Individualistic meaning of life
In order for an individual to understand the meaning of his or her own life, s/he must have either freedom of conscience, reason, or connection to the actual world. In this paper, the writings of four famous writers are contrasted, within a discussion of philosophy and the meaning of life. These views include Kierkegaard’s belief in an absolute faith, Nietzche’s reason, and Borgmann’s fundamental connection to the natural world. The ways in which an individual views his or her own life is of fundamental importance to the meaningfulness they derive from their existence. This sample philosophy essay explores Luther, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Borgmann’s philosophies regarding the individualistic meaning of life.
Meaningfulness in an individual life has been a field of philosophical inquiry for many centuries. Right now, civilizations are evolving, growing more complex, and experiencing a “modernization” as these evolutions and complexities become commonplace. There are advocates of progressive changes as far as people’s ideas and reflections. Through this exploration of what Martin Luther, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Borgmann thought about meaningfulness, their intimate connection via a synthesis of philosophical understanding will be revealed. Although a number of themes may become apparent after reading each philosopher’s work, this essay will focus on freedom of conscience, reason, and connection to the actual world.
Comparison of Kierkegaard, Borgmann, Nietszche and Martin Luther
In this section we will evaluate Kierkegaard’s notion of absolute faith, Nietzsche’s reason above all, and Borgmann’s connection to the natural world. Although there are differences between the philosophers, they do all seem to agree that the freedom of consciousness, unfettered by theology, philosophy, or technology is the necessary precondition for the individual’s understanding of the meaning of his or her life.
- For Kierkegaard, faith in God is a primary foundation for the subject. Attaining this faith relieves the individual of worry about the challenges of the mortal life.
- Kierkegaard uses the story of Abraham being asked by God to sacrifice his only son in love of the Lord. Abraham was so devout that he was prepared to do this but God ultimately spared Isaac. Abraham’s faith in the absurd task inspired Kierkegaard who found Abraham’s action both appalling as well as incredible.
- He concludes that Abraham had attained a sense of joy and freedom resulting from his faith. He writes, “So let us either forget all about Abraham or learn how to be horrified at the monstrous paradox which is the significance of his life, so that we can understand that our time like any other can be glad if it has faith” (Kierkegaard, 81).
- In complete faith there is freedom and joy and availability to intellectually and emotionally focus on the significance for our own lives.
- Building on this, Kierkegaard contemplates the value of faith and how one comes about it. For each life, it is for each person to find their own peace.
- He explains, “the secret in life is that everyone must sew if for himself” (Kierkegaard, 74). The mortal journey, then, demands an unfettered acceptance of the world as it is and its joy comes in complete resignation to the strength of the absurd.
- Such a man is then able to take pleasure and enjoy all the good things of life. He summarizes that “…this man takes pleasure, takes part, in everything…he minds his affairs.” (Kierkegaard, 68).
- The individual then, arrives at the point of complete faith in God and then is free to enjoy the pleasures of life unfettered by personal doubt or external influences distracting from enjoying the pleasures of daily life.
Points of contention: Neitzsche responds to Kierkegaard
Nietzsche agrees with Kierkegaard in some respects. Nietzsche, an existentialist philosopher, explains that freedom of conscience (unfettered by theology or philosophy) removes the individual barriers to enjoying both pleasure and pain in life. A summary of Nietzsche’s main points are featured below.
- Nietzsche completely disregards religious faith as freeing, rather religious morality binds the follower to herd of limited reason. “Morality trains the individual to be a function of the herd and to ascribe value to himself only as a function” (Nietzsche, 4).
- Nietzsche believes that reducing one’s worth to that of a function in a moral scheme limits reason. It also deprives the individual from the opportunity to enjoy pain. “Being able to suffer is the least thing weak women and even slaves often achieve virtuosity in that (Nietzsche, 8).
- Futhermore, Nietzsche believes that life is both pleasure and pain. Ignoring either of these is not true, and seeking truth is the ultimate endeavor as it is the most freeing.
- He writes “…That whoever wanted to learn to ‘jubilate up to the heavens’ would also have to be prepared for ‘depression unto death” (Nietzsche, 2). He resolutely rejects the negative utility of pleasure-seeking as the end of a life. Rather, anything distracting the individual from truth-seeking is to be avoided.
Borgmann’s view of freedom and technology
Borgmann is known for his study of technology and philosophy and the connection to meaningfulness in human life. He believes that the role of technology is distracting from our greater connection with the natural world absent technology. Over-reliance on technology distracts us from our connection with the natural world. He implores that this is not freedom, it is instead beholden to the premise that man should control the natural world, rather than be free to live in it.
- This view is explained by his quote: “Technology, as we have seen, promises to bring the forces of nature and culture under control, to liberate us from misery and toil.” (Borgmann, 41). He believes that this liberation also takes us away from direct connection with our natural world.
- While technology serves a purpose, he explains that the consequence is disconnection. While the device serves a purpose, social disengagement results.
- Devices are distracting from the focus of our lives which is freedom to be fully present and aware in our daily activities connecting us with the natural world. The most important thing is connection with the simple pleasures of the world an appreciation for the natural world pre-technology.
- Borgmann explains: “The consideration of the wilderness has disclosed a center that stands in fruitful counterposition [sic] to technology. The wilderness is beyond procurement of technology and our response to it takes us past consumption. But it also teaches us to accept and to appropriate technology.” (Borgmann, 200).
- Borgmann mentions throughout his work the value of technology and how it can become a focal point of activity. His discussion of the hearth as the center of the home shows that technology can make living easier, it can also bring people together. Borgmann’s focal points are instances whereby people are actively engaged with their present lived worlds. His concern is that technology is distracting from this connectedness with the world around us and the pleasures of life.
Considering these first three philosophers, common themes become apparent. First, freedom of conscience is surely a concern for each of these thinkers. For Kierkegaard, this freedom of conscience is a complete resignation to the strength of the absurd through faith in God. Nietzsche rejects all religion and theology and believes that the ultimate end of the contemplative life is truth seeking, and that is something attained by reason. Borgmann is concerned that technology reduces our consciousness in service of technology above our ability to be free to enjoy the pleasures of our daily lives. Each individual must arrive at a place of commitment to their own consciousness which is the meaning for the individual life. Each individual must have the freedom with no distraction from realizing this for themselves.
For each of these scholars the concern is that over-reliance on a theology, philosophy, or technology will deprive the individual of the ability to seek their own meaning in their individual lives. Happiness comes from an unfettered conscious or mind for all three scholars. Reason, faith, and a walk in the park are all different opinions on how one should come to the ultimate meaning for their own lives. The next section evaluates the related topic of meaningfulness of individual life. Martin Luther, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Borgmann all studied and reflected on ‘meaningfulness’, which is explored below.
Subjective and objective understanding of existence
Meaningfulness, according to a number of these philopsophers, can be understood as an individual wholly accepting oneself as the own source of understanding, rather than relying on a distant God.
Kirkegaard often compares and contrasts the subjective thinker and the objective thinker. The subjective thinker finds truth within himself and the world bends to his truth, while the objective thinker must always have things proven to him by observing the world “as it is,” which therefore supports or defeats claims of truth.
The merits of explicitly defining the world “as it is” with only one definition are suspect—as multiple views beget multiple understandings of “what is.”
Kirkegaard sidesteps the paradox of defining the “true world” and instead brings a vision of the subjective thinker as one who creates enough esthetic content within his life in order that he exist aesthetically for the sole intent of having a justifiable purpose. The subjective thinker will be lost without purpose, and so he invents it in art.
Existence is an art
The subjective thinker is not a scientist-scholar; he is an artist. To exist is an art. The subjective thinker is esthetic enough for his life to have esthetic content, ethical enough to regulate it, dialectical enough in thinking to master it. The subjective thinker’s task is to understand himself in existence. (Kirkegaard, 351)
Soren Kierkegaard, the forefather of existentialism in a philosophical tradition, paints a picture of a singularity, known as Man, who must bend the world to understand. And since the context of the world is always a context—i.e., an understanding that exists within another’s mind—what else is there to do but bend until one’s on itching curiosity for ultimate definition is satiated?
Nietzsche marked this point when he suggested that the universe is coldly existential, but only when unobserved. Here Nietzsche has defined man as a one who bestows the gift of relevance and import to an otherwise unimportant world.
Putting humankind above God is heretically disrespectful in most world religions, but it also shows how deeply Nietzsche experiences his own assertion that the world is an emptiness whose only meaning is pasted on top of itself by the silly meandering twits known collectively as mankind. This view is further established with:
“The Christian resolution to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad…What is now decisive against Christianity is our taste, no longer our reasons” (Sec 130, 132). He has removed God as creator of the world, and he then replaced the abandoned deity with paltry Man. And, then beyond that, he accuses man of doing a terrible job, simply because it’s no longer interesting—no longer in fashion or per our particular tastes.
The human pursuit to achieve meaningful life
Nietzsche’s view is that humankind is capricious. For example, he finds that the most desirable things become blasé once acquired:
“Even the most beautiful scenery is no longer assured of our love after we have lived in it for three months, and some distant coast attracts our avarice: possessions are generally diminished by possession” (Nietzsche, Sec 41).
And so it seems that though Nietzsche places Man above God, it can also be noted from this passage that in order for Man to have a true passion and interest in things—traits which are commonly regarded quite highly—he must suffer the loss of things. This loss will not bring happiness. But it will bring the “fullness” of desire and appreciation, as opposed to the emptiness one feels after having gobbled up everything that could ever possibly be owned.
Ascetics and understanding life and death
However, Nietzsche is not arguing for a man to practice asceticism. He is merely stating that everything is empty and savage. This cynical darkness of Nietzsche reappears in his philosophical message many times until there is no possible way that his readers can misconstrue his intent or extrapolate any meanings that echo past, more rosy outlooks:
“Who can attain to anything great if he does not feel it in himself the force and will to inflict great pain? The ability to suffer is a small matter…weak women and even slaves often attain masterliness. But not to perish from internal distress and doubt when one inflicts great suffering and hears the cry of it—that is great, that belongs to greatness.” (Nietzsche, Sec. 325).
For Nietzsche, life is meaningful in its savagery. He notes that the world is what humankind makes it, but he concludes that the Man-made world is also only satisfying when dominated and subdued by savagery. This is a myopic offshoot of Kirkegaard’s subjective thinker.
Luther’s alternative Christian views on the meaningfulness of life
In contrast to Nietzsche’s trumpeting crescendo call for the darkness of Man, for the acknowledgment that God is dead, we have Martin Luther’s understanding of life and death. He does not claim to know Man or God. But he laments the aspects of common thought that harm an unobtained ideal.
“Just as an old man who has lost his teeth now munches with the help of the stumps, so the modern Christian language about Christianity has lost the power of the energetic terminology to bite and the whole thing is toothless “maundering” (Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, 363-364).
Because Christians are told as children that they are Christians, they lose their potential and simply go about without truly seeing, and thus lose the opportunity to really be a Christian. Another of his lamentations addresses dismissal:
“The secular mentality will say that poetry is a maiden’s over-excitement, religiousness a man’s frenzy” (Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments p. 440).
Here is an echo of the objective thinker. By denying esthetics and abstracts, the “informed” secular mind can laugh off the purer passions as ridiculous, and the world suffers for it.
Duality of thought
The more recent philosopher, Albert Borgmann, has another perspective on the individualistic meaning of life. He admits a simultaneous duality between the objective thinker and the subjective thinker by highlighting both the meaningfulness and the meaninglessness of common human interactions:
“This unity of achievement and enjoyment, of competence and consummation, is just one aspect of a central wholeness to which running restores us. Good running engages mind and body. Here the mind is more than an intelligence that happens to be housed in a body.
Rather the mind is the sensitivity and the endurance of the body. Hence running in its fullness…is in principle different from exercise designed to procure physical health.” (Borgmann 203).
Thus running can be a deep spiritual experience or an empty physical maintenance experience. This showcases the starkness of Nietzsche, the esthetics of Kirkegaard, and the realization of Luthor’s hopes for Man’s depth of consideration.
Borgmann concludes his work by comparing types of food consumption. The meaninglessness of fast food is juxtaposed against the symbolism-heavy formal meal that represents so much more than simply the satiation of hunger. While a Big Mac represents the purest sense of nothingness—physical satiation only, a formal meal can go so far as to fulfill the need for brotherhood and fellowship, and to connect the disconnected among men.
In order for an individual to understand the meaning of his or her own life, s/he must have either freedom of conscience, reason, or connection to the actual world. By evaluating the philosphical writings of Martin Luther, Borgmaan, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard, comparisons can be made about the individualistic menaing of life. For each of these scholars the concern is that over-reliance on a theology, philosophy, or technology will deprive the individual of the ability to seek their own meaning in their individual lives. Reason, faith, and a connection to nature are all different means to how an individual may come to the ultimate meaning for their own lives.
Borgmann, Albert. “Focal Things and Practices.” Technology and the character of contemporary life: a philosophical inquiry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. 196-208. Print.
Borgmann, Albert. “Device Paradigm.” Technology and the character of contemporary life: a philosophical inquiry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. 40-48. Print.
Kierkegaard, SÃ¸ren, and Walter Lowrie. “Preamble from the heart.” Fear and trembling, a dialectical lyric,. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941. 57-82. Print.
Kierkegaard, SÃ¸ren, David F. Swenson, and Walter Lowrie. “Concluding Unscientific Postscript.” Kierkegaard’s Concluding unscientific postscript;. Princeton: Princeton University Press, for American Scandinavian Foundation, 1941. 85-92. Print.
Nitzsche, F. “Gay Science” Class handout 2012.