Posted by: Kyle M. | December 1, 2009

Carroll on Direction

“Everyone’s looking for something

And they assume somebody else knows what it is.”

-Greg Graffin*

If history is a sufficient indication, human beings have proven themselves to be animals that thrive on and cling to the directions of others. Exemplified by such occurrences as the Stanford Prison Experiment and the obedience of Hitler’s underlings, we possess a natural tendency to assume whatever ‘roles’ and ‘purposes’ we can find, fulfilling our mind’s innate desire to be productive. That isn’t to say that we lack the capacity for free-thought and nonconformity; we’re all individuals, and have the ability to function autonomously. However, humans are social creatures, and crave to be a part of a ‘group’ or collective body; we ultimately live off each other, and could not survive in the world alone (Will Smith notwithstanding). As a result, when faced without a purpose or directive dictated by their peers, humans can tend to feel a little uncomfortable.

On a small scale, this largely isn’t a problem for our species. Capitalist societies (When they work) provide myriad jobs and opportunities for people to keep occupied, as well as present them with an understandable conception of life; “I work X amount of hours and earn Y amount of dollars,” etc. Of course, merely clocking in everyday isn’t enough for those in the upper echelon of thinkers, and civilization offers them a venue to innovate and find motivation in that venue. In terms of the plain, concrete aspects of life, direction isn’t awfully hard to stumble upon in the world.

Unfortunately, what society has trouble providing is direction in the existential sense; and this is where most people have a problem. Sure, they know to clock in at seven in the morning; but WHY do they do it? What’s the ‘greater,’ universal purpose for their toil? Both the common men and the philosophers have struggled with this search, occasionally arriving at unsatisfactory conclusions. For some, God works; not so for others. Many simply choose not to think about it; where as there are those who can’t possibly get it off their minds.

So what exactly is ‘the way?’ Is there really a grand, all-encompassing direction for our lives? If not, why even bother?

Certainly Carroll has something interesting to say on this matter.

In Chapter VI of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice engages in the following conversation with the iconic Cheshire Cat (With the opening question being spoken by Alice):

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

“I don’t much care where-”

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

“-so long as I get somewhere.”

“Oh, you’re sure to do that, if you only walk long enough.”

(The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, page 65)

Let’s break this down line-by-line, completely ignoring its context in the story and looking at it solely from the angle of the philosophical query I’ve posed:

First remark:

Though Alice is speaking on literal terms, we can assume that this is representative of one of the classic intellectual dilemmas (considering Carroll also briefly dealt with the problem of identity earlier in the story): What is the purpose of my existence? Why am I here, and what do I do?

First reply:

We can view this as Carroll refuting the notion that there’s a singular purpose for everybody; what you get out of life is equivalent to what you want to get out of it. But some people haven’t even figured out what they want, so Alice continues in order for Carroll to complete his ‘solution.’

Second remark:

Alice doesn’t really care what her purpose is; she just wants one for the sake of it, as most humans do.

Second reply:

Naturally, the cat’s response is for Alice to pursue any route she comes across. Carroll is emphasizing the importance of individual destiny; life is a blank slate, and divining meaning from it is up to the given person. Pick a path, any path; one will certainly find something, and it’ll be his or hers for the keeping.

Third remark:

Alice is beginning to understand that the search for meaning doesn’t have to result in some sort of grand metaphysical certitude; any meaning is better than no meaning.

Third reply:

The Cheshire Cat assures her that meaning can be found anywhere and in anything…so long as one looks hard enough.

I’d agree with this sentiment; the onus of living a meaningful life falls directly upon the individual in question and not outside direction. An uncomfortable thought for most people, I’d suppose, who look for meaning by following doctrines prescribed by other men (Who I can promise you are just as confused by the big questions as you are); though I definitely would not deny them their right to find meaning in such a method…as long as they THINK about it. If one’s goal in life is to simply make somebody smile every day, and another’s goal is to please a certain god, is either ‘directive’ any more or less valid than the other? I’d say no; they both make people happy, and in the end, happiness, whether fleeting or ever-lasting, is what makes life worth living in the first place.

* A dose of culture:



  1. Exceptional post!

    The opposite implication perhaps is that if you want to get somewhere you should know where you are going?

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