Some Thoughts on The Purpose of Life

When we say that something acts with purpose, we say that it acts with intention, that is, it acts for an end.

The question of life's purpose is really a question about life's end. It is another way of asking: "What is my destiny?" or, "What is life's meaning?" It is the same as asking: "What is it that will give my life meaning?" For the French word for meaning is sens. The word sens (English: sense) also means direction. What direction ought my life to take? In other words, what is it that will give my life direction or meaning?

Looking back to the doctrine of the four causes, purpose or end are simply terms that refer to the final cause. And so to ask what is the purpose of life is to ask: "What is the final cause of human existence?"

The point of all this? Consider that most people would answer the question about life's direction or meaning by saying something to the effect that what gives my life meaning will not necessarily be the same as that which gives your life meaning. But a little reflection can show that this is not the case. Which of the four causes coincides with the final cause? Tthe answer is: the formal cause. The formal cause of man is that which determines him to be what he is, namely, a human kind of being.

And so if it is true that 'what gives my life meaning will not be the same as what gives your life meaning' so that each has his own individual purpose, then it follows that each individual has his own nature. In other words, each person is his own species. But this is not true. We all have the same formal cause, that is, the same nature. Therefore, we all have the same final cause or purpose. The particular way that I meet my destiny or fulfill my purpose may not be the same as the particular way you meet your purpose (for instance, I may be a priest, and you may be a father of seven children). But ultimately we all have the same purpose. But what is that purpose?

Let us go back to our original terms.

Clearly the above terms call attention to the notion of movement (motion). A moving thing moves in a direction, that is, towards an end, like pool balls in the game of Pool. The white ball is heading towards the 12 ball at an angle in order that it may hit the 11 on an angle, etc., ultimately for the sake of sinking a particular ball. Now motion is the fulfillment of what exists potentially insofar as it exists potentially. For example, the pool balls on the table are at rest. They are not actually moving, but they are potentially moving.

Now the 4 ball is not going to move on its own. In other words, it is not going to give to itself what it does not have, namely motion. It will be reduced from potentially moving to actual motion only by something already in actual motion, namely the 11 ball. But the 11 ball does not reduce itself from potentially moving to actually moving except by something already in actual motion, such as the 12 ball. But the 12 ball receives actual movement by virtue of the actually moving white ball, which in turn is moved by the pool cue, etc.

Change is always a movement from potentiality to actuality. Therefore, the terms "purpose", "direction", "meaning", and "end" have to do with a movement from potentiality to actuality. Returning now to our question: "What is the purpose of human life?" In other words, what is life's end? The most general answer is simply: act. Now, act is perfection, and a perfection is an act (an actuation, a realization). The perfection or completion of a movement is the complete actualization of the movement.

But what is the act of all acts? For St. Thomas Aquinas, it is the act of existing (esse). Existence is act. Now man exists in a more eminent way than brute animal or plant, for man exists as a knowing being. Man has the power to know and to love (intellect and will). This is his specific way of existing (namely, as a knowing and willing being). And when we actually know, we become what we know in an immaterial way (the mind becomes what it knows, that is, becomes the essence of what is known). Knowledge is a mode of existing, one that involves an expansion of the self. In knowing anything, we become more than what we are (we become what we know).

The end or purpose of life will ultimately be a question of existing most fully. The purpose of my life is to exist most fully not as a plant or animal would, but as a human person would. To exist most fully is to exist most fully as a being capable of knowing and loving. And so the purpose of life will have to do with knowing something and loving something, since knowledge and love distinguish me from brute animal -- and it is the purpose of human life (not animal life) that we are searching for. The purpose of an animal's life will also be act, or the perfection of its existence. Since the animal does not have the power of intellectual knowledge and will, its perfection will consist in the perfection of its sentient nature.

And so to put it very simply, the purpose of a horse's life is to be a horse most fully and completely, by doing "horsy" things, eating the foods horses eat, becoming as strong as a horse can be, etc.. Man is specifically different than a horse or any other brute animal in that he has the ability to think and will. Man's perfection will consist in knowing and willing the highest object of his knowledge. But what does man know? He knows beings. Therefore, the purpose of human life will be to come to know and love the highest being. And the highest being can only be that being whose essence is "to be" (Ipsum Esse, or God). The purpose of life, therefore, is to know and love God.

Next Page: Chapter 24: Personhood, Integrity, and the Virtues
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