Robert C. Solomon (1942 – 2007) received his PhD from the University of Michigan and was Quincy Lee Centennial Professor of Philosophy and Business at the University of Texas at Austin for many years until his death. (He was a colleague of mine in the early 2000s, although I didn’t know him well.) In a chapter of his book, The Big Questions: A Short Introduction to Philosophy, Solomon asks: “What is the meaning of life? This is the big question—the hardest to answer, the most urgent and at the same time the most obscure.”[i] The question usually arises when we something has gone wrong in our lives, whereas if our everyday lives are filled with activity we seldom think about the question.
Solomon first considers the meaning of the word meaning in the question. Often the meaning of something is what it refers to—like a word or a sign—but what do our lives refer to? We might say they refer to other people or the universe or a god, but this does not seem to be the same kind of reference. Nonetheless, many people do think of their lives as having meaning by reference to something outside themselves like their children, or gods, or an afterlife.
Regarding children, Solomon argues that if the meaning of someone’s life is their children we can immediately ask, what is the meaning of your children’s lives and their children, ad infinitum? It is hard to see how this all makes your own life meaningful. Regarding gods, it is again hard to see how this answers the question. For now we must ask: why did gods create us? If for some purpose, what was it? Why do gods need worlds anyway, what is the meaning of the world? It is not clear how gods would solve the problem. Regarding the afterlife, similar questions emerge. Is this life so insignificant that only reference to another one could make it significant? Why does the fact that the next life lasts longer make it more meaningful? What should we do in this life to be rewarded in the next? So the questions re-emerge: what should we do, what is important, how should we live? So while it is true that people dedicate their lives to their children or their gods or a possible afterlife, none of these answers really answer the question—they just raise more questions like: What is the meaning of our children’s lives? How do I live to serve a god? What is the purpose of an afterlife?
Perhaps then life is meaningless, since nothing external can give it meaning. Solomon replies that the fact that there is no external meaning outside of life does not imply that there is no meaning in life. In the same way that words have meaning in context, our lives may have meaning in context. If we truly devote them to our children or our gods, we can give our lives meaning.
Solomon further argues that the question of meaning in life does not require a specific answer so much as a vision of life in which you have a role. This vision is important since it colors the way you see the world. For example if you think life is a business contract you will probably see it differently than someone who sees it as a gift from the gods. Some of these grand images of life which can give it meaning include life as: a game, tragedy, mission, story, art, adventure, disease, desire, nirvana, altruism, honor, learning, frustration, relationships, or an investment.
If live is a game, you might not take it too seriously, but still want to win or be a good sport. If life is a story, you might see yourself as the hero of an unfolding narrative to be judged by the quality of the role you played. If life is a tragedy, living one’s life bravely in the face of our inevitable death may be the best we can do. If life is a joke, we could see our lives less seriously and laugh at them. If life is a mission, you might convert others, bring about revolution, raise children, advance science or promote morality. If life is an art, we may want to create our lives as ones with beauty, style or class. If life is an adventure, we would live life to the fullest, taking risks and enjoying challenges. If life is a disease, then all ends in death. If life is desire, the satisfaction of desire brings meaning; if life is nirvana, then the goal is to eliminate desire and achieve tranquility. If life is altruism, we live for others even if they do not reciprocate. If life is honor, then we must fulfill expectations and do our duty. If life is learning, we derive satisfaction from learning, from growing and developing our potential. If life is suffering, perhaps the best we can do is detach ourselves through contemplation or self-denial. If life is an investment, we think of the time of our lives as capital invested to gain a reward—say money or fame. And if life is relationships, then love and friendship are most important.
Solomon does not prescribe any one of these over another; instead he presents them as various images or visions which can give meaning to human life. Thus meaning is something we create, by choosing to live in accord with our own vision of a meaningful life.
Summary – We create meaning by living in accord with our vision of life.
[i] Robert Solomon, The Big Questions (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2010), 44.