Will Durant on the Meaning of Life (A Second Look)


In his book On the Meaning of Life (1932) Will Durant argued that we cannot answer the question of the meaning of life in any absolute sense, for our minds are too small to comprehend things in their entirety. Still he believed we can say a few things about terrestrial meaning. Here are excerpts from a great thinker and wonderful prose stylist:

The meaning of life, then, must lie within itself … it must be sought in life’s own instinctive cravings and natural fulfillments. Why, for example, should we ask for an ulterior meaning to vitality and health? … If you are sick beyond cure I will grant you viaticum, and let you die … But if you are well—if you can stand on your legs and digest your food—forget your whining, and shout your gratitude to the sun.
The simplest meaning of life then is joy—the exhilaration of experience itself, of physical well-being; sheer satisfaction of muscle and sense, of palate and ear and eye. If the child is happier than the man it is because it has more body and less soul, and understands that nature comes before philosophy; it asks for no further meaning to its arms and legs than their abounding use … Even if life had no meaning except for its moments of beauty … that would be enough; this plodding thru the rain, or fighting the wind, or tramping the snow under sun, or watching the twilight turn into night, is reason a-plenty for loving life.[i]

We should be thankful for our loved ones:

Do not be so ungrateful about love … to the attachment of friends and mates who have gone hand in hand through much hell, some purgatory, and a little heaven, and have been soldered into unity by being burned together in the flame of life. I know such mates or comrades quarrel regularly, and get upon each other’s nerves; but there is ample recompense for that in the unconscious consciousness that someone is interested in you, depends upon you, exaggerates you, and is waiting to meet you at the station. Solitude is worse than war.[ii]

Love relates the individual to something more than itself, to a whole which gives it purpose.

I note that those who are cooperating parts of a whole do not despond; the despised “yokel” playing ball with his fellows in the lot is happier than these isolated thinkers, who stand aside from the game of life and degenerate through the separation … If we think of ourselves as part of a living … group, we shall find life a little fuller … For to give life a meaning one must have a purpose larger and more enduring than one’s self.
If … a thing has significance only through its relation as part to a larger whole, then, though we cannot give a metaphysical and universal meaning to all life in general, we can say of any life in the particular that its meaning lies in its relation to something larger than itself … ask the father of sons and daughters “What is the meaning of life?” and he will answer you very simply: “Feeding our family.”[iii]

Durant too finds meaning in love, connection, and activity. “The secret of significance and content is to have a task which consumes all one’s energies, and makes human life a little richer than before.[iv] Durant found the most happiness in his family and his work, in his home and his books. Although no one can be fully happy amidst poverty and suffering, one can be content and grateful finding the meaning in front of them. “Where, in the last resort, does my treasure lie?—in everything.”[v]

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[i] Durant, On the meaning of life, 124-25.
[ii] Durant, On the meaning of life, 125-26.
[iii] Durant, On the meaning of life, 126-28.
[iv] Durant, On the meaning of life, 129.
[v] Durant, On the meaning of life, 130.

2 thoughts on “Will Durant on the Meaning of Life (A Second Look)

  1. Thank you for introducing me to something/someone I was unfamiliar with and now will never forget.

  2. I’m glad you liked him. Will Durant was a great historian and philosopher and by all accounts a wonderful man.

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