If you can, remember the names: Brhaspati, Yangzi, and Epicurus. they were great philosophers. They were also materialists who taught that one should act only in ones self interests. The next time you have a serious conversation with someone about the deep meaning of life, and if you are reading this you probably will, and someone says “All the great philosophers taught the same thing”, tell them those names.
When people say things like ‘all the great teachers taught the same thing’ they mean ‘all the great teachers whose writings were preserved’. It’s a biased sample. There is a story that engineering professors like to use when teaching engineering. During the second world war the bomber command in Britain would inspect returning bombers for bullet holes. Their thought was that they could reinforce those places where statistically a plane was most likely to get hit. The problem was that they only had access to returning bombers. Planes that got shot down may have had bullet holes in different places. That’s an example of a biased set.
Philosophers and religious teachers already have a bias towards thinking that life matters. That is why they bother to think philosophically at all. The followers of meaning-of-life teachers are a biased set too. Followers are drawn to teachers who reinforce their own inclinations. It is possible that the greatest teachers, the ones with the most brilliant arguments, all taught that life doesn’t’ matter; except they didn’t bother to teach or their disciples didn’t bother to write it down.
There was a very early materialist in India. His name may have been Brhaspati or something else. He may have lived around the time of The Buddha or much earlier. Everything we know about the teachings comes from the writings of those who wrote against him. His own writings did not survive nor those of his disciples. A materialist from China was Yang Zhu. He was well known enough that he earned the title zi which means master. Yang Zhu became Yangzi. He live around the same time as, and wrote against Kongzi, a.k.a. Confucius, and Mozi. What we know of him was written by a disciple of Confucius who criticized him severely. Epicurus was a materialist who taught in Greece. He taught much the same thing as his Chinese and Indian counter parts. He was not a Hedonist but his ideas led to Hedonism, at least that’s what the people who wrote against him said. Epicurus was the more subtle of the three so his writings are the best preserved. If you teach your disciples that the pursuit of pleasure is the highest good then they don’t have much motivation to preserve your writings.
Contrast that with a religion like Judaism. Jews not only believe in a God but in a God who takes a special interest in them as a people. There has never been a shortage of people willing to learn and teach their scriptures. So far at least, their teachings have not died out.
It could be that the greatest minds that ever lived didn’t bother to teach anything because they saw that everything is meaningless. It could be that there were lots of great teachers who taught their followers to pursue only pleasure and they did. Preserving those teachings was too much work. Hedonists don’t make very good evangelists.
It is a mistake to underestimate your opposition. The drive to pursue ones own self-interest at the expense of everyone else is strong in all of us and very strong in many of us. Brhaspati, Yangzi, Epicurus were smart philosophers who made good points. Don’t believe that when you are arguing for a life of self-restraint that your opposition is stupid or arguing from an inherently weaker position.
One of the things we need to do when having discussions on serious topics with people is to get clear the underlying assumptions. In all the cases that I know of, it is the foundational assumptions that are in conflict. If the assumptions of materialists are correct then their philosophy is correct. If we are nothing more than one to two million single celled organisms that somehow learned to cooperate then there is no point to life except to make it as easy and as pleasurable as possible while waiting for death. If the assumptions of the non-materialists, call them spiritualists if you wish, are correct then life has meaning and our behavior matters. It is the assumptions that are in conflict.
Although I believe that what I do matters I also believe that the other side has a good point. If there is no spiritual dimension then ‘eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die’.
I’m not convinced that we can convert people from being self-centered pleasure seekers to being responsible members of the great tribe we call humanity. Maybe God can. If he can, he doesn’t do it very often. Personally I think being spiritual, as opposed to material, is innate. Some people just care more. It’s like the Old Testament story of Jacob and Esau. Jacob was not a good guy. He was a con man who tricked people out of their wealth. Yet God saw that with the right life events he could be made into a good guy. In Jacob’s case it was being tricked out of the wife he wanted to marry. It seems that there was never any hope for Esau. He just didn’t care. True story or parable, I think everyone is either a Jacob or an Esau.