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Evil Lives are meaningless lives? Essay

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Profound though it may seem we often ask this very basic question:  What is the meaning of our life? This is one question that has existed for a long as humanity has.  It is one mystery that has fascinated many of the great philosophers.  Although many will find it absurd, pretentious even, that we want to answer this question, Julian Baggini thought otherwise. This is proven by his treatise in the book entitled What’s It All About: Philosophy and the Meaning of life.

            Indeed, while many people will shy away from bursting forward with this question, Mr. Baggini was brave enough to try to answer it. He attempted to break down several issues plaguing people – some of which are helping others, serving humanity, being happy, becoming triumphant – and successfully delivered his views without making his ideas sound so ostentatious and metaphysical.

            The essential issue in the book actually deals with the question of whether there is a profound and mysterious meaning to life.  It also asks what the ultimate purpose of our existence is. Mr. Baggini argues that there really is no single meaning to our existence. He says that every little thing that we do has meaning in itself so it is pointless to look for one whole package of meaning.  Indeed, the first-two chapters examine if and why the existence of God should make a difference into determining the meaning of our life. The remaining chapters then evaluate the claims of some people as to what they find significant in their life.

            By planting his feet firmly on the ground and dealing with specific issues, I think that Mr. Baggini effectively shows us that the quest for the meaning of our existence is right here with us everyday.  We don’t need to travel to far places to look for it.  We don’t need to serve in the UNICEF to render ourselves useful to humanity.  Most importantly, we don’t need legislation to render ourselves empowered.  The answer we have always been looking for in our life is in our own hands.  It is how we cope with our everyday existence that will truly define the life that we have lived.  The outside forces are just mere accompaniment, whereas our actions and reactions are the essential factors that will judge us in the end.

            Corollary to this, the meaning of our life cannot be found in books and idealistic treatise. We don’t need to look for its meaning in our neighbor’s house; it is right at the tip of our nose. Mr. Baggini shows us that we can value happiness even as we accept that it is not everything.

We can see the value of success without drowning ourselves in it.  We can even shout “Carpe Diem” to the whole world even as we help others lead fruitful lives.  In the end, it is still love that powerfully motivates us all. Indeed, Mr. Baggini shows us that the search for meaning is very personal and within our power to find. He supports his stand by drawing from actual experiences drawn from real life of real people.

            In many ways, those who have read this book will deduce that Mr. Baggini qualifies himself as a modern-day heir of Bertrand Russel. In his own way, he shows us that we can find the meaning of life if we can only be more philosophical and rational.

            In the Chapter 4 of the book subtitled Here to help, Mr. Baggini discusses the proper place of altruism if we are to pursue meaningful lives.  “If the meaning of life is to help others, then only those doing the helping can lead meaningful life.  The people being helped are thus mere instruments to the end of giving purpose to the altruists.” (65)  Of course, Mr. Baggini does not brush off altruism as a useless virtue. It is still needed if we have to co-exist peacefully with others.  However, he emphasizes that altruism should be put in its proper perspective and that people should make sense in defending values which go beyond itself. Altruism in itself is a virtue but it should not used to define one’s life.  It is just but one part of our existence, not the whole of it.

            In Chapter 7 subtitled Becoming a contender, Mr. Baggini writes “To raise a happy family, or live your life pursuing your passion, no matter which recognition you get, should be seen as a success.”(123) This in itself shows the kind of philosophical sense that Mr. Baggini follows in this book.  He does not aim for huge successes but makes one feel that no matter how small the achievement is, it is still worth noting because it has helped one become the kind of person that he is today. It is therefore important for us to do our best in every thing we do because these small things can also enrich our life.  Indeed, it does not matter whether the good deeds we have done are great or small.  The most important is we did it.  This is what life should be all about.

            In Chapter 9 subtitled Lose yourself, Mr. Baggini emphasizes that we don’t need a Maya Angelou or a Deepak Chopra to lead us to the real meaning of our life.  He strongly criticizes the promises of religious and ideological beliefs; consequently convincing us that we really don’t need vast esoteric knowledge or a time-tested guru to find the meaning of our life. Here, Mr. Baggini argues that we just have to look into our self and we will find everything that we have always been looking for. Resorting to ideological beliefs may only pose greater danger of losing one’s proper perspective, thus, this is highly discouraged.  Apparently, Mr. Baggini believes that each person is unique and lessons learned from one’s experiences may not be uniform for everyone.

            Mr. Baggini’s main purpose for writing this book is actually to show us that philosophy – rather than our average New Age psychobabble — is a better tool to analyze life’s little mysteries with. This is the reason why he purposely puts forward a largely down-to-earth approach to the issues being raised in the book. In a world where existentialism has morphed into an alienated version of the “I and me” culture, utilitarianism offers rational discourses where once we had heaven for guarantor.

            Like the movie Dead Poets Society, Mr. Baggini encourages us to seize the day. Each day is a chance for us to define the life we lead.  It is therefore essential that we have to live our life to the fullest everyday.  Of course, he admits that defining our life this way is not an easy task but there is nothing impossible if we only go back to our very selves. In this aspect, Mr. Baggini dislikes paradox and hyperbole and anything too extreme.

            What’s It All About: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life ends up being a rational and secular inquiry into the meaning of life. Although it is obviously a précis of Mr. Baggini’s personal views on life, he hopes that this is something many philosophers would mostly agree.

Several times in the book he would refer to past experiences as he draws lessons from them. In spite of his bold statements, however, Mr. Baggini takes a cautious approach.  This stance disappoints because at the end of the book, there is little to disagree with. His supposition that the meaning of life is really “quite humdrum” only sums up his attitude to the question.  In this aspect, he shows that life is just a mirror that reflects back the image of whoever seeks its meaning.

            To his credit, Mr. Baggini tries to sum up the meaning of life in fewer than 200 pages – a big achievement in itself.  However, it is also because of this that his argument suffers greatly; being that its supporting discourses have been so squeezed together. This problem is apparent in the chapter on the loss of selfhood, where he points out that New Age ideas are quite “nonsense.”  He says that anyone who professes to lose his ego during meditation is being self-righteous.   Anyone who professes to lose his ego during meditation is being smug and self-righteous.

            Mr. Baggini then saves the best for last when he declares that “we should forget about the meaning of life and just get on with it.”  The analysis made on life stems from a rationalist and humanist perspective. As I said earlier, he proceeds to his main thesis with utmost caution even as he answers each question thrown his way with distinctive directness.  The outcome of this is that the readers are left to form their own conclusion based on the framework that Mr. Baggini has constructed.  Each reader will be able to form his own meaning to life – one that will be personal, more meaningful and sociologically moral.

            If a reader has majored in philosophy, this book will be viewed as a bit simplistic.  However, for ordinary readers like me, it makes for an easy comparison of the various isms in life. Sure, it does not dole out definitive answers to specific questions. Still, it’s a good read for someone who is literally searching for a meaning of his existence.

For me, Mr. Baggini’s insistence that our life should be led on an everyday basis is congruent to the fact that we should live it in peaceful co-existence with our neighbors.  Doing otherwise (or by being evil) will render our life meaningless.  In a nutshell, Mr. Baggini offers us ideas about life that are balanced, good and practical. The bottom line here is that living itself, for its own sake, is what truly the only thing that gives life meaning.  All the other ascriptions are, at best, plain spices to make the journey fun and enjoyable.

 

References:

Baggini, Julian. (2005) What’s It All About: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life. Granta Publishers, Inc.

Williams, Peter. (2003) Sorting the wheat from the chaff http://www.damaris.org/content/content.php?type=5&id=319

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