What the lack of any national purpose is doing to America as a nation is painfully evident to everyone willing to see. It may be less evident, however, what the lack of a meaningful purpose in life is doing to millions of the best men and women of our race as individuals. That is because most of these believe, mistakenly, that they do have purpose in their lives.
What they really have is a plan or program for attaining certain personal goals they have convinced themselves are worthwhile. For example, a young man may have decided in his late teens that his goal in life is to have a career in a profession which will provide him with both stimulating activity and security, with social prestige, perhaps with a certain degree of independence or opportunity for travel, and with enough income to own all those things which are generally believed to be desirable: an expensive, late-model automobile or two; stylish clothes; a nice home in the suburbs or a fashionable condominium in the city; and, eventually, an attractive wife to give him pleasure and companionship and to evoke the admiration and envy of his peers.
In order to achieve these goals he maps out a program: first get into the right college; then earn good enough grades for admission to law school or medical school or graduate school, as the case may be; then open a practice or find employment in congenial surroundings, where he can meet the sort of people who can help him with career advancement; and so on. There are many individual variations on this theme, of course. For some the principle goal may be to secure employment which allows the maximum amount of free time to pursue some cherished hobby, whether it be skiing or beekeeping.
For a woman it may be the wholly admirable goal of bearing and raising four or five beautiful and healthy children, and her program might involve such things as diet-and-exercise regimens or vacations in areas of high bachelor density, in order to improve her chances of finding a desirable father for her anticipated children.
There is nothing inherently wrong with most of these goals. They are the sorts of goals that normal, healthy men and women of our race have always had. And the people who have them today certainly seem to be in better moral and spiritual condition, on the average, than those with no goals at all, who live only for the day. We must also rate them above persons with the vapid, ill-defined goals one expects a teenaged beauty contestant or television game show contender to admit to, such as “helping others,” or “finding true happiness.”
So why are so many of these best of our people, those with normal goals and sensible plans for achieving them, in a state of spiritual distress today? Why has their suicide rate skyrocketed in the last three decades? Why are alcohol and illegal drug abuse taking such a toll on them? Why are the brown-skinned swamis and slant-eyed messiahs who are peddling freaky, Asiatic cults among them doing such a land-office business?
There are two answers to these questions, one fairly obvious and one a bit less so. First, most people’s goals do not exist in a vacuum, but are dependent on the social and economic milieu in which the programs for achieving them are to be carried out. A man whose aim in life is to spend as much time skiing as possible or who lives only to complete his collection of Civil War regimental insignia may not be greatly concerned that the world is falling apart around him, but the perceptive man with a long-term career program and the intelligent woman with serious family plans certainly are. And the more perceptive, intelligent, and sensitive they are, the greater must be their concern.
A personal goal which requires a large investment of effort and self-denial over a period of several years may be perfectly tenable in a stable society, but it becomes much less so in a society with a future as uncertain as ours has today. When people lose confidence in their ability to predict what the future holds for them, anxiety, inner turmoil, and even desperation rise right along with interest rates. These feelings may be repressed, even kept entirely below the level of conscious consideration, but they have their effect nevertheless.
It is not just that carefully made plans must often be changed to meet changing circumstances, or that planning has become more complicated, with every career plan requiring two different contingency plans to go with it; for many people the entire framework within which they have built their plans has begun to crumble, as they are forced to question the feasibility or even the value of the only goals which are meaningful to them.
Learning a craft or art which requires years of practice before it can be mastered certainly seems to be less justifiable in an era when society’s appreciation of excellence -- and even the ability to recognize it -- is in decline, and when both technique and public taste are changing so rapidly that one may very well end up as master of an anachronism, unneeded and unesteemed.
Even more corrosive of enthusiasm and ambition is the individual’s loss of appreciation and esteem for the society in which he is living. Most people with goals in life have more than a purely egoistic motivation for achieving them. A writer, an artist, or a craftsman, may want to become a part of a cultural tradition which he reveres; a man in public life may aspire to being remembered as a contributor to the greatness of the nation; even the most mediocre careerist generally has some respect and affection for his chosen profession, for its immemorial usages and customs, for his more accomplished colleagues -- but much less so today than a generation ago, and undoubtedly even less so in the foreseeable future.
As for the most important profession of all, motherhood, any intelligent young woman must have at least some misgivings today about devoting her whole heart and mind and body to the task of bearing sons and daughters to carry on a family tradition when they reach adulthood and bring pride and honor to their parents. Not only have such nondemocratic concepts as family tradition and family pride fallen into general disfavor, while motherhood itself has lost much of the honor formerly associated with it, but more and more prospective mothers are having qualms about bringing children into a world which seems to have such a bleak future.
Misgivings about what the future holds seem to depend little on reason or ideology, with liberals and conservatives alike sharing them, but more on a generalized pessimism, which in many amounts to a gloomy foreboding, based on an instinctive or intuitive feeling that the world is badly out of kilter. In any event, every recent poll taken shows that the misgivings are very widely spread among the American public and are growing.
And is it is not entirely proper that the pessimism should be rampant and that people should be filled with foreboding and should question their goals in such times as these? Would it not be a sign of a far worse sickness among our fellow citizens if the best of them were wholly oblivious to the ominous trends all around them and were able to pursue conventional goals with false certainty and baseless optimism?
The race still retains a modicum of healthy instinct, and that is good. But it will be much better if some of those who are now questioning their goals will take the next step, which is to become conscious of the fact that, beyond the life of the individual and his personal ambition and goals, there is an all-encompassing Life, and that Life has a purpose, which is its own self-evolution.
That is to say, no individual is complete in himself, but he is a part of a hierarchy of larger entities: his family, his nation, his race, the order Primates, and so on. The largest of these entities is the living universe of matter and spirit, of animate and inanimate Life. And the most fundamental process in the living universe is its evolution from the simple to the complex, from the inanimate to the animate, from the unconscious to the conscious, and from lower to higher levels of existence at each of these stages.
This is the purpose of Life, and it can become the purpose of the life of the individual man or woman who becomes conscious of it and who coordinates his personal goals with it. This fundamental truth has been stated in many different ways by many different men of our race over the years.
In 1913 an Oxford scholar, Allen G. Roper, wrote a prize essay on eugenics, in which he said it about as well as anyone has: “Organic evolution has changed our whole perspective. We see our wills as temporary manifestations of a greater Will: our sense of time and causation has opened out to the infinite, and we are learning to subordinate the individual lot to the destiny of the species.”
The German philosopher of history, Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), hinted at the same truth throughout his writings, though from a different viewpoint than Roper’s. Two of Spengler’s aphorisms illustrate this: “You are caught in the current of unceasing change. Your life is a ripple in it. Every moment of your conscious life links the infinite past with the infinite future. Take part in both and you will not find the present empty...
“This is our task: to make as meaningful as possible this life that has been bestowed upon us, this reality with which fate has surrounded us; to live in such a way that we can be proud of ourselves; to act in such a way that some part of us lives on.”
It is the poets, perhaps, who have sensed, even more surely than the men of science and the philosophers, the purposeful nature of the universe around them and of man’s unity with that universe. The Roman Marcus Annaues Lucanus (39-65 AD), known to history as Lucan, was one of the first of these whose words have survived until our time, but we know that he only expressed what many before him had spoken and written. During his brief life Lucan wrote: “Is not God only the earth and sea and air and sky and virtue? Why further do we seek the deity? Whatever thou dost behold and whatever thou dost touch, that is Jupiter.”
More than 18 centuries later D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930), the English novelist, essayist, and poet, wrote: “We and the cosmos are one. The cosmos is a vast living body, of which we are still parts. The sun is a great heart whose tremors run through our smallest veins. The moon is a great gleaming nerve center from which we quiver forever.”
The same feeling was expressed over and over again by the Romantic poets, of whom William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was one of the most eloquent: “...And I have felt/A presence that disturbs me with the joy/Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime/Of something far more deeply interfused,/Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,/And the round ocean and the living air,/And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:/A motion and a spirit, that impels/All thinking things, all objects of all thought,/And rolls through all things...”
The great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) wrote: “When in the sphere of the Moral, through belief in God, Virtue, and Immortality, we do indeed raise ourselves into a higher sphere where it is granted to us to approach the primordial Essence, so may it be in the sphere of the Intellectual, that through the perception of an ever-creating Nature we make ourselves worthy for a spiritual participation in her productions.”
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), the greatest British playwright since William Shakespeare, spelled out with especial clarity the message that this “participation in her productions” is the only proper role in life for the best men and women.
The only thing which makes life meaningful for those exceptional few who have risen above a purely mechanical, unconscious, and animalistic existence, he pointed out, is the conscious service of the Life Force, as he called it: that all-pervading “primordial Essence,” to use Goethe’s words, that “deeply interfused...motion and spirit” which not only evoked Wordsworth’s poetry and which impels the universe, but which eternally strives toward its own self-realization through the attainment of higher and higher forms of life, higher and higher levels of consciousness.
To Shaw being fully a man meant transcending all those personal goals of happiness, success, and security sought so feverishly by others; it meant, he said in the preface of Man and Superman, being conscious of living and acting as a “force of Nature,” of “being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one”: namely, for the purpose of advancing the race the next step along the path to Superman.
The man who, more than anyone else, devoted his life to the enunciation of this single message was the great German teacher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). In his Ecce Homo he wrote: “My life task is to prepare for humanity a moment of supreme self-consciousness, a Great Noontide when it will gaze both backward and forward, when it will...for the first time pose the question of Why and Wherefore of humanity as a whole.”
Nietzsche taught that man’s consciousness of his role as a part of the Whole, of the Creator, was as yet a rare, incomplete, and uncertain faculty which would become fully developed only in the Superman: “Consciousness is the last and latest development of the organic and consequently also the most unfinished and least powerful of these developments.” (Joyful Wisdom)
Nietzsche’s message was one of evolutionary change, of man’s progress toward full consciousness, and he taught that the whole value and meaning of a man’s life lies in his participation in this progress, in his contribution to it: “Man is a rope, fastened between animal and Superman -- a rope over an abyss... What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal...” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)
A hundred generations, or a thousand, might be required for the crossing of the abyss and the coming of the Great Noontide (assuming that we do not end up at the bottom of the abyss long before that), but the going-across is something which is underway now. It is something in which the partly conscious few, the best men and women of our race, can participate now, can make the purpose of their lives now.
And if this era of uncertainty and disillusionment and pessimism, in which so many are questioning the meaning of their goals in life, sees more of these best of our race finding their way to a real purpose, to the only truly meaningful purpose, then everything is to the good.
It should be repeated, however: purpose in life is only for the few. The best that can be expected of most men and women is that they hold to personal goals which keep them socially responsible by giving them a stake in the future. As the disintegration of the society around them becomes more apparent, an increasing number of them are abandoning long-term goals and seeking immediate rather than deferred gratification -- and this is accelerating the pace of disintegration.
But here and there are those who, jarred loose by today’s chaotic conditions from the conventional pursuit of happiness, will not simply grasp for some quicker and surer gratification, as predictably as a rat in a Skinner box or the average voter in a democracy. They will examine their souls and realize, perhaps with surprise, that for them pain and pleasure are not the ultimate determinants of the value of their lives; that what is of immensely greater importance is meaning; and that the finite life of the individual man or woman can acquire true meaning only when it partakes in the Infinite, only when it becomes a conscious part of the Whole. Then for those growing few purpose supplants purposelessness, and personal goals acquire an absolute significance by being coordinated with the everlasting goals of higher life and higher consciousness.
The young man with career plans still must study diligently and work hard, choosing each step with care. Schooling, job performance, and personal contacts are still just as important. And money, prestige, and other amenities may still be concomitants of career activity beyond a certain stage of achievement. But no longer are these things the goal; they are in themselves a matter of indifference, and are valued only for their utility. The career goal itself has now become the use of the training, influence, resources, and capabilities acquired through the career in the service of Life.
The young woman with family plans still must concern herself with her health and attractiveness, and the search for the right mate becomes even more demanding than before: now she is looking not only for a companion, protector, and provider to become the father of her children, but also, more than anything else, for the bearer of the right genes to be mixed with hers and carried forward into the next generation.
She still has joy in her role as mother and teacher, but it is no longer a role entered into -- as by so many women today -- in order to indulge herself in the “experience of motherhood.” And no longer are children regarded as an interesting new hobby, or as an outlet for frustrated affection, to be petted, pampered, and adored, like precious playthings. They are her contribution to Life, and it is their biological quality and the qualities of character which she is able to reinforce in them through early training, not their emotional relationship with her, which have become supremely important.
The particular way in which a man or woman renders his service to Life must depend, of course, not only on the particular capabilities, inclinations, and circumstances of the individual, but also on the physical and spiritual milieu in which he finds himself. In this era of self-indulgence and egoism some will have the desire to live purposefully, but they will not have the strength to overcome fully a lifetime of bad habits and decadence; their service will necessarily be sporadic. Others may be able to serve steadfastly by themselves, making solitary contributions which advance the purpose for which they live.
More, especially in these times, will find their service -- whether it be physical combat against the agents of decay or participation in an educational effort or the breeding of the next generation -- far more effective as members of a community of consciousness, serving side by side with others who share their purpose.
However they serve, this growing few men and women of purpose, they are blessed with the certainty that, unlike the billions who live and die with no more sense of identity or mission than sheep or cattle, their lives have meaning; that they do not live and dream and struggle and suffer in vain; that their existence counts for something: for it is their consciousness and their purpose which will determine the form and the spirit of the new order which will one day rise on this earth, and it is their descendants who will take the next step within that new order toward the Superman.