Question: What do you do when your life has no real meaning? Answer: go out into the world like a damn hippy and look for the answers. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse is a novel about finding the meaning in one’s life. What if you have everything you can ask for in material objects? That still won’t give you meaning. You need to find meaning by going out into the world and to face reality. But even then, meaning is hard to find.
Siddhartha is the son of a Brahmin, which is a religious leader. Siddhartha has learned everything he could learn from his father about the religious ways which should give him enough ammo to face the meaninglessness of the world. Yet, Siddhartha is not satisfied. Even more so: he’s bored. He thus needs to search for his meaning somewhere else. Siddhartha goes into the wide world to find what life actually has to offer.
His life proceeds in multiple stages. Whichever group he joins, Siddhartha learns something valuable from every group. In the end finding a middle balance. This is very reminiscent of the Buddhist Middle Way or Aristotle’s virtue laying somewhere in the middle of two vices.
He first lives with some ascetic monks, learning to not want anything in life. Siddhartha doesn’t even want water when he is thirsty or food when he is hungry. He should have reached that blessed state of meaningfulness. But it doesn’t come. He still feels like this isn’t enough. He has mastered the ascetic way of life and yet doesn’t feel the blessed state which it promised. He proceeds to somewhere else.
He takes a courtesan to bed. She teaches him everything there is to know about the art of loving. Yet this also doesn’t fulfil him. It satisfies only a portion of his being. He lives the life of a wealthy trader. His riches are vast, but they also don’t keep him from feeling empty. Maybe he should go on and succumb to complete hedonism and earthly pleasures? He uses all of his money to drink and gamble. But in the end, he just lost all of his money. What a life. It’s good this takes place somewhere in the east and not in Las Vegas or something, because then he would be in deep trouble. Or still addicted to cocaine.
Siddhartha is back on the road. After meeting a boat keeper, he finally realizes where true meaning is to be found. Not in the teachings of others, but inside himself. As he himself says: “Peace comes from within so do not seek it from without… Work out your own salvation and do not depend on others for it.” While living as a boat keeper himself, Siddhartha listens to the river flowing, meditating on himself and coming to terms with himself. True meaning can only be found from wisdom and that wisdom is not something you’ll find in the teachings of others or texts. That’s knowledge and while knowledge is valuable, it isn’t needed to be wise. The boat keeper Siddhartha lives with has never been out of his home, can’t read and only listens to people using his boat for crossing the river. Yet, he is one of the wisest people Siddhartha has met. Wisdom comes from within.
This beautiful story of self-discovery is masterfully written by Hesse. It is a short book with one real message: if you want meaning in your life then you have to look inwards. It is the same introspection which characterized the ancient philosopher Socrates when he tried to find answers to his questions. Self-knowledge will give you wisdom and meaning. It’s a story as ancient as Plato, but extremely valuable, nonetheless.
The struggle to find meaning is one that has captured people forever. Mostly meaning is said to be found it the achievement in something spectacular. You have to be extremely wealthy, you should be the best in sex, you should live the religious life in service of God, many more things can be added. But those things will not give you meaning or wisdom on their own because they are outside of you. The only meaning which you can find is from within and there is a really comfortable message in this book: everyone is able to achieve it. From the poorest man to the richest. Everyone is able to find meaning and wisdom as long as they look inwards. As long as they use introspection to look at their own ideals and wants, then they’ll find meaning. The material things are all good, but they mean nothing when the meaning doesn’t come from within oneself.
You can’t go wrong when you read this book. It’s a book you can read in one sitting, but it deserves to read carefully and attentively. Autumn has fallen. The nights are getting longer, and the days are getting colder. It’s the perfect time to light a candle, sit in your comfortable chair, pull up your feet and read this short novel with a warm cup of tea.