Today at work, I listened to a book about the history of Italy, and thoughts kept popping into my head that made me pause. For thousands of years, we all built this wealth of knowledge but listening to descriptions of life over the past 2000 years and comparing that to how we live now, not much is changed besides the cloth we wear and the houses we live in.
This wealth of knowledge has brought us a lot, of course. We live longer, and our societies are a lot safer compared to the ones that came before us. All this thinking about life and how to live it by all these thinkers has slowly trickled down, it seems. Did you know that there were places in Italy 150 years ago where 100% of the inhabitants were illiterate? Twenty-five percent of newborns would die in the first year of their life, and because of this, life expectancy was around 30 in that same period. We have come a long way, but if you read what people thought about life, politics, and society back then, and even earlier, you will realize that progress is mostly reserved for our material well-being.
In short: the answer to the question of what the meaning of life is, is answered a thousand times, but if you read the news these days, it is never answered satisfyingly; that seems to me obvious.
I don’t pretend to have an answer but what made me pause my audiobook at work was the idea that I should start answering the question about life that are…answerable, statements about life. This is what philosophers and other thinkers have done for thousands of years, and only in the last few hundred years has philosophy started specializing more and more til you end up with books that no one can understand or care about. You would think that writing down the things we know more or less for sure would be a good starting point; we will see.
A fancy word for this is epistemology*, and Descartes is well known for one of his conclusions: I think, therefore I am. I like to write down things I know that are self-evident for me, but the notes I made earlier today lost their charm already, so I have to let them simmer for a while longer. For now, I will leave you with some observations from others.
“Knowledge would be fatal. It is the uncertainty that charms one. A mist makes things wonderful.” Oscar Wilde
“The fundament upon which all our knowledge and learning rests is the inexplicable.”
“There is exactly one true and complete description of ‘the way the world is.”
“A man of active and resilient mind outwears his friendships just as certainly as he outwears his love affairs, his politics and his epistemology.”
- L. Mencken
*According to https://www.britannica.com/topic/epistemology, epistemology means the philosophical study of the nature, origin, and limits of human knowledge.