Is There a Point to Life?

Medievalists once had a lively debate: Were the so-called “Christian centuries” actually Christian?

It’s a reasonable question.  Consider that the priest performed most of the Mass with his back to the congregation, and all of it in Latin.  The Bible was in Latin too, of course, and the peasantry couldn’t read anyway.  Lots of instruction manuals for parish priests still survive, but the information in them is pretty thin — the Ten Commandments, plus basic ritual obligations.  Forget the finer points of theology; these barely covered the grosser points, so much so that one of the get-you-burned-at-the-stake controversies of the early Reformation was “utraquism” — whether anyone but the priest should get both bread and wine at communion (from Latin “utraque,” also).

If something like that wasn’t settled to everyone’s satisfaction 1500 years on, it’s not unreasonable to assume that your average peasant hadn’t the foggiest idea of the religion that supposedly governed his life.

It’s also not unreasonable to assume that your average peasant was too busy trying not to starve to death to worry much about theology.  “The 99%” was a real thing back in the Middle Ages.  Life was nasty, poor, brutish, and short — nobody had the leisure time to even learn to read, much less to read erudite treatises on the filioque.  Only people with full bellies and time on their hands could bother with this kind of stuff, which is why the Inquisition was so recondite, and so vicious — when you’re one of only a few thousand people in the know in the whole realm, doctrinal purity is all you’ve got.

Modern life flips that on its head.  I promise you, no medieval peasant ever lost a minute’s sleep asking himself what’s the meaning of life — when you’re locked in a desperate struggle for existence, day in and day out, the point of it all is pretty self-evident.  Nowadays, you can get well into middle age before encountering death, and very few of us, I’d imagine, have actually seen someone die.  Dying, in modern America, is a drawn-out, ritualized, abstract event, not a regularly-experienced part of life.  We all know theoretically that we can get cancer, or die in a car crash, or get struck by lightning, but there’s no immediacy to it.  Back in the days, death was all around, all the time.  I’d bet good money that the average medieval peasant saw more death, even violent death, than the average American soldier, even in wartime.

We moderns, when faced with the question of life’s purpose — as anyone of sufficient IQ will be — have no answer that makes gut-level sense.  In a world where death is a constant companion, where life’s fragility is daily hammered home, “live each day as if it were your last” is an expression of transcendental meaning.  For us it’s a Hallmark card slogan.  We need something, anything, to make us feel that any given day might, in fact, actually be our last.  The medical term for this is hormesis — growth in response to non-lethal stress.  We’re designed to optimize it — can’t live without it, in fact, which is why prosperity is lethal.

Hence, radical politics.  Everyone who has studied Marxism, especially its modern oxides like “intersectionality,” knows that despite its formidable technical apparatus, it’s all just ooga-booga stuff.  Marxism’s appeal is, and always has been, purely emotional.  “Hate the man who is better off than you are” is the truest explication of Marx’s gospel, and since nothing stirs the blood like hate does, hating the man who is better off than you are — and who isn’t, at least in some sense, if you think about it long enough — is easily mistaken for hormesis.  The point of life is to create Utopia; the fact that Utopia (“no place” in Greek) doesn’t exist and can never exist is a feature, not a bug.

The problem, of course, is that you can never admit Utopia is impossible… which necessarily entails blaming some Other for Utopia’s failure to exist.  That’s the richest part of the Marxist lexicon: The Enemies List.  Wreckers, capitalist-roaders, right-deviationists, left-deviationists, kulaks, Trotsky, Lin Biao, Emmanuel Goldstein… Marxists have fantastic imaginations, and never more than when finding someone or something to blame.  At one point, Mao himself blamed sparrows for sabotaging the Great Leap Forward.

Alas, that’s the problem with Others.  What happens when you wipe them all out?  Every Jew, every kulak, every capitalist, every sparrow, every CisHetPat white male… it’s now well within our technical capacity to do exactly that, and our modern CultMarxists surely know it.  You can eliminate all your enemies; you’ll never kill off the need for An Enemy.

I suggest lobotomies.  Maybe we can get Obamacare to cover them?  Give it a snappy euphemism — call it a “Wokeness augmentation” or a “residual Privilege adjustment” or something — and maybe we can get them all signed up.  It’s a lot less bloody than letting them find out The Meaning of Life the hard way….


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9 thoughts on “Is There a Point to Life?

  1. MBlanc

    1. Those who could get into a church of any size could see biblical stories and episodes in stone and paint all over the place. I suppose it’s unlikely that your typical farm worker ever got into a cathedral, but many townsmen without Latin could acquire the Passion story or that of the martyrdom of St Sebastian, for example. I don’t imagine that they thought deeply about theology or philosophy, but they knew something about God, the Father, the life of Jesus, and the lives of the saints and martyrs.

    2. Perhaps it’s too much analytical philosophy, but I’m a bit of a loss to see why anyone would think to ask what the meaning of life is. Signs have meaning. Life isn’t a sign.

  2. Rod1963

    I have one quibble and that prosperity is lethal, it’s a lack of meaning and hope that is. Take those away from people and they die. And if you have them you can go through hell like Viktor Frankl and live. I look at my mother(now deceased), she saw her father beaten and executed by the Nazis at the age of 13, she then endured 4 years of hell as a slave. By the time Americans arrived, she was skin and bones. They had to put her on a Cod Liver oil diet because she couldn’t handle real food. She stayed alive and sane because of her faith in God(not the Church which had abandoned people like her) and having a sense of humor.

    Point is if this emotional and mental resilience isn’t there, a person can lose the will to live.

    What that link of yours sort of skirts that the opioid epidemic is hammering the white blue collar and middle-class especially hard in the Mid-West. And it’s not hard to understand why because they were hit hardest by free trade/globalization since NAFTA was signed in the early 90’s. It created the ‘Ruist Belt’, devastated entire communities and even cities. These people have nothing, they saw their families, towns and futures die right in front of them. That set the stage for what was to come. Trump’s so called economic miracle did nothing for them.

    But it gets better, factor in direct targeting by Purdue Pharmaceutical pumping massive quantities of Qxy into these regions, far more than what is normally distributed. Lets not forget China’s role in this being the principal producer of Fentanyl for the Mexican cartels. BTW you can order small amounts directly from China including designer opiates like Pink that aren’t covered by the DEA.

    And Congress has done nothing but restrain the DEA in going after Perdue and their pill mills.

    If I were a cynical SOB, I’d think the government and corporations have decided to kill us off with drugs and consumerism. And it’s working.

    1. Al from da Nort

      Actually, the exodus of well paying industrial jobs from the upper Mid-West began in earnest in the early ’80s driven by decisions and events starting in the early ’70s. Those events included a corrupt bargain by our elites that gave Japan + Germany and then Korea & Taiwan pretty much unfettered access to the the US market in exchange for support during the Cold War. Vietnam had left a bad taste for large military spending plus it put the Commies in power in DC during the Carter years. If we wanted Asia to do more to defend themselves they were going to have to be able to make the money to afford it, was the so-called ‘reasoning’.

      This put large, complacent US firms in a bind, particularly if they had the misfortune to have the UAW, etc., in their plants. These firms had had their capital stock made completely state-of-the-art for them by 1945, courtesy of the US taxpayer and WWII. They had been coasting on this for years. But now that they had real competition they were going to have to invest in machinery and process engineering to become more productive with higher quality. And if there’s one thing the UAW, etc. ain’t about, it’s productivity. Productivity means fewer labor hours per unit, after all.

      But for intransigent unions these firms might have done the investing in the upper Mid-West in buildings they already owned, etc. But those who tried it had union obstruction and featherbedding every step of they way. So, they found that they were better off on net starting over with an untrained, non-union workforce in new factories in the South. The recession of ’82 was the real starting point, as I recall.

      At the end of the Cold War, our elite *could* have reverted to a more America 1st trade policy, since the rationale for giving allies largely unfettered access to our markets in exchange for defending themselves (and us to a degree) was now gone.

      Instead, lead by the now sainted GHW Bush, they decided that the way to maintain their perc’s and priviledges was to go globalist. And why have icky heavy industry in your beautiful blue state once the war’s over. So I’d say that NAFTA was as much a consequence of the elite-driven trend towards de-industrialization of the upper Mid-West as a cause of it.

      1. Severian

        There it is. That’s one of the things hovering in the background of today’s post — we’d be perfectly ok with Communism if The Party were able to deliver iCrap, high-speed internet, and 594 channels of sportsball. Those things are feasible now, and so we let The Party — in the form of Soros, Zuckerberg, et al — run our lives for us.

        If I were time-warped back to 1950 and put in charge of fighting the Cold War, I’d fucking surrender. There’s really no point. Terminally bored upper-class twits like GHW Bush fought their taedium vitae by fighting the Cold War, but they’d have been equally happy as kommissars, ferreting out deviationists. The People only hated The Party because it promised America, but delivered Soviet Russia. The People now have America, so they’re perfectly ok with Soviet Russia. “Capitalism” really does contradict itself, just like Marx said, but instead of selling the capitalists the rope by which they shall be hanged, capitalism sells the workers the chains by which they will enslave themselves.

        Hell, I’d go further. I’d take one of those designer Chinese opiates, call it a “mood enhancer,” and sell it in every gas station in America. The People seem to want it, plus it’ll prevent war — not even the Bill Kristols of the world are stupid and fanatical enough to try “regime change” in China when the only troops available are gorked-out soybois. Post-industrial society is Postmodern society is Post-Human society…. we might as well get cracking on that now.

  3. Pickle Rick

    I’d take another look at the medieval period. Most of the high church theologies were just that, but consider this- instead of passively filing into a church to be harangued, Protestant style, and filing out to their individual, atomized lives, the medieval Western Christian’s faith was a integral part of their lives outside the church door, including work, time, festivals, sacraments, as a community. Time was reckoned by saint’s days, oaths taken on holy relics, pilgrimage, and yes, taking the Cross to Outremer, sword in hand. Christendom was a reality that we can only muster a vague memory of today. Obviously, you can tell the side of the debate I’m on.
    Medievalists are a fertile field for Marxist ideological history- so much of the common wisdom is colored by their contemptuous attitude towards this era, and their desperate attempt to demonize it as “nasty, brutish and short” – in contrast to their oh so enlightened Socialist utopia. Beware the tropes!

    1. Severian Post author

      I am not a medievalist. I have no dog in the fight. I framed it this way a) mostly because it’s a good hook on which to hang a column, but also b) because whatever else the “the Middle Ages weren’t really Christian” argument is, it’s an illustration that historians used to use empathy as well as evidence — that thing the Dead White Males, back in the Bad Old Days, used to call “the historical imagination.” It wasn’t always right –led to a lot of silliness, in fact — but it was once assumed that, human nature being basically unchanging , we really could get in the heads of people long ago and far away.

      Nowadays, of course, the whole profession, K-thru-PhD, is just a Social Justice Mad Lib: “[Group] was oppressed by [culture], which is yet another technology of power by which the Pale Penis People ruined everything.” Fill out with a bunch of 50 cent words, and there’s your dissertation. You can probably just use the PoMo Essay Generator.

  4. Pickle Rick

    Ah, but it creates the modern circle of futility- In order to progress in creating their utopian heaven on earth, atheist socialists always create a hell on earth, which modern limp wristed Christians tolerate because their heavenly reward awaits them, with the extra frisson of being persecuted by the Bolsheviks and the virtue signaling of tamely being replaced by the godless or the hajjis. At least back in the medieval times, there were Christians willing to defend the faith with a sword, even if not all of them could explain St. Augustine or Pope Urban.

  5. Ryan

    Since it seems to be pile on Severian Monday, I’ll add a bit on the inquisitions. As others have pointed out Christian moral values were integral to medieval life. Everyone understood The Seven, the Demons that tempted you to them, the virtues that could help you avoid them. Really they were stepped in this stuff.

    People back then, as today, well quite a lot of them were total ass holes. And nosy busybodies on top of it. And boy howdy did they have a problem with their neighbors not living up to the proper moral standards of the community. If enough of the vocal ass holes decided you have been badly sinning, well you could find yourself deprived of your property if not your life.

    So to the powers that be religious faith among the masses had it’s many upsides but this nasty downside too. The solution they came up with was the inquisitions. The rabble was not allowed to dispense it’s own justice, rather they were required to bring in the inquisitor who had sole authority to decide if mean ol Sally really was engaged in witchcraft. The inquisitor’s job was to find a few minor sins but otherwise clear her of the witchcraft charges.

    So add to the long list of Protestant lies the idea that the inquisitions were tools of religious oppression. In fact they were protecting people’s liberty. Also don’t confuse the Catholic inquisitions with the Spanish Inquisition. The second was just the Spanish Crown’s excuse to steal everything that Spain’s Jews owned.

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