On the Importance of Finding Meaning in Life
In March of 1877, Ulysses S. Grant left the presidency with a sullied reputation. It was a tough pill to swallow for a man who emerged from the ruins of civil war with a prestige and renown that appeared beyond reproach to both friend and foe. Yet a decade marked by corruption, graft, and an… The post On the Importance of Finding Meaning in Life appeared first on VoegelinView.

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In March of 1877, Ulysses S. Grant left the presidency with a sullied reputation. It was a tough pill to swallow for a man who emerged from the ruins of civil war with a prestige and renown that appeared beyond reproach to both friend and foe. Yet a decade marked by corruption, graft, and an unprecedented transfer of wealth left a stain on the war-hero-turned-president’s legacy as he departed from public life.
He was a good man: among the most ethical and honest to have ever served that office, but he was handicapped by his virtues.
Grant was a simple man: in peace and in war, his word was his bond. He was gentle to the weak, merciful to the vanquished, and as trusting as he was forgiving. Instilled in him from an early age by his devout Christian mother was a firm belief in the possibility of individual redemption. Consequently, his clemency showed itself to be without bounds. Grant himself once proudly remarked, “I have made it the rule of my life to trust a man long after other people give him up.”[1]
But this clemency he often carried far beyond the line of prudence. In the ruthless swamp that is Washington, this trust made Grant appear less as a shrewd statesman and more a gullible simpleton. Consequently, his administration was populated with countless self-serving, unethical, and unqualified officials who practiced corruption without conscience or concealment.
Just not Grant himself. In fact, he sacrificed his financial well-being in order to serve. In those days, there existed a rule that required military officers to forfeit their pensions if they sought to run for public office. So as Grant departed from the White House, he departed with the funds accumulated from the salaries of his generalship and his presidency—a sizable sum, but not enough to be care-free for life. Much of this money was used to fund what was to become the trip of a lifetime: a world tour which would begin in a Manchester harbor and take him across the globe. He met Queen Victoria in London, Bismarck in Berlin, Alexander II in Moscow, Leo XIII in Rome, Meiji in Tokyo, even the King of Siam (today, Thailand)—it seemed he had shaken the hand of all the world’s leaders, all in two-and-a-half years.
Yet as his returning ship pulled into dock in San Francisco, it became clear that Grant, now fifty-seven years old, would have to find a way to generate an income. In those days, there were no Netflix deals, no lucrative seats on corporate boards, not even any lavish speaking fees. To make matters worse, Grant himself had a lengthy track record of failed ventures that made clear his lack of understanding of both business and money.
Recognizing this, Grant thought his foray into business would be more profitable if it were his money that he put to work, rather than his person. He invested his entire fortune, all $100,000 of it, into a fund managed by his son and a young financial savant named Ferdinand Ward. All Grant had to do was to put his name on the door and pop into the small Wall Street office every now and then.
For a time, this pseudo-retirement was an immense success. Grant relaxed and puffed his cigars as the young Ward and his financial wizardry pumped out enormous returns for the firm. The only problem was that Ward was actually running what we today would call a Ponzi Scheme. Soon enough, Grant & Ward imploded and the former president was left on the verge of bankruptcy.
Not long after, Grant received devastating news: a cancer in his throat meant that he likely had but one year left to live. With the aid of Mark Twain, he was able to secure a generous publishing deal for a complete autobiography.
As the months rolled along, the debilitated Grant, donning a simple woolen cap and a heavy knitted scarf, sat slumped in a chair writing his memoirs. He wrote day and night, despite frequent, excruciating pain. The simple act of drinking water, one of his assistants recalled, felt to him like drinking molten lead.
We must remember that Grant was no man of letters, he was a military man through and through. Yet what he lacked in eloquence, he made up for in the candid simplicity of his speech. What was said of Pericles the Athenian—that he prayed to the gods that he might never utter a word that wasn’t to the point—might also be said of the taciturn Grant.
It was in this noble pursuit that Grant found meaning in the final chapter of his life. Twain, who watched in awe as the sickly Grant cranked out page after page, was convinced that the strength of his spirit would will the body to persist until the deed was done. His assessment proved correct: just days after completing the final manuscript, Grant passed away.
While there is no way of knowing for sure, like Twain I believe that Grant’s commitment to this higher purpose prolonged his life. The human body is an infinitely complex system, one that has yet to be fully understood. But what we have come to understand is that physical health cannot be separated from mental health. One may even say that physical health is mental health, or a reflection at least. A man’s life, in many ways, is the outward manifestation of his inner thoughts. And as Grant shows us, a man’s inner harmony can withstand even the toughest external blows — if he wills it. The world is neither with us nor against us; indeed, our life is putty in our hands. Our thoughts alone, if we allow them, can shape it into a heaven or a hell.
While Fortune is the arbiter of much of our lives, She still leaves us to direct a great deal ourselves. In fact, to the ancients, a man could learn to triumph over Fortune: the more virtus he possessed, the less he would be subject to Fortune or made to yield to Her whims. Just consider the vivid description provided by Plutarch:
Fortune is not a producer of perfect unhappiness if she does not have Vice to co-operate with her. For as a thread saws through the bone that has been soaked in ashes and vinegar, and as men bend and fashion ivory when it has been made soft and pliable by beer, but cannot do so otherwise, so Fortune, falling upon that which is of itself ill-affected and soft as the result of Vice, gouges it out and injures it. And just as the Parthian poison, though harmful to no one else nor injurious to those who touch it and carry it about, if it is merely brought into the presence of wounded men, it straightway destroys them, since they receive its effluence because of their previous susceptibility; so he who is liable to have his soul crushed by Fortune must have within himself some festering wound of his own in order that it may make whatever befalls him from without pitiful and lamentable.
Nietzsche, writing not long after Grant’s death, would attest that he who has a why can bear almost any how. And while the history of man is a tragedy that is at once both abject and noble; now and then, it is redeemed by the words and deeds of truly great men such as Grant. Men of energy, men of purpose. By focused, intentional and unrelenting study of the lives and work of such figures, even a modest man can carve out a place of praise for himself. By such study, a man will come to discover not only a noble why, but also a thoughtful, sometimes comforting, guide: vivid accounts chronicling the most trying and desperate of hows. It is as the early French writer Philippe de Commynes explained:
One of the greatest means to make a man wise is to have studied histories of ancient times, and to have learned to frame and proportion our counsels and undertakings according to the model and example of our ancestors: for our life is but of short duration, and not sufficient to give us experience of so many things.[2]
One of the men who led the way in bringing such wisdom to the common man is Aldus Manutius. A prolific humanist, his influence was definitively surpassed only by the great Francesco Petrarca (known today simply as Petrarch). In his own day, however, his reputation ranked second to none. Once held immortal, his name now lies hidden, enveloped by the dense, all-consuming fogs of history. Nevertheless, his work opened a new world for generations rich and poor.
Despite the volumes he produced, little is known of Aldus the man. What we do know is that he was born in the small town of Bassiano (c. 1450), named Aldo Manuzio, the Latinization of his name would come many years later after a thorough education in Latin and Greek at Ferrara. It was here that Aldus caught the itch for the classics that had swept like an epidemic across the Italian peninsula. After a brief stint lecturing and some years of tutoring, he decided to utilize the new technology that had emerged in Germany to found what was to become Italy’s most respected publishing company, the Aldine Press. This was to be the why to which Aldus would dedicate his life. He spelled out his mission in no uncertain terms in the preface to one of his first translations, that of Aristotle’s Organon:
Those who cultivate letters must be supplied with the books necessary for their purpose; and until this supply is secured I shall not rest.
His plan was simple. Collect, translate, edit, print, and distribute at the lowest possible cost all of the significant works of antiquity that had been miraculously salvaged from the storms of time. But this was no small task. The mere challenge of locating existing manuscripts was but one of countless obstacles for a venture that one might expect only to be successfully completed between cleaning the Augean stables and capturing the Erymanthian boar. By any objective measure, this was a race against time that Aldus could not win. And even if this herculean task were to be completed, who was to say that a book-buying market would even emerge from the public to appreciate his work?
With so much then uncertain, all those whose lives have been enriched by the classic works of antiquity must be forever grateful that Aldus was certain of himself and the nobility of his pursuit.
He set up shop at his home in Venice. It was here that he gathered an impressive collection of Greek and Latin scholars (one of which, for a time, being a young unknown named Erasmus); he welcomed them with food, board, manuscripts, cast, and ink before promptly sending them off to work. A simple sign above the door to his study made clear his priorities to all who knew him:
Whoever thou art, thou art earnestly requested by Aldus to state thy business briefly, and to take thy departure promptly… For this is a place of work.[3]
And seldom did he leave that place of work. Aldus devoted himself night and day to his enterprise with a tenacity of purpose that was borderline sociopathic; he grew so absorbed in the project that he neglected his family, friends, and even his own health. When death came, Aldus was exhausted and poor, likely somewhat relieved, but without a doubt fulfilled. All the wisdom and glory, majesty and splendor of ancient Greece and imperial Rome was now available to anyone who cared to read it. And according to one surviving letter from a scholar in Basel to a friend, there was a ravenous appetite among the public:
At this very moment a whole wagon load of classics, of the best Aldine editions, has arrived from Venice. Do you want any? If you do, tell me at once, and send the money, for no sooner is such a freight landed than thirty buyers rise up for each volume, merely asking the price, and tearing one another’s eyes out to get hold of them.[4]
Plutarch, Herodotus, Thucydides, Sophocles, Euripides, Demosthenes, Aristophanes, Plato, and Aristotle; Quintilian, Virgil, Juvenal, Horace, Lucretius, Sallust, Seneca, and (with due thanks to Petrarch) Cicero—all were now available, with each book bearing the Aldus’s trademark phrase Festina lente (‘make haste slowly’) and stamp of a dolphin, symbolizing speed, wound around an anchor, signifying stability.
I cannot help but be reminded by these examples of the closing words of a long-winded speech documented by Appian in his Roman History, “In war, the greatest hope lies in the justice of one’s cause.”[5]
I think this message is so powerful because it extends itself beyond the fields of war and into all areas of life. It holds in it both a Christian motif, that Good will triumph over Evil, and a Stoic one—of patience, discipline, and responsibility.
Greed, self-aggrandizement and gluttony has made many a man hopeful: for riches, women, fame, or influence—but why does it leave so many unfulfilled? Because such people only actually want one thing: more. The problem, of course, is that there will always be more to be had: more material goods, more (and better looking) women, more expansive fame, more profound influence. It is a meaningless cause, one that ignores responsibility to one’s fellow man or to a certain set of principles. As a result, there is little hope to be had in such pursuits.
On the other hand, the greatest hope is to be found in clearly-defined pursuits, objectives that are intermingled with clearly-defined principles of morality and imbibed with a rigid sense of duty. The Stoics so strongly advocated a commitment to duty because they recognized that, left unchecked, our desires and passions have a tendency to increase without limit and, ultimately, ruin us. For this reason, we must follow Seneca’s counsel:
Finem constitue, quem transire ne possis quidem si velis.[6]
(Set a limit for yourself, which you cannot cross even if you want to.)
The only path of prudence is then to impose strict limits on our wants and needs and follow them without scruple.  In doing this, we form the moral bedrock of our life’s purpose. Absent this foundation, the whims of Fortune are of sufficient strength to bring the whole structure tumbling down with the slightest tremor. This is the ultimate outcome for most. Without a strong foundation, the harshness of life causes the edifice to gradually erode away. But what then, after hope, is left? Consumerism? Hedonism? Cynicism? Nihilism? Epicureanism? Unless we turn the tide, we will soon find out.
So if it is a higher purpose that we seek, let us first find ourselves a noble goal.

NOTES:

[1] Ron Chernow, Grant (Penguin Books, 2017), pp. 729
[2] Philippe de Commynes, The Memoirs of Philippe de Commines, Lord of Argenton (Henry G. Bohn, 1855), pp. 116
[3] Will Durant, The Renaissance: A History of Civilization in Italy (Simon & Schuster, 1953), pp. 70
[4] Will Durant, The Reformation: A History of European Civilization from Wycliffe to Calvin (Simon & Schuster, 1957), pp. 43
[5] Appian, The Histories (Loeb, 1913), IV.97
[6] Seneca, Epistularum Moralium ad Lucilium, II.15

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