We all have an interest in human progress. Whether it be the accumulation of knowledge, removal of disease, increase in prosperity, decline in murder, or a wealth of other worthy aims, we want to see human life get better over time. However, for some people, being ‘part of history’ or devoting oneself to human advancement is the source of their meaning in life. It is the ‘something’ that transcends their own value and grants them purpose for their lives. Without it, they think their life would be pointless.
The view that human progress can provide an ultimate meaning for one’s life goes back at least as far as Hegel. Hegel’s view is complicated. But, as Bryan Magee suggests, one can grasp the idea by thinking about the nature of change. Hegel thought that change was due to conflict. First, a conflict emerges between two ideas or forces. Then, the conflict works its way out. Once the conflict resolves, another situation is created in which new conflicts are present. The process of change is a ‘dialectical’ process. Hegel thought that an ultimate situation could emerge in which there is no conflict and, thus, no change. This situation is called the ‘absolute’. This process is cosmic in scope – the whole world of human thought and life changes in this ongoing evolution of ideas.
So, how do Hegel’s ideas answer our quest for meaning? Well, consider yourself as a temporal creature living in a particular time of change. Hegel thought that if one could discern the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the time, and participate within it, this would give your life meaning. In other words, as change occurs, you can somehow join in. If so, you would be part of ‘making a difference in the world’, furthering the goal of human history toward an ideal human society.
It is a powerful idea. One can sometimes feel like there is a spirit of the age, a new movement of the ideas that will change the world. One can feel like one can have a sense of purpose by being part of the advancement of a new idea.
However, Hegel’s view had some less than utopian outcomes. Those who have historically sought meaning in human progress have discovered that getting on board with progress is more than an individual activity. One must pursue it in a group of people who share your taste for the Zeitgeist. Hegel thought that this was the purpose of the state. Consequently, many perceive the state as the means of realizing the absolute. As Hegel himself wrote, “man owes his entire existence to the state” (Hegel quoted in Magee 1998).
As Magee points out, the search for meaning in human progress advanced through the state led to the twin horrors of the 20th Century. As a consequence of Hegel’s view, state worship became extremely powerful in Europe culminating in the adoption of the ‘right-Hegelian’ view of the state in Naziism and the ‘left-Hegelian’ view in Communism.
For obvious reasons, this kind of theory of meaning in life was deemed a failure in the latter half of the 20th Century. The Nazis were defeated and the Soviet Union collapsed. However, the desire for meaning never goes away.
For a little while some people were content with making meaning from find whatever they chose. Work, family, wealth, and personal achievements of many kinds were substituted for any sort of transcendent entity. One just has to find one’s ‘thing’. But no ‘thing’ was enough to fill the need.
We live in a time of unprecedented wealth, opportunity, and comfort. In other words, a world of ‘things’. Yet, it is hard to miss the discontentment felt by many people. They want something more.
Consequently, human progress has been enjoying a comeback as a source of meaning. People are becoming enamored with moving toward some ideal goal for humanity, a new world in which harmony will be achieved.
Marxist ideas are enjoying a comeback, in part, because they provide hope for a better future:
“No dreaming may stand still, for this bodes no good. But if it becomes a dreaming ahead, then its cause appears quite differently and excitingly alive… and then yearning can show what it really is able to accomplish” (Ernst Bloch, On Karl Marx, 1968, p.31).
However, though it might enjoy a comeback, no one else will. Placing one’s hope for one’s meaning in life in the advancement of one’s ideal state has never supplied anyone with sufficient satisfaction and, as history amply demonstrates, its pursuit usually leads to immense human suffering.
It needn’t be this way. There is another, better source of meaning for life, one that has been around much longer than Hegel. An expression of the this kind view comes from Aquinas who wrote:
“Now here on earth, the simplest elements exist for the sake of compound minerals; these latter exist for the sake of living bodies, among which plants exist of animals, and animals for humans…Now humans naturally desire, as their ultimate purpose, to know the first cause of all things. But the first cause of all things is God. So the ultimate purpose of human beings is to know God” (Aquinas in Velasquez 2005)
Aquinas’ idea is that God is much more significant and more valuable than my life, but God’s purposes for his creation include a purpose for my life. Thus, God gives my life meaning.
Some might say, ‘so what?’ Just because you are part of a plan, it doesn’t follow that you will find any satisfaction in it. An activist who devotes her life to a cause feels like she is part of something great. But how does being a pawn in God’s chess game grant me any satisfaction?
This is a good question. To have meaning in life, one needs not only to have a purpose, but to be satisfied by whatever it is that determines that purpose.
The answer is found in worship. God not only has a purpose for every life, but he grants us the satisfaction of having that purpose when we worship him. For Aquinas, the idea was that knowledge of God serves as the ultimate satisfying experience. Having knowledge of his magnificence draws one into worship, a deeply satisfying experience and the height of human experience.
The most important purpose of our lives is to worship the Lord and in worship we are most satisfied. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it: “Q: What is the chief end of man? A: Man’s chief end is to gloryfy God and enjoy him forever.” For worshipers of the Lord, Jesus desires that we experience an unending joy, the kind of joy he himself experiences in fellowship with the Father and the Holy Spirit (John 15). Thus, finding one’s purpose in Christ is a deeply satisfying purpose, one in which one experiences eternal, unquenchable joy. No mere human advancement can give you that.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Contra Gentiles Bk. III.n.d.
Guiness, Os. Entrepreneurs of Life.Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001.
Magee, Bryan. Story of Philosophy.New York: DK Publishing, 1998.
Velasquez, Manuel. Philosophy.Belmont: Wadsworth, 2005.