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Whither Do We Go?

April 23, 2018
- Surya Raman, Sudhang Varshney

In the dystopian world of George Orwell’s classic 1984, the readers are introduced to a fictitious language christened ‘Newspeak’, an ingenious mechanism to curb the proliferation of rebellious thought by meticulously eliminating the essence of language: words; words that could potentially serve as petri dishes to culture and transmit/communicate mutinous thoughts.

If thought about for a bit longer than usual, the effects of imposing such a curb on words are far-reaching and enormous; a world without words like “love” and “joy” would be incredibly sullen and morbid. Like the drowning man - hastily beating about, looking for a straw to clutch at - humans would flutter in vain. This gives birth to a bigger, more disturbing question: would people even be able to perceive a particular feeling as jubilation or grief?

Similarly, the people of Oceania couldn’t feel mutinous, thus illustrating that limited resources lead to limited scope of thought. Aren’t we being exceedingly ambitious, then, when we attempt to comprehend the biggest infinities of all – the universe - with our limited scope of rational thought?

In his short work on melancholia and philosophy - A Confession - Tolstoy comes to the very same conclusion. Stricken by a deep existential crisis, he sought to answer the same question that this editorial poses: what do we do once we’ve discovered that there is no profound meaning to life? Why should we continue to live? He found that people within his social circle dealt with this in one out of these four ways :

  1. Choosing not to think about the question (ignorance)
  2. Choosing to enjoy the small things in life whilst acknowledging the absurdity of it all (epicureanism)
  3. Choosing to kill oneself (“strength”) - and
  4. Choosing to labour on, petrified by the thought of death (“weakness”).

After pacing up and down for a while (in a figurative sense), he realizes that he had unwittingly excluded another category of people: the ones who had faith. Despite being a staunch advocate of rational thought, Tolstoy realizes its confining nature.

The question we have been dealing with is : what is the purpose of our finite existence in this ever expanding, infinite universe? Therein lies our mistake, Tolstoy says.

To answer a question that deals with the infinite, one must have an answer armed with reasoning that encompasses the infinite. Rational thought is largely limited by factors like starvation and death; they are characteristics of the finite, mortal world we live in. Tolstoy admits that while faith is irrational, the answers it gives always possess the ability to connect the finite with the infinite - which is the essence of what we are looking for. No one captures this better than Tolstoy : “For man to be able to live he must either not see the infinite, or have such an explanation of the meaning of life as will connect the finite with the infinite.”

The pioneer of Absurdism, Albert Camus, was Epicurean at heart. In his masterpiece, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus discusses at length the underlying concepts of absurdism. Like Tolstoy, he acknowledges the insignificance of human life in the grander scheme of things, but unlike Tolstoy, doesn’t find solace in faith. He calls the act of giving into faith (i.e. ceasing to be skeptical) “philosophical suicide”. However, he does not disregard human life completely and submit to Nihilism; Camus presents us with a third option rooted in reality, which is largely Epicurean at heart. To illustrate his outlook on life, he mentions the mythological story of Sisyphus.

Sisyphus was a king cursed by the Gods to roll a boulder on to the top of a mountain, only to watch it roll down again - in perpetuity. Camus draws a parallel between our finite, inconsequential existence and Sisyphus’ curse and asks us to “think of Sisyphus as happy”. Camus writes “If there is a sin against this life, it consists perhaps not so much into sparing of life, as in hoping for another life and eluding the quiet grandeurs of this one”.

Camus, as is clear, was an emphatic advocate of living in the moment and enjoying the everyday pleasures of life. It is these pleasures that Camus cites as reasons for enduring life.

Over the years, countless philosophers have put forth innumerable theories trying to answer the same question that this editorial has been dealing with. It seems logical, then, to believe in the subjectivity of the meaning of life. A preordained meaning will perhaps never be found, but all of us may (or may not) have our own reasons for enduring life. Perhaps ignorance truly is bliss. Perhaps it is best to believe in these supposedly “inconsequential” perceptions of the meaning of human life.

Or - perhaps - all life is inconsequential, much like this editorial.

Illustration Credits: Kiril Gornishki