Philosophy – Part 12 – Giving meaning to it


Philosophy – Part 12 – Giving meaning to it – by P.K.Odendaal – July 2012
I had thought that Part 11 would be the end of this series, but something bothered me about the incomplete task, partly uncompleted due to the hopelessness of White's situation and his only tenable option, that of suicide staring him in the face - and the inability of Black to persuade him to the contrary. To me it seemed that White had to die, because, for him, there was no meaning left in life. He followed the advice and philosophies of the philosophers and writers of his time, and that of previous eras, and came to the conclusion that nothing means anything.
From the dialogue (The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy) :
White :    It doesn't mean anything. Everything that happens doesn't mean anything else.

The argument develops and Black wants to tell White that all the philosophies that he arranged his life by, is what does not mean anything, but instead White uses this metaphor unsuccessfully on Black to illustrate it :
White :    Do you really think that Jesus is in the room?
Black :     I know he's in the room. It's the way you put it, Professor. Be like me askin' you : do you think you got your coat on?
White :    It's not the same thing. It's a matter of agreement. If you and I say that I have my coat on and Cecil says that I'm naked and I have a green skin and a tail, then we might want to think about where we should put Cecil so that he won't hurt himself. (Cecil is a hypothetical figure which White made up to counter the argument of Jesus which Black 'made up')
Black does not catch the argument, and it is in fact the same argument Black might have used on White and his philosophers.
We know by this stage that no philosopher could ever give meaning to anything in life, however hard they tried and however clever their arguments might have been. All they have done, was to confound and mislead generations of well meaning folk.
And the reason for this is simple. Nobody can give meaning to life, except each one of us individually to ourselves. Meaning is not in the philosophy, it is within us.
To quote form Hamlet (by Shakespeare) : …. for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
I give you a mundane and superficial example.
A rich man dies. His wife is devastated, mourns, gets depressed, becomes embittered, and so on. His no good children are very glad and rejoices at the prospect of the inheritance of a lifetime. A story almost as hypothetical as that of Cecil above. The event is exactly the same, but the outcomes in the hearts of the two different parties, are exactly the opposite. Who is right and who is wrong? Why is this? Simply because we give meaning to all our experiences ourselves.
My son often invites me to spend a few days with him in the bush or on safari. I like it very much … but only for the first hour. So I often ask him what we are going the do from the second hour onwards. I just cannot look at game and the veldt forever and ever amen. I need to give meaning to our experience, to stay interested. And this I usually do with discussions on profound subjects, much like the symposiums of the Greeks. In fact, when all the children were still in the house, I used to try and embroil them in a symposium after Sunday lunch, but sad to say, I was never successful.
Why did the Greeks of old have a symposium every night after supper? Exactly for this reason – to give meaning to life. I cannot give meaning to the life of those around me, if I have not found meaning in my own life.
When we are born, we are handed a life in the form of an outline sketch of figures and ideas, and it is for us to colour it in. This sketch is mostly lines of black on a canvas of white – the black being the figure and the white being the (back)ground. Some of us may even receive a picture of darkness where the white lines constitute the figure and the blackness constitutes the ground.
How do we colour it? Do we use warm pastel colours, do we colour all over the lines, do we make unending circles with no meaning – much like a first grader does? Does the colours match or do they cry out against each other? What about those grey patches without definition or meaning. I might not be far off the mark with this metaphor, as psychologists use colour to interrogate us madmen – and some use only black as in a Rorshach test. Some of us are without colour in this world.
And that brings me to the heart of the matter.
If we can meet with triumph and disaster in our lives, and colour it the same – with warm light pastel colours, which turns it into a painting of a quiet pastoral setting with flowers and green grass and sunlight, we can make a difference to ourselves and to others. We all know someone who can take humour from the most serious situation, laugh at adversity and cry with joy. But we also know someone who can never see something good in anything. It is up to us what we do with these almost unrecognisable figures on our canvas of life.
There is so much meaning in life – let's find it, although the search may be long and hard.