What is human life for, anyway?

By September 2, 2019Other


My apologies to those who wondered what had happened to their comments. I was getting weaker and weaker, and was suddenly packed off to hospital for a long rest, which has done me a lot of good. There may need to be a return, but so far I am doing well. Apart from sleeping, I read, and one of the books I read, indeed, am re-reading  for the third time, I think, was The Seasons of a Man’s Life, written by Daniel Levinson and others, and published in 1978. My copy’s pages have turned yellow with time, but the content remains everlastingly interesting.

A summary: all men go through the same stages of life, and these stages are well marked both in time and what happens in them. Some are obvious. Men need to leave the comfortable (or not so comfortable) surroundings of their family and strike out as independent adults. They need to find an occupation, to become a respected member of their ‘tribe’, to find a life’s partner, to found a family, and so on. These needs occur at very much the same time for all (American) men, whatever their social class, their parentage, their religion, their ethnicity. They make a decent or not so decent attempt at it all. At about thirty years comes a transition: the occupation is no longer so satisfying, or perhaps the marriage. Perhaps they move to another city altogether and start a new life. At forty they have reached the pinnacle of their occupational life. At fifty they start to wonder what the end of life will be about.

I was a youngish man when I first read the book, and it made great sense. It still does to me, for it fits my life history exactly. And it has led me to ask the question that is the title of this essay. What is life for, or about? It is a question that comes easily enough when you are 82. Earlier on, and especially when you are young, you are just living your life, looking forward to the next whatever. Levinson’s structures seem to make perfect sense. But at the end, what was it all for? I wrote a book with that title about our country, and it now seems sensible to write at least an essay about the meaning of a man’s life. (I should add that Levinson wrote another book about the seasons of a woman’s life, which I have not read, and indeed was unaware of until I started researching this essay.)

Since I have no religion, I cannot find the answer in God’s plan or in any of the other possibilities raised by other religions. And the answer really has to apply to me. What has my life been for, or about? My tentative answer goes like this. My birth itself was an accident: there were millions of other possible DAs, or at least products of the union of my parents. I was the lucky sperm: I won the life lottery. Life ends with death, so that was in my prize bag as well. At some time my life would come to an end. I have been saved from drownings, from  crashes, poisonings and the like. I’ve had a close go with ill-health at a couple of moments. But I’m still here, and probably close to the end.

Levinson says that our life is a search to find out what we are and what we are capable of. As a young man we want to be part of the adult tribe, to be respected as a contributor, to be looked up to. I think there’s a lot in that. But it doesn’t apply equally to everyone. We want to do our own thing, but equally we live in a community, and there are compromises to be made with the community. So part of our life is finding out how to tweak the twin needs to be ourselves but to be part of the society we live in — what Levinson calls ‘the tribe’. That is not at all easy.

When we’ve found what we are good at, what then? For people like me, academics, researchers, scientists, there is a greasy pole. You work harder, publish more, have newer and cleverer ideas. Eventually you get to some senior position. It may not be as senior as the one you lusted after, but it is the pinnacle of your professional career. Thereafter you have a new job, or new jobs. When I returned to the ANU, where I had won my PhD, but now as the professor and head of the department, I wondered what my next big project would be. After all, I was a ‘big project’ man. Nothing came to me. I was talking about this to an old and good friend. ‘I think you’ve got it the wrong way round,’ he said. ‘Your job now is to help your juniors with their big projects. They’ll need your help. What you’ve done so far has got you to this point. Now you have a new task.’

It didn’t sound very romantic or exciting to me, but of course he was right. In my field you mostly have your bright ideas when you are young. Then you work on them and if you are lucky something more or less important comes from them. Then you’ve done your bit. I understand that this is even more true of mathematicians and physicists. Levinson says that it’s the same for everyone. Executives peak out at about 40; so do skilled workers; so do novelists. They’ve done their best work by then. Now they wonder what to do now. Some of them simply change what they have been doing. I certainly did: from a productive researcher in a few years I had become an administrator and policy wonk. I didn’t even seek such a change: it simply came to me, and the more jobs of this kind I was asked to do the more new jobs of this kind there were. Before long I hardly knew what was happening in my old academic field.

But what was it all for?  My view is that I wanted both to make something of myself and to improve my society. I think nearly everybody wants to do this. Our society is a great deal better for most people than it was when I was young, and I wanted to help improve it further. I think I did that through my work, and I think most people, looking back, looking at the houses they helped to build, the factories where they made things that people used, the farms they have greatly improved, might want to say the same.

There are two sides to us, the individualist, who wants what he wants and wants it now, and the community member who belongs to things, puts in the hours, builds community organisations and enjoys his interaction with other member of the society. We live, and our life is a tension between these two attractors. 

Does it have a purpose? I think so. The human species has done extraordinary things in the last ten thousand years, and my hope is that it will go on doing so indefinitely. We are really special, but the tensions within us are always there. Let us recognise and tame the tensions.

Levinson’s book is not easy going, but it is thoroughly worth reading’ You’ll need Amazon or another specialist in older books if you want to buy copy. Good luck, and good reading!

Join the discussion 13 Comments

  • John says:

    Some people don’t have a purpose and never think about having one. Some are just hedonists and want to have a good time, sometimes regardless of any negative impact on others. Others would say their purpose – or is it aim? – is to make a positive difference to either an individual or a larger number of people. Some would say it’s to make a difference to the field they work in.

    Have I missed anyone? I’m not sure.

    But does life have any other purpose than what we assign to it? Do we need a purpose or is that just us trying to rationalise our somewhat accidental existence? Again I’m not sure.

    Does it really matter anyway? The alternative doesn’t hold much attraction.

  • David L says:

    Life for men might be an engagement with three eternities:
    1) Reproduction;
    2) Cultural input leading to cultural success, leading to fame, leading to remaining in the minds of future generations;
    3) A spiritual afterlife.
    These three themes are each represented in the Symposium and the Carnal Prayer Mat. They appear separately in many works.

  • Chris Warren says:

    It is good to look back at one’s life. In Australia, during the postwar decades, there were many opportunities for individuals to make contributions to society.

    The question now is to ensure that future generations have the same opportunities and for their offspring.

    Most experiences of past generations going back thousands of years, have made their contributions with having to consider possible harm to future generations. They needed to recognise no constraint on their efforts. But things are different now. A purpose for our lives know has to recognise the rights of future generations to also have a purpose.

  • Chris Warren says:

    “lives know has to …” => “lives now has to ,,,”

  • spangled drongo says:

    Thanks, Don, for asking this salient question.

    I suppose we are not much different from other life but I wouldn’t know the answer.

    However there are plenty that reckon they do with a little help from their friends:

    Extinction Rebellion co-founder reveals she was inspired to begin the climate change protest movement after taking ‘psychedelic medicines’ as group shuts down central Manchester
    •Gail Bradbrook, 47, said she ‘prayed in a deep way’ while taking substances
    •She told BBC Inside Out West that her prayer was answered within a month
    •Protests have since caused road and commuter chaos around the country
    •Latest disruption brought to Deansgate area of Manchester on Friday


  • Hasbeen says:

    I guess the clowns involved with the other children in the Extinction Rebellion think their life has a purpose, & theirs is saving the planet. I can only wonder what they are saving it from or for. I guess their “substances” have told them.

    Personally I believe life has no meaning other than what you personally assign to it. In for most people this is not much. For me it was satisfying my curiosity about things & places.
    What was it like to fly?
    What could we make with the new plastics?
    What was it like to race around Bathurst?
    What was the SDouth Pacific really like?
    What was it like to cross an ocean under sail?
    What was tropical rain forest really like?
    What were the people there like, How did they live?
    What was it like to ride a horse like the man from Snowy river?

    So many things to wonder about & so little time to find out.

    Then what was it like to raise a family?
    Would they enjoy what you could teach them?

    Sorry I haven’t had time to worry about finding a reason for our existence, I’m still looking at what it is like, rather than what it means.

  • beththeserf says:

    Appreciate your reflections, Don.

    A serf’s response. What is it about? As far as we know, no other life in the Universe reflects upon “what is it?” and “who am I?” Consciousness, invention, imitating creation, that is us, though we be flawed because we come from matter to amoeba to etcetera, … succumbing to malice aforethought and guru wish to rob us of our precious self-possession, … yet, what a work of art are we, developing descriptive and critical language, technology and science, Galileo ‘s discoveries viewed through a telescope, Watt harnessing steam power to end famine in the West, Darwin tracing evolutionary development … The arts, Shakespeare revealing self-reflective man in artful metre, Beethoven creating complex symphonies culminating in his song of man? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbJcQYVtZMo 🙂

  • Michael Dunn says:

    Don, Thanks for your blog. You have stayed committed to participating in Australia’s intellectual life, despite age and illness, bringing good sense to the topics you have addressed. You have served our country and you have been a good companion to your readers, and we hope you will stay around for a time yet.

  • Jon says:

    So I check in with your blog whenever I read the latest on the climate crisis (here’s looking at you hasbeen). Surprised and happy to be reminded of Levinson’s book I read in my 20s (now 49). Meanwhile, latest news is that for the first time in recorded history Alaska’s sea ice has fully melted, and Iceland has loat its first glacier. Will you ever concede?

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    “Why such things should be examined at all, except in a police court, I can’t imagine … It is a dispersal of energy, a misdirection of human thought into channels which lead nowhere.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Land of Mist.

  • Stu says:

    That is a very thoughtful piece of writing. Perhaps folk should also read “Critical Mass” to get further insight. From what you write I feel quite a synergy with you. I trust that now, back in your palace, you are doing well and we can enjoy your often profound thoughts some more. It is a pity others are conflating other more problematic issues into the discussion on this thread, they have been over done elsewhere, let us leave them there. Cheers good fellow.

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