The purpose of life according to Philosophy
The term “Philosophy” – Philo and Sophia combined – denote “love for knowledge.” The concern of philosophy is mostly about how we can lead a life worth living. But there are so many schools of philosophy with different radical ideas that are sometimes complementary and sometimes contradictory. Extracting useful information from this field can get messy, real fast, and utterly confusing. Nevertheless, all of these ideas are helpful, in their own way, depending on interpretation and context. To simplify things, I’ll make a summary of some of the ideas I like and identify with.
Aristotle’s Ergon Argument
Ergon is a Greek word that means “function,” or “purpose.” For example, the Ergon of a knife is to cut; The Ergon of a house is to provide shelter; The Ergon of parents is to nurture the child. A connected term is aretê which means “excellence.” The excellence of a knife is sharpness, since its purpose is to cut. The excellence of a house is security, since its purpose is to provide shelter against the elements, intruders, etc. The excellence of parents is to be caring, since their function is to nurture the child.
So, the purpose of anything is to simply put its signature strengths to use. The most distinct signature strength of a human is “reason,” and this capability distinguishes humans from any other living being. Aristotle also believed that there are signature strengths that distinguish one person from another. Using these signature strengths to overcome the obstacles of life is how a person can lead a fulfilling life.
Nietzsche’s Will to Power
In The Will to Power, Nietzsche wrote: “To those human beings who are of any concern to me, I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities – I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not – that one endures.”
The will to power describes what Nietzsche believed to be the main driving force in humans. The term was inspired by Schopenhauer’s “will to live.” Schopenhauer explained that the universe and everything in it are driven by a primordial will to live, which results in a desire in all living creatures to avoid death and to procreate. For Schopenhauer, this will is the most fundamental aspect of reality – more fundamental even than being. To understand and appreciate Nietzsche’s philosophy, we must understand the struggles he had to deal with all his life. Nietzsche believed that life is all about survival and a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulties.
After philosophy professor John Kraag – the author of Hiking with Nietzsche: Becoming Who You Are – attempted to follow Nietzsche’s trail and thought processes through the Swiss Alps, he concluded that a celebration of life needn’t entail self-immolation, but it necessarily entails difficulties. “The self does not lie passively in wait for us to discover it. Selfhood is made in the active, ongoing process, in the German verb werden, ‘to become,’” he writes.
Obstacles allow us to find and become ourselves. But, mind you, we shouldn’t simply try to overcome the obstacles of life. But rather, develop our ability to overcome them. And by doing that we will become immune to obstacles. That’s how we can lead a good life: by developing the ability to be okay in the face of adversity. When we can be okay in the face of adversity, we can also be happy even if we don’t have what we want yet. Being in this state helps us acquire what we want even faster.
Montaigne’s How To Live
It would be a felon to talk about life without mentioning The Philosopher of Life himself: Michel Eyquem de Montaigne.
Montaigne believed the best thing to do while we’re alive is to live deliberately and consciously. When we die, there’s nothing but blackness and nothingness. He realized this after he had a near-death experience after he was flung from a galloping horse, spooked by one of his guards. From that point forward, he carried a sense of clarity and euphoria about life. Shortly thereafter, he took a bold step: he retired from a promising public career and made self-study his official occupation. He studied life and how we can extract all that we can from the short bit of time each of us is given. The topics he wrote about were random. He exercised to practice thinking and to discover thoughts he didn’t know that he had.
Montaigne wrote: “having myself since boyhood to see my life reflected in other people’s… I study [them] for what I should avoid or what I should imitate.” While studying people – and life in general (including his cat,) he was constantly experimenting on himself trying to figure out what he liked or didn’t like.
Montaigne once used the analogy of a man with a bow and arrow to illustrate the importance of meditation and analysis. You have to know what you’re aiming for before it is even worth bothering with preparing the bow, nocking the arrow and letting go. Our projects, he said, “go astray because we do not address them to a target.” The idea is that intimate knowledge of ourselves makes it possible (and easier!) to know what we need to do on a daily basis. He advised us to meditate on our lives in order to properly arrange our day-to-day actions.