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Individual purpose and universal meaning
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Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst
August 30, 2012

Originally published January 7, 2005

Happiness cannot be long sustained unless one lives a life of meaning and purpose. How does one obtain a strong sense of meaning and purpose? Meaning is derived from things which are transcendent and universal. Such things are not accessible to the individual unless man has a nature that is universal to all people. Purpose comes from the idea that the individual is uniquely designed for a special destiny. One has a destiny for which one was created and to which one is called. A universal nature and a special design sound contradictory, but they are actually complimentary. It is difficult to sustain a sense of individual purpose without a source of meaning. Meaning can seem irrelevant if it is not expressed in or connected to a purpose.

Meaning

Meaning is derived from God, from universal truths, and from solidarity with one's fellows. One cannot enjoy human solidarity unless there are traits that are universal among all people. There can be no accessible universal truths without a universal human nature. There cannot be One God for all people and universal truths which impart meaning unless there is a universal human nature. The existence of universal truths and a universal human nature is powerful circumstantial evidence for the existence of God. Those involved in Christian apologetics, take note!

In my youth, I heard a man say, "My life has meaning because I am loved by God with an eternal love." Love is often the channel through which meaning is discovered. Men who love the truth discover meaning when that first lightning bolt of transcendent truth strikes their heart. Human love between man and woman sometimes leads to a sublime sense of being mystically connected to the universe. As the two become one in marriage, they transcend the petty self and feel a solidarity with all mankind.

Purpose

Without individuality, a person cannot have a special mission in life and be distinguished as having special talents and virtues. A hero cannot arise from a group of identical clones or a group-think cult. One derives a sense of purpose from a special mission or destiny or a sense that one is doing God's will. Many Americans think they can invent their mission and their destiny. This is a fundamental error of our world. A mission and a destiny must be discovered, not arbitrarily selected from a menu of choices or conjured from a fantasy ideal. A true purpose must unfold from how one has been designed or as a result of a personal developmental journey which Providence sets before one and to which one is faithful. In some cases, the destiny is revealed in a moment of revelation. The Apostle Paul was such a case.

The Apostle Paul did not choose to be an Apostle. He was chosen by God. At the end of his life, Paul exclaimed, "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course. I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of glory..." (2 Timothy 4:7, 8). This is the cry of victory. He finished the journey of destiny that was chosen by Providence and faithfully completed his appointed task. It was a special blessing for him to know it before death. To die complete and fulfilled as a victor is the most sublime of earthly glories. Paul is the man of purpose extraordinaire.

The discovery of destiny

There must be a task to perform to which one is illuminated by powers outside oneself and appointed by persons greater than oneself. One must be caught up in and consumed by a cause or a role that is greater than the self. One cannot discover his destiny by reason and experience alone. A sense of a revelation, or a calling, or providential direction is often needed. Sometimes destiny shows itself in signs along the way, or in a progressive unfolding of a purpose or role. It can be a sense of having been designed for or chosen for a task. Those who don't know their destiny cannot find it on their own. They need help to find it: help from God or help indirectly from God though providential human guidance.

T. E. Lawrence gradually acquired a sense of destiny in the process of a series of adventures. In the movie Lawrence of Arabia, General Allenby was trying to persuade Lawrence to return to his unique task among the Arabs. Lawrence protested that he just wanted to do something "normal." Allenby said, "See here, Lawrence, very few men have a destiny." These word struck Lawrence's heart with such a force that he immediately consented to return to his mission among the Arabs. Lawrence's parting words to Allenby were, "You are a clever man." After Lawrence's departure, Allenby said in admiration and pity, "That poor devil is riding the whirlwind." An appeal to destiny is hard to resist, especially when a great man casts it before you like red meat thrown to a hungry hound.

Lawrence and Allenby were British officers who fought the Turks, an Axis power of World War I, and opportunistically discovered that the Arabs hated the Turks. Lawrence seized the day in fine swashbuckling manner and made the Arabs into an ally of Britain and created a sense of Arab nationalism among the divided desert tribes. He lived in the waning days of a Romantic culture. His idea of destiny was linked to the melodramatic ideal of the hero. When Lawrence wore his costume of an Arab prince, he comported himself in the manner of a Hollywood Sheik, a hero of cinematic melodrama. He was indeed filmed as though he was a movie star.

In spite of Hollywood fantasy, there is such a thing as a hero, of course, and heroes have a special kind of destiny. But what mainly concerns us in this essay is the kind of purpose that everyone can have but which not everyone aspires to or attains. One can go off the path and miss it, as Lawrence almost went off the path. The wonderful thing about destiny is that one can persevere on the path and finish in victory as the Apostle Paul did.

Meaning and purpose vs. postmodernism

The postmodern left is at war with Universals that impart meaning. They think man has no innate nature. They deny the existence of universal truths. They restrict life to the walnut shell of Me. "Me for the sake of Me" is meaningless and futile.

Postmodern thought excludes personal design and destiny. Its adherents think the self is self-invented and actions should be arbitrarily chosen based upon feelings. "I want what I want when I want it" is their rule and guide. They scoff at the idea of a divine design of innate personal uniqueness that can lead to a life of purpose. Therefore, in spite of the great American prosperity and dazzling diversions, many people are bored with their futile and meaningless lives and saddened by their lack of purpose. "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, all is vanity and vexation of spirit....I have seen all the works that are done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit" (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 14).

The one and the many

One of the most urgent metaphysical problems of ancient Greek philosophy was the problem of the One and the Many. This problem has profound implications for the issue of meaning and purpose.

Xenophanes (Zee-nof-uh-nees) of Elea was a Pantheist and believed that everything is part of God. He emphasized the One Being by downgrading the idea of many particulars. Parmenides (Par-men-ih-dees) carried Xenophanes' thought further when he said that the only thing that exists is Being. The many particular things one observes are all the same thing — that is to say, everything is Being. This "Metaphysical Monism" imparts meaning but rules out the hope that an individual life can have purpose.

Heraclitus (Hair-uh-clee-tus) of Ephesus said that everything is in flux and everything is changing. The particular item is unique but is transitory. It exists for a moment and vanishes. However, he did posit a link between particulars in flux to a Oneness: a governing principle of a Divine Logos, or cosmic mind, or rational principle. In the following verse, the Apostle John used the word Logos to refer to Christ. Logos is translated as "Word." "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). Christ, the Word, is the means by which individuals, caught in the flux of mortal life, can find a connection with the One Eternal Logos, and find meaning.

Several Greeks experimented with the idea of "Metaphysical Pluralism" — that a multiplicity of substances exists. The most extreme of these were the Atomists Leucippus (Loo-sip-us) and Democritus (Dem-oh-cri-tus), both of Abdera. They thought the world consists of agglomerations of indivisible atoms. Democritus was a materialist. Material atoms are moved about by mechanical forces. One can feel individualistic in such a world, but cannot live a life that has meaning. The followers of Democritus were skeptics concerning what we can know: the knowledge of the senses is relative and subjective and can provide no certain knowledge of the real world of material atoms.

Protagoras (Proh-tag-er-us), also of Abdera, developed the atomist ideas into an atomistic individualism and relativism of the truth. "Atomistic Individualism" is naturally linked to "Atomistic Materialism." The Atomistic Individualist is like a loose atom disconnected from the other atoms and disconnected from any higher truth. Such a life is devoid of meaning. Protagoras' relativism sounds shockingly Postmodern when he says that "what is true for you is true only for you and what is true for me is true only for me." Such an extreme of relativism can only be practiced by an Atomistic Individualist. Relativism is purely subjective and oriented to transitory feelings, and therefore is devoid of meaning. Feelings acquire meaning when they are linked to a higher truth and/or to other persons. An utterly private, indefinable, and irrelevant feeling, however pleasant, can have no meaning. That is why drug addicts and sex addicts have high rates of suicide. Feelings for the sake of feelings are ultimately futile.

Protagoras proposed equal rights for all and democracy which allowed women, children, and slaves to vote because he thought that every opinion is equally valid. Allan Bloom wrote in The Closing of the American Mind that when his postmodern students start to believe that every idea is equally valid, they lose interest in rational thinking. If every idea is equally true, then why work to find a better idea? For such persons, ideas lose meaning and become boring, tedious, and futile. However, if some ideas are better than others, a good idea can have meaning and be fascinating and worth the mental work to understand it. The discovery of a better idea is a meaningful moment, especially if the idea is connected to a universal truth. In popular symbolism, the discovery of a better idea is when a light bulb goes on and one says "eureka." When universals are vindicated by particular experience and particular experience is understood through the aid of universals, the sense of meaning wells up in the human heart.

Notice that absolute equality of ideas is only possible when atomistic individualism and moral relativism prevail. Therefore, absolute equality results in absolute meaninglessness. Notice the paradox? Meaning requires a universal nature. But absolute equality destroys meaning. Postmodern liberals look to theoretical equality and superficial diversity to provide them with a counterfeit feeling of meaningfulness. Such feelings based on a false equality that destroys meaning are vain. I would like to ask a postmodern liberal this question: "If every idea is equally valid, why do you rate equality as having preeminent importance, so that the idea of individuality must give way before it?"

Protagoras would have made a good liberal judge. He said that morality and justice are ideas invented by men to meet the practical needs of society. Specific codes are mere conventions that the individual should follow for selfish reasons, not because they are true and just. Rules and conventions should be changed as the practical need arises. But this is the very essence of injustice. A judge who arbitrarily and pragmatically invents new rules as he goes along is an unjust judge and an enemy of social order, harmony, and meaning.

Universals and particulars

The classical Greek philosophers of the late Hellenic era focused the problem of the One and the Many into the question of universals and particulars. It is easier to find a satisfying link between universal truths and particular instances than it is to find a link between an atom and the One.

Plato emphasized the primacy of universal archetypes or "forms." These archetypes have solid being, perfect form, and eternal unchanging existence. They subsist in a glorious spiritual realm to which we have limited and imperfect access through pure intuitions of reason. Ideas about the archetypes can be supported by inductive logic, which moves from particulars to generalities. Particulars are shadowy incarnations of universals. Particulars are transitory, perishable, and are effaced by imperfections. The value of a particular is limited to its connection with a corresponding universal.

Platonic life is rich in transcendent meaning but struggles to find purpose for the individual. Therefore Plato's Republic, his magnum opus, is devoted to solving this problem. The individual is put in his rightful place in the social order by philosopher kings based upon a correlation between the person's dominant motivation and the functional demands of the social class he is deemed to be fit for. Plato's Republic is a dictatorship. Dictators like Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin woo the rabble by using big airy concepts to give them a sense of collective meaning, while depriving them of a freedom and a sense of individual purpose.

Finding a rightful place in the social order is an inadequate substitute for individual purpose. The rural feudal system of the eleventh century assigned to each person a clearly defined place in the social order. The sense of purpose this imparted was inadequate to meet intrinsic human needs. Serfs were forever fleeing to the monasteries or the new cities to find a more humane and purposeful way of life.

Aristotle, a student of Plato, tried to strike a balance between universals and particulars. Plato had said that universals can exist independently of particulars. Aristotle argued that universals cannot exist apart from particulars. However, universals do exist, he said, but only as they subsist within particular things. The universal is the inner "essence" of the particular thing. The outer qualities of the particular thing are the "accidents." A practical individuality with meaning and a real but limited purpose is possible to the Aristotelian. In contrast, individual purpose is not available to the Platonist who is trapped in a dualism of spiritual universals and material particulars.

Unfortunately, Aristotelianism is inadequate. The universal overwhelms the accidents, so the individuality of particular qualities is muted. A perfect example is the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation developed by the Aristotelian theologian St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. The body and blood of Christ overwhelms the accidents of the bread and wine. The material qualities, or accidents of bread and wine, do not disappear but are partially submerged. Compare transubstantiation to the incarnation of Christ. Christ had a complete humanity that was not submerged in His Deity. In contrast, the bread and wine are no longer bread and wine according to the words of the Mass. The material accidents of shape, texture, and flavor of the bread and wine become nonessential superficialities. The realm of the material is demoted to a inferior state of being.

Martin Luther rejected the Aristotelianism of Aquinas and his doctrine of transubstantiation. Luther said that the body and blood of Christ mystically indwells the bread and the wine, but the bread remains fully bread and the wine remains fully wine. A Lutheran world has more room to maneuver for the unique individual than does the world of Aquinas, where the unique personal traits of the individual are overwhelmed by the social and religious order of which he is a member. Both the Lutheran and the Catholic can find meaning through their faith, but it is easier for the Lutheran to find individual purpose.

Anselm's solution

The eleventh century in Europe was Platonic in tone. The leaders sought to build their earthly cities according to what they thought were the patterns of heaven. Dualistic thinking made this hard to achieve because of the great gap between the glory of heaven and the miserable realities of the earth. However, the spirituality of the cross that prevailed in the tenth and eleventh centuries helped many transcend this gap. The Great Reform Pope, St, Gregory VII (eleventh century), announced himself as the Vicegerent of Christ, with the mission to "restore right order on the earth." He intended to bring the sublime order of heaven down to earth. He believed this was possible because his monastic order was deeply devoted to the crucified Christ who suffered and died for us to reconcile a righteous God with sinful man.

St. Anselm, Italian-born Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote Cur Deus Homo (1098), which is literally "Why God Man" or "Why did God become a Man." He explained why the incarnation of Christ was necessary for the atonement. Christ must be fully God or his sacrifice is not adequate in value to atone for the sins of the whole world. He must be fully man in order to become the sacrificial substitute for sinful man. Because He is fully man, it is possible for men to identify by faith with his redemptive and sanctifying death and resurrection.

Christ solves the problem of the One and the many is several ways. He is God, the One, but He subsists in the Trinity, a plurality. He is God the One, but in His humanity has solidarity with the many members of the human race. In his atonement on the cross, he opened a way of access to a holy God by sinful but repentant men. He knits together the souls of redeemed people into a body, which is the invisible church found in heaven and contained within the visible church on earth. On Resurrection Day, they will all be one. The problem of the One and the Many that the philosophers could not solve is perfectly solved through Jesus Christ.


A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at Amazon.com.

© Fred Hutchison

 

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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31