The absurdity of modern man is that he is looking for meaning in a universe he believes to have no original purpose. This is the basis of Albert Camus’ philosophy which he aptly named ‘The absurd.’ His observation points to the fundamental break between the human experience and the modern perception of the universe as a cosmic machine without a creator, slowly winding down with no particular function or purpose. The purpose of something is its aim, goal, or objective. The objective for an individual or society is an ideal, that is, a vision of a future that could be. Naturally, individuals vary upon what they hold as an ideal for themselves, perhaps it is to be a good parent, have a successful career, make beautiful works of art, be an Olympic athlete, do something that has never been done before, or make a significant scientific discovery etc. Regardless, people need an ideal because ideals guide life.
The question of what someone should do or what they should avoid doing is only answerable if they have a standard in mind. Without a stand their choice will be arbitrary and ineffective. For instance, with the ideal of being a world-class athlete, it becomes obvious that the person should train as much as possible, maintain a strict diet, and make sure to rest and care for their body. However the specifics of how much to train and exactly what to eat remains vague, people need specific information and examples. This is why people copy each other, specifically the people who match their ideal the closest. For children, their ideal and example are their parents which is why parenting is so critical for children. Parents become a child’s template for life and all future relationships. Parents are their children’s ideal, which is why young children admire them so much. To every young child with a mother and a father, the parents become heroes. Children will say things like “my mother is the best at this” or “my father is the strongest person alive” These comments reveal the child’s esteem and their idealization often to the point of adorable hyperbole. If a young child is not saying these sorts of things it is assigned that their relationship with their parents likely has serious problems.
Naturally, as children age into adolescence and young adulthood, their view of their parents shifts to something more realistic. At the same time, they find peers, “second fathers,” and other role models to be a guide and a stand-in for their ideals. Finally, when a person reaches adulthood, they imitate other adults they admire, historical and religious figures, or even abstract virtues and cultural values directly. This progression is natural and of course there can be exceptions, as children can imitate virtues and adults can look to their parents as role models. But as individuals age their role models broaden and become more abstract.
The common thread is admiration. The feeling of admiration is an instinct that guides people towards those who are worth imitating. It is really the embodiment of an ideal, at least in part, that deserves admiration. To admire reflects a desire to change, to abandon part of who you are to be like something better.
The problem with modern times is that there are few worth admiring. Our historical figures, old stories, and traditional values are now deemed problematic, backwards, and regressive. Liberal society embraces many competing systems of belief and values in an attempt to be universalist. Ultimately what it accepts is the ever shrinking intersection of values between many divergent worldviews. What is left is the most dillutated, minimal ideal for human life. A life with no suffering, a reasonable amount of comfort and pleasure, and a desire to keep work to a minimum. By embracing every standard, we are left with almost no standard at all. In fact, the ideal most people would use in their lives is little more than what they would use for the lives of their pets: what more could they hope for than a life without suffering with some good times sprinkled in? The result is an ever growing sense of apathy, exhaustion, and depression with the exception of those motivated to equally distribute the good times to all. If the modern ideal is an every-day hedonism then the model moral crusade is to make sure that this respectable hedonism is universally available. It is not a problem that life has been reduced to an all-you-can-eat-buffet of food, drink, entertainment, and sex, it is that there are not enough tickets to the buffet being handed out and the ones that are need to be distributed more equitably.
According to Aristotle, a fulfilled and good life is based on realizing your potential and acting upon it. Fulfillment does not come necessarily from achieving the goal but from the work and progress made towards it. If meaning in life is the pursuit of some higher ideal, then the modern view of life has no meaning at all. By teaching you to seek pleasure and avoid suffering, it is teaching you to avoid finding anything worth suffering for. Since an ideal is a vision of what could be and not what is, it requires dedication and work to bring it into reality or even to make an attempt. Creating something wonderful, useful, or beautiful, building a family, or achieving something great requires some self-sacrifice and suffering. The truth is that our lives will be spent anyway and we will experience suffering regardless. The unspoken lie of the age of comfort is that if we live a life of safe, self-centered happiness, the problem of our eventual demise and purposeless existence can quietly be put out of our minds and ignored in blissful ignorance. This is the life of a domesticated cow put out to pasture, free to wander and roam the fields and eat, oblivious of its future as an entree on a plastic tray in a fast-food chain restaurant. The purpose of life is not to waste it in the comfortable fog of the present moment because such a life might as well have never existed. The purpose of life is for it to be sacrificed for the true, the good, and the beautiful. This is the only way for life to continue and the only way for life to transcend itself.
The ancient Hebrew people believed in sacrificing animals as a means of reconciling themselves to God. A young bull would be slaughtered and its blood would be splashed on the top and the sides of the altar. The blood represented a restoration of the communities relationship to God and to each other. The meat and the other valuable parts of the bull were burned for the smoke to rise up to the sky, towards the infinite, and ultimately to God. In those days, the Hebrew people were primarily a pastoral society, the common man spent his life personally raising and maintaining his flock or herd. It was both a job and a means of subsistence, as the animals were both a source of income and food. A bull was a substantial amount of wealth since it was the most valuable animal. Raising a bull requires a massive amount of food and over a year of work to raise. In times when famine was still common, this kind of sacrifice was a significant portion of their food and fortune, and all of it was destroyed in the worship of God. This the meaning of sacrifice, a valuable otherwise mundane offering dedicated by its complete destruction to a higher purpose. The act of the offering being dedicated transforms it from the common to the sacred.
The Hebrews believed that sacrifice is the only real way to be better, the only way of truly reconciling themselves to God and each other. Sacrifice is the only means of restoration because sacrifice is the heart of love. To give of one’s self for another is the act of love. True love must be selfless and uplifting to the other, it is from this love that relationships can be built. Further, performing the act of sacrifice is a belief that a better future is possible. The equation between a slaughtered bull on one side and right-standing with God on the other is not balanced. As costly as the sacrifice is, it is never worth what is being sacrificed for. Yet trusting that the offering will be enough and will be accepted is faith. Finally, knowing that the sacrifice can be made is hope. To the Hebrews, atonement or reconciliation with God was ordinarily impossible and was only available through sacrifice. Knowing that what was believed to be impossible is now made possible is hope. The act of sacrifice is the avenue to the highest virtues of faith, hope, and love.
The choice is either to live a life of directionless, self-satisfaction or to sacrifice life in the pursuit of an ideal. Since we have one life, its sacrifice should be put towards the greatest aim, the highest ideal. The highest ideal must be good and true and beautiful, in fact it must encompass everything true and good and beautiful. It must inspire new acts of creation, and should inspire all of creation. As Plato taught, it must precede and shape all of reality. It must be destiny, a reason for the past, direction for the present, and a hope for the future. This highest ideal must cover your life from beginning to end. This is what is meant by “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,’ says the Lord, ‘Who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.’” Revelation 1:8. The highest ideal is the Christian God, the creator of, reason for, and end to everything. God is the standard for what is good and true and beautiful and should be the subject of our highest admiration, worship. Naturally, we need an example, an embodiment to imitate and pattern our lives after. Christ that perfect example, since he is God as man.
The desire to be better reflects humanity’s purpose, to live a life that imitates God. Such a life is difficult, it is a perpetual sacrifice of who you are for who you should be. There is only one real comfort, that living the virtuous life has been done by many good people following Christ as their ideal and example.