Our hypothetical Yalie had a great interview. Congratulations. She networks her way into a great job in New York City after graduation, working hard and letting loose. Feeling burnt out after a few years, she moves out of the city, settles down and takes a more permanent job. She lacks nothing — everything she could possibly need or want is right in front of her. Finally, she retires to exotic vacations and a gym membership near her suburban home. And even when she begins to sense her own mortality, she maintains her comfortable course to the end without a thought.
This Yalie had a life of comfort and wealth, and she did everything she ever wanted to do — her life was the product of hard effort, steadfast American determination and personal liberty. Yet her story is not the story of a human being. It is the story of a worker, the story of a consumer — a cog in the happiness-maximizing machine who never asks: what is the point of my life?
There was no point to this Yalie’s story, no climax, no goal. It was a succession of scenes without a plot, each scene merely living up to what was expected from the previous one. To be a human being is so much more than the story of the Yalie, of the consumer, of the late-night studier or the consulting firm recruit. Being a human is at the same time more sad and painful, more glorious and meaningful.
A human story is the story of “Crime and Punishment,” of Percival and of Achilles, of Dante’s journey from hell to paradise. It is the story of failure and suffering, struggle and weakness, and of these things willingly taken on for the sake of another — what we call heroism. A human story is one of beauty — the beauty of the stars, of the countryside, of art, of people, a beauty that lifts up and ennobles the soul that we almost forgot we possessed. Above all, a human story is a story with a purpose. It is the story of a life lived for the sake of something. This is what the Yalie’s life fundamentally lacks.
Ever since the Enlightenment, it seems as though we have been intent on cutting ourselves off from our purpose, from our final end, and reducing everything to matter in motion. And we have been all too successful. The consumer’s story is a life lived without a purpose, a life of petty desires and their gratification, not pointed in any unified direction, not part of any greater plan.
How different this Enlightenment view from that of Aristotle, who put so much weight behind “final causes” — that “for the sake of which” a thing is what it is — that he deemed any explanation deprived of such causes incomplete. You can describe every physical facet of a chair yet still fall short of a full explanation if you never speak of it being sat in; eyes are an absurd concept without reference to sight.
The same absurdity results when we sever human beings from their final cause; this absurdity is manifested in the pointless life lived by the Yalie. We need a purpose in order to make sense of ourselves; we must live for the sake of something.
The hardest question is: what is that “something?”
What we seem to be doing is making our lives stressful and miserable right now, in the hopes that one day we can be 54 years old, rich and lonely, imprisoned in a mind that is only as interesting as the latest Netflix show. This is a life of directionless yearning, of pointless pursuits, a life whose very concept is absurd in virtue of its lack of a final cause.
Against all of this I hold authentic humanity, a life of sacrifice and heroism, of worship and beauty — a life of purpose. I urge the reader to resist the siren call of a life of comfort and ease, and instead to order their life for the sake of something, preferably something greater than oneself. I urge you to answer — in your actions and in your thoughts — the question “what is the point?”
Joseph Brownsberger is a junior in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .