Being is Meaning Enough. Love is Purpose Enough.
A response to Elle Griffin
This post is a response to a fascinating essay by Elle Griffin titled I'm so over dead French writers and subtitled (more enlighteningly) “On finding less existential modern literature.” I find myself in sympathy with many of Griffin’s points, starting with:
I tried to like modern literature, but I didn’t.
Yes, me too. Griffin’s path to disliking modern literature is different from mine. I got there by reading English literature. She got there by reading French literature. Griffin valued philosophical novels. I never have. Griffin came to tire of them:
Post French Revolution France and Europe may have created philosophically rich books, but I was suddenly very over the darkness that haunts them, and the “fight” that so thoroughly plagues them.
Griffin goes on to cite Erik Hoel’s recent essay “Why does culture get less happy year after year?” in which he traces how everything in the arts has tended more and more to the gritty and depressing, obsessed with pain, trauma, and unhappiness.
I’ll have a lot to say about Hoel’s essay later, but I am entirely with him and with Griffin on this point. Literature has gone grim.
Actually, its not quite a simple as that. Literature, and the arts generally, have developed a hole in the middle. High art has gone nihilistic. Low art has gone hedonistic. Hedonism and nihilism are close bedfellows, of course. Wallowing in self pity is a form of hedonism, and a common one. So is condescension, the cardinal sin of much literary fiction.
But it is the fight aspect of them that gets Griffin down, something with which I sympathize greatly. Neither the nihilist nor the hedonist are willing to go down silently. They want to drag the whole world down with them.
I think we needed that “fight” to overthrow oppression, to form new governments, to establish equal rights and personal freedoms—there are things to fight for still—but I think we’ve reached the end of what fighting will do for us. At some point, I believe humans need to evolve beyond “fighting every wrong” toward “working together to create something right.” From “there’s a plank in your eye” to “here’s where we see eye-to-eye.” Canceling someone over one word they said on the internet seems proof we’ve taken the fight too far.
While I love the word play around “plank in your eye",” this is where I begin to part company with Griffin. I think there is a lot in the view that we have reached the end of what fighting will do for us, and particularly the ridiculous lengths that cancel culture now goes to. But I don’t share Griffin’s whiggish view of history — the view that history is a progress towards some inevitable utopia. As attractive as “Working together to create something right” sounds, it can only work if we all agree on what things are right. And the problem has always been that we don’t. Our view of what is right is always tainted by our view of what, and who, we like.
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It is easy to believe in progress these days, because there has been so much of it. Our material progress, over the last few centuries, has been remarkable. Indeed, it underlies the French revolution which Griffin cites as a transformative event in human progress. Increases in industrial productivity and trading wealth produced a new class with the means to shape society in their own image. The French and American revolutions were both consequences of this.
The equal rights and personal freedoms that Griffin cites as the fruits of those revolutions are quintessential values of that class. Historically, most societies granted various groups of people specific rights and privileges in which they could be reasonably secure, if not equal. Equal rights does away with that and makes everything a contest. It is the preferred operating environment of the entrepreneur, the manufacturer, and the merchant, but it sets no bottom on how far people can fall. Though we continue to say the words, the current attack on meritocracy is actually a refutation of freedom and equal rights in favor of creating special privileges for protected classes — a more traditional way of governing society.
It is easy to confuse material progress with moral progress. A new class getting things their way is not moral progress. It is simply people of means shaping society to suit themselves, as people of means have always done, and always will do.
We can look to the past and see that most past civilizations kept slaves. We do not keep slaves. (Not we enlightened people in the West anyway — it is alleged that there are still millions of slaves in the world today). Is this moral progress? On the surface, it looks like it, but if we look at the process by which slavery was abolished, we find it very much tied up with our material progress.
Before the 19th century, anything that was moved was moved by water, wind, or muscle. Over the course of the 19th century, that changed dramatically as new forms of mechanical engines were developed. In concert with this, a long line of process mechanization that goes back to the Middle Ages accelerated. With new power to drive it and new materials, thanks to new refining methods enabled by more power, mechanization leapt forward. Better and more powerful machines meant slave labor was less and less needed. As more and more people ceased to feel that their personal security and prosperity depended on slavery, they gave more and more heed to the centuries-old objections to slavery, leading to a general revulsion against the practice and its abolition in most European countries in the first half of the 19th century.
Why not in the Southern US states? Advances in the production of cotton clothing had created a huge demand for raw cotton, but there was no way to mechanize the picking of cotton. Every other part of the cotton manufacturing process had been automated, but picking the stuff still required lots of cheap manual labor. The same technology that had made slave labor redundant in most of the European world created a temporary demand for it in the American South. Unlike in the North, people there still felt their personal security and prosperity depended on slavery.
We did not give up slave holding because we became more enlightened. We gave it up because we could afford to. And then we got smug about it. Material progress masquerading as moral progress. The fact is, any crime we consider necessary to our economic wellbeing, we will find a way to justify, no matter the harm it does to others. (This is, in no small part, why people’s politics tend to change when they acquire a family and a mortgage. As they start to understand where there bread and butter comes from, much of the idealism of their youth falls away.)
So no, we have not reached some tipping point in moral progress at which strife will fall away and we will begin to cooperate on building a future utopia that we all agree on.
Just today I saw an article on LinkedIn by somebody with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in their job title. The first step towards DEI, they argued, has to be to exclude from the organization all those who oppose it or any of its aims. I have long liked to quip that diversity, equity, and inclusion always begins with a purge. (Just as liberté, égalité, and fraternité began with a purge in the French Revolution.) But here was my quip made explicit with complete lack of irony as a recommended policy, and applauded by many comments. The bad people, the people who do not agree with every jot and tittle of the program, must be purged from the organization, deprived of their livelihoods, and cast into the outer darkness. At least there was no mention of the guillotine.
Building utopia always begins with a purge.
While I appreciate Griffin’s desire for a utopian literature, and for a utopian vision of the future, I would suggest that utopianism is, in fact, the cause of the grittiness and despair that she so laments in modern literature. The despair in modern literature, I would suggest, is despair at the realization that the utopian promise of modern material progress did not deliver the moral progress that we longed for.
Griffin quotes Hoel on how the grittiness and despair has infected even Star Trek. Star Trek began as Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision of a society in which material progress had indeed led to moral progress.
To quote Griffin quoting Hoel:
In the article he wonders why everything, even Star Trek, has become “dark and gritty,” over time. In the latest Star Trek: Picard, he says “characters are deeply unhappy and all of them suffer from some form of trauma.”
Here we have the descent from utopianism to despair encapsulated in the decline and fall of a single TV show, but Hoel is right to see it as a symptom of a wider problem.
The utopian belief in progress that fueled the self-assurance of 19th century civilization was shattered by the First World War, which led to crushing loss of faith in the civilization and culture of the mid 20th century. Utopianism is not the antidote to despair, but its progenitor. The Russian Revolution, after all, was utopian in character, and it murdered millions.
Griffin’s laudable rejection of despair leads her to an interesting place:
I’m also very over existentialism. How long can we continue to pine for meaning—and let that pining ruin us—before we accept that there is none and live happily?
I have some sympathy with this question. The question of meaning seems fraught to me. But what is more consequential is the question of what it means to accept that there is no meaning. In particular, if we are to accept that there is no meaning and live happily, what does that do to the project of “working together to create something right?” If life has no meaning and my goal is to live happily, then isn’t the limit of my interest in working with others the extent to which it promotes my happiness? If enslaving people to pick cotton so I can be rich promotes my happiness, why would I not do that?
Still, I don’t know what it means to say that life has meaning. Meaning is a property of propositions, of words. Meaning is transitive. Existence is not transitive. It just is. We exist. In this sense, then, I agree with Griffin that life does not have meaning.
But if the fact of our existence does not have meaning, but simply is, does that mean that we have no purpose? People do wake up each morning with appetite-driven purpose. Hunger, thirst, lust, all give us immediate purpose. But those purposes give us no reason to work together to create something right. They give us only reason to act expeditiously to satisfy our appetites, which is exactly what Southern slave holders were doing. Without meaning, can we have a purpose driven by anything other than appetite?
We are, of course, sympathetic creatures as well. We don’t like to see people we sympathize with suffer. This is an appetite as much as any other appetite. The problem is, we have another appetite that delights in the suffering of people we don’t sympathize with. And our sympathies are as fickle as any other appetite. Unless we can find a purpose outside of appetite, we are never going to agree on “something right” that we can all work towards together.
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But this reflection stands in danger of leading us right back into the pit of despair. Can we find a vision of human nature that is neither hopelessly romantic nor grimly despairing?
Here I must go to a place I know many of you will be reluctant to follow: my Catholicism. You need not fear a sermon here. But Catholicism provides one such vision of humanity, neither utopian nor despairing. It is not necessarily exclusive to Catholicism, or even to Christianity, but it is from Catholicism that I learned it and it is the Catholic form of it that I know.
The quest for meaning is, in some sense, a struggle to understand why we should exist as physical beings at all. Christianity gives a simple and blithe answer: “God saw that it was good.” It is good to be alive. It is good to be flesh and blood. God said so. (In some sense, at least, the quest for meaning is a refusal to be satisfied with this simple blithe answer.)
The affirmation of the inherent value of earthly life runs all through Catholicism: God made the physical world and saw that it was good. Matter and flesh are not inherently corrupt, as some traditions hold. They are good, but they are tainted by the stain of Original Sin. The inherent goodness of the physical world, the inherent goodness of the flesh, is confirmed in Christ, who is made incarnate in the flesh, “like us in all things but sin.” And, finally, we “look forward to the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.” So many other traditions look forward to the casting off of the body and existence as pure spirit. Christians look for the opening of graves and the restoration of the body. Bodies are not to be cast off, but redeemed.
Physical existence, then, is good in itself. It does not need meaning to justify it. It is justified by God.
And perhaps this is not a very different proposition from the one that Griffin is making. If someone did not believe in God, they might still decide for themselves that existence is good in itself and justify it by their own fiat and will.
The question that follows from the declaration that existence is good is, do we have a purpose in our lives? Purpose does not necessarily require meaning. Purpose requires a vision of the good. If existence itself is good, then we can presumably discover other goods in existence which are worth pursuing, and in them find purpose. But if existence is good and human beings are good, why do we not already live in a utopia? The Christian answer is Original Sin.
It is notable that the Christian account of the world does not end in a utopia; it begins in one. Eden is the aboriginal utopia. But once concupiscence entered the garden, its utopia became unsustainable. Return to Eden has never been the goal of Christian life. It is a very different end that Christian life has in view. Indeed, there is a tradition in Christianity of referring to original sin as “felix culpa,” the happy fault, because it opened up a possibility far greater than mere Edenic utopia.
The doctrine of the fall, and of Original Sin, is one of the strangest aspects of Christianity. It is difficult to see how or when or in what form it can have occurred, or what kind of allegory we should understand the Eden story to be. But it seems to me to provide an elegant and satisfying account of the human condition. That account is, in short, that creation is good, that human beings are good, but that our goodness is marred and stained by sin.
This, it seems to me, gives us a position on the nature of human life that does not require or encourage the veering between utopianism and despair that has characterized the last several centuries. It forbids utopianism because it recognizes that sin prevents the formation of earthy utopias, but it also forbids despair by saying that creation and humans are fundamentally good.
The idea that we are good but flawed is, in itself, not an uncommon one. We can easily see both the goodness and the flaws in human beings. The danger is that we begin to divide people into two camps: we-the-good and they-the-flawed. (The DEI writer I mentioned above is a case in point.) Utopias can be constructed by we-the-good by ostracizing they-the-flawed. But since they-the-flawed don’t leave quietly, that is when the bloodbath starts. The key thing that the doctrine of Original Sin reminds us of is that we-the-good are we-the-flawed, and they-the-flawed are they-the-good. We cannot achieve utopia, but we can, with charity, avoid the bloodbath.
The full Christian story, of course, adds a much greater hope to this. But for present purpose, and for the admittedly secondary problem of finding good books to read, the doctrine of Original Sin provides what I think is a very sound platform. And it is a platform that, while it recognizes all the sin and suffering in the world, still makes room for happiness.
The Christian view of earthly life is essentially that of pilgrimage. Pilgrimages do not seek to make the world better. They do in some sense seek to make the person better, but not in the modern sense of making them more powerful or more capable. Insofar as they may make people more charitable, they may contribute to bettering the world, but they are not utopian. They do not look for the perfectibility of society or the species, not, at least, in this life. Really, they are about atonement. And a pilgrimage of atonement can make you happy.
Griffin continues to argue the whiggish view of history while asking a question that, as she herself seems to acknowledge, the whiggish view is unable to answer:
The point of history is to keep what works and quit what doesn’t—that’s progress. So I wonder if it makes sense to keep looking for wisdom in the past when we must throw half of it out before we find something worth keeping? And if that’s the case, who are the modern philosophers of today? What literature starts from where we are now and then keeps pontificating from there? What takes what we have already learned [and] uses that to imagine something even better?
The first sentence of this is the classical Whig view of history. History is progress. Things get progressively better from year to year. But if it were true, why is it that, far from leaping on from one philosophical and moral triumph to another, the modern world, and certainly modern literature, seems to have sunk into a pit of nihilism and despair? The Whig train seems to have jumped the tracks somewhere along the line. Utopia has not arrived, we are inchoate with fury about it, and we will have our pound of flesh, no matter who has to lose their livelihood, their reputation, or even their life to provide it.
Why look to the wisdom of the past? Because the past has seen this all before. Because the past can warn us off the eternal rollercoaster of utopianism and despair. Life is good, the wisdom of the past can tell us, but it is marred by sin. Any attempt at building a utopia will end in misery, murder, and ruin. But life is still good, and can be lived happily, for the most part. Not equally so, or for everyone, alas. And there is much that charity demands of us. We should do what we can to relieve what suffering we encounter. But we should not strive to eliminate all suffering and woe through some great revolution, because we are sinful and the attempt will end in bloodshed and ruin, as it always has.
The only reason not to look to the past for wisdom is the whiggish belief that we are in a state of constant progress and that therefore all that has come before must be inferior to what is and to what is to come. But our present despair gives the lie to the Whig view. Material progress we have, to be sure. But it does not translate into moral progress. We keep on loving and hating, striving and failing, hoping and despairing, pursuing utopias and prosecuting them with purges. The past, which has seen all this before, may have something to tell us after all. If we don’t look to the past for wisdom, we won’t see this. We will see only what we expect to see, what our theory tells us we should see, and then wonder why we are not gentler or happier than we seem to be.
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But I have slipped an important concept into the discussion here without proper explanation or justification. I have made an appeal to charity, or, to give it its common name, love. To return to an earlier question, why shouldn’t I enslave people to pick cotton so I can be rich and happy? The only answer that suffices, the only answer that trumps personal happiness, is love. Enslaving people to pick cotton, or for any other purpose, is an offense against charity.
This brings us back to the question of purpose. If existence requires no justification, it may still come with a purpose. For the Christian, that purpose is love. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12). Thus I come at last to the title of this essay: Existence is meaning enough. Love is purpose enough.
If we could all become perfect in love, we would have a utopia far better than any that any philosopher or politician could devise. But we can’t. We can’t because we are not perfect in love. Love is compromised by sin, and we are all sinners. Still, if we could adopt as our outlook on life the twin propositions that existence is meaning enough and love is purpose enough, we should be able to find many reasons to be happy, and many ways to create art and literature that is not sunk in despair.
Can one get to “Existence is meaning enough. Love is purpose enough,” without adopting Christianity or some other faith that affirms it? I will have to leave that to the reader to discern for themselves.
Where does it leave us in the quest to find good books to read (or a plan for good books to write)? If being is meaning enough, then, while we still have need of philosophy, perhaps we can do without philosophical novels. If being is meaning enough, then, for a novel, experience is object enough.
Free literature from the hand of whigishness and it ceases to need to be philosophical. A literature that takes the doctrine of the fall for its basic assumptions does not have to justify existence with reference to meaning. Being is meaning enough. Literature can focus on the thing that it does better than any other of the arts and sciences: create experiences that express what it is like to be alive.
Being is meaning enough. Love is purpose enough. For the novel, experience is object enough.
This seems an apt place to announce a new newsletter that I am starting, and which I hope to start posting to soon. It is called Why I Am Still Catholic, with “still” being the operative word. It will be in part a defense of my position to the world at large, and in part a complaint to the church for all the ways in which it makes staying more difficult. I’m not sure when the first post will be, but I hope it will be soon. In the meantime, you can subscribe here if you are interested:
This was a very brilliant response. And I agree with so much of what you said here.
Where I diverge is this sentence: “History is progress. Things get progressively better from year to year. But if it were true, why is it that, far from leaping on from one philosophical and moral triumph to another, the modern world, and certainly modern literature, seems to have sunk into a pit of nihilism and despair.”
I actually happen to believe we are living in a utopia right now-the best iteration of the world it’s ever been. Far from being an abstract destination we are headed toward, I think it is an ever evolving and perfecting of what we have now.
Will we agree on what is the right destination to head in now? No, and for all the reasons you mentioned. We disagree on morality. And we are intensely selfish, meaning we want what is best for us, not for the whole of society.
And yet, somehow it’s worked. Somehow this is the best time for humans to be alive based on a lot of measures we can agree on: life expectancy, percentage of the world in poverty, equal access to resources, murders and deaths, war.
The fact that we don’t think this is utopia is not because we are living in a dystopia, its because the content we see is painting it that way. And I will point you to an essay I wrote about that! https://ellegriffin.substack.com/p/no-news
Thank you for engaging me in discourse. I really love mulling these things over together!!
Fantastic essay. I also considered posting a response, but now there's no need, as you've more than expressed my core sentiments. Though I am an atheist, I agree with most of what you've written, particularly where you say, "Utopianism is not the antidote to despair, but its progenitor." I believe this ties in well with your premise that 'being is meaning; love is purpose.' The utopian obsession with unattainable perfection eventually obscures our ability to have gratitude for the inherently messy world and our imperfect existence in it; to have compassion for the flaws of others and the suffering life naturally entails. Therein lie the seeds of all our dystopias.