Thursday, 15 December 2011

A.C. Grayling on the Meaning of Life.

My attention was recently drawn to a short video posted on the New York Times website of an interview with the philosopher Anthony Grayling. In essence he is talking about the meaning of life. I quite agree with everything he says so I’d highly recommend a watch. It what follows I’ll summarise and discuss just what it is that Grayling’s wise words share. 

Philosopher A.C. Grayling
The one, and alas the only, time I met A.C. Grayling was at a talk in late January 2009 at Birkbeck College. As an even younger bright-eyed aspiring philosophy student I furiously noted down everything I could and have been wondering ever since when those notes might come in handy. Sadly, today is not that today. Nonetheless, I spied Grayling in the college cafe afterwards and, rather awkwardly, formed a little queue of one behind the fellow Grayling was talking to. Kind enough to notice my efforts, Grayling moved on his interlocutor and said hello. I blurted out this that and the other before asking him a question I was at that time a little worried about - ‘How can life have meaning if there is no afterlife?’. Grayling told me, in that lovely distinctive voice of his, that being with friends, thinking about philosophy and all sorts of other worldly pleasures and endeavours gave his life meaning. I thanked him and walked off before he yelled to me ‘Come do philosophy at Birkbeck!’. I sadly didn’t take up the offer, though I am now a philosophy student. His answer was sincere, I could tell that much, but at the time I wondered whether it really answered my question. After a little thought it becomes clear that it does and this recent video explains why. 

There is no lid, as the philosopher says, to take off in order to see meaning contained within some metaphysical vessel. It’s not ‘out there’ among the many wonderful facts of physics and astronomy. Meaning is a creation of our mental lives. The important thing to see is that this does not make it any less real than any kind of meaning (and it would be a strange kind indeed) that you could find in the spatio-temporal world, that is the physical world we live in. 

“Freedom is agony” because we now have to find and for ourselves just what it is we desire in life. This harks back to a famous chapter from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov known as The Grand Inquisitor. The title character argues to a reborn Christ that people do not desire freedom but simply happiness. For him, it is the burden of a few to take on the responsibility of free choice whilst the others obey without concerning themselves with such things. It certainly is a frightening revelation to feel how free one is. The right response, surely, is to grasp the freedom and as Grayling says, to create something. “The meaning of life is to make life meaningful” is such a wonderfully put motto. 

By setting goals that we desire to achieve meaning comes, not in achieving that goal, but in doing ones best to try to achieve it. The analogy Grayling brings with Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus is pertinent because in that scenario the goal not only will never be achieved, but is in some sense, impossible to achieve. I’ve written about this myth elsewhere a while back but it’s worth going over in case you’re unfamiliar with the story. Sisyphus was a deceitful King of Corinth who was forced by the gods to carry a boulder up a steep hill only to see it roll back down again. Sisyphus had to go back down and repeat his burden. This task would continue for all eternity. Camus then asks us to imagine Sisyphus happy. Here Sisyphus’ life is meaningful because of the attitude he takes towards it or is “made valuable by the goals it would realise if [he] succeeded in realising them.” 

Though it might be frightening it is freedom of autonomy that “is the source of the good in life”. Meaning is a creation, a creation we ought to be proud of. Thank you Anthony Grayling for expressing all this so well.


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