Notes on the Meaning of Life: A 97-year-old Philosophy Professor
A Letter to my Friend Luciano
Chopin Mazurka Op.17 №4 Horowitz https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vmLvpJySb50
A 97-Year-Old Philosopher Faces His Own Death
Thank you, Luciano for sending me these two links.
The Chopin Mazurka Op.17 №4 Horowitz was sublime. To be listened to both before and after the video on the Meaning of Life.
The video chronicles the last months of Herbert Fingarette’s long life. The retired professor’s final months have been viewed by over 2 million people over the course of just one year. One of the viewer’s wrote in the comments that Herbert Fingarette had had a great life, one that he should have celebrated.
You and many other expatriate friends came to mind, as I watched the camera track Herbert Fingarette’s days. We’ve had the good fortune to have experienced extraordinary lives. Lives enriched by the diversity of people, language, culture and the arts. When we examine our lives, we find them dense with a life populated with many different characters, events and situations. Our boundaries extended over a landscape far beyond the place of our beginning. Unlike Chopin we haven’t created a great piece of music. Instead, we’ve written our own adventure script and played the part of explorer and adventurer, curious, open and tireless in our pursuit of meaning. I hope that when we come to our end that we celebrate that what he learned along the way. It’s been a grand journey. How many people can feel they’ve traveled the full range of experience life? Very few manage to escape and are trapped not knowing they could have broken free at any time. But didn’t. For the usual dozen reasons that crumple in the wind of time.
That brings me back for comparison with the philosophy professor.
Professor Fingarette lived in the narrow-banded academic circle his entire life, one that was psychologically and geographically bounded. He had the same house for half a century, same office, same friends, shops, restaurants. The treadmill existence but one that is admired, envied by others. He’d been a professor! He’d written a half-dozen books on various academic subjects. At the end none of that mattered.
The professor recounted his life and in his final summing up was unable to find the solace of meaning from that examination. Instead, he discovered that he’d not taken the opportunity to examine life. Like Socrates he concluded that an unexamined life isn’t worth living. Professor Finagrette adds a footnote: there are limits to the scope of examination into the mysteries, sorrows, beauty and terrors of life, which can be carried out from an armchair.
If the professor’s life had been my life — and it well could have been — I’d also have many regrets. I left a tenured position as a university professor at a prestigious university. I sometimes ask whether that was foolish of me. I wanted to explore the world. And so that’s what I did. Explored and wrote about what I discovered on the road to Ithaka. It was a path recommended, among others, by the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy. The idea of life as a journey is an old one. But it has lost meaning in modern times. When we fail to take advantage of the journey a person turns inward. But in doing so finds what does one find lurking inside? If the inward turning reveals that has the journey comes to end, no real risks were taken, and what remains is small, insignificant, meaningless. An endless set of mourning seeps into the soul. The realization is unavoidable that the safe, secure and protected life was not really living. It hits home what has been lost. Why wouldn’t one feel profound sadness and regret as the journey that beckoned all those years is no longer possible?
I’ve been fortunate to have lived a long-life, looking back over a wonderful period of existence where I my life was remade from the crucible of experience forged in the fired imagination as I traveled through exotic languages, remote cultures, and memorable encounters. The professor of philosophy, who knew the language and tools of philosophy, lamented that his life had no meaning or purpose.
Sartre thought that such an epiphany meant each of us had the freedom to choose his/her own meaning and purpose. If you didn’t fill that existential void, you would go mad or simply allow others to define it for you. Albert Camus also shared this view about life and meaning.
It was Camus who wrote that we choose to live. We could have killed ourselves. By choosing life, we accept the freedom to choose meaning.
Was the 97-year-old professor sad and depressed because he no longer believed he’d made a wise choice with his freedom? It’s hard to say. Herbert Fingarette no longer was certain about his view of the meaning of life. He lost his professorial confidence. He questioned what he’d believed without replacing that belief with something else. He showed a wisdom in assessing what had been at stake and what bets had been placed and lost. To attain the age of 97 is a rare accomplishment. In the video, it is a time for Fingarette to reflect on the meaning of his life. He confronted the harsh reality that he’d locked yourself into a small cell. He looked at his background and saw the trees and flowers for the first time. They’d always been there. But he hadn’t seen them. Until the end. In that moment, Fingarette realized having failed to observe life, the beauty around him had gone unnoticed. He could do nothing to reverse course. He stared at the trees and flowers and went back inside to his house. He’d lost the chance to plunge headfirst into life. He’d waited too long to see what life teeming outside of his window.
The irony may be that Herbert Fingarette most enduring contribution to philosophy won’t be found in the books he wrote. His philosophical legacy is an oral testament contained in an 18-minute YouTube video. What unfolds is a library of feelings about the meaning of life as he faced his own approaching death.
Existence gives us one, sometimes two or chances to set out for Ithaka. The professor passed onto me a gift: My journey, long and hard, filled with many pleasant and unpleasant things, like books, constructed the meaning of life. My choices, my freedom to choose are the mirror that I see my face. I see it change as I write a long chronicle of what I experienced. I’m not alone. I’m blessed to be surrounded by people from many different nationalities and ethnic groups who chose their freedom wisely. These travelers of life have no regrets. It was the dive for the pearl; not finding it that they remember. Will others follow setting out on their own marvelous journey?
Perhaps they should listen to The Chopin Mazurka Op.17 №4 Horowitz while reading C.P. Cavafy Ithaka.
*Join me on YouTube: Book Talk Conversations where I examine the journey of original thinkers by mapping the significant books that influenced them in choosing their path. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC6-2NodomKW-ZFNs9Vuj8Mw/featured
C.P. Cavafy Ithaka
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
the sensual perfume of every kind-
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her, you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
Translated by Edmund Keeley/ Phillip Sherrard
The poem is from www.cavafy.com