I have to make a few side-tracks here, to explain some of my readings. One of the books I read was the book of Ecclesiastes, in the Old Testament. I first read it while I was in junior high school, because I got caught up in the "All the rivers run into the sea, and yet the sea is not full; and the water hastens again from whence it came" poetry of the first chapter. But here's Ecclesiastes in a nutshell:
Solomon of Jerusalem, the Jewish equivalent of the Greek Croesus (but 500 years earlier), had wealth, power, and dominion beyond any of his peers. He is said to have had 300 wives and 700 concubines, most of whom were political marriages. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon sets out to understand the meaning of life. He keeps repeating a phrase, "Vanity; all is Vanity." He then lays out a series of things that are "Vanity" or "Striving after the wind."
[Ecc 1:1-15 NASB]
1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2 "Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher, "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity."
3 What advantage does man have in all his work Which he does under the sun?
4 A generation goes and a generation comes, But the earth remains forever.
5 Also, the sun rises and the sun sets; And hastening to its place it rises there [again.]
6 Blowing toward the south, Then turning toward the north, The wind continues swirling along; And on its circular courses the wind returns.
7 All the rivers flow into the sea, Yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, There they flow again.
8 All things are wearisome; Man is not able to tell [it.] The eye is not satisfied with seeing, Nor is the ear filled with hearing.
9 That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there anything of which one might say, "See this, it is new"? Already it has existed for ages Which were before us.
11 There is no remembrance of earlier things; And also of the later things which will occur, There will be for them no remembrance Among those who will come later [still.]
12 I, the Preacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.
13 And I set my mind to seek and explore by wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven. [It] is a grievous task [which] God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with.
14 I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind.
15 What is crooked cannot be straightened and what is lacking cannot be counted.
Heavy stuff, right? In a Philosophy class, incidentally, I once got extra points on an exam for not only pairing Xeno's "Nothing truly changes" with Heraclitus' "We never step into the same river twice" -- that was expected, and the point of the essay question -- but capping it with Solomon, from 500 years earlier than Xeno and Heraclitus, "All the rivers run into the sea, and yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow [from], there they flow again."
In Ecclesiastes, Solomon names dozens of things that seem to make life meaningful and then explodes each of them as vanity, striving after the wind, and foolishness:
Compiling wisdom? Foolishness. Where does it lead me?
Public works? But after me they may be torn down.
Large family? But after me, how will it be better?
Fortunes and wealth? But after me they will merely go to others. And so forth.
In the end, without connecting the dots, Solomon suddenly says, "So you need to serve God."
The conclusion can be reached from the thesis, but only with a great leap. Solomon effectively demonstrated that life is pointless and vain, but then out of the blue he drags God into it. Perhaps in 1000 BC that was a leap that made sense, and we can still kind of get his idea, but it is Tolstoy who really fleshes out the connection, much much later.
What did that do for me? Well, from reading Solomon, I was prepared for Kafka. Franz Kafka took a similar tack: He would take someone's meaning for living, and then drag it down and stomp on it until it was obvious that there was no meaning in it. I will summarize a few of his fragments for us:
In "A Country Doctor"
-- a story told with a kind of dream-state story-line -- a doctor is called out in the middle of the night for an emergency patient. He calls for his cart, but it is snowing, and his horse has died. The horse represents the power to drive his altruistic mission, you see; his mission to save the patient. In the natural state, there is no reason for him to wish to do altruism, so getting out of bed and gathering his instruments is pointless and futile.
He is starting to tell his servant girl to forget it, and that he is going back to bed, when a horse-groom, a strong man with immense arms, emerges from the pig-sty, pulling behind him two powerful stallions. The groom attaches these to the cart, and loads the doctor into it. Only then does the doctor note the lecherous eye that the groom casts on the serving-girl. The doctor starts to dismount, to save the girl, but the groom slaps the horses, who launch the doctor on a dizzying ride towards the patient. The groom represents carnal lust, and Kafka is telling us here that all of our powerful emotions arise from the pig-sty, from our base and vulgar instincts. Not to put too fine a point on it, Kafka is telling us that we only do good things because we want to get laid.
With the serving girl dashing into the house, and the groom trying to kick down the door, the doctor is pulled away into the night, and is helpless to stop the powerful visceral reaction he has triggered. On arrival at the patient's house, he is escorted to a sickroom and finds that the patient is apparently in perfect health. The doctor weeps that he has made this trip in vain, and that the serving girl was sacrificed for nothing. But then the patients family pulls back the sheets, and in the patient's side there is a gaping wound, stinking of gangrene and covered in maggots. Kafka is telling us here that even though we all seem perfectly normal and clean, we are actually filthy and unspeakably evil within; when seen without the nice coverings, we're all just animals, and our lusts are rotting us away.
Now, I was not so cynical as Kafka. I did not accept his premise: That our most powerful drives, and particularly our altruism, all arises from the pig-sty of our carnal desires. After all, to satisfy the desires of the flesh, whether sexually or through gluttony or through a thousand sins of excess -- that too is vanity. There is no purpose in it.
The navy took me many places, and among them were cities built atop sewage canals, where bars and brothels competed for space down a winding main street devoted to the satisfaction of the carnal desires. I have been told that places like Magsaysay Avenue have been cleaned up in this present day, and that the Wan Chai district no longer looks as it did when I saw it. Still, the philosophical eye easily realized that the satisfaction of carnal desires was merely another futile path, leading nowhere. So Kafka had to be wrong: Carnality might be a powerful driver, but it was as futile as everything else. I dismissed the country doctor.
Kafka also wrote a fragment called "Before the Law."
It concerns a man who had suffered an injustice, and sought the judge in order to make it right. He finds that the door is blocked by a huge doorman, scary to behold. The doorman tells him, in confidence, that even if he somehow got by him, he would only find a bigger doorkeeper at the next door, and even this doorkeeper was afraid to look that one in the eye. But the man persists, and for many years he tries to bribe the doorkeeper, to befriend him, to cajole him, to lecture him, and to persuade him. The doorkeeper is utterly unmoved. Finally the man is too old for justice to do him any good, so the doorkeeper stand us an closely the door. The man asks one last question:
"In all the years I have been here, waiting, no one else has ever come here seeking justice. Why is that?"
The doorkeeper smiles and says, "This door was only ever intended for you."
So Kafka here is telling us that we can never find justice. Our attempts to create a just society are continually undermined by our human frailty. The structure of power is against us, and will always be against us; our courts and our laws are a mockery to the idea of justice.
Again, as fascinating as I found this fragment, I did not accept that justice -- absolute justice -- is unattainable. Here, though, Kafka had a better point. Human justice can be difficult to achieve. Many in this life will die without reaching it. But in contrast I had read Mere Christianity,
by C.S. Lewis, who claims that the unattainable nature of perfect justice merely shows that we are designed for a universe where such justice is possible. And this resonated with me. Still, to accept Lewis answer and reject Kafka's seemed like begging the question, because it agreed with my indoctrination and my early bias, so rather than take Lewis at face value, I held the question of human justice in abeyance.
And then there is The Metamorphosis.
A man wakes up one morning and finds that he is a cockroach. Literally. A huge cockroach.
Through this, Kafka compares what the man's life had been about: He had been a businessman, always scurrying to and fro, accomplishing nothing of importance, and earning a pittance to support his parents and his sister, all of whom lived with him. Now, as a cockroach, he cannot do those things any more, so his parents have to find a new method to support themselves. They try renting his room, but -- well, there's a huge cockroach under the bed. Finally, the father takes a job as a train conductor, the sister (who had been a homely wallflower) begins to blossom into an outgoing and vivacious young woman, and they are all so happy that they forget the huge cockroach under the bed. The cockroach dies and the family is at last happy.
This is Kafka's happiest ending: Someone is happy at the end. But he has just argued that this man's entire reason for being -- supporting his family and maintaining his life -- was pointless, and that he actually crippled those whom he was trying to help. He held them back, and kept them in a dependent state, when they could have been happier without him.
This is the premise that I most strongly rejected, even though Solomon seemed to agree with it in part: That life had no meaning, and that the things we devote our lives to are pointless. I felt, deep within me, that Life had a meaning. Solomon even said that God had written eternity on our hearts. The Existentialist and everyone who wrestled with meaning in life could all have been happy if they had simply rejected meaning and lived hedonistic lives, eating drinking and being merry, for tomorrow we may die. So why did that idea feel so very wrong?
But to reject the meaningless of life, I had to show that it had meaning, as my principle called for: You cannot reject an idea until you know what is wrong with it.