What is the most fundamental question in life? Hint: It is not about meaning of life or about what exists fundamentally
Have you ever wondered what is the most fundamental question for you or for any human being? There are a few candidates but in the end only one stands a closer scrutiny. The nominees that come most readily in mind are the classic questions about the origin of the world, about what exists fundamentally and about the meaning of life. Mesmerizing as they are, they nevertheless aren’t the most fundamental for us.
The two first-mentioned questions could be understood as questions about the nature of the universe. Where did it come from and what is it like? Other way to put them would be to ask in what kind of world do we live in? The reason they are bad candidates as the fundamental question for us human beings is that they haven’t given adequate attention to the one asking these questions, the human being itself. If we would be eternal, disengaged and god-like creatures then that kind of noble question might be worthy of our attention. But instead we have a limited time here on earth, we care about our faith and therefore we have to choose carefully how we spend that restricted time. Devoting oneself to answering these questions means that one has made a choice in which one has given priority to this activity instead of – for example – trying to find a cure for cancer or be a good father to one’s children.
We are thrown into a world in which we need to act. As sociologist Hans Joas has put it: ”Action is the way in which human beings exist in the world.” Every moment we make a choice about what we do. Whether we want it or not, we have every second the possibility to act in a multitude of ways. Therefore the most fundamental question for any human being is about what to do. What to do right now and more generally within one’s life. All the other ’fundamental’ questions are only derivatives of this more general question. For example, finding the meaning of life, true nature of happiness, reason for the existence of the universe, whether god exists, what is morally right and wrong and so forth would give us good reasons to act in certain rather than other ways. But all of them can only answer subquestions such as what to do, given religion, or what to do, given our interest in our own happiness. What we need to answer, however, is what to do, given all.
Other way to phrase the same question is to ask ’How to live a good life?’ This is so for the simple reason that we have an interest in living in better rather than worse ways. Already Socrates recognized this to be the most fundamental of all questions. For the great philosophers of ancient Greece, the question about good living formed the most fundamental question of all philosophy. The aim of philosophy was not theoretical but about aiding people in their quest to live a good life.
Curious fact about the question of good life is that every single human being answers it but only a small amount of people ask it seriously. This is because we answer it through the way we actually live. Your life is at every moment your best answer to the question of good life. You can’t escape your life and therefore you can’t escape answering this question through your way of living. The problem is that if you haven’t answered the question yourself then somebody has answered it for you. You are either guided by values and needs chosen by you or then you are guided by values, desires, wishes and so forth that the surrounding culture and media has given you.
The most important step towards a good life is to start taking responsibility for it. This means that you start to seriously consider whether the model of good life that you are living today is really what you would have wanted to choose. It means that you start to seriously think what is the best way to live given your unique personality and situation. Carving your own values and path of good living doesn’t happen in a day. It requires long-term engagement in serious reflection and dialogue with other people. But then again, the reward is the best there can be: A good life designed just for you!
It is hard to ask the question seriously. It is good that you encourage people to do. Personally I have been generally very satisfied and happy with my life after I realized that I can make my own life and begun asking what is it that I want to do in life and subsequently what are the fundamentals I use to value the things I do in life, in other words the question of good life.
The question about the fundamentals, obviously I think, lead to the emptiness of everything and eventually I had to discard those thoughts as useless. Finally I got into the basics of human life that I think give me most satisfaction (so maybe I after all adopted a hedonistic way of living). Those things are very hard to make a non redundant list of, so I just say something that I definately think is on the list: Friendship, active living in a moment and search for interesting things and knowledge, lack of embarassment (this is actually a mean, not an end).
Maybe it is just me, but I feel like embarassment and shame are some of the very powerful cultural things that keep people to what they are used to do, what they think they are expected to do and overall hinder them from trying new things and from living their own life. Consequently disregarding those emotions helped me being more satisfied with my life.
Thanks Tuomas for your keen reflections!
It is indeed hard to seriously engage into thinking about these questions. Especially if one is generally happy and satisfied with one’s life. Most often people face these questions only during some major crisis of their lives when they really need to rethink their fundamental values. Usually, however, this rethinking leads to people starting to live more authentically the way they actually want to live. So it is hard to find the motivation to engage with these questions but doing it usually increases one’s well-being in the long run. The big question is therefore how to make people think about these issues without having to have them face a major crisis in life?
And I agree with you that thoughts about fundamentals easily leads one to realizing the emptiness of everything. This I feel is an important intermediate stage towards a more authentic living – but only an intermediate stage. Because after that you realize that there are certain things you are willing to value for themselves, without any need for any external justification for valuing them. And you seem to have found them, because I feel that most people would include in that list things such as ”friendship, active living in a moment and search for interesting things and knowledge” as you say.
And you are absolutely right that embarrasment and shame are very powerful cultural motivators that make people stick to the rules and to what is considered as normal. Therefore being able to reduce their influence on one’s life usually leads to more possibilities to live the life one’s own way and therefore also increased satisfaction with one’s life. Ancient philosophers realized this also, especially Diogenes of Sinope and other cynics who made it almost a daily exercise to do embarrassing things in public places to strengthen and demonstrate their freedom from conventionality.