Seriousness as Camouflage of the Nullity of Our Lives

A view from the waterfront by the doyen of the autodidacts

Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind, Harper, 1955, p. 61, #93:

The fact of death and nothingness at the end is a certitude unsurpassed by any absolute truth ever discovered.  Yet knowing this, people can be deadly serious about their prospects, grievances, duties and trespassings.  The only explanation which suggests itself is that seriousness is a means of camouflage:  we conceal the triviality and nullity of our lives by taking things seriously.  No opiate and no pleasure chase can so effectively mask the terrible truth about man’s life as does seriousness.

Summary of Hoffer’s Argument

It is certain that we become nothing at death. We all know this. Yet we take life with utmost seriousness. We are aggrieved at the wrongs that have been done to us, and guilty at the wrongs we have done. We care deeply about our future, our legacy, and many other things.

What explains our intense seriousness and deep concern given that death is annihilation of the person and that this unavoidable annihilation renders our lives insignificant and therefore not an appropriate object of seriousness?

There is only one explanation. The truth is terrible and we are loathe to face it. So we hide the triviality and nullity of our lives behind a cloak of seriousness. We deceive ourselves. What we know deep down we will not admit into the full light of consciousness.  


There is an element of bluster in Hoffer's argument.  It is not known with certainty that death is annihilation, although it is reasonably conjectured. But even if death were known with certainty to spell the end of the person, why should this render our lives insignificant? One could argue against Hoffer that our lives are significant in the only way they could be significant, namely, in the first-personal, situated, and perspectival way, and that there is no call to view our lives sub specie aeternitatis.  It might be urged that the appearance of nullity and insignificance is merely an artifact of viewing our lives from outside and above and that this view from nowhere is a false abstraction from out lives as they are lived. 

So one rejoinder to Hoffer would be: yes, death is annihilation, but no, this fact does not render life insignificant. Therefore, there is no tension among:

1) Death is annihilation of the person.

2) Annihilation implies nullity and insignificance.

3) People are serious about their lives.

We don't have to explain why (3) is true given (1) and (2) since (2) is not true.

A second type of rejoinder would be that we don't need to explain why (3) is true given (1) and (2) because (1) is not known to be true.  This is the line I take. I would argue as follows

A. We take our lives seriously.

B. That we take them seriously is prima facie evidence that they are appropriately and truly so taken.

C. Our lives would not be serious if death were annihilation.


D. Death is not annihilation.

This argument is obviously not rationally compelling: you would not convict yourself of irrationality were you to reject it; it does however suffice to neutralize Hoffer's argument. My argument is not compelling because once could reasonably reject both (B) and (C).  Here is Hoffer's argument:

A. We take our lives seriously.

C. Our lives would not be serious if death were annihilation.

~D. Death is annihilation.


~B. That we take our lives seriously is not evidence of their seriousness, but a means of hiding from ourselves the terrible truth.

Hoffer and I agree about (C).  Our difference is as follows. I am now and always have been deeply convinced that something is at stake in this life, that it matters deeply how we live and comport ourselves, and that it matters far beyond the petty bounds of the individual's spatiotemporal existence. Can I prove it? No. Can anyone prove the opposite? No.

Hoffer, on the other hand, is deeply convinced that in the end our lives signify nothing despite all the sound and fury.  In the end death consigns to meaninglessness a life that is indeed played out entirely within its paltry spatiotemporal limits.  In the end, our care comes to naught and seriousness is but camouflage of our nullity.

I can't budge the old stevedore and he can't budge me.  Belief butts up against belief. There's no knowledge hereabouts.

So once again I say: In the last analysis you must decide what to believe and how to live.  Life is a venture and an adventure wherein doxastic risks must be taken. Here as elsewhere one sits as many risks as he runs.