Category Archives: Book Reviews-Meaning of Life

Review of: A Thinker’s Guide to Living Well

I have given away almost my entire collection of philosophy books, which at one time numbered more than a thousand. I have kept maybe 75 books, mostly ones that I had written or had been gifted to me with inscriptions, or that had special meaning to me.

Surprisingly one that I still possess is a book I reviewed for a professional journal more than 25 years ago—the first such review I had ever done. That book was titled, A Thinker’s Guide to Living Well by Dennis Bradford. The review, which appeared in The Modern Schoolman, LXX, January 1993, I reprint here with minor editing.

Dennis E. Bradford’s book provides a plan for living well. “Providing a good plan that works is what this book is all about.” (p. 3) He recognizes that others have attempted this—Confucius, Socrates, Aristotle, and Ben Franklin among others—but he wants to show how this can be done in “present-day North America.” (p. 3) The author claims that a good life is one of health, wealth, and wisdom. Wisdom is especially concerned with living well, but although you can have wisdom without health or wealth, it is better to have all three, “just ask anyone who is either unhealthy or poor.” ( p. 4) He also claims by being informed by modern medical science and technology, his plan has advantages over previous attempts to describe the good life.

The author has some informative things to say about health. He emphasizes how important health is to the good life, (not a sufficient but a necessary condition) and the importance of things like choosing a qualified physician, have regular physical exams, receiving appropriate vaccination, keeping up with health care developments, a practicing preventative medicine, and learning basic first aid techniques. While such advice may seem mundane, it is important nonetheless.

Habits are the next topic. Good habits increase the chance of success in one’s project–defined as one’s most important activity—and bad habits decrease this chance. In Chapter 3 he focuses on eliminating bad health habits, particularly smoking. “Your smoking habit began voluntarily and can be stopped voluntarily.” (p.39) And, it turns out, Bradford is a former smoker himself. “Think of curing dried leaves off a bush, shredding and blending them rolling them into a piece of thin paper, lighting one end, and sucking the resulting smoke into your lungs. The whole sequence is preposterous.” ( p.44)

Chapters 4 & 5 focus on creating good health habits. These habits aren’t identified as those leading to pleasure and besides “it is false that pleasure is the only abstract good.” (p. 52) Eating, for instance, may be pleasurable but is purpose is to contribute to one’s health. Bradford offers some suggestions about a healthy diet but defers to nutritional experts for specific advice? As for exercise, he recommends walking for beginners and he provides a detailed explanation for a gradual training program.

The author considers knowledge to be intrinsically valuable, and he advises getting as much education as possible. Bradford also argues that work is intrinsically valuable. Unfortunately, many people don’t have the opportunity to engage in satisfying work because of social and economic conditions. But as this is not a treatise in political philosophy, the issue is not explored. He does recommend that individuals pursue formal education and strive for financial independence. But he reminds his readers, that financial independence is a means to an end. To live well and engage in one’s most important project is the end and financial independence is the means to that end. Benjamin Franklin exemplified this approach. His business success provided him the means to pursue his project—scientific activities. Still, “Financial independence is not the meaning of life.”
( p. 179) The question now becomes, “What is?”

The last chapter, entitled “The Meaning of Life,” probes this question. Bradford argues that “Nothing done by any human … will have any permanent significance.” ( p. 184) He doesn’t believe that we have any cosmic significance and that the burden of proof rests with those who suppose we do. Those who believe that we have a special cosmic significance should present evidence. “Where is that evidence? I know of none.” ( p. 185) But our cosmic insignificance implies that we can do with our lives what we want. We can give them meaning and significance through our projects. And what do worthwhile project entail? He argues they must be: 1)capable of withstanding rational scrutiny, 2) directed toward a valuable end; 3) moderately challenging; and 4) a source of lasting satisfaction. He offers two examples of such a project—a life of service exemplified by someone who helps house the homeless, and a life of inquiry exemplified by a medical researcher.

Is there any way to decide which life is most valuable or which one should we choose? Such questions lead to considerations of the relationship between facts and values. The author believes that the “value-facts” exist but are difficult to determine.” ( p. 208) Value-facts derive from a consideration of human nature. Because of our nature, health, knowledge, friendship, wealth and wisdom are all intrinsically valuable.

Bradford’s book echoes much of Aristotle’s writing on the good life. As such he fills in a lot of details that Aristotle could not. And he concludes by stating that he wrote the book “for the satisfaction of communicating something useful to other passably intelligent people.” I believe he has succeeded.

Summary of David Benatar’s “The Human Predicament”

Image result for David Benatar

I have previously written about the philosopher David Benatar’s anti-natalism. Now Oxford University Press has published Benatar’s new book The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions.  Here is a brief summary of the book followed by a few comments.

Benatar’s book addresses the biggest question such as whether our lives are meaningful or worth living, and how we should respond to our impending death. He forewarns his readers that he won’t provide comforting answers to these questions. Instead, he argues

that the (right) answers to life’s big questions reveal that the human condition is a tragic predicament—one from which there is no escape. In a sentence: Life is bad, but so is death. Of course, life is not bad in every way. Neither is death bad in every way. However, both life and death are, in crucial respects, awful. Together, they constitute an existential vice—the wretched grip that enforces our predicament. (1-2)

The rest of the book explains this predicament. The basic structure of the argument goes something like this. While our lives may have meaning to each other, life is meaningless from a cosmic perspective; they have no grand purpose. “The universe was indifferent to our coming, and it will be indifferent to our going.” (200) Whatever little meaning our lives have is fleeting, and all human achievements ultimately vanish. In the end, it will all be as if we never were. This doesn’t imply that life has no meaning whatsoever, but “that meaning is severely limited.” (201)

However, even if our lives have some little meaning they are poor in quality and involve endless suffering. Some lives are better or luckier than others but in the long run, none of us fare well. It’s not that every moment is horrible but that sooner or later life will probably deal us some terrible fate. However, Benatar doesn’t conclude that since life is bad death is good. Instead, he argues that death is bad too. “Death does nothing to counter our cosmic meaninglessness and usually (though not always) detracts from the more limited meaning that is attainable.” (2-3)

Benatar doubts claims of immortality, even scientific ones, and also considers that immortality might not be a good thing. He grants that having the option of immortality would be better than not having it, but doubts that we will ever have that option. And while suicide doesn’t solve the human predicament it is sometimes the best choice we have. Yet, even when it is rational, suicide is tragic because it both affects others and annihilates an individual. Thus the prescription to “just kill yourself if it’s so bad” fails to appreciate our existential predicament.

This human predicament is not the product of a conscious agent, but of blind evolutionary forces. Yet human consciousness worsens the situation because humans “inflict colossal quantities of suffering and death on other humans. The deceits, degradations, betrayals, exploitations, rapes, tortures, and murders …” (203) However, while we should be pessimistic about the possibility of cosmic meaning, we can still obtain limited meaning. And this implies that

One should not desist from loving one’s family, caring for the sick, educating the young, bringing criminals to justice, or cleaning the kitchen merely because these undertakings do not matter from the perspective of the universe. They matter to particular people now. Without such undertakings, lives now and in the near future will be much worse than they would otherwise be. (205)

Naturally, people resist pessimistic views of life. Furthermore, they try to undercut them by claiming that adherents to pessimism are grouchy, pathological or macho individuals.  While Benatar these adjectives describe some pessimists, they don’t describe them all.  For many pessimism is an authentic response to one’s understanding of the human predicament.

So how then should we respond to the human predicament? First, we should cease having children and thereby perpetuating the cycle of suffering. But as we already exist, what can we do about our situation? Suicide might be a rational response, but better to invest some meaning into our lives.

An even better response would be to adopt a pragmatic optimism that recognizes the human predicament but uses optimism to cope. This would be most successful if one actually believed in an optimistic view. But suppose you only accept optimism as a kind of placebo? The optimist might recognize the horror of the human predicament but try to keep this horror at bay and remain optimistic. However, Benatar worries that this compartmentalization will be hard to maintain—to acknowledge the bleakness of life and yet remain optimistic. If you can’t maintain the correct balance here, you might become overly optimistic or revert back into pessimism.

The best coping mechanism would be to adopt pragmatic pessimism. Here you accept a pessimistic view of life without dwelling on it and busy yourself in projects that enhance and create terrestrial meaning. In other words “It allows for distractions from reality, but not denials of it. It makes one’s life less bad than it would be if one allowed the predicament to overwhelm one to the point where one was perpetually gloomy and dysfunctional … ” (211)

Benatar admits that the distinction between pragmatic optimism and pessimism as well as between denial and distraction are ambiguous. They exist midway in a continuum between “deluded optimism and suicidal pessimism.” (211) Like terminally ill patients we should confront our imminent death but not be so obsessed with it that we don’t spend time with our friends and family. So, while we can ameliorate our predicament somewhat, doing so “is the existential equivalent of palliative care.” (7)

In the end, the best we can do according to Benatar is to be the kind of “pessimists who have the gift of managing the negative impact of pessimism on their lives.” (213)

Reply – There is much to say about this book but let me mention a few things in passing. I believe that life is bad in many ways and so is death. The solution is to make life better and eliminate death. It may indeed be better if nothing had ever existed—assuming nothingness is even possible—but I just don’t know how to evaluate that claim. It may also be that something like Schopenhauer’s idea of blind will drives us and reason recommends putting an end to consciousness. But again I just don’t know how to evaluate such claims. Right now I enjoy my life, but then I’m a privileged white male in a first world country with a roof over my head, food in my refrigerator, access to medical care and the recipient of a wonderful education. I certainly understand that for many others life isn’t worth living and this fills me with irredeemable sadness. I wish I could say more.

The other thing I’d like to say is that I think the pragmatic response, whether slightly more optimistic or pessimistic is the best approach. This aligns well with the kind of attitudinal and wishful hope that I’ve written about in this blog. The main difference in my approach is that I begin with ignorance about answers to the big questions whereas Benatar confidently claims that the answers to life’s big questions are pessimistic ones. Starting from my ignorance I argue that, assuming we have free choice, we might as well be optimists as that is pragmatically useful. As I’ve said many times this is no answer but a way to live. And we find the most meaning by trying to make the world a better place.

Review of Dreyfus and Kelly’s, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age

The late Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly‘s book, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, addresses the question of finding meaning in the contemporary world. Here is a brief recap with some reflections to follow.

The preface sets out the book’s project:

The world doesn’t matter to us the way it used to. The intense and meaningful lives of Homer’s Greeks, and the grand hierarchy of meaning that structured Dante’s medieval Christian world, both stand in stark contrast to our secular age. The world used to be, in its various forms, a world of sacred, shining things. The shining things now seem far away. This book is intended to bring them close once more. (xi)

The first chapter, entitled “Our Contemporary Nihilism,” focuses on the angst caused by the many choices we now have compared to previous generations. In response people typically adopt a self-confident persona to mask their insecurity, or they become paralyzed by their obsessions and addictions. But neither mollifies our existential anguish, as anxiety pervades western civilization, as our former religious moorings have been lost. In the Middle Ages, for better or worse, nearly everyone believed that God created them and determined their fate. One could choose to turn away from God and sin in medieval times, but being an atheist or rejecting religious ethics altogether wasn’t an available choice. But today ethical prescriptions are tenuous, and nihilism is a viable option. The faith that once comforted does so no longer—today even fervent believers face existential questions.

Chapter 2, “David Foster Wallace’s Nihilism,” discusses Wallace’s sense that something is amiss for millennials in American today:

There’s something sad about it, something that doesn’t have very much to do with physical circumstances, or the economy, or any of the stuff that gets talked about in the news. It’s more like a stomach-level sadness. I see it in myself and my friends in different ways. It manifests itself as a kind of lostness. (24)

While the authors grant that Wallace’s depression informs his views, they also think he offers perceptive insights. Perhaps his depression makes him uniquely sensitive to the vacuity of our culture, and his lesson is that if we pay attention to life we can find in it something sacred and meaningful. But Wallace’s thinking manifests the sense in which the twentieth century forces us to respond to the death of God, and the shared virtues and values this once implied. So we live in a time when God’s existence and all that entails is problematic. Wallace accepts that God is dead, and that our only hope for meaning is found in our individual’s will.

For Wallace we can find some meaning by creating value in a mundane world—creating something that substitutes for the sense of the sacred we have lost. But the authors don’t think this suggestions helps ameliorate our nihilism, for creating our own meaning is too demanding. Yet we can any longer passively accept meaning from God. So then, is there something between the individual creating meaning, or receiving it from the divine?

Chapter 3, “Homer’s Polytheism,” begins with a discussion of Helen of Troy’s affair with Paris that ignited the Trojan War. The authors note that Homer admires Helen, although modern commentators typically argue that Homer didn’t understand the immorality of Helen’s adultery. But what if Homer had a more profound understanding of the situation—that Helen’s eroticism was an admirable human excellence to be valued independent of moral concerns. In other words, Helen is admirable as a “shining example of the sacred erotic dimension of existence.”(62)

The authors then turn to the issue of fortune or luck. For Homer good luck means the Gods favor you, which implies life’s meaningfulness. We should be grateful to the Gods, as fate is no mere statistical aberration. This contrasts harshly with the contemporary view that life is meaningless and ruled by randomness. Moreover, we live better when we think of ourselves, not as agents responsible for our own actions, but as vehicles through which the Gods or fate work. “The Greek’s of Homer’s era lived intense and meaningful lives, constantly open to being overwhelmed by the shining presence of the Olympian gods. As happy polytheists their world … was filled … with wonder and gratitude …” (88)

Chapter 4, “From Aeschylus to Augustine: Monotheism on the Rise,” traces the descent from Homer’s enchanted world to our disenchanted one. It isn’t that progress has left wonder behind, nor that wonder existed only in a long ago past, but that we have lost touch with the wonder that still surrounds us. The story of losing touch with wonder is a long one, but it begins with the Christianity’s emphasis on faith and religious experience, and continues with Augustine’s increasing emphasis on reason and our inner lives. This emphasis on the inner life will lay dormant until the philosophies of Descartes and Kant.

In Chapter 5, “From Dante to Kant: The Attractions and Dangers of Autonomy,” the authors argue that Dante and Aquinas’ attempt to reconcile Aristotle with Christianity moves us closer to nihilism. The key is that the emphasis on the self implies that it must be the sole source of meaning. So Descartes “established our Modern World in which we understand ourselves as self-sufficient subjects standing over against self-sufficient objects. (137) And, given our self-sufficiency, Kant argued that we must take responsiblity for our own actions, and (largely) be the our own source of meaning. Nihilism beckons.

The main thesis of Chapter 6, “Fanaticism, Polytheism, and Melville’s ‘Evil Art’,” is that Herman Melville saw clearly both that nihilism results from the death of Christianity, and a way out. For Melville there is no meaning hidden behind the surface of life, behind the quest for his whale. But this is enough for us, and we can still find meaning in a godless world. However the authors reject this solution, for them this doesn’t seem to be enough.

The final chapter, “Lives Worth Living in a Secular Age,” suggests that we can still get in touch with the sacred through such diverse shining things as an insightful speech, athletic excellence, or scientific breakthroughs. Everything in the world doesn’t shine, but its shining beauty can be found for those who look. “All things aren’t shining, but all the shining things are.” (224)

Reflections – Nihilism haunts our modern world in a way it didn’t haunt ancient Greece or medieval Christendom. Something has been lost between those times and our own. But I don’t share the authors regret about this, and I certainly have no desire to return to these previous epochs. Our history represents (hopefully), a maturing of the Western mind. We have left the gods behind and must create our own meaning in the context of what we know about ourselves and our current place in the universe.

No, all things don’t shine. And we shouldn’t focus exclusively on only the shining things, thereby ignoring all the world’s ills. Instead I’d say that we should appreciate the shining things and try to polish the dull things. But this project will only be successful if we recognize the good and evil, and the knowledge and ignorance, that are inside us all.

Summary of Terry Eagleton’s, The Meaning of Life

Terence Francis Eagleton (1943 – ) is a British literary theorist widely regarded as Britain’s most influential living literary critic. He currently serves as Distinguished Professor of English Literature at the University of Lancaster. Formerly he was Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford (1992–2001) and John Edward Taylor Professor of English Literature at the University of Manchester until 2008. His 2007 book, The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction, begins with this perceptive comment:

If you were to ask what provides some meaning in life nowadays for a great many people, especially men, you could do worse than reply ‘football.’ Not many of them perhaps would be willing to admit as much; but sport stands in for all those noble causes—religious faith, national sovereignty, personal honor, ethnic identity—for which, over the centuries, people have been prepared to go to their deaths. It is sport, not religion, which is now the opium of the people.[i]

Eagleton continues by probing much deeper. He answers the question of the meaning of life without appealing to either gods or subjective meaning but to certain objective values in the natural world. He notes the false dichotomy of arguing that either there are gods that give meaning or life is meaningless:

The cosmos may not have been consciously designed, and is almost certainly not struggling to say something, but it is not just chaotic, either. On the contrary, its underlying laws reveal a beauty, symmetry, and economy that are capable of moving scientists to tears. The idea that the world is either given meaning by God, or is utterly random and absurd, is a false antithesis.[ii]

But he rejects the claims of postmodernists and constructivists who say the meaning of life is subjective—that life means whatever we say it means. “Meaning, to be sure, is something people do; but they do it in dialogue with a determinate world whose laws they did not invent, and if their meanings are to be valid, they must respect this world’s grain and texture.”[iii]

When it comes time for Eagleton to answer his question he turns to the idea of happiness as the end and purpose of human life. “The meaning of life is not a solution to a problem, but a matter of living in a certain way. It is not metaphysical, but ethical.”[iv] But how should we act in order to achieve meaning and happiness? The key is to disconnect happiness from selfishness and ally it with a love of humanity—agapeistic love is the central notion of a meaningful life. When we support each other in this manner we find the key to our own fulfillment: “For love means creating for another the space in which he might flourish, at the same time as he does this for you. The fulfillment of each becomes the ground for the fulfillment of the other. When we realize our nature in this way, we are at our best.”[v]

In the end, then happiness and love coincide. “If happiness is seen in the Aristotelian terms as the free flourishing of our faculties, and if love is the kind of reciprocity that allows this to happen, there is no final conflict between them.”[vi] Interestingly, true reciprocity is only possible among equals, so societies with great inequality are ultimately in nobody’s self-interest. Eagleton’s final metaphor compares the good and meaningful life to a jazz ensemble. The musicians improvise and do their own thing, but they also are inspired and cooperate with the other members to form a greater whole. The meaning of life consists of individuals collectively engaged in finding happiness through love and concern for each other. It turns out that for Eagleton, as for Aristotle, individual and collective well-being, happiness, and meaning are all closely related.

Summary – Happiness and love are the meaning of life. We should create a world where they can thrive.

______________________________________________________________________

[i] Terence Francis Eagleton, The Meaning of Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 45.
[ii] Eagleton, The Meaning of Life, 76-77.
[iii] Eagleton, The Meaning of Life, 124.
[iv] Eagleton, The Meaning of Life, 164.
[v] Eagleton, The Meaning of Life, 168.
[vi] Eagleton, The Meaning of Life, 168.

Summary of Garrett Thomson: On the Meaning of Life

Image result for Garrett Thomson, Professor of Philosophy at the College of Wooster in Ohio

Garrett Thomson, who received his Ph.D. from Oxford University in 1984, is the Elias Compton Professor of Philosophy at the College of Wooster in Ohio. His 2003 book, On the Meaning of Life, begins by contrasting the medieval worldview with the modern scientific one. The medieval worldview is more easily reconciled with the belief that life is meaningful because the modern one implies that “because everything is made of matter, we have no immaterial soul and so, very soon, each one of us shall die. There is probably no God … just inert matter.”[i] The question of the meaning of life is now an urgent one “partly because the modern scientific view has largely replaced the medieval view…”[ii]

The main point of his first chapter is to clarify the meaning of the question. He carefully distinguishes, as we did in our opening chapter, between unanswerable questions, unknowable answers, and there being no universal answers to the question. In sorting out the various ways to understand the question he comes to one basic conclusion “An understanding of the meaning of life must have some practical implications for the way that we conduct our lives.”[iii] The question of meaning is not asking for a piece of information but for some guidance in living and, if it cannot give such guidance, the advice is basically useless.

Thomson proceeds to investigate nine different mistakes that people make in thinking about the meaning of life. The first assumes that meaning depends upon the existence of and our relationship with a god. He replies that the mere fact that a god has a purpose for human life does not entail that we honor that purpose. The second is that the meaning of life is some goal or purpose, whether it was planted in us by a god or evolution, or whether it refers to our spiritual development. But if we regard our lives as meaningful merely as a means to some end or goal, we invariably miss life’s intrinsic meaning. The third is that meaning is the same as pleasure or desire. This is contradicted by the fact that something would be lacking in a pleasure machine. The fourth mistake is that meaning must be invented or is subjective. In contrast, he argues that activities are meaningful because of the real value associated with them. The fifth is that there can be no meaning given materialism. Thomson replies that values may be properties of material things; that material things may give rise to values; or that material things can be described as valuable. The sixth is that the value judgments are nothing more than reasons for actions. Thomson argues that there are values and meanings of which we are unaware, just like we are ignorant of some facts, and these have nothing to do with guiding actions. This implies the seventh mistake; that meaning cannot extend beyond our experiences. The eighth mistake is to assume only linguistic items can have meaning, and a ninth, that meaning is living in accord with a self-determined plan.

What all this leads to are the positive lessons of Thomson’s book. Foremost among these is that meaning is found in everyday life because that is where we reside. Individuals have intrinsic value as do the processes that constitute those lives. These processes are themselves composed of experiences and activities that constitute a life, hence meaningful lives consist of the most valuable and meaningful activities. Life can be made more meaningful by increasing our attention and appreciation of these valuable activities, as well as becoming more aware of values in the world that we have previously not appreciated.

However, we should try to make the world and our lives better. How do we do this? Not by acting in accord with every want or desire we have but by acting in accord with our interests, with what is intrinsically good for us. This leads to a conception of value that is neither absolute nor relative. The appreciation of value implies they can be recognized, they are in some sense out there, but values are not absolute since they depend on our interests. The meanings of life are determined by our interest in valuable things like beauty and friendship. This latter value is especially important since our meaning depends on recognizing the non-instrumental value of other persons. When we do recognize the value of others we transcend the limitations of our own lives.

We can also find meaning by connecting to values like goodness, beauty, and truth. Part of the value of our lives is found in things beyond ourselves so that the search for meaning attempts to transcend particular actions. If life has what is called spiritual significance, it is not because there is a transcendent state which denies the immanent meaning of life, but because we can appreciate the immanent values in life. Thomson’s states his conclusion regarding the meaning and significance of life as follows:

It must consist in the process of development, not according to an externally imposed divine plan or purpose, nor as a personally invented one, but rather in accordance with the fundamental nature of our interests. It should be conceived, in part, as the process of our reaching out to values beyond ourselves with our attention and actions.[iv]

Summary – The meanings of life are found in everyday life in objective values that include friendship, goodness, beauty, and truth, all of which both appeal to our nature and allow us to go beyond ourselves.

[i] Garrett Thomson, On the Meaning of Life (Belmont CA: Wadsworth, 2003), 3.

[ii] Thomson, On the Meaning of Life, 4.

[iii] Thomson, On the Meaning of Life, 10.

[iv] Thomson, On the Meaning of Life, 157.