Means and Meaning

Aristotle begins his book on ethics with the statement that "Every action and choice, seems to aim at some good; the good, therefore, has been well defined as that at which all things aim." The efforts at defining 'the good' is then worked out in terms of teleological reasoning. The 'Telos' is a Greek word which means the 'end' the 'purpose' or the 'goal'. He points out that many things that are pursued as ends are themselves only means to greater good such as happiness or fulfillment. Aristotle would go on to argue that happiness is the good at which humans life aims. Happiness is defined in such a way as to include virtue. Happiness is the end to which 'every action and choice seems to aim'. Others throughout time would give different answers to the question of what motivated human activity. Freud said we are motivated by unconscious instinctual drives like the libido. Shopenhauer wrote about mans Wille zum Leben or 'will to live' which Nietzche would develop further into his 'will to power.'

Be it power, life, happiness or instinctual drives for food, sex,or whatever, we must take seriously Aristotle's point that many of our ends are actually means to another end.. I think the psychologist Viktor Frankl has done much good work in this regard. Frankl would argue that mans basic experience informs his basic driving force or motivation. Mans existential condition is one in which man experiences isolation and yet longs for unity and connection with others. Man is free and therefore responsible. Man is conscious of death and dreads it. Man also struggles with the perceived meaninglessness of everything. Some of these realities would inform Freud's idea of the death drive that also existed alongside mans life drives like libido. Frankl starts with mans existential situation and then argues that the core drive of human action is meaning. Using Shopenhauer and Nietzche's form he would use the phrase 'Will to meaning' to express this drive. Frankl also, like Aristotle, said that we ofter confuse means and meanings. Shelter, health, or food are not ends in themselves but means to something beyond them. Food does not have the sufficient meaning to ward off our despair of meaninglessness. Food does help one overcome hunger and so better focus on and peruse meaning in life though. Frankl uses a Snoopy comic to illustrate how we sometimes confuse means and meanings.

The comic strip begins with Snoppy Lying on his back moaning about suffering from overwhelming feelings of meaninglessness and emptiness. Charlie Brown steps out of the next fram and then returns in a subsequent frame with a bowl of dog food to which Snoopy jumps up and exclaims "Ah! Meaning!!!"

The mistake is more common than we would care to admit and fuels much of our cultures addictions and compulsions. We eat, take drugs, strive to be fashionable, have twitter followers, be clever, all in a frantic effort to overcome that gnawing reality that is our isolation in a potentially meaningless existence.

Frankl formulated a math equation S-M=D. Suffering minus meaning equals despair. He said that in his time in the concentration camps men were not free to determine the conditions in which they lived but they were free to determine what posture they would have in those conditions. Some men would deteriorate into men who stole, lied, became suicidal and others became heroic and saintly in those same conditions. He argued that their ability to find meaning in their suffering turned it into an opportunity for triumph while meaninglessness always ends in despair.

Meaning is, for Frankl, the ultimate goal to which mankind strives. He named his entire method of psychotherapy Logotherapy which for him was the application of meaning to a patients existential longings. One thing that I heard him say in an interview, and which has been a great point of reflection is for me, has been:
A deep truth that is uncertain and threatened by doubts, can possess much more cognitive value than a certain, even an absolutly certain banal truth.
While many would take a sceptical position in regards to truth for the sake of security by receiving only what is obvious or verifiable, it is the insecure truths such as moral or religious truth that have the deepest impact on mans ability to find meaning. It is the truth that takes courage to walk out in which we find significance. Paul Tillich would echo a similar sentiment in his theological writings. He said that theology was only relevant in as much as it is spoken to the existential questions of man. That meaning was faith, which Tillich would describe as being grasped by 'ultimate concern.'

Just as I was wondering how to end this post I heard a missionary from another ministry in our offices on a phone call say:
I am not after happiness because happiness is fleeting. I am pursuing joy which is deeply rooted in the heart. Joy transcends conditions. Joy is something that can be with you in poverty, hunger, or any situation people find themselves in.
Thought that was a timely thing to overhear. Thanks Carissa Caricato with


  1. I was actually just pondering and thinking about the idea of "meaning and meaninglessness" for a few days now. I am glad I came across your gives me some understanding and motivation to continue in my understanding!


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