Anthony Vergil, a character from my novel The City of Earthly Desire, speaks these words when he is confronted by the notion of meaning. An unabashed hedonist, Vergil, who is also simply referred to as Verge in the novel, is a paradoxical character. He fully accepts and understands that, at its most fundamental level, life does possess meaning, purpose, and instrinsic value, and that the meaning, purpose, and value of life are primarily nested in religious and moral principles, yet he rejects these principles on the basis of what he sees as indisputable proof of the thorough defeat of meaning in our contemporary world.
In the novel he deduces that if the concept of meaning were truly valid, it would have easily withstood any and all assaults launched against it. The fact that meaning has been so devastatingly vanquished by nihilistic forces proves, to him at least, that any belief in meaning, noble though it may be, is essentially weak and illusory. Simply put, if meaning, as well as the moral and religious principles supporting it, was real and vigorous, not only would it successfully rise to meet any challenge facing it but it would also, ultimately, defeat the challenges in a decisive manner. Its perceived failure to do so proves, to Verge at least, that the forces of nihilism are far more powerful, hence real, than the forces of meaning. Rather than struggle against the nihilism eclipsing the West, Verge chooses instead to embrace nihilism wholeheartedly in what amounts to little more than a "if you can't beat them, join them" mentality." Once he has embraced nihilism, Verge is quick to notice all that remains to him is pleasure, and he proceeds to make hedonism foundation of his life.
He reveals his ontological outlook in the following manner:
“We are past the point of no return, gentlemen. To borrow a phrase from Pope, universal darkness has buried us all. We have all been enslaved by the empty promise of freedom. This is the sad truth; there is no denying it. All that remains for us in this time of decay is the unrestrained enjoyment of pleasure . . . little indulgences.”
I explored this theme and created the Anthony Vergil character to reflect what I believe to be one of the most pervasive dilemmas in the West. We in the West have suffered and are continuing to suffer through a catastrophic crisis of meaning. Like Verge, I believe many in the West have examined the religious and moral principles that were once the cornerstones of our culture and civilization, but have found them lacking.
I suspect many no longer accept these religious and moral principles for the same reason Verge cannot accept them. In other words, the rejection stems not so much from antagonism or hostility, but rather from a reasoned acceptance that past notions of meaning cannot be truly valid, for if they were they would have better withstood the test of time and progress. That meaning has not formidably withstood the pressures of time and progress illustrates that it is archaic, obsolete, and essentially useless. If this is the case, why struggle against the current of the times?
The rejection of meaning and the meaning inherent in religious, social, and political structures lures one into nihilism. Though modern people are more than happy to reject moral and religious principles, they are not too keen to adopt a thorough belief in nothing; hence, the ultimate meaning in life becomes pleasure. Enlightened governments and social institutions have been eager to support this shift under the banner of liberty, freedom, and equality. As Verge notes in the novel:
"That is the trick, you see. Use freedom and equality to create a world without spirit! Liberate us from everything that once defined us as human beings. Free us from the bondage of morality, responsibility, decency and unleash us upon the world with no higher goal than to gratify our passions!”
Passion gratification and pleasure seeking have thus become the new cornerstones of our culture and civilization (insofar as you can still truly call what exists today culture and civilization). Absolute values are meaningless in such a world, which causes previously held distinctions to blur. Inversions quickly follow. Suddenly, the difference between good and evil is not easy to define. The same applies to other dichotomies such as truth and untruth; and beauty and ugliness. Concepts like higher and lower also become meaningless, even in pleasure. Furthermore, those in power begin to use pleasure to distract and control the masses. The powerful understand that lower pleasures are the most effective mechanisms for control and actively encourage people to indulge in increasingly baser pursuits, something Verge states in the novel:
"People have been conditioned to heed only their urges and desires – the lower, the better."
Wallowing in pleasure is enough to satisfy most people in our contemporary society, but for some the question of meaning remains, like a persistent itch that begs to be scratched. In The City of Earthly Desire, Béla confronts Verge about the inadequacy of pleasure and the need for meaning:
Béla scowled. “If pleasure is all we have left then what’s the point of it all?”
“That’s precisely it! There is no point to it all!” Verge stepped out from behind the table and pointed his finger at Béla in an accusatory fashion. “Pleasure is all we have because pleasure is all we deserve. Pleasure is meaning. Death is lack of meaning. There is nothing else in-between.”
and later in the same scene:
“If pleasure is the only meaning, then we are not fully human.”
“Exactly! For centuries we wholeheartedly believed we were part of divine creation. We based our entire existence around the core of this belief. Well, I have news for you, dear chap – that belief is no longer valid. It has been stolen from us by the same people who fight for social justice and struggle against the tyranny of oppression. It is they who have reduced us to the level of animals. We are objects – commodities to be bought and sold. The quicker you accept that imposed truth, the happier you’ll be!”
At this point some will inevitably make their toward or begin making their way back toward the meaning, purpose, and value contained within religious principles, but this remains an unacceptable option for many. People in the latter category will forgo a sincere acceptance of meaning and continue to substitute it with the faux meaning contained in social and political activism, as Verge points out after Béla complains about the inherent lack of meaning in life:
“It’s not worth it. I’m bored with the little indulgences. They’re fun for a while, but when they end, I feel empty inside. It’s nothing but meaningless pleasure,” Béla muttered.
A distraught look came over Verge’s face. He looked down at the photographs and pushed them about on the table with his hands. “Pleasure is the only meaning we have left. It is both foolish and dangerous to believe you need more.”
“I need to have some meaning in my life,” Béla said in exasperation.
“You want meaning? Delude yourself into believing you are working to make the world a better place. Work toward social justice or battle against oppression or join the struggle to save the environment or some other such nonsense,” Verge said stifling a yawn.
“That’s not what I meant,” Béla said.
The essence of what I have communicated in my novel can be reduced to the following:
- abandoning the meaning inherent in religious and moral principles has reduced our humanity and our understanding of the world
- denying meaning can be equated with denying reality
- if you deny reality, pleasure not only becomes the only value, it becomes a necessary value as it is the only positive one available
- substituting meaning with the meaning supposedly found in humanitarian activism is not only inadequate, but harmful to both the individual and society
Since I began this post quoting Anthony Vergil, I will conclude by doing the same. I believe the line below best summarizes and addresses those who have actively and purposefully accepted the belief that life has no meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value.
"Pleasure is all that remains because pleasure is all you deserve."