What is the meaning of life? By Armando Massarenti

This post is also available in: Spanish

In the chapter dealing with good and bad euthanasia you raise two interesting questions. First: what is life? Second: does it have a meaning?

In order to answer seriously but also lightly, which I try to make my philosophical style, I will start with a great joke from Woody Allen: “At a time throughout the movie of my life I passed by the eyes. And I was not in the cast!” Therefore, a meaningful life, a life worth living is a life in which one is in the cast. In the cast of one’s own life, at least! Because Woody Allen is right: it’s something you can’t take for granted. Being in the cast means living a “thought life”, a life full of searching, as Socrates said through Plato. In essence, a philosophical life. And this is the idea I’m trying to put forward in Il lancio del nano e altri esercizi di filosofia minima. In this book, as well as in the Dizionario delle idee non comuni and in the portraits of philosophers I’ve drawn in the Il filosofo tascabile. They are exercises which, little by little, remind us somewhat of the “spiritual exercises” Pierre Hadot refers to in order to define the essential characteristics of ancient Philosophy. It was, more than anything, a life choice, opting for a particular lifestyle. Choosing to live according to a particular philosophical school, be it stoicism, epicureism, skepticism or neoplatonism. An option which is now available to everyone because all of us, whether we like it or not, are reflexive people. We are forced to be free, as Sartre would put it.

Life, however, may seem absurd and meaningless to the most reflexive people, the most aware of the human condition. We could mention, for example Giacomo Leopardi (poet and also philosopher: it’s no coincidence I included him amongst the great thinkers in Il filosofo tascabile). Or Albert Camus, who has managed like nobody else for us to reach what he called the experience of the Absurd. According to the North-American philosopher Thomas Nagel, who has reinterpreted Camus’s idea, life seems absurd when we look at it from afar. There is an essential tension between an objective and impersonal point of view and a subjective and personal one. We live happily focused on our little dreams and big daily routines, and suddenly we think about “taking a step back” and looking at ourselves “from outside”, a little bit like Woody Allen in the joke we started with, or how we could take a look at a mouse’s life. And then, what from a personal, internal perspective seemed important, fundamental, absolute, ends up losing all meaning. Seen from outside, our life looks absurd. Not only because, in comparison to eternity and the immensity of the world, it appears to us in all its pettiness and finitude, an exercise the ancient philosophers used to love. No, the point is not the limitations in our lives. If life was infinite, we still wouldn’t have solved the problem: we would just have an absurd infinity. What could make us think our life has a worth and a meaning different to a mouse’s? The point is in the “step back” which we, who have self-consciousness and reflexive capacity, are able to take. Life may seem absurd, but that shouldn’t lead us to despair. On the contrary. Even after this “step back”, life goes on. Try the following exercise: think about all the times you took a step back while watching a good movie or reading a good novel. And in how many times you have given it in philosophy. Or with a very philosophical movie, even though also quite bizarre, like the meaning of life from the Monty Python.

In any case, after the step back and even if it seems absurd to us, life goes on. But something has changed, something important. And for the better. Before, our tendency to take ourselves too seriously prevailed. Now, enriched inside, we have gained a new dimension: we are lighter, more refined, ironic, civil, tolerant. We enter the cast in a wiser way, in a movie that’s not dull or absurd or violent, but fun and full of surprises.

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