By. Roman Payne
“The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself,” writes Montaigne. The wise also encourage bold and courageous action rather than weak inaction.
“Fortune favors the bold,” says the Latin proverb, and it is interpreted as being so self-evident that the United States Army adopted it as their official motto.
Search on the internet for quotes on ‘the meaning of life’ and the prevailing thought is that one’s purpose is to attain happiness. Aristotle claimed this purpose for man some 2,300 years ago and no one has successfully refuted it since. Although the word Aristotle used was not ‘happiness’ but ‘eudaimonia’ (or “the flourishing life.” Unlike ‘happiness,’ which can mean a mere moment of ‘pleasure’ (“God, this wine is nice!” or “Heavens, do I feel happy tonight!”), the flourishing life is one where joy and pleasure mingle with a ‘prolonged’ sense of self-fulfillment—where past work and effort (often including suffering) has bloomed into present pleasure and fulfilment, which will not diminish in the future nor result in a negative future experience (like the ‘come-down’ experience following the pleasure of drinking wine).
Eudaimonia tells you that you are happy in the present and the future; and that any past sufferings undergone to attain this present-future happiness, though hard at the time, have now become happy because of the happy present and future they have yielded (thus, through eudaimonia, we can actually ‘modify the past!’
So, what makes one’s life eudaimonic? The two obvious positive types of ‘good lives’ are ‘lives to envy’ and ‘lives to admire.’ Wise men and women throughout time praise the latter and insult the former. The life to envy is the ultimate playboy lifestyle: the life lived by Hugh Heffner, Don Juan, and Donald Trump. Lives to admire, by contrast, were lived by Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and Mother Theresa. Gandhi spent a total of seven years of his life in prison. And anyone looking at photos of Abraham Lincoln before and after the four-year American Civil War will see a man who had aged at least ten years during that time (maybe even ‘four-score’ as many years!). And there is no need to recount all of the hardships Mother Theresa faced. These people whose lives we admire have risen to near sainthood; and although wise men and women suggest that these ‘lives to admire’ are holy, literary quotes stress that “you do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting” (Mary Oliver) and console us with words like “beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.” (“Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann.)
And so it is good to ‘be yourself,’ to be bold and courageous, to live a life that others admire rather than envy. But what, then, is the ‘purpose’ of life? Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “the purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful.” Darwinists would argue that our purpose is to reproduce (create life before we ourselves die), and countless parents would agree. Yet are there not countless ways to create life?
Is not ‘teaching’ creating life? A teacher takes a being who would otherwise go through life unconscious and breathes consciousness and awareness and reflection into that being. So, while two parents may have ten children who receive no education and live lives without awareness, a single teacher may help hundreds of students discover themselves and become aware of their lives. But when the pupils die? There goes the lives these teachers created. True, the enlightened beings may have begat enlightened beings, but the teacher’s message that is as unique as his or her DNA is diluted, rewritten. Writing a book, I argue, is the way to create immortal life—for your words will live forever within the safe walls of quotation marks.
Penelope Fitzgerald wrote that “a good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”
John Milton argued that “books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.”
A classic example of defending ‘writing a book as the reason to live’ appears in the 1960 French film À bout de souffle when a fictional novelist is interviewed and asked what his greatest ambition in life is. The novelist responds laconically: “Devenir immortel, et puis, mourir.” (“Become immortal, and then, die.”) ?
(Essay by Roman Payne, author of the highly influential novel, The Wanderess [www.wanderess.com].)
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Or those of you who are writers, Payne is currently giving writers’ workshops in both the city of Marrakech in Morocco, and on a sailboat off the coast o Croatia. Please write to firstname.lastname@example.org for information.