Life Crammed with Meaning

Challenging the Modern Existentialist Myth

Our time disdains tradition and philosophy, so it is striking when a presidential hopeful pays serious attention to an ancient tradition and a modern philosopher. In a Twitter video, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., said:

I read Camus, and particularly in The Myth of Sisyphus, as a parable where we are all given these insurmountable tasks in our lives, but that, by doing our duty, by being of service to others, we can bring meaning to a meaningless chaos. …

[Sisyphus] took his duty, he embraced the task, the absurdity of life, and he pushed the stone up the hill. And that if we do that, if we find ways of being of service to others, that is the ultimate. That’s the key to the lock. That’s the solution to the puzzle…

And we can bring meaning not only to our own lives, but we can bring meaning to the universe as well. We can bring some kind of order to life.

In my college days, I also admired the existentialist vision, at least in the version that filtered down to us philosophy majors. There was something attractive about persevering without hope in an absurd world. There was also something alluring about the notion that we create our own meanings. Moreover, such a mindset allowed us to imagine we had no need of some external order.

The existentialist mindset has seeped into our modern world in a myriad of ways. It can be argued that it is the reigning philosophy of our nation. This was perhaps most clearly revealed when Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, in one of the court’s key decisions: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."

A Plenitude of Meaning

Of course, even philosophy majors notice the difficulty of creating meaning if the universe is meaningless chaos. The real problem confronting us in the cosmos, however, is not that meaning is absent. The real challenge is that meaning is overwhelmingly abundant.

That’s one message in Iain McGilchrist’s book The Matter with Things, a vast, profound exploration of the mind, knowledge, and the cosmos. McGilchrist rejects “the mistaken assumption that because we cannot pin down the ‘meaning’ of the world in which we live, it has no meaning.” McGilchrist argues instead that “this experience comes not from there being no meaning, but from there being a plenitude of meaning, beyond articulation.” He brings forth a wide range of scientific findings and philosophical discoveries revealing that we can’t create meaning any more than we can create the Atlantic Ocean by spilling a teaspoon of water off a pier in New York City. Nor are we humans starved for meaning; instead we have been seated at a banquet of meaning. Indeed, meaning is the very stuff of reality, even if its complexity and richness, and our own failures and limitations, make it difficult for us to understand.

Intrinsic Value

The same holds true for value itself. McGilchrist defends the view that “values are not invented but discovered and disclosed, and that it takes life to discover and disclose them; that they declare themselves in and through the responses of living beings to the world and the world’s response to them.” Of course, we might choose our own experience as the place to begin our quest. But we must go further and insist that this experience is vital precisely because it is not confined to our personal existence. Our lives are essential parts of the cosmos—even in some sense, drivers of the universe. McGilchrist writes that “it is not we who originate the possibility of truth, or goodness, or the beauty of the cosmos. We help fulfil them (or not). I see value as intrinsic to the universe. … Not a few readers … may be surprised by my including value alongside time, space, motion, consciousness and matter as a constitutive element of reality.”

The Failure of Existentialism

The existentialist mindset fails because meaning is as real as rocks, order is as primary as thought, and value is as inescapable as the passing of the hours. This does not imply that our task is simple. The very vastness of meaning, the complexity of order, and the demands of value pose daunting challenges. It is no wonder if the existentialist despairs, and blurts out, “There is no meaning!” Believers too discover that deciphering and responding to the cosmos are awesome and sometimes crushing tasks. That is why the saints end up on their knees. Yet the richness and creativity of the cosmos also supply us with a deep foundation for moving ahead with our tasks.

There’s another way in which the existentialist stance falls short: It leaves us stranded from our fellow human beings. Sisyphus labors alone. If each of us has only our own custom-crafted meanings, we cannot help each other. Our situations must appear bizarre to each other: There is no basis on which we can communicate or cooperate. Each of us is marooned. In the existentialist’s cosmos, no one can understand our plight; no one can serve us, and we can serve no one.

Moreover, the traditions of faith argue instead that we are connected to the source of being, and thus to our world and our brothers and sisters. Bishop Robert Barron, in Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master, writes that “the creature is nothing but a relationship to God. … [R]elation, not substance, is the primary category of reality. It is not as though God makes things with which he then establishes a relationship; on the contrary, from the beginning, all ‘things’ are relations to the divine source.” (The Matter with Things explores some of the same ideas.)

Barron writes that St. Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of creation as relation means that,

all things in the universe, especially our fellow human beings, are related one to the other. All reality—from the simplest element to the farthest star, from a microbe to an archangel—flows, here and now, from the same source and exists in the same dependency. At the center, all things are family, in the most dramatic sense possible, siblings to one another. Before Thomas put it in more theological language, Francis of Assisi sang the same idea when he raised his voice to “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon,” to “Brother Fire” and “Sister Bodily Death.”

In that tradition of faith, we do not trudge up the hill on our own. Connected to everything, we have hope other people may help us, and we have faith that, somehow, we can help them.

A Living Creativity

Moreover, we are not trapped, like Sisyphus, in an unchangeable fate. Barron celebrates the way creation is constantly being renewed. He writes that “at the root of ourselves, there is nothing but novitas essendi, newness of being.” We are not entombed in a dead cosmos, but instead are part of a living creativity. We are not strapped to our fate, even if our lives sometimes seem Sisyphean. The boulder crumbles, or it finally tumbles down the other side of the hill. Perhaps we can escape, or revolt. Or perhaps a hero breaks in to rescue us. In Greek myth, most such rescue attempts fail. The Christian vision, of course, is more optimistic.

The existentialist, at bottom, assumes the universe has been finalized. Believers, however, sense that our world is constantly being renewed and refreshed. Our freedom lies not in resisting an adamant, pitiless universe. Our freedom instead lies in leaping into the living flow of creation. Yes, it’s a complex, difficult process. Yet we are not imprisoned in a dead, pointless routine, but have been set free in a vital process brimming with possibilities.

Check Your Guides

Neither Sisyphus nor Camus is a very helpful guide to us in the world of 2023. We are not trapped in a pointless routine. The existentialist vision can’t create meaning. It can’t bring order to the universe. It can’t help us serve others. I should add that I don’t mean to pick on RFK Jr. At least he’s aware of a myth that affects him, and it seems that other, more helpful myths also guide him. Nevertheless, this example brings to the surface the flaws in the existentialist myth that plays such a powerful, often hidden role in our world. It’s also important to remember that all of us, even politicians, are guided by an array of traditions and philosophies, some of which we may not be conscious of.

For that very reason, some pose real dangers. More than ever, we must recognize and follow only those traditions and philosophies that are true, abiding, and fruitful.

graduated from Northwestern University with degrees in philosophy and journalism. Now retired from a career in communications, he lives in Cary, NC, with his wife, Marnie.

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