Truth may not be a quest at all. Asking such questions and searching earnestly for Truth presupposes that answers to such questions even exist in the first place. The search for Truth implies that there is Truth to be found, a conclusion in support of which little convincing evidence exists. In pursuit of this quest, which has begun to seem rather vain in appearance, one may find oneself consumed, controlled, indeed entirely enslaved to a fanciful and ill-contrived goal. That Truth exists, that such a quest is in one’s best interest is founded upon man’s desire, as a rational creature, for certainty. But the existence of this certainty is far from obvious.
Assume, then, that Truth is illusory. Assume that it is contingent upon a time, a place, a culture, a history. This notion breeds empowerment; if there is no Truth to be found, then one has the capacity to define his own Truth. Instead of attempting to find meaning, one simply ought instead to try to create meaning for himself. Rather than conceding to the world’s ideals, one may impose his own on the world. By such a construal, as opposed to being paralyzed, one is instead empowered, empowered to realize one’s desires, one’s will, and one’s individual meaning in life. To be certain, however, accomplishing this task requires one to have a firm grasp of his goals. As such, one ought to be aware of those instances in which one’s actions are not necessarily in line with one’s goals: be aware of time spent idling, of decisions influenced by others, and of uncertain, half-hearted actions.
These thoughts are well-expressed in a small but telling quote by none other than Friedrich Nietzsche:
I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.
The hour when you say, ‘What matters my happiness? It is poverty and filth and wretched contentment. But my happiness ought to justify existence itself.’
The hour when you say, ‘What matters my reason? Does it crave knowledge as the lion his food? It is poverty and filth and wretched contentment.’
The hour when you say, ‘What matters my virtue? As yet it has not made me rage. How weary I am of my good and my evil! All that is poverty and filth and wretched contentment.’
Ultimately, the quest for Truth is bound to result in inevitable failure. Paralyzed by his attempts to secure an elusive certainty, man can move forward only by affirming a Truth that is of entirely his own design. We all too frequently look to the external world to find meaning, but that meaning can be more easily, and indeed more fruitfully found by looking, instead, to the world that is internal and individual to each of us.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra in The Portable Nietzsche translated by Walter Kaufmann.” (1954): 115-343.