James Leroy Wilson's blog

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Selling Meaning, Selling Life

As I write this I'm listening to Howard Bloom, author of The Lucifer Principle and Global Brain, being interviewed on Coast to Coast AM. He mentioned "selling meaning," and that Osama bin Laden is one of the best at it.

I'm noting it because it is one way to frame things - another way to look at the world. Selling meaning.

Defining life's "meaning" is like defining hypochondria. I think it was Florence King in National Review a decade ago who said that hypochondria was its own antonym. What is a person obsessed with being sick? A hypochondriac. What is a person obsessed with being well? A hypochondriac.

I call that ironic paradox.

(As opposed to ironic hyperbole. What is ironic hyperbole? When people use "literally" when they mean "figuratively" or "metaphorically" to emphasize a point, as in "you are literally driving me up the wall.")

Life's purpose or meaning is an instance of ironic paradox. The reason to live is the reason to die. Perhaps the reason to live is the reason to kill, if the situation ever arises. Meaning is that which is more important than life itself, and since we all die, we have to believe that there is a greater value than life.

But is there? Is there a greater value than life? If there are gods, angels, and demons in the world, they will try to enlist us in their own battles against each other. That's the seduction of religion, that we can do God's work, as if God is impotent, and Truth needs our "help" to triumph. It's also the seduction of power: we kill the unbelievers of the true faith (or ideology), before they kill us. Sometimes, there may be some merit to this, but often people kill out of theoretical guessing games of what their supposed enemies might do instead of what they've actually done, or out of sheer hatred of the fact that these enemies are "unbelievers."

It seems to me that those who live for something, but would not die for it, are at a genetic dead end. Is cowardice a virtue? Does "let the women and children die so I may live" make any sense? Will the coward die a contented man?

There are also those who would live for something, and kill for it, but not die for it. They are called criminals. Think of bank robbers. They want money, and they would kill for money (as a Plan B), but it is self-evident that they won't die for money. It is in our interests to capture such people and make them pay for their crimes.

But then there are those who would live for something AND die for it AND kill for it. There is no reasoning with these people, no compromise, no negotiation. And they come in every stripe - each one as reprehensible as any other, even if you happen to agree with one stripe more than with the others. They are the most dangerous people, and they occupy the highest offices of academia, religion, and government in every country. Their hearts are full of evil, which they interpret as good. Their interpretation of justice is the destruction of their enemies, regardless of the "collateral damage."

Usually, what is sold is ideals rather than reality. It is okay for us to blow up Iraqi civilians alongside insurgents, because the "greater good" of "democracy" is accomplished. We don't pause to consider that perhaps our Islamic enemies also believe that their killing is for the "greater good," and that their hearts are just as sincere, and their minds just as rational and convinced of the truth as ours.

The reality, however, is widespread mocking of the Golden Rule: we murder parents, children, and spouses for our cause, but refuse to forgive our enemies when they do exactly the same thing with the limited resources they have.

It seems to me that life itself is the one value, the one ideal, for which one would die for, but not kill for. Life is reality as we know it, not an ideal to be imposed on others. That doesn't mean we wouldn't kill in defense, but that it makes no sense to kill for an abstraction called "Life." Killing in defense of life is one thing, but killing for the ideal of "life" isn't paradox, isn't irony, but rather flat-out contradiction. Life is the one "idea" that can't be idealized. Life is reality as we know it.

The value of life isn't that it guarantees free minds or free markets, because it doesn't. Nor does it guarantee happiness. But it does guarantee survival of the human race, which is the minimal requirement: you need life in order to enjoy the good things in life.

Bill Bonner once was asked, "If you could only give your son one piece of advice, what would be the one thing you would tell him?" The answer, "The means are the ends." In that:

The ends may be wonderful or asinine. You don't know. But when the means are sordid, the whole project is tainted from the get-go. In the worse cases, the world improvers have blood on their hands; all the good intentions in the world won't wash it away.

Better to focus on the means. Work hard. Think clearly. Say please and thank you. Smell the cork before you drink the wine. Buy low; sell high. Be humble. Be happy. Who knows; you may even get the ends you craved.

And the #1 means, the base of all other means, is to respect the lives of others, to recognize that they have as much a right to life as you.

The question is, can this message sell, that life is, itself, the meaning of life?

Perhaps not to the masses, but maybe to a niche audience. Even if there are few buyers, it is worth selling.


  1. Anonymous9:33 AM PDT

    From John Brown to the "creative destruction" of the neocons, and the "noble fabrications" of the SPLC, certain people believe that the harm they do in pursuit of some vindicating ideal makes it all worth while. Here's a wonderful refutation to them and their perverted deeds.

  2. Everett Wilson3:40 PM PDT

    And everytime you buy low and sell high, you are taking advantage of the poor fish at the other end of the deal. That is a pretty shallow description of the good life.

  3. Bonner is suggesting two things here. The first, be prudent. The second and more important - don't hold on to something when you think it is over-valued, when you'd rather have the money than the stock (or whatever it is). And just because you, a free individual, thinks it is over-valued, doesn't mean that it is in fact overvalued. Everyone makes their own subjective value judgments; there is no objective "value" for anything in life. It is absurd to suggest that selling at a high price inherently means taking advantage of the buyer. The buyer doesn't have to buy. In this sense, "buy low, sell high" is just a brief way of saying, "Be responsible and a faithful steward."

  4. One difficulty with selling the idea of life as its own meaning is that most people want to avoid responsibility for creating and maintaining meaning in life. They want a pre-packaged meaning that requires no assembly, and to have this they will follow almost any crank that offers it even unto death.

  5. Anonymous12:04 PM PDT

    James L says "It is absurd to suggest that selling at a high price inherently means taking advantage of the buyer."

    everett again:
    Sell that to the small shopkeeper in a poor neighborhood, who can get almost nothing wholesale. Sell that to the people who must buy from the shopkeeper because they have no means to get to a larger market.

  6. You wrote, "and everytime you buy low and sell high, you are taking advantage of the poor fish at the other end of the deal."

    Taking issue with "everytime," I said, "inherently."

    By the way, it costs the seller more per unit, in time and transportation, to sell a few items rather than a large number of items. Who's to say when a "fair" price is reached, other than when the buyer would prefer to part with their money and have the good, and the seller would rather part with the item and get the money.