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By: Lida Prypchan

Seeking a Meaning in Life

We have two images of the Middle Ages. Although these are opposing images, together they form one truth, a bold portrayal of the virtues and vices of what to us is an ancient era. It would be extremist, as well as an error, to vehemently accept only one of these images. The true significance of the era would be incomplete.

Rationalists refer to the Middle Ages as an age lacking in personal liberty an age of superstition and ignorance. On the other hand, reactionary philosophers who criticize capitalism, which developed later, are of a different opinion. They point out that one of the benefits was the priority given to human need, economic need being only secondary. There was more unity among men, relationships were better and, most importantly, due to the unchanging social order of the times, people found more meaning in existence and in their lives. Due to the fact that from birth man had a specific and unchangeable place in the society to which he belonged, he found himself deeply rooted in a structured environment, it was therefore logical that all this should provide man with a feeling of security and a sense of belonging. It should be added that at that point in time awareness of one’s own (or another’s) individual self and the world as unique and separate entities had not yet developed. Nevertheless, during the Renaissance, the period following the Middle Ages, a fundamental change occurred in the structure of society and the nature of man and his connection to social environment. That cozy medieval world suffused with unity and brotherhood – according to those who idealize it – declined and in its place money, individual economic initiative and competition grew in importance. The type of life where one could earn a living from a single occupation ceased to exist, giving rise to that dreadful competitiveness that generates an anxious search for new resources because those that are available are not sufficient for maintaining the calm working environment that once existed. A new moneyed class developed. The place where medieval society first fell apart was Italy, as a result of political and economic factors. This new age, the Renaissance, ushered in the concept of the individual as a unique and separate entity. Now a new freedom would arise: the freedom to go one’s own way without that feeling of unity and brotherhood that existed during the Middle Ages. Yes, freedom and individuality indeed, but spiked with a fear of the unknown, fear of being separated from the protection of a group of workers, individuality laced with isolation, doubt, skepticism and anguish. This was the consequence of capitalism during the Renaissance. Because of it the meaning of life began to crumble. Even though individual freedom had increased, it did not fill the vacuum created by the new social structure. So, to obliterate his feeling of insignificance amidst his surroundings, man began a search for frame and power. That was how man silenced his nagging doubts in those times, and perhaps still does today. He does it with immortality in mind: to justify his time on Earth he must elevate his individual life beyond limitations and instability to the plane of indestructibility, otherwise he must face a question the answer to which causes doubt and fear, and would confirm the fact that the existence of any state of internal harmony to help us function in this life is evidently doubted.

Now, if we compare the above with life today we will note that suicides, which have been gradually on the increase, are an extremely serious problem in this century. It is believed that by the year 2000 the greatest number of medical emergencies will be of a psychiatric nature. I think there is a certain nostalgia nowadays for an ideology. In the life of modern man there is no tacit agreement on how to live together. We live like packaged souls, imprisoned in apartments that prevent us from expanding our thoughts, ruled by the relentless passage of time, moved by feelings of obligation, rather that inspiration for work that we love, surrounded by fascinating gadgetry which, like a drug, distracts us from the fundamental objectives of being human. We turn on all our gadgets to allow ourselves not to think about what we want, because if we devote ourselves to that we arrive at the conclusion that death is the only constant, while everything else is subject to changing circumstance. In modern society where the competition is so barbaric, while we exhaust our nervous systems devising schemes to maintain ourselves economically, we do not cultivate, neither does society encourage us to cultivate, even a smidgen of internal peace and tranquility.

As the spiritual life of our time develops, it is stamped by the following characteristics: a weakening of established systems, a desperate search for new meaning to life, the appearance of numerous prophets, false sects and societies, and a proliferation of the most absurd superstitions.