The Meaning of Life
Not surprisingly, the meaning of life has been approached many ways by many writers all posing the question: “What the point of life is?”
The postmodern approach sometimes asserts that there is no meaning. As religious beliefs have faded, so has the meaning with which they once supplied. Meanwhile, modern science tells us that existence emerged from a random interplay of chemicals and gases in a cold, uncaring universe.
If there is meaning in the latter, strict sociobiological sense, it is in survival of the species.
The philosopher A.C. Grayling takes the postmodern approach: life, intrinsically, has no meaning and is therefore absurd. Grayling says that Camus’s ‘Sisyphus’, a man condemned for eternity to a push a boulder up a hill – again and again, can, however, live a meaningful life. Even an essentially meaningless task can have meaning if you think it does. It’s your attitude that counts.
Writer Terence Eagleton takes a different stance. He accepts that if you asked people what gives their life meaning the answer will be a mix of different things. Family, love, home, sport, nationalism and religion, for example. Those who once saw their reason on Earth as fixed by a group or society are today adrift on a sea of modern diversity.
“A great many educated people,” he writes, “believe that life is an accidental evolutionary phenomenon that has no more intrinsic meaning than a fluctuation in the breeze or a rumble in the gut … If our lives have meaning it is something with which we manage to invest them, not something with which they come ready equipped.”
For many people nowadays sport stands in for just causes – ethnic identity, national sovereignty, religious faith and personal honour – that people have traditionally given their life for. He goes a step further, however; neither appealing to gods or subjective meaning but to independent values found in the universe at large.
“The cosmos may not have been consciously designed, but it is not chaotic, either.”
Giving an answer to the meaning of life means making moral choices. Yet it is tough to discover the right values to live by. It is even harder to try living them. Wise decisions can only be made with a guiding framework.
Eagleton chooses an Aristotelian view of happiness as the free flourishing of our faculties and care for the collective well-being. This is happiness disengaged from selfishness and allied to the Greek love for humanity (agape).
Using morals just to get you something is not something you should do, even if the morals are positive ones. Obtaining meaning in life means that you should strive for goodness for the sake of it, not because it may take you to some end-place.
Being moral is the basic prize, and no meaning beats it.
Life is like a musical improvisation with each artist’s spontaneously doing their own thing. Receiving inspiration from the other members, while cooperating with them. Together they form a greater whole. The meaning of life consists of individuals all engaged in finding happiness through love and concern for each other.
Communication, Understanding and Serving
The emphasis on the collective may rile some. Plenty do, however, take the approach that we find meaning through happiness and that relations are an integral part of this.
Alain de Botton, believes that what prompts people to complain that life lacks meaning are particular varieties of unhappiness. In his view this unhappiness often comes from common sources.
The breakdown of romantic relationships; dissatisfaction with the shallowness of friendships; the trivialness of much contemporary conversation; frustration with the education system or one’s career.
The topics you study may seem meaningless or irrelevant and the decent money you earn at a large profitable company can seem, in the grand scheme of things, unimportant.
It makes no great difference to anyone’s life. There’s no profound part of you that you’re able to bring to, or incorporate in, your work. It might as well be done by a robot. From these strands he extrapolates a theory of meaning found in Communication, Understanding and Serving.
The first, in making connections with strangers or revealing our intimate physical and psychological selves with others, most particularly lovers. The last, by trying to improve others lives, either by alleviating sources of suffering or else by generating new sources of pleasure.
Their analysis echoes the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who wrote that love, knowledge and compassion were the meanings of life. “I have wished to understand the hearts of men,” he wrote, “I have wished to know why the stars shine, and I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.”
Others take slightly different approaches, but arrive with similar lists. Nathanial Brandon, who has written on self-esteem, felt that “there is no value-judgement more important to man – no factor more decisive in his psychological development and motivation – than the estimate he passes on himself.”
He listed five interconnected areas that allow people to experience the enjoyment of life: productive work, human relationships, recreation, art, and sex. The esteem one holds for oneself affects all of these.
The theme of meaningful work appears again in the works of philosopher Susan Neiman. She argues that growing up means finding meaningful work, travel, and education. Further, that all humans have a yearning for truth and freedom. While not writing about the meaning of life per se, both Brandon and Neiman argue that joyful existence is found in moral clarity and good use of the mind.
Arguing from another angle, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and Ernest Becker believed that contemplation and acceptance of our mortality supplied the sweetness, tincture, and the lessons about life. Kubler-Ross gave society permission to practice the art of dying gracefully. Becker instructed that awe, fear and anxiety are accompaniments to our contemplation of the fact of death.
Our lives are less than a 1,000 months long. We don’t have to write a great novel or symphony to live meaningful lives. Meaning can come in the simplest of things. Sadly, however, there are a lot of obstacles to meaningful lives.
Societies overemphasis on sex and violence. The nihilistic trash that fills the airwaves. The underplaying of friendship and lack of neighbourliness. Power and wealth as the standards of success. Damages to self-esteem or our ego. Lack of good news media. And this is to name just a few.
The Liberal View
One school of thought, the Liberal one, makes much of human autonomy and freedom, our ability to make choices. This puts it at odds with those materialistic atheists who say that human free will is an illusion. It is a view with roots in classical antiquity and its fruits in Renaissance and Enlightenment thought. It says that autonomy is the basis of the good life.
The individual, who lives self-chosen and self-imposed laws that answer to his sense of the obligations of humanity and fellowship, and appreciation of the value of knowledge, art and nature, is in the best position to find happiness. This is what’s needed to live wisely.
The aim of such a life is the achievement of worthwhile goals: happiness rewards the activity of seeking to achieve, whether or not it succeeds. Life has meaning in being active and in struggle. Indeed struggle seems just as much as part of life as anything else.