I sometimes wonder as I sit in my university room, what the purpose of life is, it’s a recurrent conversation I have with myself that goes something along the lines of: Why am I here? There must be something more to life than simply getting a degree? Why have I signed myself up to toil and privation, only to endure this further once I finish? A little dramatic I know, but occasionally I contemplate the possibility of running away, joining a cult and living in a funky caravan. I would like to think that I have the guts to break free from the restraints of society, but the reality of the situation is that I am just as attached to the materialistic prospects of university as much as my fellow students. Let’s be honest; if one were truly taking up a study for the intrinsic value of the intellectual endeavour itself, then one would surely not be part of an institution that corrupts and manipulates the purity of the pursuit? (MacIntyre’s chapter on Virtue Ethics may be needed here to clarify this opinion of mine- but the basic idea, as far as I am able to comprehend it, is that an institution can lead to a corruption of a practice due to it’s competiveness and desire to actualise results- and so true do I hold this to be the case with many ‘mainstream’ western education systems) Therefore, when I contemplate how independent and consumeristic society has become, it makes me wonder whether anything we do, be it a job or undertaking studies, has any more value than in its end in materialistic gain.
So yes, I often find myself asking, what is the purpose of life, if it is not about nourishing the connection we make with one another, and engaging in the experiences, and the memories we create. I had my second driving lesson today, and I’ll admit, I’m not the best driver. I’ve had lessons before when I lived in London, but I’ve found the first few lessons in Scotland equally distasteful. I realised, it’s not so much the fact that I disliked both my instructors, so much as I loath the process of actually learning to drive. Coupled with this, my desire to build a connection with my driving instructor (I have always been one of those annoying people who has always felt the necessity to prove to a teacher or ‘superior’ being that I am worthy of their commendation), whilst adding to my apprehension, made me realise that life is about people. They affect the way we act, and influence how we perceive not only the world and others, but perhaps most significantly of all how we see ourselves.
When I find myself questioning what the purpose of university is, it seems to me the only rational way in which I am able to justify spending an extortionate amount of money, and to reject the idea that we are all just living a mechanistic life (following what society decrees to be important), is that in expanding our knowledge we expand our horizons- we open our minds to the unusual and we bring something more to our interactions with other people- It’s at least what I say to stop myself from becoming depressed by the thought that this intellectual endeavour is just for materialistic gain-because ultimately materialistic ‘things’ are not permanent things.
A permanent thing which has stuck with me however is a scene from The History Boys between Hector and Posner. At the time I was studying this play in Sixth form, I do not think I truly appreciated the significance of this scene, or realised how relevant it would become for me now. That’s precisely what Hector tries to convey when he says “learn it now, know it now and you will understand it…whenever.” It’s only now that I’ve come to ‘understand’ Hector’s demonstration of exactly what humanity is, or at the very least, what it should be, as he articulates:
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something- a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things- that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
I believe I’ve only felt like this once or twice in my life- when reading The Song of Achilles andAugustus by John Williams (I exclude here my reading of The End of the Affair by Greene, only because I have not yet finished the entirety of the book. Nonetheless my favourite line from the novel has to be: “Is it possible to fall in love over a dish of onions? It seems improbable yet I could swear it was just then that I fell in love”- yes, I did fall in love with my best friend at university over our mutual passion for onion based dishes, so these lines holds quite some significance for me.) I guess this may be one justification for the reason why I have been propelled to study Latin? When I study classical texts I sometimes get a flicker of that unblemished connection with the author- it’s always a brief moment and I know sooner than it’s begun that it will be irrevocably lost until the next time, but even now I’m left in awe and reverence at just thinking how human and real those dead authors are for me- how much alike we all are in our experience, perhaps with time alone being the only divergent factor. Fundamentally we are all desperate to rekindle this feeling of unity with something bigger than oneself as a means, I think, to eliminate our inexorable loneliness as humans.
I say “loneliness” with caution however, because I believe as humans, we do pity ourselves excessively and constrain ourselves to believe that no one can truly understand our emotions and ‘what we’re going through’. Heartbreak is one of the most extraordinary human emotions that demonstrates exactly this. We read about it all the time: by the Romantic poets, Keats, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, even as far as the Classical poets Sappho, Ovid, Catullus- the feeling and sentiment is depicted the same by all these poets, and yet we believe that we suffer it in isolation:
Dicebas quondam solum te nosse Catullum,
Lesbia, nec prae me velle tenere Iovem.
dilexi tum te non tantum ut vulgus amicam,
sed pater ut gnatos diligit et generos.
nunc te cognovi: quare etsi impensius uror,
multo mi tamen es vilior et levior.
qui potis est, inquis? quod amantem iniuria talis
cogit amare magis, sed bene velle minus.
(In my own rough translation)
You said once that you only knew Catullus,
Lesbia, and did not want to embrace Jupiter before me,
I valued you then not only as a common girlfriend,
but as a father values his children and his sons-in-law
Now I know you: therefore although I burn more fiercely
Nevertheless, you are much more worthless to me and slighter,
How is it possible, you ask? Because the pain of such love
compels the lover to love more, but to like less.
(I would definitely recommend reading Catullus- even in translation his work is amazing)
A friend and I recently started a written communication via letters (there seems to be something pure and unadulterated in not having to depend on the internet for correspondence) I, mainly because I should like to bury it somewhere before I die and let another human being in the future rediscover my thoughts and words- I guess it’s just another way to try and connect with another human being (and live beyond the grave one could say.)
Eventually, life just becomes one long conversation, with oneself, with others- dead and living. And for me personally, making that conversation as interesting as possible ought to be purpose enough.