In my philosophy degree, I’m currently studying a module entitled ‘The Meaning of Life’. Naturally, parts of it have been a bit heavy and often dark; many of the writers I’ve had to read, contend that life is meaningless, and, further, that it is absurd to take any activity seriously. What is the point in striving, they wonder, if we’re all just going to die anyway? (The writer of Ecclesiastes understood these feelings, but found the answer in God. Many of the philosophers have, unsurprisingly, rejected that solution.)
Moritz Schlick, however, suggests that the time at which we are most content is when we engage with an activity and enjoy it purely for its own sake, not for its outcome. He calls this ‘play’ (though it can also be carpentry, or bricklaying, or any activity in which you are employed), and suggests that the period in life when we were most satisfied was when we were children, and all we did was play.
Thus he advocates eternal youthfulness, striving always to undertake tasks for their own sake “independently of [their] effects and consequences.”
While this sounds good, and wonderfully freeing, it misses a key benefit and purpose of maturity. Growing up is in large part about learning to do those things which do not give us pleasure, which could not in any way be considered ‘play’, but which we do for the sake of their effects and consequences.
We visit tiresome elderly relatives, or give money to charity, or volunteer at a homeless shelter, not because these things are fun, but because they are good. They may have no benefit to ourselves at all, but we do them for the sake of their benefit to others.
Youth is highly celebrated in our culture. To be youthful – to look and act younger than your age – is considered a virtue. Age and wisdom are belittled and abhorred, but in trying to avoid growing old, we sometimes reject the lessons that we should have learned in our youth.
Yes, Jesus told us to come to him like little children, but he didn’t mean that we should strive to be self-centred, unrestrained and immature. We should be joyful, teachable and trusting like a child, but with the self-control and maturity of an adult.
The meaning of life does not consist in feeding our own pleasures and desires – that’s hedonism, the doctrine that seats ourselves in the place rightly reserved for God. The conclusion of the writer of Ecclesiastes, after examining ‘everything under the sun’ was this:
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man.