Tag: philosophy

The Meaning of Life: Mediaeval vs. Modern Perspectives

The Meaning of Life: Mediaeval vs. Modern Perspectives

If today we examine the mediaeval worldview[1] – and we rarely do – we find it utterly[2] alien[3]. Church and society were coterminous[4] and the social structure was ordained by God. The place into which each individual was born within[5] the hierarchy was his or her rightful[6] place and the best thing to do was to submit[7] and conform to one’s preordained role in society. The aristocracy[8] were better people than the rest of the population; nobility meant being aristocratic and being a (noble (= good) person. Fortunately, the nobles practised gentilesse[9]; they knew their role was to protect those who were weaker than them. Meanwhile[10], members of the clergy prayed[11] for everyone and the majority – the peasants[12] – worked for everyone. It was a coherent system in which everybody contributed to society and everyone knew his or her place.

Within this rigid system private hopes and fears were insignificant, the individual was only important as part of society as a whole. In any case the individual didn’t control who he or she was. Character was determined by a complex interplay of class, horoscopy, physiognomy and humours[13]. One’s social role was God-given; nuances[14] were added to the individual as a result of when he or she was born. Moreover, physical deformities were a consequence of spiritual deformities. Finally, imbalances in the basic fluids that ran through[15] the body explained other personal idiosyncrasies. You – your essential being – were predetermined, not self-determined.

The Modern View

Now compare that to the modern Western worldview. The individual is centre-stage today. According to modern individualism, we are each responsible for our own success[16]. We teach children that anyone can do anything with sufficient effort and intelligence and luck. Nobody believes (I hope!) that aristocrats are better people than everybody else.

Yet[17] this worldview is as hollow[18] and nonsensical[19] as the mediaeval one. Society values fame, wealth[20] and status. But the idea that everyone has the opportunity to become a millionaire, a surgeon[21] or a political leader is myth in its purest form. We don’t believe that aristocrats inherit[22] noblesse[23] from their ancestors but we know that the rich, the famous and the socially advantaged inherit unassailable[24] privileges from their parents.

Today we tend to express our individualism by obsessing about a highly[25] specific aspect of life: a sports team, a sport, a hobby. We fuel[26] our individualism by focusing on this one pastime as a way of ignoring the meaninglessness[27] of our existence.

Today we don’t follow a rigid dogma as they did in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, the nearest we have to a societal value system is an arbitrary series of trite[28] internet memes – hardly[29] an all-encompassing[30] philosophical framework[31].

At least we no longer believe in physiognomy, right? Except that being considered physically attractive is probably more important today than at any time in history. Being tall for men and being beautiful for women are more important that qualifications in determining success.

But what is success? Ironically given our ‘individualism’, on a day-to-day basis, most of us value ourselves in terms of society’s appraisal[32]. In our day-to-day lives being ‘liked’ on social media is our primary form of self-validation.[33] In the longer term for most people success is working in jobs of increasingly high status and accumulating capital. However, we measure success in terms of consumption[34]. We are considered successful because of the car we drive or where we holiday.

We are complacent in our patronizing[35] attitude to the mediaeval worldview. However, does a society driven by ‘likes’, one that values people because they have bought the very latest iPad, really have a right to feel superior? Moreover, given social trends[36], our model will become untenable[37] soon. Self-fulfilment cannot come through one’s career[38] in a society in which work is increasingly scarce[39]. For instance[40], we are told that we will all have to work till at least 70 – in a labour market in which job opportunities begin to decrease rapidly after 50. When the majority have slid back[41] into mere subsistence because of lack of[42] opportunities, will we submit[43] to a permanent state of depression because we have failed according to all modern society’s values? Will our sports team’s occasional victory be enough to give meaning to our lives?


[1] worldview – philosophy of life

[2] utterly – completely, totally

[3] alien (adj.) – unfamiliar, bizarre

[4] coterminousone and the same

[5] within – in

[6] rightful – appropriate, legitimate

[7] to submit – capitulate

[8] aristocracy – (literally) rule of the best

[9] gentilesse – magnanimity

[10] meanwhile – at the same time, simultaneously

[11] to pray – intercede with God

[12] peasantsrural workers in a feudal system

[13] humours – (in this case) bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile that supposedly made people sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholic or choleric, respectively

[14] nuancessubtle differences

[15] to run through (run-ran-run) – flow through, flow around

[16] successtriumph, prosperity

[17] yet – however, nevertheless

[18] hollowempty

[19] nonsensical – ridiculous, meaningless

[20] wealthaffluence, financial prosperity

[21] surgeonmedical specialist who performs operations

[22] to inherit – acquire genetically

[23] noblesse – nobility, magnanimity

[24] unassailable – impregnable, absolute

[25] highlyvery

[26] to fuel – assert, stimulate, confirm

[27] meaninglessness – futility, purposelessness, triviality

[28] trite – banal, vapid, clichéd

[29] hardlynot really, not exactly

[30] all-encompassing – universal, comprehensive

[31] frameworkstructure, system

[32] appraisal – evaluation, judgement

[33] studies suggest that most people check their phones over 80 times a day and touch their phones over 2,600 times a day. If that’s not fetishism…

[34] consumptionwhat we consume/buy

[35] patronizing – disdainful, superior

[36] trendstendencies

[37] untenable – unsustainable

[38] career – (false friend) professional trajectory

[39] scarce – insufficient, (opposite of ‘abundant’)

[40] for instance – for example

[41] to slide back (slide-slid-slid) – descend, decline

[42] lack ofabsence of, deficient

[43] to submit – acquiesce, accept, tolerate

Shoring Up[1] London Bridge

Shoring Up[1] London Bridge

Photo: London Bridge by Robert Dimov


Mrs Thatcher once infamously said, “There is no such thing as society”. She was wrong and one of the reasons she was wrong was literature. Much of literature, like religion, tells us how to behave[2], especially in extreme circumstances. Works like Beowulf and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene are essentially conduct books[3]. In this sense literature is propaganda from the past for the future. However, unlike[4] religion, literature is flexible and naturally inclusive.

In his Nobel acceptance speech this week Bob Dylan mused[5], “I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. Learned it all in grammar school[6]. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of Two Cities, all the rest – typical grammar-school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by[7]. I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics[8]. And the themes from those books worked their way into[9] many of my songs, either knowingly[10] or unintentionally.”

A similar process occurred when the band Oasis took the name of the greatest British play of the 1950s, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956) and transformed it in the title and refrain for their song Don’t Look Back in Anger (1995). Over the last fortnight[11] that refrain[12] has been used by Mancunians[13] both to console and to define their reaction of “love conquers hate” in the wake of[14] the terrorist attack in Manchester.

Many would baulk against[15] the idea that a mere pop song could be considered literature. More would be affronted[16] by the idea that literature – let alone[17] pop lyrics7 – could compete with religion. But the greatest British poet of the 20th Century, T.S. Eliot, described literature as “Fragments… shored[18] against my ruins”. In other words bits of legends, stories, plays and poems are what we use to console ourselves in times of need – be they Cervantes, Charles Dickens or John Osborne.

That famous quote comes from Eliot’s cento[19] at the end of his greatest poem, The Wasteland (‘What the Thunder[20] Said’, ll. 426-31) [1922], which ends:

Shall I at least set my lands in order[21]?

London Bridge is falling down[22] falling down falling down[23]

Poi s’acose nel foco che gli affina[24]

Quando fiam uti chelidon[25]O swallow[26] swallow[27]

Le Prince d’Aquitaine a la tour abolie[28]

These fragments I have shored18 against my ruins.

Why then Ile fit you[29]. Hieronymo’s mad againe.

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.[30]

Shantih[31] Shanith Shantih.

London Bridge is not falling down22, thanks to the robust mix of multicultural voices and the literature we have shored18 against our ruins.

[1] to shore up – reinforce, fortify, strengthen

[2] to behave – act, conduct oneself

[3] conduct bookguide to social norms

[4] unlike – in contrast to

[5] to muse – (in this case) write thoughtfully

[6] grammar school – (US English) elementary school

[7] to measure things by – to evaluate experience

[8] lyrics – the words to a song

[9] worked their way into – be inserted in a subtle way

[10] knowingly – intentionally

[11] fortnight – two weeks

[12] refrainline that is frequently repeated in a song

[13] Mancunian – sb. from Manchester

[14] in the wake offollowing, after

[15] to baulk against – resist, not accept

[16] to affront – offend, insult

[17] let alone – much less

[18] shored – accumulated, a. up to support a building, b. (of a catch of fish) brought ashore

[19] centoliterary text created from lines/fragments by other authors

[20] thunderloud noise generated by a storm (= tempest)

[21] shall I set my lands in order – will I reorganize my kingdom appropriately?

[22] to fall down (fall-fell-fallen) – collapse

[23] a line from a famous nursery rhyme (= traditional children’s song) that probably has its origin in the ritual of human sacrifice in blessing new buildings

[24] “(remember later on my pain). He hid himself in the fire which refines them” from Dante’s Inferno

[25] from The Virgil of Venus (anonymous) “When shall I be like the swallow?” (i.e. able to sing and fly away/escape). The refrain of the poem promises love to all.

[26] swallow – (Hirundinidae) very fast migratory insectivorous songbird

[27] “O swallow swallow” comes either from The Princess by Tennyson or Itylus (= Philomel) by Swinburne

[28] “The Prince of Aquitaine in the ruined tower” from The Disinherited (El Desdichado) (1865) by Gérard de Nerval (1808-55)

[29] Why then Ile (= I’ll) fit you – I’ll give you exactly that. The line is from Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy: Hieronymo’s Mad Againe (c.1589). Hieronymo is asked to produce a court play. Superficially, he says he will do it, but he is really saying that he will use theatre to trap the murderers of his son.

[30] Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata – give, show compassion, and control yourself; from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, a sacred Indian (Hindu and Buddhist) text

[31] Shantih – (the Sanskrit conclusion to an Upanishad) peace, amen, shalom, As-Salaam-Alaikum



Having survived half a century it would be nice to say that I’ve acquired some deep wisdom[1] that I can pass on[2] to people. But the truth is that having spent 17 years writing articles whose remit[3] was that they had to be interesting enough for people to want to read them in a foreign language, I feel rather[4] emptied of knowledge. I understood the world, albeit[5] naïvely[6], better at 20 than I do at 50. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; if it weren’t so, there would be no room[7] for awe[8] or laughter[9].

Yesterday I counted the books I’ve read over the last 14 years for my literature classes: 182. Sure[10], many of them are not that[11] long but it’s still an awful lot of information that has gone in (and mostly come out) of my brain. This all leads[12] me to a verse from James’ song Five-O[13]:

I’ve been looking for truth at the cost of living,
I’ve been afraid of what’s before mine eyes.
Every answer found begs[14] another question;
The further you go, the less you know
The less I know.

So much for the introspection; there’s no point in writing a blog to satisfy your own whimsy[15] because nobody will read it. So, I offer you a bit of Japanese wisdom1. The diagram should be pretty[16] self-explanatory. May you find your Ikigai – I’m still looking.

[1] wisdomknowledge derived from experience, sagacity, insight

[2] to pass on – convey, transmit

[3] remitspecified purpose

[4] rathersomewhat, surprisingly

[5] albeiteven though

[6] naïvely – ingenuously, innocently

[7] room – (in this case) possibility

[8] awewonder, astonishment

[9] laughterlaughing, hilarity, humour

[10] sure – (in this case) admittedly

[11] that – (in this case) so, very

[12] to lead (lead-led-led) – take, guide

[13] Five-O – 50

[14] to beg – (in this case) provoke, elicit

[15] whimsy – whim, caprice

[16] prettyreasonably