The Question of the Meaning of Life

Mz 3, often referred to as the Ant planetary nebula, ejecting gas from the dying central star.

Albert Camus opens his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” with these haunting lines: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”[i] Karl Jaspers wrote: “The question of the value and meaning of existence is unlike any other question: man does not seem to become really serious until he faces it.”[ii]Victor Frankl said: “man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation of his life” and “… concern about a meaning of life is the truest expression of the state of being human.”[iii] The contemporary philosopher Robert Solomon considered the question of life’s meaning to be “the ultimate question of philosophy.”[iv] While major philosophers in the Western tradition have had much to say about the goal or final end of a human life, most have not—until the twentieth century—specifically addressed the question of life’s meaning, and many have avoided it altogether.

In the Western world this lack of concern with the question of the meaning of life was in large part due to the domination of the Christian worldview. During the long period from about the 5th through the 18th century, the question of life’s meaning was not especially problematic, since the answer was obvious. That answer was, roughly, that the meaning of life was to know, love, and serve god in this life, and to be with him forever in heaven. According to this view all the suffering of the world would be redeemed in the afterlife so that the sorrows of the world could be seen to have been worth it in the end, when we are united with god. However, with the decline of the influence of this worldview in subsequent centuries, the question of the meaning of life became a more pressing one, as we see beginning with nineteenth century thinkers such as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. In the twentieth century the question took on a new urgency and western philosophers have increasingly written on the subject. Thus, with the exception of Schopenhauer, our text will concentrate exclusively on twentieth and twenty-first century thinkers.

My own view is that the question of life’s meaning is the most important philosophical question, and possibly the most important question of any kind. This is not to say that it should be the only thing one thinks about, or that noble things cannot be done or happy lives cannot be lived without thinking about it. In fact one can think too much about it and, in the worst cases, compulsive analysis may lead to or manifest mental illness. Socrates claimed that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” but the over-examined life is certainly not worth living either. Life may simply be too short to spend too much of one’s life thinking about life. (The Latin “primum vivere deinde philosophare,” translates to “First live, later philosophize.”)  Many persons in all walks of life have lived good and happy lives without thinking deeply about meaning, or without answering the question even if they have thought much about it. In short, philosophers should not overestimate the importance of their ruminations.

Still, such an important question demands some reflection. Without a tentative answer to the question there seems to be no ultimate justification for any action, or even a reason to be at all. To put it somewhat differently: What is the point of living, if you don’t know the point of living? Why do anything, if you don’t know why you should do anything? You might answer that you live because you have a will to live or a self-preservation instinct; but that merely explains why you do go on, it does not justify why you should go on. Of course you can certainly remain alive without thinking about these questions, and circumstances force many people to spend their lives trying to survive, leaving little time for philosophical contemplation. But for those with sufficient leisure time, for those that have their basic needs met, do they not have some obligation to think about the meaning of their lives, and by extension the meaning of life in general? Might not such thinking improve their lives and benefit others? If so, then thinking about the question of meaning is certainly worthwhile.

[i] Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2008), 72.
[ii] Karl Jaspers, Nietzsche (Tucson: University of Arizona, 1965), 333.
[iii] Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (New York: Beacon Press, 1963).
[iv] Robert Solomon, The Big Questions (Boston: Wadsworth, 2010), 44.


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