How does one define a purpose to life?


“What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” - Friedrich Nietzsche


In the previous chapter of Understanding Life n.2, it was explained that Nietzsche among other philosophers believed that people eventually fall into a nihilist mood because they don’t have a specific meaning and defined purpose in life. He believed that to be able to overcome nihilism, one must reach one’s higher self and create one’s own worldview by not following a mass movement. Every person contains a seed of unrealised potential, and one’s purpose in life should be to realise that potential. 

Nietzsche thought that every single person contains a seed of unrealised potential, and that one’s purpose in life should be to realise that such potential. Who a person is and what they want should not merely be based on mass movements, but instead on what can be found within. But he also believed that the task of becoming who you are is the most difficult task there is. Everyone has an inner voice that urges them to accomplish something great and to chase their dream, but most people repress this inner voice because they lack the courage and strength to listen to it.

Secondly, he thought that an individual needs to have an ‘organised idea’ – an ultimate goal that they desire to accomplish. The specifics of the goal are not important; what matters is the difficulty of the task; the more difficult it is, the greater one will have to become in order to accomplish it.

Such a goal could be to construct a great mathematical system, to become a top chef, to make the next medical breakthrough or to scale the most dangerous mountain peaks in the world.

In Japan, ‘takumi’ is a word given to artisans who have been working on a specific craft all their life with great discipline and devotion to become the very best in their field. Their ultimate goal is to achieve true mastery in their field and, according to their philosophy, the art of mastering a skill is their meaning of life. But to be able to reach that level, they devote their life to mastering their skill, working on their subject matter for over 60,000 hours. 

From Nietzsche’s point of view, they are closer to the ultimate feeling of nirvana.


What does not kill us makes us stronger

How do you select that one goal?

Nietzsche had some advice for those individuals who do not yet know what they want to achieve in life: to look within yourself and find out what you love, or, as he puts it in Untimely Meditations:

“Let the youthful soul look back on life with the question: what have you truly loved up to now, what has elevated your soul, what has mastered it and at the same time delighted it? Place these venerated objects before you in a row, and perhaps they will yield for you, through their nature and their sequence, a law, the fundamental law of your true self… for your true nature lies, not hidden deep within you, but immeasurably high above you, or at least above that which you normally take to be yourself.”

He explains that an individual who finds a goal and sets out on a path in life to realise it will soon find that this path is fraught with setbacks, difficulties and pain. However, he believes that these difficulties are part of the journey of reaching one’s higher self. Those who strive after mighty goals will inevitably face pain and suffering but in many cases, people decide to return to the comforts of mediocrity. Nietzsche thought such failed attempts occur largely because most people only see a negative side to suffering and are ignorant with regard to its value. 

The Will to Power effectively reveals the importance of suffering for Nietzsche. In the passage Nietzsche addresses the potential higher man, the one to whom he dedicated all his philosophical writings. He wrote: 

“To those human beings who are of any concern to me, I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities – I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not – that one endures.”

Nietzsche reassures that along the way to reach the ultimate dream there will be a great deal of suffering and pain if one is to reach one’s higher self, but he sees this as experience and effort along the way to reach one’s life goal. This idea is very similar to Buddha’s philosophy where he suffers to reach nirvana. Nietzsche certainly doesn’t find this task easy, and he believes that only strong, creative and courageous individuals can freely sculpt their own world-views.

So overall, to be able to reach a true higher self, one needs to determine one’s own great potential in some area. Mastering a skill should be one’s ultimate goal in life to feel content, live longer and be happier. That we shall all become kings and queens of our mind, body and soul, and focus on constructing our own internal value system to be able to feel happier. 

And what about the real meaning of the world? “We have the arts so we don’t die from the truth”, Nietzsche says. The subject of the next chapter subject is art therapy and how art can help us to become happier.