I am well aware that most readers of The Dartmouth are not accustomed to seeing philosophical musings in their favorite daily, and for this breach of custom I apologize profusely in advance. However, the issue I wish to discuss is an important one, perhaps the most important one of all, and so I think I can be forgiven my lapse in judgment this one time.
The issue that I wish to address is one of meaning -- what is life supposed to mean? Or, to put it differently, how should men live their lives? Having examined several different views and "systems" of philosophy which deal with this issue, I find that no school of thought impresses me more than that one which views life as a journey, a voyage of self-discovery -- an odyssey in the truest sense of the word.
Yes, life, at its best, is an odyssey, replete with dangers and charming surprises, with moments of bliss and many hours of savage desperation. But how else could it be? The world is a glorious place, but indifferent to the concerns of men. It cares nothing for our desires and doles out favor and misfortune in proper fashion -- and we should not wish that it were otherwise, for the heartrending aspects of life are of legitimate value in themselves and not to be hidden away discretely.
Life has no meaning but that which we choose to impose upon it. This fact is at the same time a burden and an opportunity. It is a burden in that we are left at sea, without orientation, struggling to make sense of the world, but it is an opportunity in that we are left free to impose upon the world our own meanings, and these can be as beautiful as we are able and willing to make them.
The key thing to keep in mind is that it us up to each of us to find that meaning for ourselves, and this task, if taken seriously, is by no means an easy one; but search we must. As the Bible has it, King Solomon once uttered the following words -- "work hard at whatever you do, because there will be no action, no thought, no knowledge, no wisdom in the house of the dead -- and that is where you are going." Wise words indeed, and we choose not to seriously search for meaning at our own peril. And, knowing so well that our mistakes and embarrassments are as fated to oblivion as our bodies, why should we be afraid to take a few blind alleys in our journey?
There are as many different paths as there are men on this voyage to the self, and, while some paths may seem more tortured and long than others, there is no such thing as a real wrong turn, provided that the journeyer keeps himself at all times receptive to experience. In painful times, as much as in times of great happiness, there is wisdom. One clever soul once described a sage as "an experienced man who had become wise and to whom humor was not unknown," and this is exactly the point -- without experience there can be no understanding.
It is essential that the journeyer possess a willingness to continuously seek new ways, a desire to be the Eternal Wanderer, unceasingly striving to realize all the potentialities of life, a readiness to take advantage of any opportunities that may suddenly arise. For what does it mean to be alive but this -- to ascend the greatest peaks, and from a terrifying height, to laugh into the void? What does it mean to be alive but to probe the depths of the abyss, to make the acquaintance of the Leviathan, and all the beasts that make their home in that watery grave called Ocean? "We must know, we will know!" That is the cry of the seekers after understanding.
A traveler, wandering the yellow sands of some forlorn desert, comes across a vast and terrifying ruin, the surfaces of which are all covered with inscriptions in some indecipherable and long-dead tongue -- all that remains of some conqueror's dreams. The driven scientist, on his modern day quest for Solomon's Key, the answer to the ultimate Why, the tortured artist, pouring the phantasies of his fevered imagination into his creations, dying a little so that they might live, and the empire builders of old are all fellow travelers on the same road to Damascus. It may be hard to believe that the software baron and the great warrior are on a voyage to find meaning, but how else can one explain the unceasing ambition of a Napoleon or a John D. Rockefeller, and their restlessness whenever they seemed to have run out of realms to conquer?
One authority has it that "the genius is a person with a strong sense of mission. The purpose of his life is to understand his inner voice and to obey it." An unconventional definition by any account, but one whose spirit any journeyer can certainly live with.