Of Existential Vacuum, Logotherapy, and a Fusion of Pauline and Stoic Philosophies…

Seneca the Younger (Roman, Stoic Philosopher, Statesman, Dramatist).

Man’s greatest fear is not death. He fears death mostly because he is unsure whether it is truly the end or if something lies after it. He fears death because he wonders — even if only subconsciously — whether this life is all there is. He also fears death mainly if he feels that he has more yet to accomplish amongst the living. Thus, what man really fears is uncertainty, and the absence — or seeming absence — of meaning. I say “seeming absence” because meaning is never absent; although man may not recognize its presence.

Man constantly searches for meaning: in himself, in a god, in the universe, even by pursuing his banal day-to-day activities. He works because he seeks money, but money itself is rarely a goal. It is a tool. It signifies his sense of self-worth, or it is a way for him to leave his mark on the world. The desire to leave his mark on the world may not be unconnected from his craving for a high self-worth.

Thus, at the fundament, all that man does is in pursuit of a meaningful role for himself in the world. He does not wish merely to be an object; he wants to be a subject. He wishes to have agency, to have some control over what happens to him and avoid the untethering effects of the fickle winds of fate. He is only afraid of the future because he cannot control it. He is afraid of the past only if it can collide with the future. He has no regrets about past deeds unless those deeds can somehow make a “meaningful” future impossible.

Unless man finds some certitude: in himself or a higher power, he becomes unable to see meaning in a life in a constant flux. He thinks himself helpless, but he attempts to repel this helplessness by embracing a nihilistic pursuit of pleasure or a masochistic dependence on pain as a reminder of his humanity. In his pursuit of pleasure, he maintains what to him is some control over his life: “I’ll do as I please; I’ll sleep around if I so please; I’ll drink and ingest hard drugs if I so please.” His embrace of pain, not as information to adapt to, but as a thing to enjoy, also makes him feel less like an object without agency. He says, “I am in pain because I love it. I could change this, but I am CHOOSING not to. I can choose.” He wants to believe this, maybe he even does.

Yes, man can choose. But what is it that man ought to choose? Man ought to choose not to be, so he can be. He ought to kill the ego so it can rise, tall and able to withstand the flux of life. Man ought to care less for himself, so he can care more for himself; man should kill his pride, so he can have a higher sense of his own worth. The man,who cares nothing for how other men see him, and who mainly does his duty without artifice, can never have his sense of self shaken by external stimuli.

Man ought to see the good and the bad side of nature as an opportunity to be the best version of himself. The best version of man does not accept pain as joy; he pushes through pain to find joy. Yes, he bears his burdens with calmness, but he does not accept the hands that fate has supposedly dealt him without trying to change it. But even as he endeavors to change the hands that fate has dealt him, his existential crisis does not wipe his smile from his face. Because he knows that his joy is not in overcoming pain itself, it is in the striving to do so without losing equanimity. He is the best version of himself when he can keep his soul balanced, even amid suffering.

Man’s fear is mainly that he will never be the best version of himself. The best version of man is not in how much money or how much influence he has. The best version of man is in how calmly and graciously he pushes through pain to find joy.

JD Candidate at Harvard Law School.