The most impactful idea in the book is his discussion of nihilism and eternalism. Nihilism is the belief that everything is meaningless, and eternalism is the belief that the world has a singular objective meaning. Nihilism is visible in moments of depression, materialism, and intellectualization. Eternalism is visible in traditional religions, the religion of science, and anything else that ascribes a true meaning to the world. Nihilism is the feeling of “what’s the point?”; eternalism is the stance of “here’s The Point.”
Most people are familiar with Nihilism, and generally understand it to be unsustainable and not-so-helpful. What most people don’t talk about is the existence, and failures, of eternalism. And that’s because everyone wants eternalism to be true.
A lot of people think they’re above eternalism because they’re not traditionally religious. But they’ve slotted in a replacement with the same underlying belief: that universal objective meaning exists. See: careerism as the ultimate fulfillment of potential, romance as the most valuable expression of life, exploration of self through art as the one true journey, scientific progress as the mission of the human species, etc.
Meaningness points out how people bounce between these two ends of the spectrum. The instinct when rejecting obviously-flawed nihilism is to think eternalism is the only other possibility. So you find some eternalistic belief to hang on to before once again slipping back to the pull of nihilism. You catch yourself, and the cycle starts over again. This bouncing can happen over a period of months, hours, or even minutes.
Life advice generally sucks, but even people who know this still crave it and its accompanying inspiration. Looking at how inspiration and advice play in the nihilism/eternalism spectrum provides an interesting look at why.
People lean into their eternalistic instincts when giving advice. There’s always some part of you that recognizes lofty advice can’t be true, because you subconsciously know the failures of eternalism. But at the same time it’s so comforting to hear someone speak from that perspective that it’s hard to resist taking shelter in it. You yearn for it to be true, so you can be inspired back onto a path of meaning.
When people are feeling uninspired it’s often an expression of having drifted away from the warm embrace of eternalism. On some level they’ve recognized its defects and find it hard to use it as a motivating world view anymore. They’ve drifted towards nihilism and need to hear someone speak as if they are convinced of an eternalistic world view.
For example, this is why people love going to conferences for their professions. Conferences gather people who collectively share a hope that their work is objectively meaningful and important. Get enough of them talking to each other and the evidence starts piling up. “All these other people think their work is objectively meaningful and important too!” The hopeful eternalistic flame that had been sputtering out from contact with the real world gets reignited. You feel a lot better (for a while)!
This is not to say that the work is meaningless! There probably is meaning in the work, and there is meaning in your professional relationships. Inspiration also isn’t bad — the best inspiration comes from genuine moments of meaning you experience. But attempting to systematize some objective underlying pattern of meaning based on an experience will keep you rocketing between nihilism and eternalism forever.
Said another way, your work might be meaningful, but it doesn’t give meaning to your dog getting sick. Other eternalistic systems may cover the work-and-dog meaning spectrum, but inevitably have different edges to their maps.
The second half of last year I developed a serious interest in boxing. I had never watched boxing before that, had never even really thought about it. But in boxing I discovered an entire subculture with an entirely new eternalistic ethos that was fascinating!
Boxing is a sports culture where embodying the “warrior” ethos is the highest good. A loss in boxing isn’t as large a failure as the failure to adhere to the warrior ethos. There is no shame in a loss that you prepared seriously for, fought with all your strength, and lost due to getting knocked out. A win can be less meaningful than a loss.
For a good glimpse at this ethos watch the first three minutes of this HBO pre-fight documentary.
This is a very attractive eternalistic viewpoint! It feels old. You think “this is how everyone used to live”. There were no guarantees, no fallbacks. Simply a person in a ring, and the ethos that brought them respect.
But of course after a little while you have the inevitable drift from any eternalistic viewpoint. With respect to boxing it’s hard to ignore that there’s no real point to fighters taking and receiving permanent/painful mental/physical damage. We live in a society where fighting just shouldn’t be as necessary anymore. The warrior ethos isn’t important in a more self-aware world where most things can be resolved with discussion.
Things at times can appear to have the most deep, important, and objective meaning. But turn them over intellectually in your head for a while and they can suddenly appear meaningless.
This is the same quandary that people stumble upon half-jokingly at times: “what does my job matter when there’s starving people in the world?”
The balance of these two forces — eternalism and nihilism — is the conflict that Meaningness explores so well. We so clearly experience undeniable meaning in our lives, but struggle when there is also so much that is meaningless. We crave the certainty of knowing that life is one or the other — meaningful or meaningless.
The most initially-frustrating aspect of the book is that Chapman doesn’t deeply explore his own framework he’s constructed for engaging with the world (his tantalizing name for it — The Complete Stance — makes it all the harder to resist). But after sitting on it for some time, it feels reasonable that the answers aren’t more deeply explored.
His perspective seems to boil down to this: accept meaning as it presents itself. Don’t take an ounce of meaning and try to abstract it into 800 pounds of unsustainable eternalist life philosophy. Then you won’t have the inevitable crash down into nihilism when that eternalist approach fails you. With this approach you can stop bouncing as hard across the spectrum while still experiencing the importance and depth of meaning. The fact that Meaningness doesn’t attempt to present easy answers makes its truth only more valuable.