The ancients knew that leading a meaningful life meant, first and foremost, finding virtue within oneself. Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius believed in a virtuous life of meaning and left blueprints for others to follow. The model they established of the secular saint stands in counterpoint to the modern incarnation of the “hero,” the media-created celebrity saint or public relations creation, whose humanism supports corporate interests or establishes a “bankable” cult of personality. This celebrity culture affected the legacy of Friedrich Nietzsche, of whom secular sainthood made a kind of pseudo-religious hero, a notion that would have been abhorrent to the great German philosopher. The lesson for modern man can be found in the philosophy of the Stoics, who held that all one needs to lead a meaningful life is within oneself, an unassailable virtue of selfhood.
Timeless Virtue: Finding Meaning in Life Through the Immutability of Selfhood
As is typical in an image-driven society dominated by the media, the worthy notion of the secular saint has been altered (some might say twisted) by the “celebritization” of the well-meaning individual. In this era of YouTube, Facebook and “viral” messaging, it can be difficult to discriminate between what is “saintly” and honestly intended, and what is merely public relations. Manipulation of the philanthropic and humanistic work done by people such as Bill Gates and Al Gore further distorts the philanthropic spirit that should characterize the “hero-saint.” There is a gossamer-thin veil between admiration of the secular saint and unadulterated hero-worship, an easily perverted and peculiarly American characteristic.
The idea of the secular saint has been distorted by modern values. Consequently, it is difficult to know when people “do good” for selfless or for self-serving reasons. To live a meaningful life, is it necessary that other people know that one is doing good works, or is it enough to satisfy one’s own impulse for making the world a better place? The answer may lie in the philosophy of the ancients, who taught that the performance of good works begins with the integrity of the self.
Socrates offers a pristine example of the true secular saint, having chosen an honorable death rather than succumb to pressure to compromise his personal integrity. To have done so would have been to deny everything for which he stood and believed. As a teacher, it was essential that Socrates exhibit the virtues which he passed on to his pupils. Having upheld his beliefs to the end, Socrates sacrificed for “’higher’ values” (Steiff & Tamplin, 2008). He gave himself up to death “rather than abandoning philosophy or admitting to corrupting the youth” (2008). In 21st-century America, where sincerity is often a commercial expediency, it is refreshing to imagine a time when there were men for whom personal conviction was of
paramount importance. The modern idea of the secular saint has, to a large extent, become a packaged and prefabricated creation meant to create a public image, bearing little resemblance to that which the ancients espoused. It may be that it is no longer possible to truly participate in the dialogue that shapes human identity the way Socrates and Aristotle did, but it is within one’s power to lead a virtuous life in keeping with one’s core principles.
St. Augustine may not, strictly speaking, rank as a secular saint but his rejection of worldly things in favor of personal conviction traces the path of the hero. In Confessions, St. Augustine describes in painfully honest language what amounted to a crisis of values, of having reached a philosophical tipping point. Having been inspired by a reading of the Gospel, the proverbial scales fell away from his eyes. “I seized, opened and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: Not in rioting and drunkennessmake not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence” (St. Augustine, 1876). All the doubt and misgivings of which he was seized “vanished,” and the truth of the path he knew he was to follow became abundantly clear. By any definition, a hero must be willing to defy convention, to take the difficult path in order to remain true to one’s understanding of what is true. This is St. Augustine’s exemplary accomplishment.
Having turned the harsh light of self-examination on his life and beliefs, he was able to leave behind what he came to accept had been a shallow and meaningless life. But this is only part of it; what makes St. Augustine truly heroic is his willingness to put his shortcomings, his
human weakness, on display for all to read about in Confessions. In so doing, St. Augustine confesses to everyone those worldly things for which he is repentant and contrite. As with Aristotle, St. Augustine has lived as he taught, and he wants to tell it to the world. By sharing his experience in detail he becomes a part of the dialogue in which the lives of others may be shaped, not through the recitation of dogma but through living example. “I passed on to the reasoning facultyand from habit drew away my thoughts, withdrawing itself from the crowds of contradictory phantasms; that so it might find out that light by which it was besprinkled, whenit cried out ‘that the unchangeable was to be preferred before the changeable’” (St. Augustine, 1876).
For St. Augustine, faith was the means by which the individual will could be freed from the pursuit of the “changeable” and move toward a purer understanding of existence. Some 1,500 years later, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would take a contrary view. Nietzsche contended that in modern bourgeois society, a world in which an over-reliance upon the rational has imprisoned men’s senses, Christian faith could only deprive human beings of the will to be free (Rodden, 2001). What Nietzsche had in mind was a very different kind of “saint,” a profane saint free to fulfill human potential, an anti-hero in the eyes of traditional social and religious conventions. Nietzsche’s conception of the “Superman” was part of a larger reaction to centuries of domination by the established church and church doctrine.
It is ironic (and symptomatic of human nature) that the philosophy of Nietzsche, who put forth a bold, anti-religious doctrine, should have attained for him the stature of an iconic pseudo-religious figure, whose devotees made the occasion of his death a quasi-religious event. At his funeral, fervent student enthusiasts met for ritualistic readings from Thus Spake Zarathustra and sang psalms celebrating the “new religion.” By the time the “body of the sick philosopher was finally laid to restNietzsche was a secular saint” (Rodden, 2001). The great man’s funeral was even marked by a reading of the Lutheran rite and a full church choir (2001). As much as Nietzsche’s secular evangelism had impacted students and contemporary academics, his posthumous effect on philosophy and modern culture would prove transformative. Nietzsche’s anti-Christ created a new dialogue through which modern man could shape a new identity.
And yet even in 1900, the year of Nietzsche’s death, we see evidence of the hero cult that predominates in modern society. In Germany, he was regarded as “saint, martyr, prophet, and scourge,” replete with a “Church of disciples, apostles and fanatics” (Rodden, 2001). It is interesting, and instructive, that this was the very eventuality that Nietzsche feared most, that people would distort and misshape the intent of his work, placing an orthodox construct on what was offered as inherently unorthodox. On one hand, Nietzsche left behind a body of work and legacy that added a new dimension to mankind’s self-image. On the other hand, he was the secular saint-cum-celebrity upon whom others superimposed an image of themselves. One may honor the intellectual dimensions of Nietzsche’s accomplishment, and yet mistrust and abhor his elevation to the status of cultural icon. If Nietzsche is any example, a meaningful life may come to mean more than that which was intended.
There is no confusing the message laid down by the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. His Meditations is a virtual road map for living a meaningful life according to the Stoic credo. A collection of ruminations on the emperor-philosopher’s answer to life’s challenges, Meditations is arguably the most well-known and influential practical description of the Stoic philosophy. One of Marcus Aurelius’ most enduring achievements may be in the truth of his life, which disproved the misconception that the Stoics were “passive individuals who were grimly resigned to being on the receiving end of the world’s abuse and injustice” (Irvine, 2001). Quite the contrary: Marcus Aurelius is generally considered one of Imperial Rome’s ablest and most innovative rulers. As with Aristotle, Rome’s great Stoic emperor lived as he believed.
One of the most appealing and impactful beliefs embraced by the Stoics is that man has it within himself to achieve happiness. To live a meaningful life does not require that a man seek external “crutches,” or fawn after the approval of others. Each person has it within himself to “keepseparate and to keep what is your own power. Remember that always, and also this: to live in happiness depends on very few things” (M. Aurelius, 1983). Adhering to a Stoic philosophy, Aurelius assures us, gives one the freedom to determine one’s own course of action in the face of controversy and crisis. In this way, the individual is not tied to circumstances, or individuals, who may wield an unwanted influence over us. To paraphrase the philosopher Cleanthes, surrendering one’s autonomy makes one like “a dog tied to a cart, compelled to go wherever it goes” (Russell, 2004).
Marcus Aurelius’ Stoicism extended to the field of religion, to the pantheon of Hellenistic gods and goddesses the Romans worshipped. As a good philosopher should, the emperor held open the possibility that divine beings may or may not exist and intervene in the lives of men. He manifested this stance in one of his more notable observations, arguing that one should think and behave virtuously regardless of whether the gods are present or not. “If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones” (Smith, 2010). In so stating, Marcus voices a remarkably humanist principle, assuring us that living a meaningful life has more to do with how we act toward those closest to us rather than how devout we are in our religious observations.
In The Unheard Cry for Meaning: Psychotherapy and Humanism, Victor Frankl writes that the meaning of life has changed along with the culture in which we all are suffused. Whereas Freud argued that man is sexually frustrated, Frankl, who survived the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp, contends that man’s great crisis in the modern era is purely existential (Frankl, 1978). “Affluent society has given vast segments of population the means, but people cannot see an end, a meaning to live for” (1978). Frankl offers an explanation for what many have termed “suburban malaise,” a hollowness of spirit and purpose, when he says that people begin creating tensions when affluence offers too little tension (1978). It seems that man is in trouble when he is forced to create meaning for himself.
Frankl endured the ultimate tension during World War II under the Nazi regime. His experience led him to an interest in the way people who have survived incomprehensible horror can create new meaning in their lives and find a way to continue living. One thinks of fiercely defiant Jewish Holocaust survivors vowing through clenched teeth that they have to go on living in memory of those who died. These poignant examples of life purpose offer fascinating counterpoints to the absence of life purpose that affluence has tended to engender in present-day society. Holocaust survivors who have found the courage to go on have much to teach about purpose in life. “We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into triumph” (Frankl, 1978).
The writings of other Holocaust survivors (such as Elie Wiesel) have sought theological implications in the worst human cataclysm in modern history. Frankl preferred to delve into the psychological effects of genocide, and to consider the question of how there can be meaning to life if men, women and children can be indiscriminately slaughtered like animals. One conclusion he drew is that “meaning is possible even in spite of suffering” because suffering is unavoidable in life. ” (Frankl, 1978). As such, he said, life’s meaning is unconditional. In modern parlance, what you see is what you get. Thus, to take Frankl at his word, there is meaning in every life, though there must be personal responsibility as well. Frankl would have us proceed secure in the knowledge that all we create, everything we bring into being, defines us and gives our lives meaning. By living a virtuous life, we can be assured that our lives will have meaning.
A distillation of the writings of the great existential philosophers mentioned in this paper must eventually draw one to the conclusion that living a meaningful life is a matter of being true to oneself. By maintaining one’s identity and holding fast to the principles by which one’s life is governed, the individual can live a meaningful life. This should in no way be confused with the modern notion of the secular saint, a public construct that favors the philanthropy of the wealthy and famous. As Marcus Aurelius advises, one need not pursue fame and the adoration of others since all that matters to each of us lies within each of us. Herman Melville, surely one of the great philosophers of American letters, comprehended this power of the inexorable self, the one who finds meaning by living an uncompromised life of virtue. “Delight is to him – a far, far upward and inward delight – who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self” (Melville, 1892).
There is a timeless quality and continuity to the philosophies of Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius and Victor Frankl. It is this profound timelessness that trivializes the contemporary concepts of “hero” and “saint.” In an age when everyone has immediate access to everyone else, image is the chief currency in which all traffic through the medium of electronic social networking, through Podcasts, through television and the onslaught of platforms that immediately link individuals who seek meaning by interacting, virtually, with others. There is an artificiality to it all, a substitution for the wisdom of the ancients, who understood that a meaningful life was the product of thoughtful discourse and self-reflection.
The unexamined life is not worth living, Socrates reminds us. One may also state that leading a life which betrays the core beliefs that make each of us who we are is not worth living. Thus, by remaining true to ourselves we may live virtuous lives and find meaning thereby. The lesson for modern man can be found in the philosophy of the Stoics, who held that all one needs to lead a meaningful life lies within oneself, in the unassailable, immutable and timeless virtue of selfhood.
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