Meanings of Life

Our next chapter is “The Meaning of Life” (illustrated by “The Death of Socrates,” implying that meaning may come from noble, principled self-sacrifice… but that’s just one example).

I taught a course at Vanderbilt under this title a few years ago. It was mis-labelled. We pondered many meanings, and concluded that many meanings are exactly what accrue to life, every well-lived life. That’s so not only because different individuals and cultures value different objects and ideals, but because each of us– like Woody Allen’s character in “Manhattan”– has  a collection of  things that make life worth living:

The items on his list will not coincide with those on most of ours, but the point to notice is that he and we can make our respective lists, and in the process discover what it is in life that motivates us to get up off our figurative sofas and chase our dreams. Many of us would say that the chase itself is intrinsically meaningful.

Our authors take a different tack, focusing on four alleged sources of meaning that seem to point to something “outside of [people’s] lives” supposed to confer meaning: children, God, a supernatural afterlife, and (paradoxically) absurdity. Option #4 most obviously calls for a leap into the irrational dark, treating meaninglessness as meaningful, somehow. But all of them may defy the demand for a straightforward answer to the Big Question of meaning. All may “postpone” a satisfying response.

Children. The joys of child-rearing do indeed strike many of us as deeply meaningful, though also deeply fraught with risks and disappointments. But in order for parenthood to be meaningful for me, as a parent, it can’t simply be a vicarious hope that our children (or theirs, or Generation x+’s) will find meaning in life. Strictly future meaning is too, well, futuristic.

God. “Belief in God seems only to make the question more urgent; belief does not solve it.” Divine meaning and purpose is not obviously transferable to mortals. Some, though, do appear to be more “god-intoxicated” than others– Spinoza, Calvin, Ned Flanders…

Afterlife. What if “the rewards of [a] next life will be available only to those who live this life to the fullest?” Aren’t we back, then, to Square One?

Absurdity. “The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Easier said than swallowed. A meaningless struggle doesn’t fill my heart, though Camus’ car crash was full of poignant irony. What to say, though, about  my interest in team sports? It does often feel absurd to care so much about how it goes for  “my team,” but it also feels like a source of valuable connection to the world and other people, past, present, and future. Maybe life is a ballgame.

Freud is quoted as saying that “the goal of all life is death.” I hope that was a mis-translation. The end is death, the goal is to live. Santayana said there’s no cure for birth and death, “save to enjoy the interval.”

Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence” idea offers an intriguing angle on this question. There’s a suggestive typo in our book ( on p. 48) that would skewer the philosopher’s intent: Nietzsche’s view was that the credible meanings of life are internal and natural, not “external” (in the sense of transcendent or other-worldly).  He wants you to ask yourself how you’d handle the supposition that “this life as you now live it and have lived it” is IT. There’s a nice dramatic rendering of this idea in the film “When Nietzsche Wept,” as the philosopher counsels his shrink– Freud’s collaborator Josef Breuer.)

And then, there’s Groundhog Day. Bill Murray returns to Punxsutawney, PA again and again, but not eternally… just till he gets it right. He learns how to live well, treat others respectfully, and  enjoy the present. Then he can leave, happily and with no regrets. That was, after all, the intent of Nietzsche’s “gift.”

So we’re back to Woody. Make your lists.

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