For thousands of years, philosophers and others to the present time have paused from their daily lives to ask the question, “What is the purpose of life?” Is it to make more money? Have a stable job? Buy a nice car? Get more clothes? Expand the business? Acquire the latest smart phone? Have children? Travel the world? Or, have a nice wine collection?
Around 380 BCE, Plato wrote the Republic. It is perhaps his best known and most influential work. In it using the character of Socrates he describes that people should be “just” which includes helping friends, but do no harm to anybody. Since then there have been perhaps billions of people who also believe this, or similar, regarding the purpose of life. But is there any proof that this is life’s purpose or proof of what the purpose of life is?
To help me answer this question long ago while I was in medical school, I explored the use of something concrete and known to every person in the world: the human body. The beauty of the human body is millions of processes occur at every moment without you being aware of them. As you read this, you are not thinking about the millions, perhaps billions, of events occurring without you doing anything to make them happen. Did you flip a switch to activate your mouth and stomach to secrete digestive enzymes when you ate today? Were you directly responsible for instructing your immune cells to go and attack a virus that entered your body because you forgot to wash your hands before eating a bread roll? When was the last time you put in your smart phone calendar a reminder to tell your brain to be sure to secrete hormones from your pituitary gland? In a healthy body it all happens automatically without any influence of the conscious you.
The human body performs a mind-boggling volume and variety of activities, but for what purpose? The convenient aspect of using the human body to understand the purpose of life is we can see the purpose of organs, tissues, and cells that comprise the body. Organs are made up of tissues. Tissues consist of cells. Cells constantly get attacked by viruses and bacteria. Viruses and bacteria have a purpose which is bad because they attempt to destroy the cells. The reciprocal is that cells have a purpose which is to be good by properly functioning. Some cells develop mutations and can divide uncontrollably. These are cancer cells at the earliest stage which occur much more frequently than you think. All the time in fact. A signal goes out (like for a superhero to arrive) and our bodies’ specialized immune cells (like NK - Natural killer - cells) hone in on these wayward tumor cells and destroy them before they grow out of control, obliterate tissues and organs and become cancer. Another example is that trauma which is bad. One body response is to clot the blood to prevent bleeding to death. The DNA in our cells directly dictate protective functions (which don’t always succeed) of cells, tissues, and organs against bad threats. There is internal consistency of the purpose of the body functions.
Therefore the purpose of the cells in the human body is to do good by continuing to properly function. The same is true for tissues and organs of the human body. If the internal purpose of the human body is to do good, then, in keeping with consistency of the body functions, it seems the external purpose of the human body (i.e., behavior) should also be to do good. Therefore, we can conclude the purpose of life is to do good.
How can we “do good?” Helping others and not harming others certainly are good ones for a start (similar to what Plato wrote as described above). But is there more, perhaps even a blueprint? About ten years after I developed my reasoning for the purpose of life, I began reading the writings of Benjamin Franklin. Towards the end of Franklin’s accomplished life he wrote a letter to Samuel Mather (cited in the book Benjamin Franklin’s The Art of Virtue edited by George L. Rogers) that described his opinion of the purpose of life:
“When I was a boy, I met with a book entitled Essays to do Good…I have always set a greater value on the character of a doer of good, than any other kind of reputation; and if I have been, as you seem to think, a useful citizen, the public owes the advantage of it to that book.”
If we accept that the purpose of life is to “do good,” then I believe Franklin has laid out a clear roadmap to achieve it. It is the same map he followed to achieve all of the good in life that he did. He detailed thirteen virtues as described in the The Art of Virtue. You might be thinking, “Benjamin Franklin lived 227 years ago. Life has changed a lot since then and his virtues don’t apply now to our digital, modern world.” It’s true society and technology have evolved. As stated in the above book, there are certain things that never really change. For example, it may be easier to make a cake in our modern ovens than it used to be and box cakes might be easier to make than starting from scratch. Still, the underlying principles of cake making have not changed. Neither have the underlying principles of successful living changed.
Here are Franklin’s thirteen virtues to lead a successful life of doing good:
1. TEMPERANCE – Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
2. SILENCE – Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
3. ORDER – Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
4. RESOLUTION – Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
5. FRUGALITY – Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself, i.e. waste nothing.
6. INDUSTRY – Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
7. SINCERITY – Use no harmful deceit; think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. JUSTICE – Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
9. MODERATION – Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they [other people] deserve.
10. CLEANLINESS – Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, and habitation [home].
11. TRANQUILITY – Be not disturbed at trifles [things of little substance], or at accidents common or unavoidable.
12. CHASTITY – Rarely use venery [sex] but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
13. HUMILITY – Imitate Jesus and Socrates [not meant with religious intent].
While Franklin acknowledged that he consciously employed these virtues, he admitted he never completely mastered them all. I too try to be mindful of these virtues and attempt to maintain them, but certainly have not conquered them all on a consistent basis. There are many other means and guidelines, besides the above, to live life as a “doer of good.”
The inner workings of the human body gives us strong support that the purpose of life is to “do good.” If you have never considered this, then perhaps now is the time to do so.