Before I reply to the article, I am obliged to ensure I have not misrepresented. Tali observed, if I understand her, a tendency amongst human beings to imagine our that individual lives each have a narrative – often one in which we are the protagonists – and that the tale will inevitably climax in the usual fashion (a belief which for brevity I shall call ‘ego narratives’). This, she assured us, is plainly untrue, but it is a human trait to invent narratives and purpose for itself, and a common means of doing so is ‘The Hero System’, by which we may contrive our own significance, and give man ‘the cosmic specialness he deserves’.
Often I think these ego narratives are quite mistaken: at best they are wishful thinking, and at worst they are probably plain conceit. But this belief in a them grows from a desire for meaning significance. Tali and I are both agreed that this expression of it – the incorrigible wish to be indispensable, to be the centre of the universe, and the constant hero of one’s own play – is very undesirable. But her remedy serves to kill where I would seek to amend. She notes the beliefs in these narratives are false, but to correct this naivety she observed: ‘This is-of course-complete nonsense. Life is series of events and nothing more.’ I am not certain whether this is audacity or a mere inadvertence, for the implications of that sentence are rather grave for a University column. It signifies the abolition of objective meaning, and that is something with which the majority of history’s great luminaries, and almost all of common humanity, would strongly disagree. Quite possibly Tali did not intend any such implications, but anyone with a cursory knowledge of philosophy will not fail to see them. It would be more forgivable were it not for the two words ‘of course’, as if it were evident to all sensible people, and this is assuredly untrue.
Now, her cure for indulgent ego narratives succeeds in its object. If life is a mere succession of events, then it is sophistry to think that we each have a linear narrative in which we are the most important person, and in which we shall triumph inexorably. But her cure also serves, if it is fully administered, to kill the desire for meaning of which the ‘ego narratives’ are the excess or perversion; in short, it serves to kill meaning altogether. But I think the desire for meaning is a good thing; indeed, I believe it inseparable from our human dignity.
We are left then with a problem. On my hypothesis, the desire for meaning in life is a good thing, yet it very easily becomes exaggerated and inflamed into conceit, narcissism, and those very ‘ego narratives’ which Tali and I agree are misguided. Tali’s remedy would mortify the desire altogether, but I think the proper cure is to amend the desire, or find its true fruition. If the desire for meaning and narrative in life is illusory, then we have to account for the fact that it is so ubiquitous.
The Hero System does not much mend matters. A proper knowledge or it tells individuals that the meaning they desire-however excessively or deficiently – is nonsense and inherently unattainable; yet it conflates and encourages the tendency of ego narratives same ego narratives by telling them to invent significance for themselves, which is frequently very much greater or smaller than their actual significance.
The facts of the universe themselves help us very little. The cosmic insignificance of man (at least in mathematical terms) has been used to crush the ambition of humanity and also to call forth our defiance. The dreams are not dead which imagined humanity colonising other worlds, and by Scientific and humanitarian progress becoming the demigods of the Universe. The same Scientific facts recall us to the knowledge that we are but one occupant of an infinitesimal speck of matter, amongst the incalculable worlds and stars of the abyss of space; and thus, we are told, we are of no account.
The answer to this paradox is a very old one. Religion of all kinds have recognised the necessity and the danger of the desire for significance. I cannot venture to speak for all of them, but I may speak on behalf of my own faith, which is Christian. In my experience, Christianity crushes all hope of conceit and egotism from the outset: we are mortal, transient, corrupted and in many senses quite unimportant. Yet it never quenches our thirst for meaning: to be a child of God, with a purpose, with dignity and hope, is what is intended for every human being. It is a beautiful cure, for my part, and though many may disagree with it, let us not believe that ‘life is a series of events and nothing more’. For if so, there is the danger ‘aegrescit medendo’: the cure is worse than the disease.