“Why Do I Exist?”: The Unavoidable Wonderment

Peter and John Healing the Lame Man, by Raphael (1515).

(Socrates) “Could anything great really come to pass in a short time? And isn’t the time from childhood to old age short when compared to the whole of time?” (Glaucon) “It is a mere nothing.” (Socrates) “Well, do you think that an immortal being should be seriously concerned with that short period rather than with the whole of time?” (Glaucon) “I suppose not, but what exactly do you mean by this?” (Socrates) “Haven’t you realized that our soul is immortal and never destroyed?” He (Glaucon) looked at me with wonder and said: “No, by god, I haven’t.” (Plato, The Republic, Book 7, 608c-d)

They had journeyed thus far by the west-ways, for they had much to speak of with Elrond and with Gandalf, and here they lingered still in converse with their friends. Often, long after the hobbits were wrapped in sleep, they would sit together under the stars, recalling the ages that were gone and all their joys and labors in the world, or holding council, concerning the days to come. If any wanderer had chanced to pass, little would he have seen or heard, and it would have seemed to him only that he saw grey figures, carved in stone, memorials of forgotten things now lost in unpeopled lands. For they did not move or speak with mouth, looking from mind to mind; and only their shining eyes stirred and kindled as their thoughts went to and fro. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (Ace Books), 288)

I.
In the 1907 novel, The Travels of Lao Ts’an, of Liu T’ieh-yün, a rather manipulated marriage with a pleasing young lady is arranged for the hero, Lao Ts’an. He is, in part, tricked into agreeing to the contract but, in fact, things work out. In discussing how he should understand his situation, he finds a pair of red scrolls on a table in the “Shrine of the Man in the Moon.” The characters on the scroll read: “May all lovers under the sky achieve the married state; these things are fixed in heaven: do not miss your mate.” 1 These lines, in fact, are repeated as the last lines of the novel. They are designed to explain to us how we are to look at the events of our individual lives, however they happen, justly or not.

If we spell out the ideas implicit in these memorable lines, we see lovers and marriage to be naturally related to each other as their end. When they happen, they are “fixed”; they are meant to be. One does not rebel against what is meant to be. Yet, it is implied that one can “miss” his mate. How is this possible if his mate is “fixed”? We have already here, in these Chinese characters, the problems of love, freedom, fidelity, providence, and fault. Can the marriage of lovers be free and still be “fixed” in heaven? Is it possible for us to “reject” or “miss” what ought to be? And if we do miss it, is not that consequence also “fixed”? But if it is not possible to miss our “mate,” what is the meaning of our freedom?

The web of our existence, it is implied, is greater than we know. Yet, it is precisely we who are contained within it. The cosmos has no independent power of consciousness to look at us. When we look at this same cosmos, we seek to articulate what we see, as if it made a difference to it that someone, not itself, understands it.

Philosophers tell us that, to be human, certain questions must be asked and, insofar as possible, answered. A human being does not exist just to exist as a kind of inert stone. Nor does he exist just to keep himself alive, like the man in one of Plato’s dialogues who spent his whole life just keeping himself in training so that he would not be sick. In the end, he did nothing but stay alive, a rather useless life, as Plato saw it. Man exists to know what existence itself, what is, means. And within the sphere of existence, he wants to know what his own individual, personal existence means. Even if it does not “mean” anything, he wants to know that too.

When Socrates famously said in The Apology that “an unexamined life is not worth living,” he did not intend simply to unsettle us. Nor did he approve the person who asks questions just to be asking questions. That habit logically is just another form of skepticism or sophism, something that Socrates hated more than anything else. The first of these questions is: “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” The second follows: “Why is this thing not that thing?” These questions, in turn, are based on the existence questions: “Do I exist?” Does the cosmos exist?” “Does God exist?” Can we even ask: “Does nothing ‘exist’?” without being incoherent?

II.

In Act I, Scene 4, of King Lear, Kent says: “This is nothing, Fool.” The Fool replies: “Then ’tis like the breath of an unfeed lawyer; you gave me nothing for it. Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?” Lear replies: “Why, no, boy. Nothing can be made out of nothing.” This affirmation that “nothing can be made out of nothing” is what philosophers call a “first principle.” It is a proposition the truth of which is contained within the very understanding of its terms, in this case, the “understanding” of “nothing.” If the proposition that “Nothing can come from nothing” is true, then nothing can come from nothing. If it is false to say that “Nothing can come from nothing,” then it must be true that something must come from something, not nothing, that is, nothing can come from nothing. And logically, if I exist, my being must be related to what always is. Any break between the two existences would mean that I do not exist, which I know to be false.

Why am I bringing up these rather abstruse considerations here? In an old Peanuts cartoon series, Linus, dragging his blanket behind him, is walking down a road with Charlie Brown. He explains to Charlie: “I don’t like to face problems head on.” Charlie, puzzled, stops to look at him, as Linus goes on: “I think the best way to solve problems is to avoid them.” He takes his stand: “This is a distinct philosophy of mine.” In the final scene, Charlie has one of those “how-is-this-possible” looks on his face as Linus explains his philosophical reasoning: “No problem is so big or so complicated that it can’t be run away from.” 2

The notion of “running away” from our problems is an amusing one, as we carry them with us wherever we go. Yet, spending all our time on ourselves is precisely what our lives ought not to be about. In late medieval spirituality, one school of thought so worried about elements of self-love in our desire for beatitude and God, that it almost ended in denying our very existence. Something of this sort of concern is found in classic Buddhism, I think, the melding of the self and the all. Any notion of love that ends up by absorbing the self into the other, be it the beloved, the world, or the divine, rids itself of the problem by eliminating the one who has the problem, namely, the distinct person, the I who exists. Aristotle, in a famous passage, remarked, in his common sense way, that we would not want to have all the goods and riches of the world if it involved ourselves becoming someone else other than who we are. So again, what are we? Why do we exist?

III.

The Washington Post (April 7, 2015) reviewed a Chinese novel by Mo Yan called Frog, a novel being considered for a Nobel prize. What interests me here is its plot. A jilted Chinese midwife becomes a state agent. She systematically pursues pregnant women who already have one child. In her career, she is responsible for 2,800 abortions. Later, she reconsiders what she has been doing. She marries a sculptor. She arranges to fashion tiny figurines of each child aborted, placed in her home. If we recall that there have been some 400 million babies aborted in China, and over a billion three hundred million in the world since 1980, we have to reconsider the question of “Why do I exist?” In one sense, each of us exists because we were not aborted.

But this answer is not sufficient, as the symbolism of the figurines testifies. What was aborted was not just “nothing.” It was an already begun human life that was open to the same destiny as any other human life. We have to assume that each aborted baby was originally created for the same purpose as anyone else who managed to last four score years and 10 after birth in this world. The difference is not that the aborted baby was not a human being. The difference is simply that it was not allowed to develop as babies are intended to develop. Now, granted that there are also babies who die from natural causes, who are not executed by some state midwife, we still ask the question, “Why do I exist?” in the context of every individual member of the human race who has ever been conceived and lived as human.

How do we go about thinking of this series of questions? Or better, how do we go about answering them? We can approach the question, “Why do I exist?” from two angles. To be sure, we exist as the peculiar individuals we are because of the relationship of our mother and father. But this answer, and it is a correct answer, just pushes the issue back to their parents, and on back to the existence of anyone at all in this world. We can ask, what can I figure out about “Why I exist?” from our reason. We can also take into consideration what is found in revelation. Having looked at both, we can, perhaps, make some tentative answers to the question, as asked.

IV.

When we think about these things, we first notice that we cannot begin to think unless something else besides ourselves provokes or incites us to think at all. We see a lake or a slice of bread or a cat. We want to know: “What is it?” We notice that neither the lake, the bread, nor the cat ask themselves what they are, or why they exist. It is we who ask these questions about them. We notice that I ask the question: “What is a cat?” In doing so, I distinguish myself from the cat. And just because I know what a cat is, and what this particular cat looks and sounds like, I do not change it. What changes is me. I find that I am more than myself when I know and think about what is not myself, whatever it is. I realize that knowing the cat or lake or bread does not limit me. I can know all sorts of things. Indeed, as Aristotle said, I have a power or capacity to know everything that is.

When I have accumulated many things known, I begin to wonder how they all fit together. I also want to know why I am related to them. I do notice that some of them I need just to keep alive. I need water and bread. I have to figure out ways to obtain them. For this purpose, I usually have to depend on the help of others. So I want to know whether there is any order in these things, “How do they all fit together, if they do?” Strangely, with everything I encounter, it seems that we are all in the same boat. Their existence is not explained by themselves. They come to be, and cease from being, often in a regular pattern. I notice that cats cause cats; human beings cause human beings. But neither seems to be able to bring themselves into existence. They apparently come from what is already there.

Thus, the answer to the question, “Why do I exist?” seems to involve the question” “Why does anyone or anything exist?” And, because of the power of knowledge in some things, we want to know “Whether what is not capable of knowing is itself related to the purpose of the beings with the power of knowing as part of their very nature?” Does the existence of the world also imply that, for it to be complete, it ought itself to be known? This would mean that the knowers need to have time sufficient to understand other things as part of their existence.

But if something is known, does not this imply a knower that is capable of knowing all that is? This conclusion would mean that somehow the world includes a communication of mind to mind, as well as an existence out of nothingness. Now, if I ask the question, “Why do I exist?” I suspect that answer is: “So that I might know what is not myself.” In so doing, I become aware of myself as knowing what is not myself. So I begin naturally to wonder: “What is it all about?” Is there a common origin or cause of all things that need not exist, including myself?

V.  

Now let me approach our question: “Why do I exist?” from another angle, from the angle of revelation. Let me say this about revelation. Some people will hold it is myth, or madness, or of no “scientific” importance. So we do not need to pay attention to any of its answers. But what it tells us about the world, God, and ourselves has some intelligibility about it. It makes some sense. We cannot just walk away from this information as if it is of no concern. It provokes us.

Moreover, if we do find intelligibility in what is called revelation, does it help us to think better? If I does, this probably implies that some connection between our intelligence, and the intelligence that the universe implies, makes some sense. Socrates tells us that when he was a young man, he was concerned with the order of the world. He found no satisfying answers. But one day, he was in a bookstore in Athens. He happened onto a book by Anaxagoras in which it said that the cause of the world was not earth, air, fire, or water, but “mind.” He was never the same after that, and neither are we.

The assumption of revelation is that “mind,” the source of all intelligence is capable of communicating with any mind, including the human mind, if it so wishes. This view implies that the world is not itself necessary. It did not need to exist, nor did anything in it, including ourselves. Thus, the question: “Why do I exist?” would have to consider the fact, if it is a fact, that the purpose of the universe, with those rational beings in it, has a source. Since they did not cause their own existence, but still exist, each person must consider what revelation might describe as the purpose of the existence of each human person. This purpose could involve both an inner-worldly purpose, and a transcendent purpose, that would explain the destiny or salvation of each individual person.

To make my point, let me cite two passages from Scripture, one from Acts, and the other from the Gospel of John. In Acts, Peter is asked by the rulers to explain by what authority he is preaching and curing. He responds:

Leaders of the people, Elders! If we must answer today for a good deed done to a cripple, and explain how he was restored to health, then you, and all the people of Israel, must realize that it was done in the name of Jesus Christ, the Nazorean, whom you crucified, and whom God raised from the dead. In the power of that name, this man stands before you perfectly sound. This Jesus is “the stone, rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.” There is no salvation in anyone else, for there is no other name in the whole world given to men by which we are to be saved. (Acts 4:8-12)

What does this tell us? There is a “salvation” for each person from sin and death, given in a definite way through Christ.

The second passage, from John, reads: “The Father loves the Son and has given everything over to him. Whoever believes in the Son has life eternal. Whoever disobeys the Son, will not see life, but must endure the wrath of God” (3:35-36). What are we told here? We are told that each of us is to be given “eternal life,” but only on condition that we understand from whence this gift comes, and on our free acceptance of it. Lacking these, not even God can help us. Could our destiny have been achieved in some other way? Doubtfully, but not so perfectly. We are, each of us, to participate in the inner life of the Trinity through the Son’s redemption. This death on the Cross was necessary because of our sins. Plato already worried in the Phaedo and the Republic that our crimes and sins need to be both punished and forgiven. Plato, and Scripture, understood the punishment part, but Plato did not know how the forgiveness part worked itself out, though he did see that the one against whom we sin needs to forgive us.

VI.

Let me now conclude by answering our original question, that is, “Why do I exist?” I exist to participate in “eternal life,” that is, the inner life of God. I can do this because of what I initially am, a free and rational being, but also because I have been offered a life beyond my natural capacities. God did not originally intend that we die, but he created us in a world where our existence depended on others. The effects of our virtues and sins are not isolated in a box affecting no one, but ourselves. They have consequences, even if they are not intended. Going back to the Chinese midwife, who, in repentance, carves the figurines of her aborted children, each human life, from conception to natural death, has, as its end, offered to it “eternal life.” If we reject this gift, we are left to ourselves, knowing that, what we missed, we did so because of our own choice. We call this “missing,” hell, and it has other consequences.

The “eternal life” that each is promised is to be worked out in the actual history of the time and place in which we live our finite lives. We cannot, in the end, be friends of God if we do not choose to be so. This is the condition of friendship of all sorts, including that of God. Nothing can come from nothing. And ultimately we cannot, as Linus’s philosophy maintained, run away from all big and complicated problems, especially the one that defines our final existence. Our destiny, our salvation, is not just “fixed.” Rather, its “fixing” depends on us also. Perhaps, with Glaucon, we are surprised to learn that our souls are “immortal.” Perhaps, with Christ, we are even more surprised about the resurrection of our bodies, that which finally makes us whole in “eternal life”

But as Gandalf and Elrond understood, we exist for conversation, for things past and things future, we exist to abide with the cause of our being something, rather than nothing. So if we ask, “Why do I exist?” we have two related answers: one says that we are to know all that is; and the second, that we are, if we choose it by the way we live and think, to be given “eternal life.” Many answers are given to this question about “Why do I exist?” None, but this one, one that combines reason and revelation in a coherent whole, is so gladsome, so—what shall I say? So coherent! At the Shrine of the Man in the Moon, perfect love requires that we first be loved by what alone can bring us into the existence that we uniquely are. The drama of the world is not “fixed” until we “fix” it by the way we respond to the truth, that we can only love if we have first been loved, as John’s letter tells us. To make that response, in short, is why I exist.

  1. The Travels of Lao Ts’an, translated by Jarold Shadick (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 194.
  2. Reproduced in Robert Short, The Parables of Peanuts (New York: Harper, 1968), 53.
Fr. James V. Schall, SJ About Fr. James V. Schall, SJ

Fr. James Schall, SJ, is professor emeritus of political science at Georgetown University, is retired, and in residence at Sacred Heart Jesuit Center, Los Gatos, California.

Comments

  1. Dr. William C. Zehringer Dr. William C. Zehringer says:

    To the editor: I must say that I care not if “philosophy bakes no bread,” as a tired old saying
    will have it, just so long as that ancient and irreplaceable human enterprise can still count
    among its devotees sage counselors such as Father James Schall, S. J.

    I am blessed at the present time to be carrying on a gratifying personal and academic friendship with a young colleague, a widely-cultured science professor. Though he is not a Catholic, he nonetheless warmly welcomes those particular discussions which focus on the teachings of our Faith. I’m pleased to report that, at our most recent meeting, I was able to make use of
    passages from Dante’s Purgatorio, as a way of raising those very meaningful questions
    which Father Schall sets out so charmingly and so well. Those “sessions of sweet, silent
    thought” which I am happily conducting with my friend, an astronomer and “searcher of
    the skies,” will truly be fortified by my reading his eloquent musings on the purpose of our
    existence.

    . .