Raymond Martin is Crichton Professor of Philosophy at Union College. He spent most of his career at the University of Maryland. In his 1989 piece, “The Meaning of Life” Martin notes that problems in life—poverty, sickness, suffering, pain, etc—challenge the idea of it having a meaning. If we can avoid these problems, we should; if we cannot, we must accept them. Learning the difference between those we can and cannot avoid is part of the problem. Death is a special problem that challenges meaning in life, but Martin is unsure it is related to the question of whether our lives are worth living.
For Martin then, the problem of the meaning of life is in determining how our lives can be worth living. This question is related to speculative questions about whether there is objective meaning in reality, but more importantly, the question is a practical one—how to live our lives so that they are as worthwhile as possible. However, for some people, the problem of how to live well includes demanding an answer to the speculative meaning of life question. Tolstoy is the classic example of a man whose existential angst leaps from his pages, causing us to wonder—what is it all for?
While many things challenge our belief in life’s meaning—bad times, death, having our beliefs disputed—Martin also wonders if philosophical questions are often a source of psychological despair even when things are going well. He cites Nagel as a philosopher who argues that questions about the meaning of life often result in psychological crisis, and Tolstoy thought such questions could destroy you if you did not have faith.
But Martin thinks the foregoing analysis suspect, asking us to consider “a time when your life was at its subjective best … Whatever your peak experience, were you worried then about the meaning of life?” [i] He thinks the answer is no. At such moments we had solved the problem of life and questions of meaning did not arise. This indicates that happiness is the crucial issue, primarily because happy people do not turn questions into problems. If there is a problem of life then, it is how to be happy.
Martin now turns to Taylor’s view that meaning and values derive from actions in which we are truly engaged. But Martin finds Taylor’s optimism too easy, just as he had found Nagel’s pessimism too hard. As a middle way, he argues that meaning is neither inevitable nor impossible but meaningful “largely to the degree that you are doing what you love to do.”[ii] Or, to go even further, life is meaningful when you get all the things that you want. So if we reflect on a time when we were really satisfied, we realize that then the meaning of life question did not arise. But still, such satisfaction does not last. And that is because even when you get what you want, you always want more or you want something different or you want what you have in a different way. In short, we are not easily satisfied. And that was largely Tolstoy’s problem. He had everything but even when he got it he found that it did not last, that it was not completely satisfying.
Since getting what you want will satisfy you, we are led to Buddha’s answer—do not want anything. Martin claims that while this may have worked for Buddha, it does not work for most of us. Moreover, not wanting just adds another thing to our list of wants; we want to not want! So we may have to accept that life offers only fleeting satisfaction and that doing what we love is the best we can do. Of course, this does not solve the basic problem that satisfaction does not last—we are often dissatisfied with our lives even when they are going well. In that case, the best we can do is whatever satisfies us: “a fast car and a good woman, or whatever you think will do it for you.”[iii] In the end it is disappointing to realize that we will never get the deep and lasting satisfaction we crave.
Finally, Martin believes his analysis illuminates the relationship between death and meaning. Why do we think that death threatens meaning? Because death puts an end to our search for satisfaction; and the nearness of death shows us that we will never be fully satisfied. Death symbolizes defeat in our struggle for serenity. But in moments of complete satisfaction, in the ecstasy of love, for example, death seems not to matter and we temporarily defeat death. But soon our desires return, our struggle to be satisfied continues: “Until death ends the struggle—perhaps forever.”[iv]
Summary – The only meaning life has comes from doing what you love. But in the end, we cannot attain complete satisfaction.
[i] Raymond Martin, “The Meaning of Life,” in Questioning Matters, ed. Daniel Kolak (Belmont, CA: Mayfield Press, 2000), 711.
[ii] Martin, “The Meaning of Life,” 712.
[iii] Martin, “The Meaning of Life,” 714.
[iv] Martin, “The Meaning of Life,” 714.