Death & Meaning

Nietzsche, Philosophy, meaning, perspective, worldview, truth, existentialism, Sartre

We are all trying to make things intelligible, to make sense of our experiences, ourselves, and our world. The fact that we still disagree concerning the best or right or correct interpretation, the fact that there are so many perspectives, suggests that perhaps meaning is nothing more than a construct.

Most of us adopt values and beliefs simply because they are familiar, because they are those that dominate in our community, our country, our…The real reason we have adopted certain values, that we see the world the way we do, is convenience, happenstance. We, in short, believe what most people believe…we conform.

“Madness is rare in the individual – but with groups, parties, peoples, and ages it is the rule.”


When Nietzsche points out that when it comes to groups, peoples, parties…madness is the rule, he means that there is a tendency to conform and protect the dominant perspective even when faced with evidence to the contrary. We lose our ability to think for ourselves when we conform, but the fundamental problem of meaning is (at least in a certain sense) solved. We know what’s true because we participate in a shared construct, in a shared worldview.

Sartre famously claimed that for humans “existence precedes essence.” He meant that we must make ourselves into something, that we only define ourselves after we exist, and that in truth there is no such thing as human nature which would otherwise determine who we are (and who we could become). The only thing we know with certainty is that we will die. We are beings aware of their own existence and their own mortality—a fact that has a far greater influence on us than most of us would probably like to admit.

We face a reality that is opaque. Try as we might, the world around us gives up only small secrets, and on all important matters remains utterly silent. We exist, to be sure, and we know we will die. We want answers, we want to know why and what for. We want to know what the meaning of life is, the purpose of our existence—but, as Camus points out, the universe is indifferent to our appeals and wants.

Humans are meaning makers—we create meaning and we have a drive to do so. We organize our world; we form a picture that allows us to operate day-to-day without fear. When we believe we can explain our experience, our interactions, when we think we understand our place and role in the world, we gain confidence and feel secure. We want to make our life intelligible because by doing so we remove unknowns, irregularities, we assign a value and place to everything.

Our desire to make sense of things, to make everything intelligible, drives our attempts to leave nothing unexplained. We quickly try to find a place for the new, the abnormal, the irregular, because everything that is not accounted for by our beliefs and values is a direct threat to the integrity of our worldview, our perspective. We think we understand things when the room looks clean, when everything is in its box, in its place, and we feel secure knowing there is nothing that we might trip over.

There is some part of us, a part that is perhaps deep within, one that rarely comes to the surface, but that nonetheless exercises great power—our fear of death, of threat, of danger. We know we will die, and experience tells us that the universe, existence, is indifferent to the individual entities that enjoy life for a short time. Death is the great unknown—it is an unknown in the sense that it comes unannounced, it is unknown in the sense that there are conflicting accounts of what it is (a transition, an absolute end, a new beginning…), it is final, and death is not bound by our sense of right and wrong or good and bad.

Making the world intelligible, making sense of things, makes us feel secure and comfortable because we are not surprised by irregular, unknown, or new experiences, which in turn assuages the fear and anxiety caused by awareness that we will die. Humans are self-aware, conscious entities, who are mortal and thus aware of their own mortality, of their temporality. But we are also meaning makers, and through meaning we create a familiar, knowable, and therefore less harsh and indifferent world, one in which our fears and anxieties need not be so intense, so overwhelming.

What many fail to recognize is that all the various perspectives people have are just so many ways of constructing a meaningful experience and world, but by no means are any representative of what is true, what is objectively the case. A world without meaning, without purpose, is simply a world in which we must each make meaning and create purpose.

The fact is, we thrive when we have reasons for acting, for living, for doing. Better that these reasons are our own, are ones that we have accepted and arrived at because they work for us. We should resist merely adopting values and beliefs because others have, we should resist conforming, because when we do the meanings that define our world and through which we make our experience intelligible are not our own. All we can do is live our own life, be our own person.

Thanks for reading.

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Want to discover more? Please check out my related articles: To Feel Differently, Curiosity & the Wisdom of Socrates, Living Underground, Meditation & Balance, The Only Proof of Strength, A Formula for Happiness, The Habit of Thinking, The World We Create, and Accepting Death as a Part of Life.

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