Richard Taylor on the Meaning of Life

Richard Taylor (1919 – 2003) was an American philosopher renowned for his controversial positions and contributions to metaphysics. He advocated views as various as free love and fatalism, and was also an internationally-known beekeeper. He taught at Brown, Columbia and the University of Rochester, and had visiting appointments at about a dozen other institutions. His best known book is Metaphysics.

In the concluding chapter of his 1967 book, Good and Evil (Great Minds Series), Taylor suggests that we examine the notion of a meaningless existence so that we can contrast it with a meaningful one. He takes Camus’ image of Sisyphus’ eternal, pointless toil as archetypical of meaninglessness. Taylor notes that it is not the weight of the rock or the repetitiveness of the work that makes Sisyphus’ task unbearable, it is rather its pointlessness. The same pointlessness may be captured by other stories—say by digging ditches and then filling them in forever. Crucial to all these stories is that nothing ever comes of such labor.

But now suppose that Sisyphus’ work slowly built a great temple on his mountaintop: “then the aspect of meaninglessness would disappear.”[i] In this case his labors have a point, they have meaning. Taylor further argues that the subjective meaninglessness of Sisyphus’ activity would be eliminated were the Gods to have placed within him “a compulsive impulse to roll stones.”[ii] Implanted with such desires, the gods provide him the arena in which to fulfill them. While we may still view Sisyphus’ toil meaningless from the outside, for externally the situation has not changed, we can now see that fulfilling this impulse would be satisfying to Sisyphus from the inside. For now he is doing exactly what he wants to do—forever.

Taylor now asks: is life endlessly pointless or not? To answer this question he considers the existence of non-human animals—endless cycles of eating and being eaten, fish swimming upstream only to die and have offspring repeat the process, birds flying halfway around the globe only to return and have others do likewise. He concludes that these lives are paradigms of meaninglessness. That humans are part of this vast machine is equally obvious. As opposed to non-human animals we may choose our goals, achieve them, and take pride in that achievement. But even if we achieve our goals, they are transitory and soon replaced by others. If we disengage ourselves from the prejudice we have toward our individuals concerns, we will see our lives to be like Sisyphus’. If we consider the toil of our lives we will find that we work to survive, and in turn pass this burden on to our children. The only difference between us and Sisyphus is that we leave it to our children to push the stone back up the hill.

And even were we to erect monuments to our activities, they too would turn slowly turn to dust. That is why, coming upon a decaying home, we are filled with melancholy:

There was the hearth, where a family once talked, sang, and made plans; there were the rooms, here people loved, and babes were born to a rejoicing mother; there are the musty remains of a sofa, infested with bugs, once bought at a dear price to enhance an ever-growing comfort, beauty, and warmth. Every small piece of junk fills the mind with what once, not long ago, was utterly real, with children’s voices, plans made, and enterprises embarked upon.[iii]

When we ask what it all was for, the only answer is that others will share the same fate, it will all be endlessly repeated. The myth of Sisyphus’ then exemplifies our fate, and this recognition inclines humans to deny their fate—to invent religions and philosophies designed to provide comfort in the face of this onslaught.

But might human life still have meaning despite its apparent pointlessness? Consider again how Sisyphus’ life might have meaning; again if he were to erect a temple through his labors. Notice not only that the temple would eventually turn to dust, but that upon completion of his project he would be faced with boredom. Whereas before his toil had been his curse, now its absence would be just as hellish. Sisyphus would now be “contemplating what he has already wrought and can no longer add anything to, and contemplating it for an eternity!”[iv] Given this conclusion, that even erecting a temple would not give Sisyphus meaning, Taylor returns to his previous thought—suppose that Sisyphus was imbued with a desire to labor in precisely this way? In that case his life would have meaning because of his deep and abiding interest in what he was doing. Similarly, since we have such desires within us, we should not be bored with our lives if we are doing precisely what we have an inner compulsion to do: “This is the nearest we may hope to get to heaven…”[v]

To support the idea that meaning is found in this engagement of our will in what we are doing, Taylor claims that if those from past civilizations or the past inhabitants of the home he previously described were to come back and see that what was once so important to them had turned to ruin, they would not be dismayed. Instead they would remember that their hearts were involved in those labors when they were engaged in them. “There is no more need of them [questions about life’s meaning] now—the day was sufficient to itself, and so was the life.”[vi] We must look at all life like this, its justification and meaning come from persons doing what “it is their will to pursue.”[vii] This can be seen in a human from the moment of birth, in its will to live. For humans “the point of [their] living, is simply to be living…”[viii] Surely the castles that humans build will decay, but it would not be heavenly to escape from all this, that would be boredom: “What counts is that one should be able to begin a new task, a new castle, a new bubble. It counts only because it is there to be done and [one] has the will to do it.”[ix]

Philosophers who look at the repetitiveness of our lives and fall into despair fail to realize that we may be endowed, from the inside, with the desire to do our work. Thus: “The meaning of life is from within us, it is not bestowed from without, and it far exceeds in both beauty and permanence any heaven of which men have ever dreamed or yearned for.”[x] 

Summary – We give meaning to our lives by the active engagement our wills have in our projects.


[i] Richard Taylor, “The Meaning of Life,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 136.
[ii] Taylor, “The Meaning of Life,” 136.
[iii] Taylor, “The Meaning of Life,” 139.
[iv] Taylor, “The Meaning of Life,” 140.
[v] Taylor, “The Meaning of Life,” 141.
[vi] Taylor, “The Meaning of Life,” 141.
[vii] Taylor, “The Meaning of Life,” 141.
[viii] Taylor, “The Meaning of Life,” 141.
[ix] Taylor, “The Meaning of Life,” 142.
[x] Taylor, “The Meaning of Life,” 142.

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