What Is It to Be a Meeseeks?
One of the shows that has provided the most philosophical food for thought over the years is Rick and Morty. Love it or hate it, you can’t deny its creativity. The show has become more and more mind-bending throughout the seasons, but, in the very first season, we are introduced to one of its most curious characters: Mr. Meeseeks. It's immediately apparent that Mr. Meeseeks is very unlike ourselves. But I want to suggest here that he is even more radically unlike ourselves than we might initially think. Ultimately, I want to suggest that getting into view what it is to be a Meeseeks, where being a Meeseeks is radically unlike being one of us, might help us get clearer on what we ourselves are.
The Curious Case of Mr. Meeseeks
One of the Rick’s most memorable contraptions is his “Meeseeks Box.” It’s a cube with a big button on it. When you press the button, a blue individual who calls himself “Mr. Meeseeks” pops into existence and asks what he can do for you. You give him a task, for instance, opening a mayonnaise jar, and, once he does it, he ceases to be, popping out of existence. This, if all goes well, is how the life of a Meeseeks goes. About their lives going this way, Rick says “Trust me--they’re fine with it.” Assuming Rick is telling the truth here, how could this possibly be? How could one possibly be fine with one’s life going this way, popping into existence only to complete some task and popping out of existence as soon as it’s completed?
The Rick and Morty fan wiki says a Meeseeks only does what a Meeseeks does because a Meeseeks is in great pain. Some of the lines in the show suggest this way of thinking. Towards the end of episode, one of the Meeseeks says “Existence is pain to a Meeseeks, and we will go at any length to alleviate this pain.” This way of thinking makes quite a bit of sense to us. We can imagine a life in which we’re born into tremendous pain, so much pain that we’d rather die than continue to live in such pain, and we’d go to great ends to alleviate the pain. Still, this just doesn’t seem like an apt characterization what it is to be a Mr. Meeseeks.
Meeseeks are characteristically cheery. Why would Mr. Meeseeks be so cheery, at least initially, if he was in tremendous pain, and his only motivation was to alleviate this pain? You would think that life would just be agonizing for a Meeseeks from the outset. But that seems to not be so. They come into being and they seem happy to be here. They are given a task and they seem to love to do it, to get it done, and to cease to be. Though the particular Meeseeks who are burdened with the seemingly impossible task of taking two strokes off Jerry’s golf game express being in a state of agony, this is an uncharacteristic state for the Meeseeks to be in. Meeseeks are generally cheery, not in miserable agony. Of course, they could be pretending to be cheery when, in fact, they’re in miserable agony, but we don’t have any reason to think that that’s the case. We need an alternate way of making sense of what it is to be a Meeseeks. For that, I suggest we turn to Aristotle.
Some Aristotelian Ontology
Our question is: what is it to be a Meeseeks? What kind of science can we look to for an answer to a question like this? If our question was “What is it to be an orca whale?” or “What is it to be a queen hornet,” then we could look to cetology, the branch of zoology that studies whales, dolphins, and porpoises or entomology, the branch zoology that studies insects. But there is no branch of zoology that is apt to answer the question of what it is to be a Meeseeks. Zoology deals with creatures of Earth, and, wherever Mr. Meeseeks is from, it’s certainly not Earth. Even the more general science of biology will not be of help, since, once again, biology still deals with living organisms that belong here on Earth, and, once again, Mr. Meeseeks is not from here. If there is a science that will help us understand what it is to be a Meeseeks, it must not be tied to any possibly contingent way that things are here on Earth. It must consider what it is for something to be, in the myriad ways in which being can be done. The activity of being, for Mr. Meeseeks, is quite unlike the activity of being for any of us living beings here on Earth. However, it is not unintelligible; we can make sense of it, but, to do so, we have to draw on the most basic science that there is: the science of being qua being, which studies what it is for something to be, not insofar as it a cetacean, an insect, an animal, or even a living organism, but, rather simply insofar as it is---insofar as being is something that it does.
The science of being qua being is not a science they teach in grade school anymore. But I’d like to think that it really is a science, in the proper sense of the term. One person who certain did think this was the greatest of the Greek philosophers: Arsitotle. Aristotle was a true polymath. He had many works in different sciences, mathematics, biology, astronomy, among others. But one science had a special place in Aristotle’s heart: the science of being qua being, the topic of perhaps his greatest work, The Metaphysics.
I’ve said that being is an activity. This is one of the fundamental claims of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. An activity, in the broadest sense of the term, is something that one does. But not all things that one does are of the same kind. In Book Theta of the Metaphysics, Aristotle makes a distinction between two fundamentally distinct kinds of activities, that I think will enable us to get clear on what it is to be a Meeseeks. The Greek words that he uses for these two kinds of activities are “kineses” are “energeiai.” I could provide a translation of these words, but all translations are controversial, and picking any one of them, I think, would do more harm than good in understanding what they mean. They are best understood directly by example.
When Rick first presents the Smith family with the Meeseeks box, he pushes the button and tells the newly existent Meeseeks to open Jerry’s stupid mayonnaise jar. Consider this activity, the activity of opening Jerry’s stupid mayonnaise jar. This activity has what Aristotle would call a “telos,” an aim. The aim of the activity of opening the jar is to have opened it. Once you’ve opened the jar, you’ve done what you’ve aimed to do in opening the jar; you’ve gotten it open. The activity of opening the mayonnaise jar is an activity such that, once the aim is achieved, the activity is no more. Once you’ve opened the mayonnaise jar, you’re no longer opening it. You've done it, and so you’re no longer doing it. This is the logic of an activity of the sort that Aristotle calls a “kinesis.”
A kinesis is an activity with an aim such that, once the aim is achieved, the activity ceases to be. In this way, a kinesis might be thought as an activity that aspires to its own non-being. For the activity to be successful is for it to have achieved its aim, and, once it does that, it is no more. So, the aim of a kinesis is the termination of the kinesis. Some other clear examples of kineses are fixing the dishwasher, doing your math homework, and climbing down the courtroom steps. The fact that each of these activities is a kinesis can be shown by the following test: the truth of a statement that uses the progressive tense of a kinesis-expressing verb entails the falsity of the statement that uses the perfect tense of that verb. For instance, insofar as you’re fixing the dishwasher, you have not yet fixed it. Insofar as you’re still doing your math homework, you have not done it. Insofar as you’re still climbing down the courtroom steps, you have not yet climbed down them. All of these activities have, as aims, the getting done of the doings that they are. So, they all have, as aims, their own non-being.
Now consider the activity of dancing. Now, in some cases, you might dance with the aim of winning a dance competition, or with the aim of impressing a dance partner, but, most of the time, when we dance, we do it just to do it. Usually, we just dance to dance, with no aim other than the dancing itself. When we think of dancing in this way, we see that it is an activity quite unlike the activity of opening the mayonnaise jar. Recall, insofar as you’re opening the mayonnaise jar, you haven’t yet opened it, and, once you’ve opened it, you’re no longer opening it. That’s not so with dancing. Insofar as you’re dancing, you’ve danced, and just because you’ve danced, it doesn’t mean you’re no longer dancing. Unlike opening the jar, dancing is an activity whose end is internal to itself. There’s nothing that one aims to accomplish in dancing to dancing that is external to the activity of dancing itself. Thinking of dancing in this way, as an end in itself, dancing is a sort of activity that Aristotle calls an “energeia.”
This distinction between kineses and energeiai, Aristotle thinks, is not only crucial for thinking about the sorts of things that we do--such as opening mayonnaise jars or dancing--but for thinking about the sorts of things that we are. What are we? Well, at the most general level, we are what Aristotle calls “ousiai.” This term usually gets translated as “substances,” but that term doesn’t actually fit the Greek sense of “ousiai” very well, and I’ll take a bit of liberty here and translate here as “be-ers.” We are be-ers. Being is what do, and, in doing it, we are, and we are the sorts of things that we are.
How could being be something we do? It might seem that you don’t have to do very much in order to be. However, according to Aristotle, you kind of do. To see this, for our own case, we have to consider the particular kind of be-ers that we are. We’re living things. What a living thing does is live, and, in doing that, it is and is what it is: a living thing. Living is an activity, and it is through the doing of this activity that a living thing is. Now, the crucial point here is that living is not like opening a mayonnaise jar or climbing down the courthouse steps. It's not directed at any end external to itself. A living thing does do all sorts of things that are directed ends external to the doings of those things---for instance, or opening a mayonnaise jar or climbing down the courthouse steps---but living itself is not one of those things. The activity of living is an end in itself. That is to say, it is energeia, not a kinesis. For us be-ers, being (where, for us, this is living), is like dancing, not like opening a jar.
Mr. Meeseeks and Us
Let us now turn back to Mr. Meeseeks. Mr. Meeseeks is not like us. He is alive, but his living is not like our living. For Mr. Meeseeks, living is not an end in itself. Mr. Meeseeks lives in order to accomplish an end that is given to him from outside. So, when Mr. Meeseeks comes into being upon Rick’s pressing the button and is told to by Rick to open Jerry’s stupid mayonnaise jar, Mr. Meeseeks has the end of opening the jar, and his whole life is directed towards accomplishing this end. From the point that he is given that end, the Meeseeks lives to accomplish that end, an end which is not the living, but the getting done of something that is given to him. So, for a Meeseeks, living is not an energeia, but a kinesis; it is an activity that is directed towards an end other than itself. Indeed, Mr. Meeseeks it the very personification of a kinesis.
We said, a kinesis is an activity that aims, in being the very sort of activity that it is, to cease to be. Opening the jar is an activity that has, as its end, having opened the jar, and, once the jar has been opened, one is no longer opening it. So the activity of opening the jar aims to cease to be. Insofar as what it is for a Meeseeks to be is for it to live, where living is not an energeia but a kinesis, a Meeseeks aims, in being a Meeseeks, to die. This is, of course, just what they say:
"I can’t take it anymore! I just wanna die!"
“We all wanna die! We’re Meeseeks!”
Now, the standard view, I take it, is that the reason Mr. Meeseeks says this is that he is in pain and wants that pain to be no more. But I think that this is to make Mr. Meeseeks seem more like us than he really is. Mr. Meeseeks is a fundamentally different sort of being than us. That is to say, what being is for Mr. Meeseeks is distinct from what being is for us. For us, being is fundamentally an energeia, whereas, for Mr. Meeseeks, it is fundamentally a kinesis.
There is, I want to say, a philosophical moral here. Often, we go through life, acting as if it's really a kinesis rather than an energeia, like climing down the courthouse steps rather than dancing. But we need to remind ourselves that it's not. As Alan Watts puts it:
“We thought of life by analogy with a journey, a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at the end, and the thing was to get to that end, success or whatever it is, maybe heaven after you’re dead. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing and you were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played.”
Taking a mini-seminar with Ayeh Kosman on Aristotle's Metaphysics several years ago is what got me thinking about the philosophical issues here, and, if you really want to dive into the Aristotelian way of thinking about things briefly discussed here, I cannot recommend highly enough his book, The Activity of Being.