The meaning for life has illusively evaded humans for centuries. Theories abound, yet the hunger remains as mankind seeks to identify a purpose for their existence. The question of our purpose is often unknowingly based on two other unanswered queries. While some seems to construct on a meaning of life from their accomplishments, basing personal value, purpose, meaning on what he or she builds to leave behind after his death is a huge assumption. Constructivists believe that because a reality outside of this life does not exist, the construction one's own personal reality, and meaning for life is the only example. This assumption is particularly American in understanding, having evolved out of the prosperity of the West in combination with the trend of distancing ourselves from religious traditions. However, if the discussion is the meaning of life, our conclusions must be more universally applicable than to a nation which prides itself on production, and wealth.
However, out of the depths of personal trouble often comes a much different approach to the meaning of life. When prosperity and well defined personal achievements do not guard our hearts from the often painful realities of life, individuals tend to come up with much different conclusions because they have to wrestle with much different questions.
Toni Morrison's writings come out of an understanding of life which had few positive achievements on which to build. A black writer at a time in which discrimination was the law of the land, Toni wrote of a much different perspective of life. Yet at the same time, here character still searched for meaning. In the Song of Solomon, which is a biblical book about finding wisdom and love in life, Her main character the milk man faces a conflict of finding a meaning for his own life. Toni frames this search in Macon's possible murder of a helpless elderly white man. For black man of his time, harm, and the lack of self-worth was created by the white man. Whites held power, which could also be understood as purpose. Therefore striking out at the white man could be understood as a positive act to take the power back, and construct meaning for one's own life.
In the story, Macon tells his son, Milkman, the story of when his own father was killed by white men, after which he and his sister, Pilate, ran away together. Macon says that he and Pilate were chased by "a man who looked just like their father." (168) After three days of being followed, they find an escape by taking cover in an unused cave. In the middle of the night, Macon awoke to find a man, who was "very old, very white, and his smile was awful." (169) sleeping next to him. Spurred by the images floating through his mind of his father's cold blooded murder at the hands of whites, Macon lashed out in anger and threw a rock at the "white" man's head.
Instead of falling to the ground, the "white" man "kept coming and coming"(169) towards Macon who continues to inflict physical harm upon the "white" man, finally resorting to his knife and brutally murdering the man. In a world of constructed personal meaning, this should have been a watershed moment for Macon, finally finding power of that which held him bound. The rest of the story is a metaphor for how we don't construct our own meaning.
Milkman, the son who witnessed his father's murderous actions, returns to the scene of the crime later in life to discover an elderly widow, and hear stories of how the mans bones keep resurfacing over and over. The events in the story are built to suggest that a man's life has more meaning than what he builds for himself. The man who was murdered had a value and meaning that went beyond his skin color, or his position in society. Therefore so must each man. The stories main character, Milkman, come face-to-face with this as he says "A human life is precious. You shouldn't fly off and leave it... If you take a life, then you own it. You responsible for it. You can't get rid of nobody by killing them. They still there, and they yours now... Life is life. Precious. And the dead you kill is yours. They stay with you anyway, in your mind." In a metaphoric sense, he is insisting that life does have meaning. The conclusion of the story must be that if life has meaning and purpose, value outside of itself, then the meaning must be discovered.
Nietzsche also postulated that a meaning for life existed in his work "On the Genealogy of Morals" Starting from a foundation which sought to determine the existence of value, Nietzsche found that in all societies " I found that all of them lead back to the same transformation of ideas, that everywhere "noble" or "aristocratic" in a social sense is the fundamental idea out of which "good" in the sense of "spiritually noble," "aristocratic," "spiritually high-minded," "spiritually privileged" necessarily develop -- a process which always runs in parallel with that other one which finally transforms "common," "vulgar," and "low" into the concept "bad." (Nietzsche, first essay) Therefore, if a universal idea exists regarding good and bad, virtuous and self-centered, there must be a meaning and purpose in life around which these universal ideas center.
Nietzsche continues to discuss good and bad, virtuous and evil in the light of cultural experiences of his time. He traces word etymologies from Rome to Germany, and then transmission of ideas from Germany to the Celts in Ireland. (Essay One) However, this evolution of cultural ideology does not affect the acceptance of the idea in each new culture. If the purpose and meaning of life was a culturally developed idea, then the embodiment and examples of good and bad from one culture to another would change, and they did not. Also if the purpose of life is a constructed idea then it stands to reason that during the transmission of the ideas form one culture to another, that a culture or people group would not accept the hypothesis, and reject the idea that suggests that life has a meaning. However this also was not the case and a universal idea of good and bad, virtuous or corrupt continued across the European continent.
In Nietzsche's third essay, he begins to descend into constructivist mire as he tries to describe the many different definitions of good and bad behaviors which have evolved. He says that: "Among artists they mean nothing or too many different things; among philosophers and scholars they mean something like having a nose or an instinct for the most auspicious conditions of a higher spirituality; among women, at best, an additional seductive charm..." (Essay Three). But this is not the measure of good and evil. He leaves these surface level learned behaviors, and focus on the core issues of universal good and evil, and how the ascetic life is not the product of good, but the path to follow to find the meaning of good and evil. Universally, a life of self sacrifice, and putting others interests ahead of one's own personal desires is at the heart of good. Therefore, pursuing a life which places one's own desires for personal gain at the expense of others, in all forms, is a universal evil, and therefore the antithesis of a meaning for life.
Freud, however, had a disconnected and distorted view of the meaning of life. His psychoanalysis consistently revolved around sexual motivations, and as such his view of a purpose and meaning for life found its basis in pages written about the place and purpose of erotic love in the lives of individuals. Freud wrote "When a love-relationship is at its height no room is left for any interest in the surrounding world; the pair of lovers is sufficient unto themselves, do not even need the child they have in common to make them happy. In no other case does Eros so plainly betray the core of his being" In other words, the focus of life, according to Freud, was erotic love, and all other meaning flowed from its enjoyment in life.
Freud used some of the same history which Nietzsche reviewed to come up with completely different meaning for the purpose of life. Because he was focused on satisfying sexual appetites like a starving man staring in the window of the local bakery, Freud saw that all of man's problems arose from their unfulfilled desire for sexual gratification. Citing the pillaging of the Huns, Freud suggested that Men are not gentle, friendly creatures wishing for love, who simply defend themselves if they are attacked, but that a powerful measure of desire for aggression has to be reckoned as part of their instinctual endowment. The result is that their neighbor is to them not only a possible helper or sexual object, but also a temptation to them to…