- Published: 19 May 2020
- ISBN: 9781846046360
- Imprint: Rider
- Format: Hardback
- Pages: 160
- RRP: $24.99
Yes To Life In Spite of Everything
On the Meaning and Value of Life I
To speak about the meaning and value of life may seem more necessary today (1946) than ever; the question is only whether and how this is ‘possible’. In some respects it is easier today: we can now speak freely again about so many things – things that are inherently connected with the problem of the meaningfulness of human existence and its value, and with human dignity. However, in other respects, it has become more difficult to speak of meaning, value and dignity. We must ask ourselves: can we still use these words so easily today? Has not the very meaning of these words somehow been called into question? Have we not seen, in recent years, too much negative propaganda railing against everything they mean, or once meant?
The propaganda of these last years was practically a propaganda against any kind of meaning and against the value of existence itself, which had been called into question! In fact, these years have sought to demonstrate the worthlessness of human life.
Since Kant, European thought has succeeded in making clear statements about the true dignity of human beings: Kant himself, in the second formulation of his categorical imperative, said that everything has its value, but man has his dignity – a human being should never become a means to an end. But already in the economic system of the last few decades, most working people had been turned into mere means, degraded to become mere tools for economic life. It was no longer work that was the means to an end, a means for life or indeed a food for life – rather it was a man and his life, his vital energy, his ‘man-power’, that became this means to an end.
And then came the war – the war in which the man and his life were now even made a means for death. And then there were the concentration camps. In the camps, even the life that was considered worthy only of death was fully exploited to its absolute limit. What a devaluation of life, what a debasement and degradation of humankind! Let us try to imagine – so that we can make a judgement – that a state intends somehow to make use of all the people it has condemned to death, to exploit their capacity for labour right up to the very last moment of their lives – perhaps considering that this would be more sensible than simply killing such people immediately, or even feeding them for the rest of their lives. And were we not told often enough in the concentration camps that we were ‘not worth the soup’, this soup that was doled out to us as the sole meal of the day, and the price of which we had to pay with the toil of digging through the earth? We unworthy wretches even had to accept this undeserved gift of grace in the required manner: as the soup was handed to him, each prisoner had to doff his cap. So, just as our lives were not worth a bowl of soup, our deaths were also of minimal value, not even worth a lead bullet, just some Zyklon B.i
Finally, it came to the mass murders in mental institutions. Here, it became obvious that any person whose life was no longer ‘productive’, even if only in the most wretched manner, was literally declared to be ‘unworthy of life’.
But, as we said earlier, even ‘Non-Sense’ was propagated at that time. What do we mean by this?
Today, our attitude to life hardly has any room for belief in meaning. We are living in a typical post-war period. Although I am using a somewhat journalistic phrase here, the state of mind and the spiritual condition of the average person today are most accurately described as ‘spiritually bombed out’. This alone would be bad enough, but it is made even worse by the fact that we are overwhelmingly dominated, at the same time, by the feeling that we are yet again living in a kind of pre-war period. The invention of the atomic bomb is feeding the fear of a catastrophe on a global scale, and a kind of apocalyptic ‘end-of-the-world’ mood has taken hold of the last part of the second millennium. We already know such apocalyptic moods from history. They existed at the beginning of the first millennium and at its end. And, famously, in the last century there was a fin-de-siècle feeling, and this was not the only one that was defeatist; at the root of all these moods lies fatalism.
However, we cannot move towards any spiritual reconstruction with a sense of fatalism such as this. We first have to overcome it. But in doing so we ought to take into account that today we cannot, with blithe optimism, just consign to history everything these last years have brought with them. We have become pessimistic. We no longer believe in progress in itself, in the higher evolution of humanity as something that could succeed automatically. The blind belief in automatic progress became a matter only for the self-satisfied stuffed shirts – today such a belief would be reactionary. Today, we know what human beings are capable of. And if there is a fundamental difference between the way people perceived the world around them in the past and the way they perceive it at present, then it is perhaps best identified as follows: in the past, activism was coupled with optimism, while today activism requires pessimism. Because today every impulse for action is generated by the knowledge that there is no form of progress on which we can trustingly rely. If today we cannot sit idly by, it is precisely because each and every one of us determines exactly what ‘progresses’ and how far. In this, we are aware that inner progress is only actually possible for each individual, while mass progress at most consists of technical progress, which only impresses us because we live in a technical age. Our actions can now only arise from our pessimism; we are still only able to seize the opportunities in life from a standpoint of scepticism, while the old optimism would just lull us into complacency and induce fatalism, albeit a rosy fatalism. Give me a sober activism anytime, rather than that rose-tinted fatalism!
How steadfast would a person’s belief in the meaningfulness of life have to be, so as not to be shattered by such scepticism. How unconditionally do we have to believe in the meaning and value of human existence, if this belief is able to accept and bear this scepticism and pessimism. And just at a time when all idealism has been so disappointed, and all enthusiasm so abused; but when we cannot do other than appeal to idealism or enthusiasm. But the present generation, the youth of today – and it is in the younger generation that we would most likely find idealism and enthusiasm – no longer has any role models. Too many upheavals had to be witnessed by this one generation, too many external – and in their consequences, internal – breakdowns; far too many for a single generation for us to count on them so unquestioningly to maintain their idealism and enthusiasm.
All the programmes, all the slogans and principles have been utterly discredited as a result of these last few years. Nothing was able to survive, so it should not be a surprise if contemporary philosophy perceives the world as though it has no substance. But through this nihilism, through the pessimism and scepticism, through the soberness of ‘new objectivity’ that is no longer that ‘new’ but has now grown old, we must strive towards a new humanity. The past few years have certainly disenchanted us, but they have also shown us that what is human is still valid; they have taught us that it is all a question of the individual human being. After all, in the end, what was left was the human being! Because it was the human being that survived amidst all the filth of the recent past. And equally it was the human being that was left in the experiences of the concentration camps. (There was an example of this somewhere in Bavaria in which the camp commander, an SS man, secretly spent money from his own pocket to regularly buy medicines for ‘his’ prisoners from the pharmacy in the nearby Bavarian market town; while in the same camp, the camp elder himself a prisoner, mistreated the camp inmates in the most appalling way: it all came down to the individual human being!)
What remained was the individual person, the human being – and nothing else. Everything had fallen away from him during those years: money, power, fame; nothing was certain for him anymore: not life, not health, not happiness; all had been called into question for him: vanity, ambition, relationships. Everything was reduced to bare existence. Burnt through with pain, everything that was not essential was melted down – the human being reduced to what he was in the last analysis: either a member of the masses, therefore no one real, so really no one – the anonymous one, a nameless thing (!), that ‘he’ had now become, just a prisoner number; or else he melted right down to his essential self. So in the end, wasn’t there still something like a decision to be made? We should not be surprised, because ‘existence’ – to the nakedness and rawness of which the human being was returned – is nothing other than: a decision.
However, help was at hand for the human being in making this decision; the critical factor was the existence of others, the being of others, specifically their being role models. This bore more fruit than any talk or writing. Because existence is always more decisive than the word. And it was necessary, and will always remain so, to ask oneself whether this fact is not far more important than writing books or giving lectures: that each of us actualises the content in our own act of being. That which is actualised is also much more effective. Words alone are not enough. I was once called upon to attend a woman who had committed suicide. On the wall above her couch, neatly framed, hung a saying: ‘Even more powerful than fate is the courage that bears it steadfastly’. And this fellow human being had taken her own life right under this motto. Certainly, those exemplary people who can and ought to be effective simply by being, are in the minority. Our pessimism knows this; but that is precisely why the concurrent activism matters, that is precisely what constitutes the tremendous responsibility of the few. An ancient myth tells us that the existence of the world is based on 36 truly just people being present in it at all times. Only 36! An infinitesimal minority. And yet they guarantee the continuing moral existence of the whole world. But this story continues: as soon as one of these just individuals is recognised as such and is, so to speak, unmasked by his surroundings, by his fellow human beings, he disappears, he is ‘withdrawn’, and then dies instantly. What is meant by that? We will not be far off the mark if we express it like this: as soon as we notice any pedagogical tendency in a role model, we become resentful; we human beings do not like to be lectured to like children.
What does all this prove? What has come through to us from the past? Two things: everything depends on the individual human being, regardless of how small a number of like-minded people there are, and everything depends on each person, through action and not mere words, creatively making the meaning of life a reality in his or her own being. Therefore, we must counter the negative propaganda of recent times, the propaganda of ‘Non-Sense’, of ‘Non-Meaning’, with another propaganda that must be firstly individual and secondly active. Only then can it be positive.
So much for our initial question as to whether, and in what sense, and in what spirit, one is still able today to be an advocate for meaning and value in life. But as soon as we speak of the meaning of existence, at that moment it is somehow called into question. Once we ask about it explicitly, it has somehow already been doubted. Doubt about the meaningfulness of human existence can easily lead to despair. We then encounter this despair as the decision to commit suicide.
When we are talking about suicide, we must distinguish between four essential, but essentially different, reasons from which the inner will to commit suicide arises. Firstly, suicide can be a consequence – a consequence not of a primarily mental, but of a physical, bodily state. This group includes those cases in which someone experiencing a physically determined change of mental state tries to kill himself almost as if compelled to do so. Naturally, such cases are excluded at the outset from those considered in today’s lecture. Then there are people whose determination to commit suicide feeds on a calculation of its effect on their surroundings: people who want to take revenge on someone for something that has been done to them, and who want their urge for revenge to result in the others in question being weighed down by a guilty conscience for the rest of their lives: they must be made to feel guilty for the suicide’s death. These cases must also be eliminated when we consider the meaning of life. Thirdly, there are people whose desire to commit suicide comes from the fact that they simply feel tired, tired of life. But this tiredness is a feeling – and we all know that feelings are not reasons. That someone is weary, feels exhausted, is in itself not a reason for them to stop in their tracks. Rather, everything depends on whether carrying on does actually have meaning, whether that makes it worth overcoming the tiredness. What is needed here is simply an answer to the question of the meaning of life, of continuing to live despite persistent world-weariness. As such, this is not a counter-argument to living on; this continuing to live, however, will only be possible in the knowledge of life’s unconditional meaning.
But in truth, a fourth group of people belong here, those who seek to commit suicide because they just cannot believe in the meaning of living on, in the meaning of life itself. A suicide with that kind of motivation is commonly called a ‘balance-sheet suicide’. In each case it results from a so-called negative life balance. Such a person creates a ‘balance sheet’ and compares what they have (credit) with what they feel they ought to have (debit); they weigh up what life still owes them against what profit they believe they can still derive from life, and the negative balance that they then calculate induces them to commit suicide. We will now set about inspecting this balance sheet.
i Zyklon B (originally a pesticide) was the brand name of the highly poisonous gas, based on hydrogen cyanide, used by the Nazis for mass murder at Auschwitz and other death camps.
‘For young people who have never been through any of those things, or lived in a time when they were happening, this seems just frightful . . .
I heard them long before I saw them, the throaty rumble of their Second World War engines reverberating in my hearing aids as I sat outside on the morning of my 100th birthday.
‘I’ll tell you one thing,’ says Mum, distracting me as she scoops up the last of the chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream. ‘I don’t know much about positive ageing, but I’m positive I am ageing.’
In the early weeks after Dave died, I was shocked when I’d see friends who did not ask how I was doing.
Tommy Guptill had once owned a dairy farm, which he inherited from his father, and which was about two miles from the town of Amgash, Illinois.
In the spring of 1944, I was sixteen, living with my parents and two older sisters in Kassa, Hungary.
The oldest suicide note was written in ancient Egypt about four thousand years ago.
My mother has the tenacity of a bulldog, looks like June Cleaver, and curses like a truck driver.
If little girls are made of sugar and spice and all things nice, then adult women are basically pavlova. Early in womanhood we are taught to please others, whether that is our parents or our teachers or our peers.