Many years ago I had a conversation with Gisela Striker, the historian of ancient philosophy. We were discussing the meaning of life, and she said — although I’m sure I won’t remember precisely how she worded it — that she hoped that life didn’t have a meaning, because it would be much too oppressive if it did. I assume her thought was that you’d be required to shape your life around whatever it was, whether or not it was something you cared about or had chosen for yourself. And surely Striker was right, this far anyway, that we shouldn’t simply take it for granted that we want meaningful lives.
I’ve since taken an interest in John Stuart Mill, and I’ve come to see what Striker meant about meaning being oppressive. Mill made a very large, important project his life’s meaning, and so made himself into a larger-than-life illustration of what is probably today’s most popular view about what it takes to have a meaningful life. He fully mobilised his very highly organised, decision-driven personality around the utilitarian project, which was at that time a many-sided radical political program, aimed at making the world a better place for everyone. As I worked my way through the research that became my book, John Stuart Mill and the Meaning of Life, it dawned on me that although Mill took himself to have the very best reasons for becoming the willing servant of this project, he ended up feeling trapped by it.
Now I don’t mean to suggest that this is an objection to the view that you make your life meaningful by making it into a project. For now, however, just notice that Mill did one thing after another to advance the utilitarian project. This is an approach to making your life meaningful that presupposes that you are an effective actor, in control of the steps you take, and reasonably confident that they are for the most part well-chosen.
But there are other ways of thinking about a meaning for one’s life. In the reading that Alexander Nehamas and Lanier Anderson give to Friedrich Nietzsche, the objective is to interpret one’s life so that in retrospect one wouldn’t change anything about it at all. A recent participant in one of my classes, who I think is in his seventies, acknowledged having made many mistakes over the course of his youth, but he also realises how very contingent the existence of any particular person is. Had he not done those things, his daughter would not exist, and so he doesn’t regret a single one of them. That’s a low-key and relatively undramatic way of affirming Nietzsche’s “Eternal Return”. But it’s not always low-key; sometimes what it takes is, as Nietzsche put it in The Gay Science, a “purpose for existence”.
This way of working up a meaning for your life is demanding in a different way than Mill’s project-oriented version of meaningfulness. You don’t have to get nearly as much done, because the emphasis is on finding an interpretation that covers what’s already there. To be sure, because you produce the interpretation while you’re still living, there’s an issue about getting the rest of your life to conform to what you say it’s about. Nonetheless, your interpretation must respond to what has actually happened; you are not allowed to make up stories in the manner of Terry Gilliam’s Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
In Nietzsche’s very demanding version of this benchmark, the interpretation is supposed to lock down everything that has had a place in your life — not just, as in that classroom example, the run-up to someone’s daughter’s birth. And so coming up with this sort of meaning for your life is likely to require remarkable doses of ingenuity.
Discussing a sonnet of Mallarm´e’s, Joshua Landy explains how the scattered contents of a room have been arranged into a poem that is so tightly composed that moving even a word, or any of the items in the room it describes, unravels the poem as a whole. Mallarm´e was able to write a poem like that, but I couldn’t, and similarly, not everyone can come up with the poem of their life, where they can’t move a single word or a single object, without throwing the whole thing out — which they won’t do, because the composition is simply so beautiful.
Notice the emerging differences in these conceptions of what a meaning for a life comes to. In Mill, its primary purpose is to guide ongoing action. But on this way of reading Nietzsche, it’s about reconciling you to a past, one it’s too late to change. Each is quite demanding, but in very different ways.
Although it may deserve more attention than it has received, Nehamas’s reading doesn’t fit any of the many engagements with meaningfulness in life that I see in Nietzsche’s writings myself, so let’s add two or three of mine to the list we’ve begun.
The Gay Science recommends constructing an artistically rendered version of your life, and the model is what the nineteenth-century French writer Stendhal called “crystallisation”. It’s the same process by which lovers generate idealised fantasies of the objects of their romantic interest. Similarly, your interpretation of your life is not particularly responsible to what actually happens in it — on the contrary. This version of meaningfulness requires neither the level of executive control of Mill’s meaningful life nor the interpretive ingenuity of Nehamas’s and Anderson’s take on Nietzsche’s. But it is demanding in a different way.
If you’re at all self-aware about it, you have to somehow be able not to care about whether your representation of yourself, and the other parts of the world in which you have become emotionally invested, is accurate or fair. Can you really mean to see yourself in the sort of soft focus that Stendhal portrays, and which young men have traditionally preferred for their visions of the “Eternal-Feminine”?
Nietzsche thinks you arrive at that frame of mind when cynical realism bottoms out. A realist is revolted by the senseless awfulness of the way things turn out to work behind the scenes, once he takes the trouble to look, but he is also fascinated by what goes on behind the scenes, which is why he does look: realism, Nietzsche thinks, is a self-destructive obsession. Eventually, his realism turns on itself, driving him to the attitude that what goes on behind the scenes does not matter after all. Once you’re meta-cynical, you can entertain yourself with the set design and the costumes, and occupy yourself with staging your life. The invented “purpose of existence” — the meaning of life — is there to distract you from a horrific world by mounting a gauzy, radiant illusion.
For other people, a meaning for their life can bind together the parts of a not-yet-unified personality, and because it fits nicely into an emerging reading of Nietzsche due, mostly, to Anderson and Paul Katsafanas, I’ll adopt their way of talking about a person’s psychology.
Let’s allow for a moment that people’s psyches are largely made up of drives; if I were to look back at my own childhood through the lens of this Nietzschean theory, I would see my earlier psyche containing a drive to read, expressing itself in the indiscriminate consumption of books. Probably I would also identify a drive to have views, expressing itself in all manner of (usually loud) opinions about things; a drive to write (again, indiscriminately); a drive to figure things out (but only certain sorts of thing), and so on. These drives, I would notice, were prone to get in each other’s way. The child I was would have finished the unputdownable book, and suddenly realise that it was too late to start on his writing assignment. All these drives (and of course others) competed with one another for scarce resources, for my time and energy — or maybe the scarce resource was me.
At some point, these drives were exposed to a candidate for being the meaning of (this particular) life, one that was new to them, namely, philosophy. The meaning served as something on the order of a catalyst for the drives: responding to the attractions of philosophy, they folded themselves together into a more complex drive, one that now expresses itself in my trying to figure out specifically philosophical problems, in my articulating specifically philosophical ideas, and in writing them out; the reading, no longer indiscriminate, is in service of all of that. Once the drives have been merged, or as these Nietzsche scholars tend to put it, synthesised, the regulation of competing drives that formerly was such a problem pretty much takes care of itself. But only pretty much, because of course not all my drives were integrated. I seem to have had a doodling drive, which absorbed much of my time in high school and which didn’t respond to the value of philosophy by integrating itself with those other drives, presumably because philosophy doesn’t have a use for doodling.
And then, completing our list, there are personalities whose disparate psychic parts aren’t integrated, and aren’t going to be. Nietzsche, if I’m reading him right, understood himself to be too far gone for anything to meld the fragments of his personality into a coherent person — much less into a hyper-unified agent on the model of John Stuart Mill. Nietzsche invented a meaning for his own life which I won’t try to spell out here. (The cluster of ideas it was built around included the Eternal Return, which I mentioned a few moments back, but also the infamous Overman, and a contrast between decadence and will to power — that is, roughly, disunified and unified agency, treated as basic value concepts.) That meaning served him as a sort of prosthesis: by repeatedly provoking the relatively independent parts of his personality to scrawl out rant after furious rant, or elated prophesy, or acerbic Rouchefoucauldism, he kept himself producing contributions to the collected works of their oh-so-discombobulated author.
What emerges even from this very short survey is that what use a meaning for a life has differs from person to person. The sort of meaning that Mill oriented his life around is for someone who can control his own life, who takes decisions and gets things done. The program that Nehamas and Anderson find in Nietzsche is for someone who has had a very difficult time of it, and needs to make himself alright with all of that retroactively. Let me emphasise the words “needs to”: this sort of program is for someone who can’t just let the past go. Not everyone has to make themselves okay with whatever it was that went down, and not everyone has to make themselves okay with all of it.
If Nietzsche is right about this, making your life meaningful through Stendhalian crystallisation is for a very narrowly defined clientele, namely, people who are so preoccupied by cynicism that the best they can hope for is that their cynicism exhausts itself. When the narrator of The Gay Science, who perhaps is Nietzsche himself, announces that he’s recovering from his nihilism, he sounds like a character in Noel Coward’s short story, “Me and the Girls”: supposedly recuperating from his surgery, he can’t do much but lie back in the hospital bed, stare out at the snow on the mountains, and let his life drift before his eyes.
Finally, the last two versions of the meaning of life we considered were forms of personality management. When a meaning for your life synthesises your drives or other psychic components into larger, more stable personality structures, the job that it is doing is reshaping your personality. And when, as in Nietzsche’s own case, no meaning you make up can repair the collapsing structure, then its job is to keep it usable for a while, by keeping the different pretty-much-independent psychological parts sufficiently on track to get what the person as a whole is doing . . . done. Here the meaning of life serves as a fix or a band-aid for a structural problem in someone’s personality. Fixes like these are only for someone who has that sort of problem.
By now I hope it’s clear enough what the moral is supposed to be. When you find yourself inclined to ask what the meaning of your life is, first stop and ask yourself: What do I want it for? There’s bound to be a price, maybe a hefty one: it could imprison you in a life project you eventually won’t be able to stand; it could amount to living in a delusion; it could keep you on track by making you an insufferable fanatic. Choose the meaning of your life thoughtfully — and maybe, opt not to have one, after all.