Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Can a Never-Ending Defeat Be Meaningful?

Thaddeus Metz, in a paper on the differences between happiness and meaningfulness (Metz, Happiness and Meaningfulness), argues that “performing an action that is likely to help others has meaning, but the action would have even more meaning if it actually ended up benefiting them”. It is easy to see that being engaged in trying to help other people doesn’t necessarily make us happier (because it often requires personal sacrifices), but it is quite possible that it makes our lives more meaningful. But is it correct to say that meaning increases if we are successful in our attempts to help others? Admittedly this sounds plausible enough.

However, consider the following dialogue in Albert Camus’s novel The Plague: when his friend Tarrou asks Dr. Rieux, who has been working tirelessly, though largely unsuccessfully, trying to help those who have come down with the plague, why he is showing such devotion to his task, he replies that he wants to defend people as best he can. When Tarrou asks him against whom or what he wants to defend them, he replies that he doesn’t really know. It is just that he “never managed to get used to seeing people die”. What he objects to, instinctively, and what he struggles against, is the order of the world, which “is shaped by death”. But of course, if that is what he is up against, he simply cannot accomplish his goal. The plague seems incurable. People die despite his best efforts to help them. Yet even if he managed to find a cure against the plague and to actually save people, then all he would have achieved is a postponement of death, which will catch up with them eventually. When Tarrou points this out to him, saying that his “victories will never be lasting”, he agrees: his whole life as a physician is in fact a “never-ending defeat”, symbolized by the incurability of the plague. Yet despite being aware of this, Rieux insists that this “is no reason for giving up the struggle”.

So here’s the situation, which, for Camus, marks the absurdity of life: Rieux cannot help anyone, not permanently, and he knows it. What he does thus appears utterly futile. Yet the struggle, despite its futility, still seems important. Perhaps more important than what that struggle achieves or not achieves. But how can that be? How can it be important to put up a fight if we’ve got absolutely no chance of winning it? And is it conceivable that, paradoxically, the fight we fight in the full knowledge that we cannot win it actually gives more meaning to our life than a fight that we still have some hope of winning someday?

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