Meaning

2002-03-26

Thanks to my fellow progressive-libertarian blogger Will Wilkinson, I recently discovered an essay by philosopher David Schmidtz on The Meanings of Life. And thanks to my forced vacation, I've just found time to read it. Since I've known David mainly for his contributions to political philosophy (with a decision-theoretical twist), this essay was delightfully surprising and refreshing to me: surprising that an analytical philosopher would address the notoriously amorphous yet crucially important topic of the meaning of life, and refreshing that he has reflected so honestly and so beautifully. There is much I could say about his essay, but I need to let it sink into my consciousness first. The one thing I can say immediately is this: Thank you, David.

While reading David's essay, I've been listening to the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim. I love Brazilian music: Jobim, Villa-Lobos, and all the rest (well, I don't know who all the rest are, so I need to explore a bit here). It strikes me that Brazilian music is something distinctive in the world, and perhaps that Brazilian culture is, too. Many countries may be of local significance (or not even that), but then there are some countries or even cities that make a more universal contribution to human culture, either in a certain art-form or as an example of a different way to live.

I've long been fascinated by how specific such a contribution can be: Dutch painting, Brazilian or Czech music, Thai cuisine, and the like. No one talks about Dutch music or Czech painting or Brazilian sculpture, although those arts have certainly been pursued in those countries. I shudder to think what America is known for, given how zealously we export the culture of trash. To me the one thing America has created of lasting value is jazz music. I would like to be able to add as a lasting contribution that we have created a political culture of freedom (as exemplified in the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights), but that more and more seems to be a thing of the past. Yet as Thelonious Monk once said, "jazz is freedom" -- future historians will shake their heads at the extent to which Americans relinquished their founding political culture, but the music will survive.

The foregoing may seem overly collectivistic -- after all, there is no such independently-existing thing as a national culture or an artistic school or movement, only individuals. Yet we can discern such collective tendencies as emergent properties of the individuals involved. Dutch painting or jazz music engaged hundreds or thousands of artists, most of them unknown, who provided the environment of practices and forms and techniques in which geniuses such as Vermeer and Rembrandt, Ellington and Monk could flourish and give voice to something universal.

Not, as David Schmidtz points out, that giving voice to something universal is necessary to live a life of meaning. After the fact we value most highly the great creators and achievers, but that doesn't imply that the lives they led were the most meaningful or the most happy. On the contrary, I tend to think that the degree of self-denial necessary to create something of lasting value militates against the living of a happy life. As Nietzsche says at the end of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, "My suffering and my pity for suffering -- what does it matter? Am I concerned with happiness? I am concerned with my work." While I grant it's possible that creating things of meaning lends life meaning (or is one way of doing so), for myself I feel that such a single-minded focus on one aspect of life crowds out the kind of balance that is necessary for fulfillment. But then again it could just be that I lack discipline. :-)


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