Every man feels instinctively that all the beautiful sentiments in the world weigh less than a single lovely action.
- James Lowell, American Poet, Critic and Editor (1819-1891)
The meaning of life – everyone has their own interpretation, I want to compare two contrasting perspectives from two great writers – Jack London and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Let’s begin with Jack London’s view of existence. At the very beginning of John Barelycorn, he gives us a quick tease, mentioning the “white light of alcohol” and how that alcohol brought forth in him his concept of “White Logic.” He then goes on to share thirty-four engrossing chapters of autobiographical accounts, culminating the book with the philosophical account of White Logic in the final five chapters.
Alcohol tells truth, but its truth is not normal. What is normal is healthful. What is healthful tends toward life. Normal truth is a different order, and a lesser order, of truth. Take a dray horse. Through all the vicissitudes of its life, from first to last, somehow, in unguessably dim ways, it must believe that life is good; that the drudgery in harness is good; that death, no matter how blind-instinctively apprehended, is a dread giant; that life is beneficent and worth while . . . To the last stumble of its stumbling end this dray horse must abide by the mandates of the lesser truth that is the truth of life and that makes life possible to persist.
To man, alone among the animals, has been given the awful privilege of reason. Man, with his brain, can penetrate the intoxicating show of things and look upon the universe brazen with indifference toward him and his dreams. He can do this, but it is not well for him to do it. To live, and live abundantly, to sting with life, to be alive (which is to be what he is), it is good that man be life-blinded and sense-struck. What is good is true. And this is the order of truth, lesser though it be, that man must know and guide his actions by with unswerving certitude that it is absolute truth and that in the universe no other order of truth can obtain.
The White Logic goes on to describe the whole of humanity in this way:
“Dreamers and ghosts,” the White Logic chuckles.
“But surely the striving was not altogether vain,” I contend.
“It was based on illusion and is a lie.”
“A vital lie,” I retort.
“And pray what is a vital lie but a lie?” the White Logic challenges. “Come. Fill your glass and let us examine these vital liars who crowd your bookshelves. Let us dabble in William James a bit.”
Who hasn’t at some point wondered if all the religions are fairy tales and our reality nothing more than a cold, indifferent universe with no God to give us souls and no afterlife to dictate our morality?
If there is no God, if there is no afterlife, if all the universe is a random collection of atoms and chemical reactions and life nothing more than a biological extension of those random chemical reactions, we must blind ourselves to the greater truth of it all and buy into the “vital lie” that there is some meaning to our struggling against inevitable oblivion.
Now here’s Fyodor Dostoyevsky from The Brothers Karamazov, in a dialog between the wise priest Father Zossima and a lady who has lost her faith:
MADAME HOHLAKOV: “I shut my eyes and ask myself if every one has faith, where did it come from? And then they do say that it all comes from terror at the menacing phenomena of nature, and that none of it’s real. And I say to myself, ‘What if I’ve been believing all my life, and when I come to die there’s nothing but the burdocks growing on my grave?’ as I read in some author. It’s awful! How — how can I get back my faith? But I only believed when I was a little child, mechanically, without thinking of anything. How, how is one to prove it? I have come now to lay my soul before you and to ask you about it. If I let this chance slip, no one all my life will answer me. How can I prove it? How can I convince myself? Oh, how unhappy I am! I stand and look about me and see that scarcely any one else cares; no one troubles his head about it, and I’m the only one who can’t stand it. It’s deadly — deadly!”
FATHER ZOSSIMA: “No doubt. But there’s no proving it, though you can be convinced of it.”
There’s no proving it, though you can be convinced of it.
MADAME HOHLAKOV: “How?”
FATHER ZOSSIMA: “By the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbor actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul. If you attain to perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of your neighbor, then you will believe without doubt, and no doubt can possibly enter your soul. This has been tried. This is certain.”
Later in the book . . .
FATHER ZOSSIMA: Every time you pray, if your prayer is sincere, there will be new feeling and new meaning in it, which will give you fresh courage, and you will understand that prayer is an education. Remember, too, every day, and whenever you can, repeat to yourself, “Lord, have mercy on all who appear before Thee to-day.” For every hour and every moment thousands of men leave life on this earth, and their souls appear before God. And how many of them depart in solitude, unknown, sad, dejected that no one mourns for them or even knows whether they have lived or not! And behold, from the other end of the earth perhaps, your prayer for their rest will rise up to God though you knew them not nor they you. How touching it must be to a soul standing in dread before the Lord to feel at that instant that, for him too, there is one to pray, that there is a fellow creature left on earth to love him too! And God will look on you both more graciously, for if you have had so much pity on him, how much will He have pity Who is infinitely more loving and merciful than you! And He will forgive him for your sake.
Brothers, have no fear of men’s sin. Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.
What an incredible plea from Dostoyevsky to his fellow human beings that love can conquer all and that faith can be achieved by love – if you love, then the fruits of your love will be that the more you love, the more you will see the divine in those you love and all God’s creation around – it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, but a beautiful kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
The logical argument between the nihilists and those who believe in intelligent design is an argument that will never be won, but in my heart, I’ve appreciated the beauty of too many women and too many sunsets, enjoyed the deliciousness of too many beautiful meals, been touched by the works and deeds of too many beautiful hearts and minds to imagine that beauty is a lie in a Godless universe without any meaning.