Back when I was in high school, I met a teacher in training who would eventually become one of the most important people in my life. At first, he just assisted our regular teacher in explaining the inflected forms of Greek verbs to us (yes, I studied classical Greek, and yes, it was quite the torture). But eventually they let him teach his own classes and this is really where his star started to shine – because not only would he teach us this dusty language, but also the very exciting basics of classical philosophy.
It was not just that I was fascinated by philosophy in itself – it was also the personality of my teacher that got me so fired up. Here was a man who truly thought things through, who held himself accountable for everything he thought and said. But that was only half of it: My teacher M. also LIVED according to his own philosophical maxims, not just indulging in mind games like so many other academics. He would adapt a lifestyle and daily routine that was in sync with his preferred philosophical teachings – Platonism and its offshoots – while rejecting most of the values and “achievements” of modern life.
In short: My teacher M. was on a mission. And it was that aspect of him, him being so driven, that put me under his spell more than anything. Here was someone who seemed to see so much further than all the other people I knew, who through immense discipline had acquired a level of learning and understanding of the world that I have only once after ever seen rivaled (but that is another post). It is a horrible pop culture reference and M. would cringe at that but this guy seemed to see the matrix, the matrix others could not see. If anyone knew how to give my own life the right direction, it was this guy.
So inevitably, like any true dorky 15 year old who wonders about the world, I one day asked him in grave seriousness the question that mattered the most to me: “What is the meaning of life?”
And this magician with words, this demi-god simply responded with a wry smile:
“Oh, that’s simple: To acquire a taste for the good things in life.”
This was not the answer I had expected. I was ready for a complicated metaphysical monologue, hinting at the last secrets of Plato’s unwritten teachings; or even a complicated mathematical equation referencing Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. But this? This sounded like some well-intended but ultimately meaningless piece of advice someone would give at a commencement speech.
For the disappointment it created, his answer stayed with me all of these years. And even though I eventually lost touch with my teacher (or better, replaced him by a very different teacher) I feel like I might have eventually realized what he meant back then.
Again, M. would cringe at my choice of analogy, but the meaning of life according to M. can actually be explained rather simply by looking at dieting. The ultimate purpose of dieting done right is to get yourself to truly appreciate the “good” foods out there: You learn to love vegetables, you get euphoric at the smell of well-cooked fish, and fresh-cut pineapple is the closest thing to ambrosia you can imagine. This sounds very trivial, but it is not – it takes YEARS to really get yourself off the addictive pull of “regular” food and replace it with a heartfelt love for healthy food.
Now take this one step further: Instead of checking Facebook five times a day and reading Cosmo, you slowly, over the course of years, develop a taste for complex, well-woven narratives that mirror and enlighten the human condition. You read these classics of world literature not because you are a snob but simply because they are the best thing available. Another example: Instead of lounging in a chair or on a couch for most of your life, you slowly, over the course of years, truly learn to appreciate the feeling of your body in motion, of your body doing work, of your body becoming a precise expression of your mind. A third and final example: Instead of chasing social fame and popularity with the herd, you, over the course of many years, learn to appreciate the psychological intricacies and the refined kind of social warmth that only a very few can provide, who are not easily found but then to be celebrated.
The way I understand my teacher M. now, what he meant by saying “The point of life is to acquire a taste for the good things” can really be summed up as the quest for self-cultivation (a nicer term for personal development). Cultivating yourself to appreciate the more complex, intricate and worthwhile flavors that life has to offer is ultimately the key to being content, even happy. This means foregoing the quick solutions, the instant gratification and rather postponing gratification. But when it then comes, the reward is a hundredfold.
To M., wherever he currently may inspire another 15-year-old dork.