“All is meaningless; it is the echoes of the inevitable demise called death, reminding us all of our imminent impotence to perpetuate all and any of our wholesomeness that relates to our being,” begins a column by senior philosophy, neurobiology and physiology major Andrew Adeola, published Feb. 10 in The Diamondback.
Damn. Talk about a metaphysical bombshell.
The remainder of Adeola’s column continues along the same vein, pointing out that, sans exception, all of us will die someday and hence, our lives really have no meaning.
It’s not that as a philosophy major myself, I felt the need to pick a fight with someone who, like me, is trying to infuse philosophy into their writing and contribute to public discourse.
My main impetus for responding to Adeola’s column is, to me, the rationale behind it is painfully nihilistic and hopeless. And I wonder if there’s really any benefit to be had in making the case that life is meaningless. None is evident to me, anyway.
So, I’d like to offer a counterargument. I’d like to respond to Adeola by making the case that, in spite of our mortality—on some level, because of it—we are completely capable of living lives filled with purpose.
This approach requires me to take a completely different stance on cosmology and humanity’s place in the universe than the one Adeola is operating under.
The universe sketched out in Adeola’s column is one in which he stresses “… the ephemeral nature of all entities under the sun. The futility of life should permit us to challenge whatever meaning is associated with life when that life is transitory. But then what meaning is there to life when that life is transitory?”
But wait a second. Scientists estimate that the sun itself is about 4.5 billion years old. Contemporary scientific consensus also cites an age of roughly 4.5 billion years for the Earth. Unless you held a gun to my head and forced me to say so, I don’t think I would refer to either of these two entities as “ephemeral.”
I think I see Adeola’s underlying point, which I’ll articulate as follows: “OK, so maybe the Earth and the Sun and our solar system aren’t ephemeral. But when you compare how long they last with how long humans typically live, we are ephemeral.”
Yeah, but “apples and oranges,” you know.
Our bodies aren’t built like planets, and it would be kind of absurd to consider that possibility. We simply aren’t supposed to last that long. We all come into this world with an unknown expiration date, but that’s no reason to concede to a defeatist, nihilistic perspective of ourselves and our place in the universe.
In a not-so distant past, I remember sitting in a café in the northern suburbs of Buenos Aires with a copy of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story collection, The Aleph.
The first story, “The Immortal,” was about a Roman soldier living during the reign of Diocletian, who mistakenly drank water from a stream that conferred immortality. This soldier discovered that other people who drank from the stream had turned into troglodytes and despaired at having to live out boring, endless lives. After many centuries, the soldier actively set about trying to become mortal again, eventually succeeding and dying in 1929.
We often talk about death as this dark, sinister end that awaits us all. And maybe there’s some truth to that rationale, but we almost never consider the alternative: living forever would be tiresome. We would get bored.
Adeola cites Leo Tolstoy in the second paragraph of his column, quoting the Russian novelist as having once brooded, “Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?”
To answer Tolstoy, yes, and I can enumerate that still-weighty meaning in just five words: “Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace.”
To answer Adeola, Tolstoy found religion sometime after his profound existential crisis. After completing Anna Karenina, he became an ascetic Christian and published works such as Union and Translation of the Four Gospels and The Kingdom of God is Within You, the latter of which profoundly influenced Mahatma Gandhi.
Tolstoy’s life is, by any reckoning, heavy with meaning and purpose. As if writing some of the world’s most enduring novels weren’t enough to carve out a personal legacy, he then directed his formidable powers to finding a meaning to his own life, and on a universal scale, to all of ours.
I’ll admit it—we can’t all be Tolstoys.
But we are free to live every bit as purposefully as he did. Even if it’s true that most of us will only live for a fraction of a century on this Earth, we can still imbue that time with meaning. Our actions have reverberations for those around us, and through those ripples in the endless ocean of the world’s people we may yet live on.
In short, my final response to Adeola proceeds thusly: “Yes, we’re all going to die. No, that doesn’t necessarily entail that our lives have no meaning. Rather than allow knowledge of our mortality to turn us into nihilists, we can instead use it as a powerful impetus for living lives of purpose.”
It’s a beautiful day, so I’m going to step outside and get some air now that I’ve finished this article.
Despair is so passé.
Featured Photo Credit: Featured photo courtesy of Flickr user Jonathan.
Horus Alas is senior philosophy major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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