Historically and still today, many people believe that humankind is the creation of a supernatural entity called God, that God had an intelligent purpose in creating humankind, and that this intelligent purpose is the ‘meaning of life’. I do not propose to go through the various arguments for and against the existence of God. However, even if God exists, and even if He had an intelligent purpose in creating humankind, no one really knows what this purpose might be, or that it is especially meaningful. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the entropy of a closed system such as the universe increases up to the point at which equilibrium is reached, and God’s purpose in creating humankind and, indeed, all of nature, might have been nothing more lofty that to catalyse this process. If our God-given purpose is to act as super-efficient heat dissipaters, then having no purpose at all is better than having this sort of purpose because it frees us to be the authors of our own purpose or purposes and thereby to lead truly dignified and meaningful lives. For this same reason, having no purpose at all is better than having any kind of purpose, even a more traditional and uplifting purpose such as ‘serving God’ or ‘improving our karma’. In short, even if God exists, and even if He had an intelligent purpose in creating humankind (and why should He have had?), we do not know what this purpose might be and, whatever it might be, we would rather be able to do without it. Unless we can be free to become the authors of our own purpose or purposes, our lives may have, at worse, no purpose at all, and, at best, only some unfathomable and potentially trivial purpose that is not of our choosing.

Some might object that not to have a pre-determined purpose is, really, not have any purpose at all. However, this is to believe (1) that for something to have a purpose, it must necessarily have been created with a purpose in mind, and (2) that something that was created with a purpose in mind must necessarily have the same purpose for which it was created. Last summer, I visited the vineyards of Château-Neuf-du-Pape in the South of France. One evening, I picked up a beautiful rounded stone called a galet which I later took back to England and put to excellent use as a book-end. In the vineyards of Château-Neuf-du-Pape, the declared purpose of these stones is to absorb the heat from the sun during the daytime and then to release it during the night time. Of course, these stones were not created with this or any other purpose in mind. Even if they were created with a purpose in mind, then this purpose was almost certainly not to make great wine, serve as book-ends, or be beautiful. That same evening over supper, I got my friends to blind-taste a bottle of claret that I had brought along from England. As I did not have a decanter to hand, I kept the wine in its bottle and masked the identity of the bottle by slipping it into one of a pair of socks. Unlike the galet, the sock had been created with a purpose in mind, even though this purpose was very different from (although, note, not strictly incompatible with) the one that it eventually found.

In summary, whether or not God exists, and whether or not He has a purpose for us, we should strive to create our own purpose or purposes. In Sartrean terms, whereas for the galet it is true only that existence precedes essence, for the sock it is true both that essence precedes existence (when the sock is used on a foot) and that existence precedes essence (when the sock is used other than on a foot, for example, as a bottle sleeve). Human beings are either like the rock or like the sock, but whichever one they are like, they are better off creating their own purpose or purposes. To re-iterate, unless we can be free to be the authors of our purpose or purposes, our lives may have, at worse, no purpose at all, and, at best, only some unfathomable and potentially trivial purpose that is not of our choosing. Plato once defined man as an animal, biped, featherless, and with broad nails, but another much better definition that he gave was simply this, ‘A being in search of meaning.’

Adapted from The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide

Diogenes searching for a human being.

Diogenes of Sinope or Diogenes the Cynic was a contemporary of Socrates’ pupil Plato, whom Plato described as ‘a Socrates gone mad’. Like Socrates and, to a lesser extent, Plato, Diogenes favoured direct verbal interaction over the written account. When a man called Hegesias asked to be lent one of his writing tablets, he replied, ‘You are a simpleton, Hegesias; you do not choose painted figs, but real ones; and yet you pass over the true training and would apply yourself to written rules.’ After being exiled from his native Sinope for having defaced its coinage, Diogenes moved to Athens, took up the life of a beggar, and made it his mission to metaphorically deface the coinage of custom and convention, which, he maintained, was the false coin of morality. He disdained the need for conventional shelter or any other such ‘dainties’ and elected to live in a tub and survive on a diet of onions. He proved to the later satisfaction of the Stoics that happiness has nothing whatever to do with a person’s material circumstances, and held that human beings had much to learn from studying the simplicity and artlessness of dogs, which, unlike human beings, had not ‘complicated every simple gift of the gods’. The terms ‘cynic’ and ‘cynical’ derive from the Greek kynikos, which is the adjective of kyon or ‘dog’. 

Diogenes placed reason and nature firmly above custom and convention, which he held to be incompatible with happiness. It is natural for a human being to act in accord with reason, and reason dictates that a human being should live in accord with nature. Accordingly, he taught that, if an act is not shameful in private, then it should not be shameful in public either. Upon being challenged for masturbating in the marketplace, he replied, ‘If only it were so easy to soothe hunger by rubbing an empty belly’. Upon being asked, on another occasion, where he came from, he replied, ‘I am a citizen of the world’ (cosmopolites), a radical claim at the time and the first recorded use of the term ‘cosmopolitan’. Although Diogenes privileged reason, he despised the sort of abstract philosophy that was being practiced elsewhere and in particular at Plato’s Academy. When, to great acclaim, Plato defined a human being as an animal, biped, and featherless, Diogenes plucked a fowl and brought it to the Academy with the words, ‘Behold! I have brought you Plato’s man.’ Plato consequently revised his definition, adding to it ‘with broad nails’. 

Diogenes was not impressed with his fellow men, not even with Alexander the Great, who came to meet him one morning while he was lying in the sunlight. When Alexander asked him whether there was any favour he might do for him, he replied, ‘Yes, stand out of my sunlight.’ Much to his credit, Alexander still declared, ‘If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.’ In another account of the conversation, Alexander found Diogenes looking attentively at a pile of human bones. Diogenes explained, ‘I am searching for the bones of your father (King Philip of Macedon), but cannot distinguish them from those of a slave.’ Diogenes used to stroll about in broad daylight with a lamp. Whenever curious people asked him what he was doing, he would reply, ‘I am just looking for a human being.’ Much to his chagrin, all he ever found were rascals and scoundrels. When asked how he wished to be buried, he left instructions to be thrown outside the city wall so that wild animals could feast upon his body. After his death in the city of Corinth, the Corinthians erected to his memory a pillar upon which they rested a dog of Parian marble. Diogenes taught by living example that wisdom and happiness belong to the person who is independent of society. He was, I think, a shining example of the art of failure. 

Adapted from The Art of Failure – The Anti Self-Help Guide.