What Is the Purpose of Life? Part 4

The next two things Aquinas considers, after wealth, are similar, so I’ve combined them. They are honor and fame. By honor, I mean high respect or public esteem given to an individual by other people. Some might call it popularity. Fame is merely the multiplication of honor to a large number of people.

A person can receive honor from only one person, but a person can only receive fame from a very large number of people. But in both cases, honor and fame are given to one person by other people. So why would anyone think happiness consists in honor or fame?

The main argument goes like this: Almost everyone desires to be recognized for something good they do, and that is what honor and fame are, positive recognition. If we achieve something extraordinary in our lives, most of us would like to be honored for it, and if we achieve something truly outstanding, we might even receive fame. Whether it means kind words from a co-worker or a gold medal at the Olympics, we all want to be honored. So fame and honor seem to be a reward for great achievement, and so they both make us happy.

Are honor and fame the ultimate purpose of life? No, because the argument misunderstands what they are.

Here is the crucial thing to understand about honor and fame. Honor and fame are given to a person because that person possesses some achievement or trait that is outstanding. This outstanding thing in a person is what causes other people to esteem or respect them.

For example, I may have a generous spirit and give money to the poor, and thus be honored at a philanthropy awards dinner. I may be a gifted quarterback for my high school football team, and my team may honor me by voting me most valuable player for the season. In each case, the honor or fame is a sign pointing to the excellence in the person. It’s only a sign.

A famous Zen Buddhist proverb says, “A finger is useful for pointing to the moon, but woe to him who mistakes the finger for the moon.”

Here are a couple of illustrations of this concept. Receiving a good grade in school is the sign of your accomplishments in class. If you only care about getting the good grade, and not getting the knowledge that should have been gained from the class, you are a fool because you’ve confused the knowledge with the grade. The grade is only the sign pointing to the knowledge. The grade is the finger and the knowledge is the moon.

We don’t go on a vacation in order to just take pictures to return home and show people. The pictures are a sign of your vacation, not the vacation itself, which should be enjoyed whether pictures are taken or not. The wise person focuses on the vacation first, and the pictures second. The pictures are the finger and the vacation the moon.

If you’ve ever been to Disney World, you drive by huge signs indicating that you’ve arrived. Even though I feel a sense of excitement when I see the signs, that feeling pales in comparison to the experience of actually walking into the park itself. I never confuse the signs with the park.

The discussion of honor and fame continues in part 5.