Death and the Meaning of Life

Death causes many people to doubt life’s meaning. It isn’t surprising that the meaninglessness of life consumes Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, or that death figures prominently in the world’s literature about the meaning of life. Consider these haunting lines from James Baldwin:

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.[i]

Something binds the topics of death and meaning. The thought of oblivion arouses even the non-philosophical among us. What is the relationship between death and meaning?Death is variously said to:

  1. render life meaningless;
  2. detract from life’s meaning;
  3. add to life’s meaning;
  4. render life meaningful.

Death has always been inevitable, but the idea that science will eventually conquer death has taken root—achieved through some combination of future technologies like nanotechnology, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and robotics. Some think the possibility of technological immortality renders human life meaningless, others that life can only attain its full meaning if death is overcome.

But whatever view one takes about the relationship between death and meaning, the two are joined. If we had three arms or six fingers, our analysis of the meaning of life wouldn’t change; but if we didn’t die our analysis would be vastly different. If our concerns with annihilation vanished, a good part of what seems to undermine meaning would disappear. To understand the issue of the meaning of life, we must think about death. Pascal’s words echo across the centuries:

Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition.

Can we find meaning in this picture?

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[i] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage, 1992).

8 thoughts on “Death and the Meaning of Life

  1. I don’t think that death and meaning have anything to do with one another. Philosophers are always claiming that death makes life meaningless, or meaningful, or things like that. But it doesn’t. Life is inherently good. Death is inherently bad. Life is meaningful; it’s meaning is completely unrelated to the fact that it eventually ends. The value is in the journey itself, not the inevitable endpoint of the journey, and the fact that the journey must end does not detract from or add to the fact the the journey is unique, special, and irreplaceable. If anything, the meaning of death is imperfection, inadequacy. As a Transhumanist I believe that death is a problem to be solved, not some metaphysically relevant locus of transcendent meaning. Your article, thus, fails to mention this prominent viewpoint: that death means absolutely nothing. Life is what matters.

  2. Is it pedantic to point out that even though the body may not die for thousands of years, but the universe might collapse at some point in the future? I know this is a long time we speak about, but technically death still exists at that point, so we haven’t overcome it but postponed it by quite a bit. I imagine the spectre of death would still be there in the mind.

  3. Death is not the meaning of life. Life is something that is worth living for. Live for the best. Don’t waste it. People are better than that. No one is to be wasted away because of one thing. People are not just like a toy meant to be played with and then thrown away later on. Live like you really mean it. Death is NEVER the answer. Remember that.

  4. Death is most definitely NOT the meaning of life. Any philosophy that argues against this should itself be deemed invalid. When people claim that we may die from the collapse of the universe, they are not certain about their claim. Hypothetically speaking, there could be multiple universes. The end of one universe could be the beginning of another, meaning that we could escape to a parallel universe in the distant future.

  5. In what year were you people born? Are you of the young society,middle aged or old aged, – if there was a meaning to anything, even me as an individual or everyone else, which of course have to experience these things at some point, the cycle of life which we were there before, we are born, we grow into adulthood, we work, we retire, we grow old and frail and then we die…after that we do not know what happens, other than our bodies will be gone, but the soul lives on in peoples mind, it is passed on. If we do not reach an answer, in these more than a thousand years and no one has seeked an answer, which brings me down to this, why cant we as a chance of life inspire people, a generation, we were not around before, never existed, but we have known a world existed, we have lived it, we can inspire people that we were here, whether it makes a difference or not, we were people and the mind can do amazing things, to live in the human colony, as a human, we could wear shirts with words written on them, yearly or every 6months, anything to get any messages across, playing with the mind of others. – and other generations also who are welcome to follow, being the example, looking after ourselves. I think we should all start a meeting. I am from the UK in Peterborough, if you wish to contact me, please find me on facebook, Mike Hodgson. Thank you.

  6. Death is he meaning of life because your days are counted and you are limited of time, which makes one want to do their best. Eternal life would be useless because at one point you’ll all be the best and what’s the challenge. Death makes you want to do your best before your time is up.

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