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The Problem of Lifes Purpose | Frank Sheed
| An excerpt from A
Map of Life
To the detached observer man is something of a curiosity. He lives in
two worlds at once, and this not as a being who belongs to one world and
has simply got tangled up in another, but as a being who belongs essentially
to both of them. God, who alone exists in His own right, who is all-knowing
and all-powerful, who exists without the shadow of limitation, made all
things. Considering the beings God has made, we find two broad categories,
spirit and matter.
Spirit is being which has the power of knowing and willing. Matter is
being which has not these powers. There is a more obvious but less important
distinction between them: matter can be perceived by the senses, spirit
Of God's creatures there are some that are pure spiritsangelswith
no material part. There are some that are purely materialanimals,
plants, stones and the restwith no spiritual part. Between them
is man. In him alone spirit and matter are united: by his soul he is a
spirit as the angels are: by his body he is part of the material universe.
And, as has already been said, he belongs to both worlds by his essence.
He is not simply a spirit who is for the moment tied down to, or tied
up in, a body. It is of his very nature to be a union of matter and spirit.
The soul of man is not more essentially a partner in the human compound
than his body: but it is the more important partner. For in the first
place it is the principle of life in the body: it remains with the body
so long as the body is capable of being animated by it: the body corrupts
whereas the soul continues in existence; and in the second place it knows
and wills: that is, it has the two faculties of intellect and will by
which it can enter into conscious and determined relationship with all
Such a being, then, is man. It is life as it concerns man that is the
business of this map.
We shall understand the map better if we grasp its universal necessity.
A man may very well say that whether there is or is not a divine revelation
as to the meaning of human life, it is at any rate only of academic interest,
desired by none save the dwindling number who like things cut and dried
and take comfort in the voice of authority.
For a man who reasons thus we must show that an acceptance of the revelation
of God as to the meaning of life has a bearing not only upon holy living,
but even upon sane living; that only those who believe in such a revelation
can shape their own lives correctly or help their fellow-men. Those who
do not accept the revelation, even if they have the best will in the world
(which not all men have), can neither direct their own lives aright nor
help other mensave accidentally and within a very narrow field.
From such men the world has little to hope and an immense amount to fear.
And into their hands the world is tending more and more to fall.
In one word, the reason for their helplessness, both in relation to themselves
and in relation to others, is that they do not know what a man is.
You do not truly know what anything is until you know what it is for.
Knowing what a thing is made of, even knowing whom a thing is made by,
these things are but scanty knowledge, impotent of themselves to lead
to fruitful action. The complete knowledge demands a knowledge of purpose.
A very crude instance may make this sufficiently obvious truth still more
obvious. Suppose a man who has never shaved: and suppose that he suddenly
discovers a razor. He does not know what it is, but he discovers that
it cuts. Whereupon he uses it for cutting wood. He does not cut a great
deal of wood and he ruins the razor, leaving it fit only for the scrap-heap.
The point is that he has used it without knowing its purpose; and save
by accident such use must always be misuse. And in the face of the general
proposition that nothing can be used aright until its purpose is known,
the man who uses anything at all without such knowledge is acting blindly.
He may mean well, but well-meaningness is not a substitute for knowledge
Obviously the perfect way to know the purpose of the thing is to find
out from its maker: any other method leaves too many loopholes for error.
Apply this principle to man himself: we cannot use ourselves aright nor
help any other man till we know what man is for: we can meddle with him,
tinker with him, mean well to him, but save in a limited way we cannot
Here we must make a short digression. There are only two ways in which
anything can come to be. Either it is intentional or accidental: that
is, either someone intended it or it merely chanced. The thing that is
intentional has a purpose: accidents have no purpose. Humanity, like other
things, must be either an accident and so purposeless, or else have been
made with intent. Catholics know that man was made, and made by an intelligent
Being who knew the purpose of His own action. Further, God who made us
and knew what He made us for, has told us what He made us for. Accepting
His Word, we know the purpose of our existence, and we can proceed to
live intelligently according to it. Short of this knowledge, intelligent
living is not possible for us.
For apart from God's own statement as to what He had in mind when He made
us, we have no way of knowing. We cannot tell ourselves: the scientist
can tell us what we are made of, or rather what our bodies are made of,
but he cannot tell us what we are made for: and by comparison with this
altogether vital matter, what he has to say, interesting as it is, is
In other words, short of God telling us, we cannot be told; and short
of being told we cannot know. We can of course theorizeor in plain
English, guess. There is one, and only one, colourable alternative to
a revelation from God as a means of knowing the purpose of man's existence.
We might simply take human nature as it is, study it, come to a full and
accurate knowledge of it: we could then reason from man's nature as to
the particular purpose for which a being of that nature must have been
made: or, avoiding the idea of purpose altogether, we might reason as
to the best use to which a being of those powers could be put.
This, I say, is a colourable alternative. Indeed, for one who is unaware
of the revelation of God, it is the highest exercise of the intellect.
With this method, had God not told us what was in His mind, we should
have had to rest content. Yet we may be glad that He did not so leave
us, since it is liable to error in many ways, of which two are of capital
(1) There may be error in the reading of human nature. Most of men's efforts
to read human nature, and frame a system of life in accord with it, err
by inability to seize the whole. One part of human nature is isolated,
the rest ignored. Further, as between various uses to which powers might
be put, there can be no deciding which is higher and which is lower, save
in the light of the purpose of the whole being: those uses which serve
the purpose are good, those which hinder it are bad.
(2) The second objection is far more important and is, indeed, fundamental
to the understanding of the whole of what is to come. Even if human nature
were fully understood with no shadow of error, the purpose of man's life
could be deduced from it only if the purpose of man's life were contained
in it-that is, if man's purpose simply meant the highest activity possible
to his own nature. But supposing the purpose of human life is some activity
or state higher than man's nature. Then we cannot find it simply by studying
his nature. And God has in fact taught that He destines us not for something
of which our nature is in itself capable (and which might, therefore,
as I have said, be deduced from our nature) but for something to which
He in His generosity chose to lift us; and this obviously cannot be deduced
from any study of us: one may deduce the incidence of justice, but not
Given, then, that apart from the revelation of God we cannot know with
certainty what is the purpose of our existence as man, the only thing
left for the one who does not believe in such a revelation is to choose
an object of life: to decide for himself what he will use his life for.
But given the myriad possibilities before every man, the chances are that
he will choose the wrong one and so spoil his life: and if he is in a
position to control the destinies of others, whether as a king or a dictator
or simply as the father of a family, the disaster will be very great:
and the more zealous and energetic he is, the greater will the disaster
be. In no case is intelligent livingthat is, living consciously
for the true purpose of our beingpossible to us unless we are told
by God what the purpose is.
It is, therefore, the very highest act of our intellect thus to grasp
the revelation of God, since this is knowledge that we must have, and
knowledge that we must either be told or do without. It is foolish to
stigmatize this acceptance as a denial of freedom or a form of intellectual
suicide. The object of thought is truth: if a particular piece of truth
is necessary, can be known with certainty by the teaching of another,
and cannot be known otherwise, then a man is really acting suicidally
in rejecting the truth merely because he did not find it for himself.
He is preferring the exercise of the means to the attainment of the end.
If a man knows what knowing means, he cannot even think he knows man's
true purpose save through the revelation of God. And so he cannot direct
his own life rightly. Nor can he help others.
Here the philanthropist might say: "I am a practical man doing the immediate
job. Whether there is a God or not, here is a man suffering, here is a
wrong to be righted": but this is not practical, this dashing at the job
without the necessary preliminary theorizing. For if you do not know what
men arethat is, are forhow do you know what is good for them?
That thing is good for any being which helps it to achieve the true purpose
of its nature. How can you help men to that, if you do not know what their
true purpose is?
Nor should we be misled by the fact that there are certain obvious things
that such a man can do. Principally he can relieve bodily suffering. But
all his aid is "first aid": of profound, permanent, certain help to man
he can do nothing. In fact the general effort of those who thus would
help their fellow men with no thought of God is almost exclusively confined
to bodily well-being, or the relief of bodily suffering.
And when they approach such questions as birth-control, divorce, the killing
of the incurable, and a dozen others, it is beyond their power really
to answer the question raised. For these things are right or wrong according
as they help or hinder a man in the achievement of the purpose of his
being: and it is not so much as possible to express an intelligent opinion
on them save in the slight of a sure knowledge of what the purpose of
life is. When the philanthropist is not merely unaware of God's revelation,
but definitely convinced that man is only the matter of his body, his
position is easier. If he has to decide upon the question of divorce,
for instance, then for him the only problem is whether an accidental collection
of electrons and protonscalled for convenience a manwill function
more harmoniously with that second collection of electrons and protons
which it is at present living with, or with some third collection of electrons
and protons. Such a question is simple enough. Simple because it really
does not matter. But if man is more than thata being with a true
purpose in lifethen all that is said in ignorance of his purpose
is quite irrelevant.
On all the moral teaching of those who have not the Catholic revelation,
there lies this mark of superficiality: the only rule that appears to
be of universal application is that suffering must always be relieved.
But even this, one dare not call a principle, since it is not related
to any true view of life. By good fortune, it is a rule that often works
to the advantage of the sufferer; and in the one who exercises it, it
bears witness to a true virtue: indeed the relief of suffering is one
of the highest rules of the Christian life. But, apart from a right view
of the purpose of human life, it is a blind rule, and there is no virtue
in blindness. Carried too far, as our age is tending more and more to
carry it, the rule can work immeasurable evil. For there are things that
are worse than suffering.
Two questions, then, are to be asked of any religious or social teacher
who offers some system of life for the acceptance of men: The first is:
What, according to you, is the purpose of man's life?
The second is: How do you know?
When he answers the second, be very insistent. Unless he says "God has
revealed it," then he is wasting time. If he says God has revealed it,
then he must be prepared to show that God has done so. To both questions
the Catholic Church has an answer. In this book I am concerned only with
the first and with certain things that flow from it. Life, and all the
things of life, have a meaning in relation to man, in themselves, in relation
to one another. What the meaning is, God has told us: we need to know
it: there is no other way of knowing. This book [A
Map of Life]is simply an attempt to transcribe what God has said.
Sheed (1897-1981) was an Australian of Irish descent. A law student,
he graduated from Sydney University in Arts and Law, then moved in 1926,
with his wife Maisie Ward, to London. There they founded the well-known
Catholic publishing house of Sheed & Ward in 1926, which published some
of the finest Catholic literature of the first half of the twentieth century.
Known for his sharp mind and clarity of expression, Sheed became one of
the most famous Catholic apologists of the century. He was an outstanding
street-corner speaker who popularized the Catholic Evidence Guild in both
England and America (where he later resided). In 1957 he received a doctorate
of Sacred Theology honoris causa authorized by the Sacred Congregation
of Seminaries and Universities in Rome.
Although he was a cradle Catholic, Sheed was a central figure in what he
called the "Catholic Intellectual Revival," an influential and
loosely knit group of converts to the Catholic Faith, including authors
such as G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn
Waugh, Arnold Lunn, and Ronald Knox.
Sheed wrote several books, the best known being Theology
and Sanity, A
Map of Life, Theology
for Beginners and To
Know Christ Jesus. He and Maise also compiled the Catholic Evidence
Training Outlines, which included his notes for training outdoor speakers
and apologists and is still a valuable tool for Catholic apologists and
catechists (and is available through the Catholic Evidence Guild).
For more about Sheed, visit his IgnatiusInsight.com
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