Most of us ask two things of the universe. The first is consistency and coherence, so we can navigate it safely. Every culture known to history has a story that explains, in some sort of system, what Lucretius called de rerum natura: the order of things. The second demand is that this story connect to us personally, and infuse our lives with meaning. In the cosmic drama, each of us expect to play an important part.
Though we take them for granted, these expectations are quite peculiar. No other animal demands a theoretical accounting of the world; and a direct relationship to such an account would be undreamed of even by the cleverest chimpanzee.
The human peculiarity has to do not with our intellectual horsepower, but with our style of thinking: it’s symbolic. If I compare my world to my dog’s, I find that mine is mediated by a host of categories, combinations, and abstract possibilities, whereas my dog’s moves straightforwardly along the rails of sense and desire. I have often observed my dog to beg, but I doubt I will ever see it pray.
Symbolic reasoning has been a two-edged sword. It allowed our species to boil down experience to the formulas of modern science, and to combine our vision of the divine with the noblest affirmations of morality. It also led us down the garden path of fairies, hobgoblins, centaurs, and unicorns, and it has justified human sacrifice and mass murder.
Symbolic reasoning is who we are: to praise or condemn it would imply an alternative exists, and would thus be a form of unicorn-chasing. From a moral perspective, the question is how the peculiarly human style of thinking influences behavior. I think the answer is obvious. The hunger for coherence and personal meaning equals in motive power the more basic urges — for sex, for children, for wealth — that drive human action. In fact, all these cravings are woven into a patchwork whole.
We assume a connection between our craving for meaning and our ideas about good and evil. The assumption is quite correct, but it rests on observation and custom, not logic. The link between meaning and morality, in other words, is a profound fact of existence rather than a reasoned argument.
Two consequences follow. One is that good and evil are felt viscerally and immediately, because they determine one’s standing in the uncertain drama of the world. The other is that purely rationalist arguments — for example, about the rights of animals — make little impression on our moral lives.
We are told that natural selection works only at the level of the individual organism. Possibly: but it is difficult to explain, if that is the case, why a human life feels so empty of value when it is concerned purely with its own individual well-being. The demands for private satisfaction and for universal connection struggle endlessly for command of the human heart, and it isn’t always our “animal desires” that lead us to mischief.
Private needs may fuel noble ambitions; the Constitution is based, in part, on that principle. Conversely, an unhealthy zeal for cosmic connection drove Hitler to holocaust, Torquemada to Inquisition, and the Aztecs to tear the living heart out of their prisoners to appease their gods.
Yet, on the whole, the symbolic imagination has been an ally and a protector of morality. It’s one thing to speak of Christian brotherhood, quite another to reflect on the life of Christ in a great temple like the cathedral at Chartres. Symbols, and the art and rituals that glorify them, bring into the real world — the world of sweat and pain — the invisible aspirations of human morality.
Symbols embody perfection, which would otherwise be difficult to discover. Stripped of symbolic transcendence, the world stops at the skin. It would take exceptional character not to fall, under those conditions, into utter self-indulgence, or even selfishness.
The love of meaning is the lever that makes each human life reach beyond itself. If that isn’t the whole of morality, it is surely a necessary requirement.