Some excerpts fromThe Conquest of Illusion

by J.J. Van Der Leeuw (1929)

The Meaning of Life

BUT do not all men live, do we not share their life as they share ours? Truly, we have in common the life of the body, we eat and drink and rest and work, we provide that which is necessary to keep our bodies alive and in health, but that alone is not the fullness of life for man. Unless there is meaning and purpose in the life we live, unless we know why we suffer and rejoice, why we toil and exert ourselves why we live in this physical body, why first it rules us and then we learn to rule it, unless we can see all that in the light of Reality we do not truly live, we but exist.

Is it not strange how so many can live without knowing, without asking why? If we were to ask any one of these to undertake a task involving many hardships and yet did not tell him why, did not show sufficient reason to warrant the undertaking of the task, would he do it? Would any one of us undertake even a journey of a few hundred miles without knowing why, without having some purpose? And yet, so many of us live, undertaking not a chance task, but the great Task of life itself, going, not some chance journey, but the great Journey of Life itself, with hardships and sufferings greater than any mortal journey may bring, and yet we ask not why. If we can look upon our human life as from a mountain top it seems but a delusion of insanity in which the millions hurry to and fro, apply themselves to their daily tasks, live in worry and anxiety, or hope in joyful expectations, despair when they fail or exult in success, not knowing the meaning of their lives. When we go through the streets of some great city and watch the faces of the men and women whom we meet, full of concern, of worry and discontent, of unhappiness and even of anger and hatred, we may well wonder whence all this grim solemnity if they neither know nor ask the purpose of life itself? What an empty show of activity is our hurry and bustle, our rushing to and fro in activities, upon which we look as of the utmost importance, if there is no definite meaning in all this tremendous expenditure of energy !

And looking from the faces of our fellowmen to the shops in which are displayed the products of their activity, the majority ugly and tawdry, a still greater majority useless and only a few beautiful and necessary in life, do we not stand amazed at the blind ignorance which can load down our lives with the burden of such superfluous ugliness ? Truly certain things are necessary in life. We must have food and drink so that our bodies may live, healthy and clean food, refreshing and wholesome drink, we must have clothing to protect ourselves against heat and cold, we must have homes in which our lives may be centered, where we can find a haven of rest and a serene happiness. We need machinery, the technical perfection of our outer life, by means of which we can transcend our surroundings and control our material life. We need art and science, philosophy and religion, we need all that will make life deeper and more joyful, richer and fuller. But we do not need food which is but harmful and productive of disease, we do not want dress which is ugly and a mistaken gratification of vanity, we do not want homes which are so elaborate that they become centres of disturbance instead of harmony and rest, we do not want machinery and mechanical contrivances which destroy life instead of furthering it, which enslave humanity instead of setting it free. We do not want science that causes suffering nor art which is untrue and vulgar, we need no philosophy which is but a play of words, nor a religion in which a man-made God is served with man-made dogmas, obscuring the eternal message of living truth, which the great Teachers of all ages have brought to man. We need far less and at the same time far more, above all we need the understanding which will show us what is necessary and life-giving and what is superfluous and destructive.

When we realize the eternal meaning of life we can see how much there is in life that is superfluous and even harmful, we can see how much there is that can be spared and must be eliminated, but at the same time we can see how much is lacking, how much *more* we need. The simplicity of real life can truly manage with but a fraction of the manifold encumbrances and complexities of modern life, but at the same time demands a far higher standard of beauty and utility in those things which are essential. Truly we cannot arrange our lives wisely unless we know the meaning of life; we shall but continue to seek our riches where no riches are, to waste our energies where they do but harm, forgetting all the while the wisdom of Ruskin's saying: 'There is no wealth but life.'

Only when we have seen life as from a mountain top do we know true values, true greatness. As long as we err in the valley of illusion we judge but by the illusory externals which loom so large in our sight, we see appearance, not reality. Does not our judgment of man bear witness to our worship of externals; would not most of us, if placed by magic in the time when Christ lived, look upon the Roman rulers of his age as men great and worthy, successful and important, would we not yearn for their approval and take in their every word? And would most of us not look with contempt upon the Man of Nazareth, poor and powerless, belonging to a despised race, daring to set himself up as an authority above the mighty ones of his day? Would we give him the same attentive ear which we would give to those great in the public eye, with power over life and death, would we have been capable to see that he alone was worth listening to, that he alone was great and wise and powerful, and that in the light of his eternal greatness the impressive pomp and seeming power of even the greatest of Romans were but as nothing ? Indeed, even after ages of Christianity, our judgment of values is but an unchristian one, we judge by the tinsel of outer appearance, and are blind and deaf to the wonders of reality within. We know not the meaning of things.


More from The Conquest of Illusion

With thanks for selecting this and typing it out to Leo Bartoli.