What is best in life, Sonya? I'll tell you. The ancient Greeks had it right with Arete:
In the Homeric poems, Arete is frequently associated with bravery, but more often with effectiveness. The person of Arete is of the highest effectiveness; they use all their faculties — strength, bravery, and wit — to achieve real results. In the Homeric world, then, Arete involves all of the abilities and potentialities available to humans.
In other words, excellence in action. Excellence is excellent, after all! (Hat tip to my friend Travis for Arete specifically.) While I refuse to learn philosophy, I've been told that this is a type of "virtue ethics." I consider my preference for Arete to be pragmatism: reality is the litmus test, which is fitting since reality is the litmus test.
What else is best in life?
I am an extremely passionate person and have a very intense and profound experience of life. I was quite physically strong and capable. I do not think the life of the mind is complete — adventure was essential to my happiness. Nutrition and physical activity seem to me necessary underpinnings of full life. Efficiency is extremely important to me and I took a great deal of pride in the facility with which I was able to manage my life on an everyday basis. My goal was to make myself the most complete, beautiful, inspiring, wonderful human being possible. I paid constant attention to the task and it often felt like a very solitary one. I wanted my experience of life to be broad, expansive, profound, and full of triumph. [...] Lofty words and tales of great deeds fire my spirit. I fantasize about great power and influence. I want to be splendid and magnificent. I want to run and jump and fight and laugh and live the most free-spirited, joyous life imaginable. To go all over the world, to the most obscure jungles and landscapes, to work in great cities, to go this way and that. I want to make my person and my life into absolute wonders, spectacular and breathtaking works of art.
— Clayton Atreus, 2008 (see also)
That. That right there: the chance and challenge to express your will, to enact it on the world. The freedom and drive to forge a self that matters — to others, but also intrinsically. A self that self-justifies.
I love because I love without expectation of results or even meaning. I spend time with the people I enjoy having in my world and when they move on, they move on. I act the way I would be proud to act, not to set an example or because I should, but because it pleases me. I like strong people; I will be strong. I like skillful people; I will develop skill. I like people who take care of others; I will protect and defend and if I die doing the job, cool — because I am going to die anyway and nothing will ever have mattered.
— Meditations on Violence by Rory Miller
He got the last part wrong. Everything matters, because we feel everything, and thus it matters to us. All of it does — everything that we can know intrigues and excites us, even the endeavor of knowing in the first place. Our ability to imagine, to conceptualize, blows open the possibility space such that we can even explore the impossible.
So, what is the meaning of life, the purpose of all this interminable hustle and bustle? It's a cop-out to say there isn't one; that elides the very nature of meaning. "In fact, cynicism is too naive," as James Simpkin put it. "It desires a completely faultless ethical world, it can't cope with the compromises of the actual world while nevertheless working towards the good." If nihilism is true, why do you care so fucking much, huh?
I believe that the ultimate answer is God, and equally God is the ultimate answer. (Tautology is a tragically underutilized source of wisdom!) But for now I'll lay it out in secular terms.
"The purpose of a system is what it does," Stafford Beer said. "This is a basic dictum. It stands for a bald fact, which makes a better starting point in seeking understanding than the familiar attributions of good intentions, prejudices about expectations, moral judgements, or sheer ignorance of circumstances."
According to Beer's principle, the telos of all creation — the totality of happenings and phenomena, including "life" — is quite straightforward. It's simply staying in the game until knockout. After knockout? Well, you're out of the game, dissolved back into the rest of existence. None of us have experienced that yet.
The purpose of a system is what it does ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The builders' self-conception is one of finitude and limitation. The builder is constantly experiencing the resistance of the real and presence of the gaze. Every wall and tower is meant to stand but is also understood in its being as a tenuous thing. Unlike the swarm, it constitutes a thing in space and time. The appreciation of ruins is the appreciation of the nature of these constructions. The builders struggle to make a society which can provide safety. But they understand that this is possible only insofar as it is allowed by God. Eventually all things are destined to pass out of this abode.
Our labor is the same as it ever was. Your job is to pioneer a resilient node in the network of civilization — to dodge the punches, roll with the ones that you can't, and live to fight another day. That's what our ancestors did for us and it's what we'll do for those who come next: hold the line, explore when there's surplus, stay steady, and go down swinging when we have to.
The straightforward answer to "what does it all matter!" is that empirically, we do matter to each other. If your model indicates that this is insufficient, adjust your model. Because, look, it's what we've got and here we are, mattering as hard as we can. Who you gonna believe, your eyes or your own lying mind?
The point of life is that it continues, in perfect indifference to any sentiment that it ought to have some other justification.
Header image: Scene from "Thanatopsis" by Asher Brown Durand, 1850.