Winged deities kneeling beside a sacred tree (the Assyrian Tree of Life), from the Palace of Nimrud / British Museum
Photo by amaianos, Wikimedia Commons
John is a fervent Star Wars fan and has devoted much of his adult life to attending Star Wars conventions – dressed as a storm trooper – and contributing to Star Wars websites. He keeps a particularly close eye on the main “Star Wars” entry in Wikipedia to weed out factual errors and cleanse it from what he calls “Light Side of the Force ideological bias.” John’s pride and joy is his collection of nearly 500 Star Wars action figures, including three design concept ones used in film production. It is not merely a toy collection, he explains, but a way of exploring the meaning of life:
The Star Wars narrative contains all of the major plot motifs of classic literature, and the action figures give reality to them. How I place action figures together on the shelf will evoke different thematic tensions based on their respective back stories. When I pair Han Solo with Greedo, that displays a completely different Light-side dark-side dichotomy than when pairing Hans Solo with, say, General Grievous.
While some people find meaning through religion or acquiring wealth, John says that he finds Star Wars action figures to be a much more flexible and organic expression of life’s relentless struggles and how we meet them. John’s wife, who he first met at a Star Wars convention, tolerates his collection of action figures, but thinks it is a little too intense: “I feel like I’m surrounded by 500 tiny warriors poised for battle; I can think of more soothing decorations to place around the apartment.”
John’s action figure hobby is an unusual way to investigate the notion of the meaning of life. This fundamental of all philosophical questions comes in a variety of forms:
- Does life have a purpose?
- What kind of life is worth living?
- How can I overcome despair?
- How can I achieve happiness?
- Why do I exist?
- Why should I exist?
- Do my life activities have any lasting value?
Each of these questions focuses on a unique point. The first, for example, asks whether there is an over-arching design or goal to human existence that might clarify our place in the grand scheme of things. The second asks whether some approaches to life are better than others. All of the above questions, though, presume that something’s not right with life as we currently experience it, and we’d like a solution to the problem.
Not everyone is plagued by questions of life’s meaning, and a good test for determining the grip that this has on you personally was suggested by German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche (1844-1900). Since ancient times, philosophers from many cultures around the globe entertained a concept called the eternal return. On this view, the universe that we live in now is just one in an endless series of universes that occurs one right after another, each being identical with the others, right down to the tiniest detail. With our present universe, there are fixed laws of nature that determine how it unfolds, including everything about my own personal existence—how tall I am, who I married, the job that I have, and every word I ever uttered. Someday this universe will be destroyed by cosmic forces, and from its ashes a new universe will be formed. It too will be shaped by exactly the same laws of nature, and thus all events will unfold exactly the same, including my own life. This cycle of universes will continue again and again, forever. Whether we believe the theory of the eternal return is not important. What Nietzsche asks, though, is how you would feel if it was true, and for eternity you would be reliving the exact same events in your life, over and over, in each successive universe. If you would be OK with that, then in all likelihood you are not especially bothered by problems of life’s meaning. You are happy with this life, and you would have no problem living the identical life over and over. However, if the notion of the eternal return feels like a nightmare to you, then this suggests that you have serious issues with the meaning of life as you are right now.
Philosophers are not the only ones interested in questions about life’s meaning. Psychological studies tell us that happiness declines in our 20s and returns around age 50. That’s a long period of personal struggle for each of us, and today’s self-help industry has jumped in to address our problems. While many of these involve specific concerns, such as relationship issues or alcohol dependence, others are more general in nature. A mid-life crisis or a “spiritual” crisis, for example, will often involve larger questions of purpose and fulfillment. Philosophical discussions of the meaning of life are not meant to compete with self-help therapies. The main appeal of philosophy’s contributions to this issue rests in the puzzle itself: here is a timeless problem that touches the core of human existence. What exactly is behind the problem and which, if any, of the standard solutions are plausible?
In this chapter we will look at the more famous problems and proposed solutions regarding life’s meaning that have attracted the interest of philosophers over the millennia. Many of the solutions come from ancient traditions—both religious and nonreligious. To get a complete picture of their approaches to life’s meaning, we would need to immerse ourselves in all the particulars of those traditions and the precisely defined lifestyles that they recommend. But the best we can do here is consider some dominant themes of these traditions, along with some common criticisms of them. The criticisms we will look at are not refutations of those traditions, and advocates of those traditions have responses to them. Rather, the critiques serve more to help define their limits rather than to simply dismiss them.
Life’s Chronic Ailments
Preoccupied with our own private problems, it is easy for us to forget that for at least 100,000 years human beings just like us have been on this planet, undoubtedly wrestling with their own issues of happiness and contentment. It should be no surprise that, as soon as writing was invented, ancient people inscribed their struggles to find life’s meaning. Their accounts do not typically begin “Today I had a really bad day”; instead, writers embedded their insights into mythological narratives, the popular writing genre of the time. Four ancient discussions are especially exceptional because of their insight and influence, and each describes a particular obstacle that stands in the way of us having a meaningful life.
Gilgamesh and Death
A newly discovered partially broken tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh / The Sulaimaniya Museum, Iraq
One of the world’s oldest surviving stories is the Epic of Gilgamesh, composed about 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. Gilgamesh, a brave and heroic king, just witnessed the death of his close friend and became distressed with the prospect that he too would someday die. There has got to be some cure for death, he thought, and so he set out on a journey to discover it. Everyone he encountered on his travels, even animals, tried to discourage him from pursuing his plan, but he pressed on all the same. He then found a famous man named Utnapishtim who had himself achieved immortality. Utnapishtim was the Mesopotamian Noah who survived the great flood. Warned by a goddess of the forthcoming deluge, Utnapishtim built a ship to save himself and his family; he was granted immortality as a reward for his efforts. Gilgamesh was shocked when he first set his eyes on Utnapishtim, who, while immortal, continued to age. The old man was now so decrepit that he could barely move. Gilgamesh nevertheless asked for advice and Utnapishtim offered a suggestion: Gilgamesh could conquer death by staying awake for seven nights straight. Gilgamesh accepted the challenge, but unfortunately fell asleep as soon as he sat down. When awakened, he was prepared to return home without success. Utnapishtim’s wife then urged the old man to tell Gilgamesh about a secret cure for death: at the bottom of the ocean there’s a spiky plant that brings endless youth to anyone who eats it. Gilgamesh ran to the ocean, and, with rocks tied to his feet, jumped in and sank to the bottom. He grabbed the spiky plant, untied the rocks and floated back to the surface. Plant in hand, he joyfully set out on his return journey and when almost home he stopped to wash himself off in a stream, first placing the plant on the bank. While bathing, though, an old snake slithered up to the plant, ate it, and immediately became young. It then slithered away. Gilgamesh’s one chance at becoming immortal was thus ruined. He arrived home in a state of depression, and, despite the efforts of his friends to cheer him up, he remained inconsolable.
There are two morals of this story. The first and obvious one is that, as strongly as we desire to live forever, the inevitable truth is that we will all die. Given the choice, virtually all of us would jump at the chance to be immortal, and the fact that we cannot creates a dark cloud over life’s meaning. The second and more interesting moral is that we cannot easily accept our deaths and we may do some crazy things to cheat the grim reaper. While the epic of Gilgamesh is just a myth, this second moral has played out countless times in the real world. In ancient China, some religious believers devoted themselves to conquering death through the strangest of techniques. One involved drinking chemical concoctions which would supposedly balance out the forces within the human body and thereby obstruct the process of dying. Ironically, many believers poisoned themselves to death through these experiments. Another technique involved holding one’s breath for longer and longer periods of time. Eventually the believer would not need to breathe at all, and thereby become immortal. Today, there are organizations devoted to achieving physical immortality. Some recommend taking as many as 250 nutritional supplements a day. Others place hope in biological advances that will reverse the natural deterioration of human cells. Still others look forward to the day when our minds can become digitized, essentially making computerized versions of our present brain processes.
What should we think about these efforts to avoid dying? One of the more notable philosophical discussions of death is by German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Death, according to Heidegger, is not really an event that happens to me, since it only involves the termination of all possible experiences that I might have. After all, it is impossible for me to experience my own death. Rather than thinking of death as an episode that takes place at the tail end of my life, I should instead view it as an integral part of who I am right now, and during each moment of my life in the future. I continually aim towards death and, even when I feel healthy, in a fundamental way I am really terminally ill. He writes, “Death is something that stands before us, something impending.” He encapsulates this insight in the phrase “being-towards-death”. It is like playing a game such as soccer where, embedded in every moment, there is the idea that time is running out. So, Heidegger says, if I ignore my persistent movement towards death, or resist it as Gilgamesh did, I am only deceiving myself and living in a substandard world of make-believe. By contrast, a proper understanding of death clearly lays down the basic rules of the game of life and thereby gives life form and purpose.
If I could continually think of myself as on the path to death as Heidegger suggests, that might help me accept my mortality. However, while my body is designed to die, my mind seems to be hardwired to think that I am immortal, and there’s little that I can do to resist that feeling. For one thing, the natural instinct to survive compels me to resist death at almost all costs, and this is something that I share with many creatures in the animal world. For another, I cannot psychologically conceive of the future without secretly injecting myself into it. Even if I try to picture the world a thousand years down the road, I am still there as a ghostly spectator to the events I am imagining. Whether I like it or not, I am inherently resistant to the idea of my non-existence. My natural human attitude towards death, then, may be to assume that I am immortal, and, at the same time, be horrified when I look in the mirror and see my body disintegrating before my eyes. So, the desire for immortality and its accompanying despair, like Gilgamesh experienced, may simply be part of life.
Sisyphus and Futility
Sisyphys, by Titian, c.1548 / Prado Museum
In Homer’s Odyssey, the adventurous hero Odysseus stops by Hades, the dwelling place of the dead, to chat with deceased friends. While there, he sees legendary people who are being punished for evils they committed when alive. There’s one fellow whose body is stretched out over a nine-acre area. Lying helplessly, two vultures pick at his liver; he swats them to shoo them away, but they keep returning. Another fellow is parched with thirst, but cannot succeed in reaching water. Wading in a lake up to his chin, whenever he stoops down to drink, it immediately dries up leaving only dusty ground. He sees succulent fruit trees above him, but as soon as he reaches for their produce the wind sweeps the branches into the clouds.
Then there is Sisyphus, a deceitful king who tricked the god of death and stayed alive longer than he should have. He finally died and went to Hades, but the punishment for his trickery was not a pleasant one. Day after day he pushes a huge stone up a hill, but, always losing energy as he nears the top, he lets it go and it rolls back down. Homer describes the scene here:
I saw Sisyphus at his endless task raising his gigantic stone with both his hands. With hands and feet he tried to roll it up to the top of the hill, but always, just before he could roll it over onto the other side, its weight would be too much for him, and, without pity, the stone would come thundering down again onto the plain below. Then he would begin trying to push it up hill again, and the sweat ran off him and steam rose from his head. [Odyssey, Book 11]
All three of these scenes from Hades depict people trapped into performing futile tasks: swatting vultures, stooping to drink, pushing a bolder. It is the image of Sisyphus, though, that has had the most lasting impact, and for nearly 3,000 years writers have used him as a symbol for the emptiness of life’s endeavors.
Sisyphus’s fate is chillingly similar to the assembly line jobs that workers face throughout the world. Jill works in a lawnmower manufacturing plant, and her job is to bolt lawnmower blades onto motors. She has thirty seconds to line up the pieces and attach them together. As soon as one is done, another follows on its heels. To reduce monotony, the factory rotates Jill and other employees from one work station to another, but, after a few minutes, the routine kicks in. Jill likes her co-workers and has no complaints against her supervisor. Still, at the end of the day, she feels that she may as well have been pushing a boulder up a hill. It is not just assembly line jobs that carry a sense of tedious futility. Accountants, teachers, doctors, and most skilled workers face early burnout. Surveys show that about 70% of workers dislike or downright hate their jobs,much of which owes to grinding and pointless routines. What we do in our spare time is often no more rewarding. A good portion of the day is spent in monotonous domestic chores, cleaning, driving to and fro, shopping, personal hygene. Year after year, this seem as futile as assembling lawnmower blades.
French philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960) believed that the story of Sisyphus had another symbolic message. Yes, many of life’s specific tasks certainly feel futile, but what is more discouraging is that the sum total of a person’s life efforts may seem pointless. Camus called this the absurdity of life. Human life, he argued, cannot be neatly dissected and understood by human reason in the same way that scientists might successfully analyze and understand chemical reactions. We strive to be happy, but instead are trapped in a life of futile efforts. As much as we try to make sense of it and solve the problem, we can’t; the sober reality of things simply does not live up to our optimistic expectations. The problem is so bad that it might drive some to suicide. So, Sisyphus represents the overwhelming struggle that we each have in overcoming a pointless life. But Camus is not content to let the issue rest with despair. Instead, he recommends that we revolt against the apparent pointlessness of life, accept our condition as limited as it is, and in that find happiness. Sisyphus should embrace his boulder-pushing task; the value rests in his effort, not in what he achieves. As Camus states it, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. We must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Thus, while I may never be able to rationally explain the purpose behind my life, I should nonetheless welcome the tedious life that I have and create meaning for myself through my positive outlook.
But is Camus’s recommendation as easily achievable as he suggests? That is, through sheer willpower can we really make ourselves happy in spite of life’s fruitlessness? The problem may be resistant to a simple attitude adjustment, as zoo keepers have discovered in their experience with the mental well-being of gorillas. For decades gorillas were kept in controlled enclosures with fixed routines like feeding schedules. While their basic needs were being met, the gorillas were all bored and depressed. Zoologists then discovered that gorillas needed complex tasks to challenge them throughout the day and keep their mental energies peaked. Caretakers then started regularly altering the gorillas’ routines by introducing different climbing equipment and scattering their food around their enclosures for the gorillas to forage. By altering the gorillas’ environment in the right way, the they became happier. Applying this lesson to human happiness, we might look for the kinds of challenging tasks that spark our interests throughout the day. We might need shorter and more varied work days; we might need more direct involvement with growing and preparing food; we might need the opportunity to explore new surroundings through travel; we might need to break free of overcrowded urban settings. In the end we might find that humans were designed to be content in tiny hunter-gatherer tribal groups – the condition in which the human species first evolved. Modern industrial life may not be suited to ward off a sense of futility, and for us the human condition today may be inherently absurd with no real solution. Like Sisyphus, then, we unendingly push a boulder to no purpose.
Boethius and Cosmic Insignificance
Initial depicting Boethius teaching his students from folio 4r of a manuscript of the Consolation of Philosophy (Italy?, 1385) / Glasgow University Library
In the comedy film Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, a man in a pink suit steps out of a refrigerator and tries to comfort a woman who is despairing about her significance in life. He breaks into a song about how enormous the galaxy is, containing a hundred billion stars over a distance of a hundred thousand light-years from side to side. The Milky Way itself, he explains, is only one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the ever-expanding universe. He concludes,
So remember when you’re feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth;
And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space,
Because there’s bugger all down here on earth.
The man climbs back into the refrigerator and closes the door. The joke is that the refrigerator man’s advice would serve more to intensify the woman’s despair rather than alleviate it. If you want to feel significant in life, it is best to avoid thinking of yourself as a mere dot within a colossal universe. Nevertheless, for millennia people have been agonizing over a sense of cosmic insignificance in the face of the universe’s vastness. Even without the aid of modern astronomical telescopes that can peer into distant galaxies, people in ancient times looked up at the stars and were overwhelmed by their sense of smallness. One of the earliest records of this is from the Book of Psalms in the Hebrew Bible: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” (8:3-4).
One of the most disturbing ancient discussions of the sense of cosmic insignificance is that by the Roman philosopher Boethius (480–525 BCE). His personal story is a sad one. Born into a wealthy family, Boethius was an important diplomat within the Roman Empire, but a political misunderstanding turned the Emperor against him and, at the young age of 35, he was sentenced to death for treason. While awaiting execution in his prison cell, he reflected on everything that he would miss in life because of this injustice. In this state of anguish he composed a work titled The Consolation of Philosophy. It consists of a dialogue between himself and an imaginary person he calls “Lady Philosophy,” who comforts him with words of wisdom during his final days. Boethius’s problem, she informs him, is that he is too attached to earthly things, particularly literary fame, and it would help if he reflected on his true place in the cosmos. She explains that the size of the earth is but a speck compared to the heavens, that most of the earth is uninhabitable, that human societies are scattered remotely. It is not just cosmic space that dwarfs human achievements, she continues, but also cosmic time. Even if Boethius does gain some temporary fame during his life, that would be absolutely nothing when compared with the eternity of time.
The lesson that we learn from Lady Philosophy is that, like Boethius, each of us is isolated within the limitless space and time of the cosmos, with no hope of making any meaningful or lasting impact. For someone like Boethius who is approaching death, maybe this will be a little consoling. So what if you are about to die: in the larger scheme of things your life does not amount to much anyway. But, for the rest of us who are not immediately facing death and have normal hopes and dreams, the brute reality of cosmic insignificance can be discouraging. Why should I strive for anything if I am just an imperceptible twitch within the infinite body of the cosmos?
Contemporary French philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913–2005) offered a solution to the problem of cosmic insignificance. He writes, “On a cosmic scale, our life is insignificant, yet this brief period when we appear in the world is the time in which all meaningful questions arise.” Yes, the grandeur of the cosmos does make our life’s efforts irrelevant by comparison, but we nevertheless find meaning within the microscopic components of our lives through the creation of history. That is, while I cannot grasp my personal significance within the incomprehensible cosmic timeline, I can still find my spot within American History, for example, and even more so within my family history. I know how this country was founded, how my ancestors got here, what my grandparents and parents did with their lives, and how all this has shaped me. Thus, we invent a historical narrative of our human past which is larger than our individual selves, yet much smaller and more manageable than cosmic space and time. In Ricoeur’s words, “historical time is like a bridge thrown over the chasm which separates cosmic time from lived time.”
Does Ricoeur successfully solve the problem of cosmic insignificance? Without question, knowledge of history does help clarify who I am and how I fit into the world around me. When I think about my spot within human history, I do not feel like an isolated being adrift in an unfathomable cosmic ocean. But while this may temporarily distract me from my sense of cosmic insignificance, it does nothing to change the reality of the limitless cosmos. When I reflect on human history, I may feel at home; but the instant that I gaze at the stars, all of human history itself seems miniscule by comparison. The entire human legacy is confined to an infinitesimally small region of space for an infinitesimally small period of time. Try as I might to keep my focus on human history, the stars return each night to remind me once again of my true limited place within the cosmos, and the sense of cosmic insignificance returns.
Job and Suffering
Job by Léon Bonnat (1880)
The story of Job from the Hebrew Old Testament explores another challenge to the meaning of life. Job was not obsessed with death like Gilgamesh, discouraged by futility like Sisyphus, or overwhelmed with insignificance like Boethius. In fact, at the outset of the story he’s happy. Job is a wealthy and morally decent herdsman with a loving family, and he owns a large stock of sheep, oxen, camels, and donkeys. Then everything changes for the worse. His animals are stolen, his servants are burnt to death by fire from the sky and, worst of all, his children are killed in a tornado. Job himself is infected with itchy skin boils, which he scratches with a broken piece of pottery. In a display of sorrow, he rips his clothes and shaves his head. Three friends stop by for a visit and at first do not even recognize Job because he is so disfigured from his illness. For a week they sit next to him without speaking, then, breaking the silence, Job says “I wish I was born dead!” He cannot understand why God would do this to him, and he accuses God of being his tormenter. His friends try to explain God’s role in his misfortunes. One friend argues that people suffer when they forget God and, so, Job must have abandoned God at some point in his life. Another argues that people suffer when they commit some moral offense, and no one can fully know all the things that God finds evil. So, in spite of Job’s protests of being morally blameless, he nevertheless must have committed some offense that is not immediately apparent. Job insists, though, that he did nothing wrong. Finally, God himself appears in a thunderstorm and sets the record straight: God is infinitely great, Job is virtually insignificant and, so, Job has no right to complain.
The problem raised in the story of Job is how we explain human suffering. While all suffering is inherently bad, it is only a specific type of misery that casts a serious shadow over the meaning of life. Suppose I pick up a hammer and intentionally hit myself on the foot with it. The explanation of my suffering is clear and there is no moral mystery to be solved: I have no one to blame but my foolish self. This is a rule of life that I understand and accept, no matter how miserable I make myself. Suffering of this sort, then, poses no real threat to a meaningful life. It may not even be so bad if you intentionally hammer away at my foot, so long as you are arrested and convicted of assault. Even though I am in pain, I can be consoled by the fact that justice has been done and you are held accountable for my suffering. So, even unjustified suffering like this will not necessarily make my life meaningless. The real problem occurs when the suffering is both unprovoked and unresolved, which is exactly what Job faced. In spite of his friends’ accusations, Job was convinced that he did nothing to deserve his suffering; from his perspective, it was completely unprovoked. It was also unresolved since, when his livestock was stolen the bad guys got away with it. If they had been arrested and forced to compensate Job for his losses, then perhaps Job could have accepted the situation and moved on. Job was not so lucky. Similarly, when his children were killed, he could not just replace his old family with a new one. He also could receive no compensation that would counterbalance his agonizing illness.
With no resolution to these unprovoked tragedies, Job is left wondering why they happened. Part of human nature is to seek out the hidden causes of things and resolve mysteries. When tragedy strikes us through no fault of our own, we are inclined to find some cause and, more importantly, cast blame on that cause when we can. This is one reason why lawsuits are so common. If I trip over a curb, it is the city’s fault for placing it where they did, and I sue them. If I fall off a ladder, it is the ladder company’s fault for not warning me about possible dangers, and I sue them. If Job had the chance, he might have sued his local police for not catching the thieves, or sued the National Weather Service for not forewarning him of the tornado. But the more irrational our accusations are, the less comfort we can take in them, and, in our more clear-headed moments, we are still left wondering why these tragedies happened. When we fail in our attempts to find blame with human causes for our misery, many people, like Job, cast blame on divine causes. An all-powerful God should protect me from unprovoked suffering, and if he does not, then he is to blame. In Job’s words, God is our tormentor.
Job’s story ends with a resolution of a sort. He directly witnesses God’s vastness and then grasps the enormous gulf between the two of them; the very experience of divine power humbles him to accept his situation. But this is a storybook ending, since most believers will not have a direct experience of God’s greatness to force them in line. Imagine that you lost a relative in a tornado and you put the blame on God. In my efforts to comfort you I said, “I know this is painful for you, but don’t be discouraged. God is infinitely great and you are by comparison insignificant; this is what we learn from the story of Job.” This would offend you more than it would console you. In essence, this attempts to solve Job’s problem of suffering by drawing attention to the problem of cosmic insignificance, and that is not an effective resolution. In the course of our lives, most of us experience tragedies that are unprovoked and unresolved, such as property loss, the death of loved ones, serious illness. We can surely appreciate Job’s despair when no satisfactory explanation is available.
Ancient Greek Solutions
Just as these four stubborn problems with the meaning of life were voiced early on in human civilization, so too did the ancient world propose solutions. The theories that they suggested were varied, and we would be hard pressed to find a solution today which wasn’t first entertained back then. The first set of solutions we will look at are from ancient Greece. For a brief period of time, Greek philosophers were in the self-help business and they offered step-by-step methods for achieving happiness. Four approaches were so popular that even today their names are household words: Epicureanism, Stoicism, Skepticism, and Cynicism. We will look at some of their main themes and how successful they are at addressing the problem of life’s meaning.
Epicureanism and Pleasure
Portrait of Epicurus, founder of the Epicurean school. Roman copy after a lost Hellenistic original, late 3rd century–early 2nd century / British Museum
Jack, an English professor from a large and prestigious university, thinks he has cracked the code to happiness. Divorced and in his mid 40’s, he makes a good income at a job that does not require much work. He published a lot earlier in his career, but now he rides on his reputation and gets by doing minimal preparation for the few classes that he is required to teach. In his spare time he indulges his many cravings. An enthusiast of specialty foods, he is intimately familiar with the menus of every fine restaurant in his area and he regularly attends wine and cheese tasting events. During the day he reads novels, plays tennis, visits art museums, and takes sculpting classes. In the evening he watches foreign films at art houses, after which he frequents local jazz clubs. On school breaks he flies to Europe, sampling the cultural offerings there. His passions, though, are not limited to food, art and travel. Jack possesses an animal magnetism that makes him successful in the romance department. Each semester he invites a new female graduate assistant to be his lover for the duration of the term. While the women know that the affair is only temporary, they happily agree, and even recommend possible partners for his next semester. On his birthday, his former lovers who are still in the area throw him a party. In a word, Jack is an Epicurean.
The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-271 BCE) believed that the job of philosophy is to help people attain happiness; a philosophy that does not heal the soul, he argues, is no better than medicine that cannot cure the body. His formula for attaining human happiness is simple: increase pleasure and decrease pain. Personal pleasure is the only thing that we should pursue, and the value of everything we do in life is judged by that standard. The pleasures that Epicurus recommends are precisely the ones that Jack enjoys, but he warns that we should not pursue all pleasures with equal zeal. First, some are physical such as Jack’s romances, and others are mental such as Jack’s love of art; according to Epicurus, the mental ones are more important than the physical ones. Second, some desires are not entirely necessary, such as the desire for luxury food, and we should pursue these with moderation. Third, Epicurus warns us to avoid placing short term desires above long-term ones. For example, if Jack skipped teaching his classes for the short term goal of visiting a museum, then he would likely lose his job and his happy lifestyle would come crashing down.
Is Epicureanism a reasonable path to human happiness? While we all naturally want pleasure, there is something suspect about a lifestyle that is devoted entirely to its pursuit. Let us grant that Jack is truly happy with his Epicurean existence. There is no telling, though, how long those activities will sustain his interest. Part of the joy he experiences comes from the newness of his activities: a new restaurant, a new art exhibit, a new story plot, a new lover. There are only a finite number of spices to mix into one’s food, though, and eventually even the most unique of Jack’s experiences will take on familiar patterns and become routine. He will be like Sisyphus pushing a gem-encrusted boulder up a hill, a task no less futile than pushing an ordinary rock. Further, the happiness that Jack does experience rests on a stroke of good fortune that may easily change. If his university cracks down on his laziness, he will have less leisure time for his hobbies. If his ex-wife sues him for alimony, he will not be able to cover the costs of his activities. As he grows older, young women will be repulsed by his romantic advances. Thus, indulging in pleasure is not a stable road to happiness if it rests on so many factors beyond our control.
Epicurus himself was restrained in the pleasures that he pursued. He lived on a small food diet, avoided luxuries, and strived for self-sufficiency. “The greatest benefit of self-sufficiency,” he argued, “is freedom.” It seems, then, that the founder of this pleasure-indulging lifestyle was far less Epicurean than we might think, and, instead, he grounded his happiness upon a feeling of independence. Thus, pursuing pleasure alone is no guarantee of a meaningful life, which Epicurus himself recognized.
Stoicism and Accepting Fate
Zeno of Citium, bust in the Farnese collection / Photo by Paolo Monti, European Library of Information and Culture
Imagine that you are a captured soldier detained in a prisoner of war camp. Not particularly fond of the Geneva Convention, your captors have provided you with stark and sometimes inhumane accommodations. Your cell block is unheated, your bedding is covered with fleas, your meals are unpredictable and, when they are served, the food is often rotten. About once a week you are interrogated by your captors, who psychologically intimidate you and sometimes beat you. You do not know how long your detention will last, or even if you will survive. In these conditions, could you possibly be happy? For starters, you’d have to condition yourself to ignore the physical harshness of your environment. Gathering all your mental strength, you might eventually get used to your cold room, unsanitary bedding and disgusting food. You would then have to accept that you are at the mercy of the unpredictable whims of your captors who can beat you and even kill you as they see fit. Having no expectations at all about circumstances beyond your control, you might eventually be able to carve out some peace of mind. This is precisely the Stoic philosophy for achieving happiness. While life is not always as grizzly as a prisoner of war camp, sometimes it is that bad, and there is nothing we can do about it. If we place our hopes in pleasures that are beyond our control, we will inevitably be frustrated and unhappy. The moral of the story is that we should learn to accept the life that is fated for us, and never reach beyond that.
One of the great teachers of Stoicism was Epictetus (55–135 C.E.), a former slave who knew first-hand how brutal and unpredictable life could be. He offers a picturesque example to explain the Stoic solution. Think of life as a large banquet with many people sitting around a table waiting to be fed. Starting at one end of the table, serving dishes of food are passed around, and guests take out portions onto their plates. You are near the end of the table and for all you know the serving dishes will be empty by the time they reach you. You should not keep glancing down the table in anticipation, Epictetus advises, but wait patiently for your turn. Better yet, he says, when a serving dish finally arrives, you should just pass it along without taking anything. This is what our attitudes should be toward the things in life that we typically crave – good jobs, a loving family, luxuries – but which we can never count on. For this Stoic formula to succeed, we must learn to habitually distance ourselves from things that we desire, even when things are going our way. The goal is to acquire a constant mental state of detachment so that, in the event that circumstances sour, we will not be disappointed.
The Stoic path to happiness seems well suited for prisoners of war, slaves, and the financially destitute. For these people, life’s prospects are so dismal that placing hope beyond themselves will only make matters worse. What about the rest of us, though, who can usually count on good fortune at life’s banquet table? Sometimes I will indeed be disappointed when a serving dish comes around empty, but this may well be counterbalanced by joys I will experience when another serving dish is full. For example, when hunting for a job, I will undoubtedly be disappointed if a company rejects my application, but I can reasonably expect that some company will eventually hire me, and it does not hurt to anticipate that with hope. Epictetus thought that one of life’s biggest disappointments was the death of a loved one. His Stoic recommendation is that we should emotionally distance ourselves from our spouses and children so that, when fate unpredictably tears them away from us, we will not be distressed. Here again, though, while the death of loved ones is devastating, it is nevertheless counterbalanced by the joy we receive from our attachment to them while they are alive. And this is an important joy in life that we would sacrifice if we followed his Stoic advice. Stoicism, then, seems to be an unnecessarily extreme and restricting avenue towards happiness, which we should adopt only as a last resort when things become overwhelmingly dismal.
Skepticism and Doubt
Pyrrho, ancient Greek philosopher. From Thomas Stanley, (1655), The history of philosophy
An organization called “The Skeptics Society” is devoted to debunking a questionable beliefs, including UFOs, alien abductions, ESP, religious miracles, time travel, and conspiracy theories. One writer for the society cast his skeptical eye on the famed 1947 alien space craft sighting in Roswell, New Mexico. The real event, he explains, was simply a military balloon experiment, which decades later was transformed into a UFO legend. He writes,
Roswell is the world’s most famous, most exhaustively investigated, and most thoroughly debunked UFO claim. It’s far past time for UFOlogists to admit it and move on. Those who hope to discover alien life are going to have to look where the aliens are — which is (if anywhere), somewhere else. Perhaps outer space would be a good place to start. [B.D. Gildenberg “Roswell Explained”]
By exposing the faults in controversial claims such as the Roswell incident, The Skeptics Society hopes to promote critical thinking and proper scientific inquiry. The Society sees itself as following in a long skeptical tradition that began in ancient Greece, particularly the school of Skepticism founded by the philosopher Pyrrho (365–275 BCE).
Pyrrho and his followers held that happiness is achieved through doubt. The sort of happiness that they envisioned was mental tranquility – a peace of mind that we experience when we suspend belief. When we hold extreme views, such as belief that aliens visited Roswell, we experience a mental disturbance, and we risk being pulled from one conviction to another. If the aliens did appear there, what was their mission? If the government knew about the event, why are they covering it up? We quickly become tangled in a web of questions and concerns that do not have good answers. It is not only strange beliefs like this that disrupt us, but any strong conviction upsets our peace of mind when we hold rigidly to it, such as the belief that the grass in my yard is green or that the table in my kitchen is round. The solution, according to the skeptics, is to recognize that every belief is subject to doubt. The grass appears green to me because my eyes are constructed a specific way and light shines on it in a specific way. If these factors differed, then the grass would not appear green. So, I should suspend belief about whether the grass really is green. Skeptics argued that I should in fact suspend all beliefs that I hold – about external objects, God’s existence, moral values – and thereby free my mind of the conflict that these beliefs produce. By achieving this mental tranquility, I will become happy.
The skeptic is probably right that the more gullible we are, the more we set ourselves up for disappointment. By believing in UFOs, horoscopes or miracle cures, we go against respectable methods of inquiry and invite ridicule. If I persist in my strange beliefs, contrary to strong evidence against them, then I must brainwash myself in thinking that I am right and everyone else is wrong, which then separates me from others. But the skeptic’s larger point is that all beliefs – both strange and normal – are vulnerable to attack and should thus be rejected for the advancement of mental tranquility.
There are two problems with this position. First, suppose that the skeptic is right that even our most commonsensical beliefs can be called into question, such as the belief that the table in front of me is round. It is one thing for me to recognize the theoretical problems with that belief; it is entirely another thing to actually suspend my belief about the table’s roundness, especially when it always appears to me that way. Commonsense beliefs like this may be beyond my control, regardless of how hard I try to suspend them. I am forced to act on the assumption that the table is round every time I place an object onto it or walk around it. Thus, while skepticism may succeed at the theoretical level, it is virtually impossible at a practical level. The second problem is that, even if we could suspend all of our beliefs, many of life’s events would still make us unhappy. Like Sisyphus, I can still be bored to tears with my assembly line job even if I doubt that the factory actually exists. Like Job, I can still suffer enormously if my family dies in a tornado, even if I doubt whether my family actually exists. We experience many painful emotions independently of our belief convictions, and skepticism has no solution for those.
Cynicism and Defying Convention
Diogenes Searching for an Honest Man, attributed to J. H. W. Tischbein (c. 1780)
Some years ago a music festival was launched called Lollapalooza, which traveled the country attracting crowds of young people. Many of the musical groups were in the crude and abrasive Punk genre – championing a garage band sound, often with instruments out of tune and vocals off pitch. One band included a percussionist who grinded away on a chunk of sheet metal with an industrial disk sander. The festival was so successful that it became a yearly event and several non-musical performances were added, including a television-smashing pit. Most bizarre was a circus sideshow in which one performer ate broken glass, another impaled his cheeks with long skewers, and another lifted heavy weights from body piercings. With its growing notoriety, Lollapalooza became a symbol for a growing youth counterculture that was frustrated with pointless social expectations and rebelled against prevailing values.
Many of our conceptions of human happiness are rooted in traditional social expectations, such as how we should dress, what counts as good music, what we should find entertaining, how we should view authority figures. These expectations are not only restrictive, but often wholly misguided. One solution to the question of life’s meaning is to challenge cherished social conventions and through this act of defiance awaken a broader appreciation of life’s possibilities. The social rebelliousness of recent youth cultures is in many ways an embodiment of the ancient Greek philosophical school of Cynicism. The aim of that ancient movement was to show contempt for traditional social structures and values – such as power, wealth and social status. By doing so we would rethink the influence that civilization should have on our lives, open ourselves up to a more direct connection to nature, and thereby become “citizens of the cosmos.” Cynicism was more a way of life than an exact philosophical theory, and its defenders were notorious for their shocking behavior.
A case in point is Diogenes of Sinope (c. 410-320 BCE), who lived as an impoverished beggar in protest of the increasingly lavish lifestyles of his peers. As a young man, he was exiled from his home town for defacing coins, which were symbols of economic power and political authority. When someone asked him how he felt about his exile, he replied, “That was how I became a philosopher, you miserable fool!” Hunting for a place to stay, he took up residence in a large barrel, which quickly became a stereotype for the Cynic’s lifestyle. He would sometimes walk around in broad daylight with a lit lamp, shining it in people’s faces. There is a famous, though fictitious story that Alexander the Great visited him to express his admiration. “Request anything of me that you like,” Alexander said. Diogenes was sunbathing at the time and replied, “I request that you step to one side since you are blocking the sun.” The great conqueror responded, “If I was not Alexander, I would want to be Diogenes!”
There are three problems with Cynicism’s formula for a happy life. First, the most extreme cynics live like dogs – and for that reason ancient Cynics were called “dog philosophers.” Just as Diogenes lived as a beggar, some social critics today live in homeless conditions and “dumpster dive” for discarded food in trash bins. It is difficult to see how the benefits of the extreme Cynical lifestyle outweigh such self-imposed misery. Second, for more moderate cynics, what is edgy today becomes the convention of tomorrow. Rebellious perspectives on life quickly become fashionable – even commercially profitable. The immediate impact of Cynicism in the ancient world was that writers incorporated its biting views of society into literary satire. This made for more interesting literature of the time, but its shock value eventually became less shocking. Today, much of Lollapalooza’s rebellious artistic expression, such as body piercings and facial tattoos, is common place, and, ironically, their artists have become pioneers of contemporary fashion. That must be discouraging for a true rebel. Third, both extreme and moderate Cynicism are overly negative approaches to life that thrive on publicly dismantling the accomplishments of others. It is hard to see how Cynics could be happy by continually having a chip on their shoulders. Offering an occasional social criticism is one thing, but doing so as a way of life would be demoralizing for the critic, and very annoying for everyone else.
Western Religious Solutions
For thousands of years, religious traditions around the world have taken on the task of explaining the meaning of life. For whatever woes we have, there is some spiritual explanation that aims to redirect us. The dominant religions in Western civilization are Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and among these we find some common perspectives on life’s meaning.
Harris County Public Library, Creative Commons
One of the more famous stories from both the Jewish Bible and Muslim Koran is that of Abraham, a nomadic herdsman who longed to have children in spite of the fact that his wife was infertile. Monitoring Abraham’s situation, God offered him a deal: if he accepts God as his deity, then his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. Abraham agreed, he had his children as promised, and ultimately became the father of both the Jewish and Arabic people. While there is not anything uniquely “religious” about the desire to have children, many faith traditions list this as one of their top religious duties. Conservative Judaism is a case in point. Unlike other faiths that emphasize life after death, Judaism stresses the world right here and now; as one of their sacred texts states, “Better is one day in this life than all eternity in the world to come.” Reproduction is a way of achieving a type of immortality in the present world. I die, but my name, my legacy, and my family history live on through my children.
Some religious philosophers argue that God implants instincts in human nature to help guide our conduct on earth, one of which is the drive to procreate. A more secular understanding of this crucial urge is that it is the result of blind evolutionary forces which keeps animal species like ours from going extinct. Regardless of whether the desire to procreate originates from God or blind evolution, though, it is a fact of human nature that when we reach a certain age, we have a compelling desire to have children. When we succeed, we magically gain fulfillment and a larger sense of purpose beyond our individual lives. On the other hand, failing to have children sometimes results in a sense of incompleteness and, in old age, loneliness. To combat this, childless couples often transform their pet dog or cat into surrogate children, and lavish love and attention on them to a degree that others find comical. Sometimes it works, other times it does not. So it seems that nature rewards us when we answer its call to produce offspring, and punishes us when we do not.
While procreation might very well give us a purpose beyond our individual selves, is it a cure-all for the problems of life’s meaning? Perhaps not. First, having children invites a new set of miseries for parents. There is the need to cut back on one’s most cherished private leisure activities to make time for the exhausting task of child-rearing. There are the constant worries about physical dangers to our children, from poorly designed highchairs to automobile accidents. There is the endless battle to block the bad influences of sex, drugs and violence in the media and schools. There are the inevitable clashes with children during the terrible twos, the rebellious teens, and all years in between. We also suffer along with our children when they are harmed or upset – as reflected in a recent expression that parents are only as happy as their saddest child. Marriages often suffer as a direct result of children, sometimes because of a decline in marital intimacy as privacy becomes impossible, other times because of fights over who should do which child-rearing chores. When things end in divorce, the presence of children can lead to vicious and all-consuming custody battles. In effect, having children involves exchanging Sisyphus’s problem of futility for Job’s problem of suffering.
Second, there are limits to how procreation solves Gilgamesh’s problem of human mortality. It is an exaggeration to say that we gain immortality through our children who will outlive us by perhaps only 25 years. Our grandchildren might extend this by another 25. Generations beyond that, though, will consist of people that we will never know, and who will have no memories of us apart from what is conveyed in a few faded photos. The illusory nature of this kind of immortality may become more evident when our children leave the nest, take on lives of their own and become almost strangers to us. We are once again on our own to find meaning, this time, though, while our health declines and our friends die one after the other.
Life after Death
Photo by Sean MacEntee, Flickr, Creative Commons
With the limited success of procreation as a cure for life’s anguish, religion offers a backup plan: finding meaning in this life through the prospect of immortality in the next. Most faith traditions present some account of life after death. While the details vary, the core notion is that the essential part of my conscious identity survives the death of my body in a more perfect state of existence. I might exist in a three-dimensional form that resembles my current shape, but is constructed from a more flawless substance. Alternatively, I might exist as a purely spiritual thing that takes up no three-dimensional space. In any case, the real me lives on after my body dies.
With a single blow, the idea of life after death attacks all four classic problems of life’s meaning. Most obvious is its solution to Gilgamesh’s problem of mortality. The fact is that we never really do die. Upon the death of my body, my true self is released from its physical shackles and continues in another realm. I may not at first enthusiastically embrace the idea of physical death, which is understandable, like my reluctance to throw away an old comfortable pair of jeans for a new pair. But when I fully grasp that my real self will be preserved through this transformation, my worries about death should fade. Life after death also addresses Sisyphus’s problem of life’s pointlessness. My life’s activities may seem futile to me right now, but that is because the physical world that I currently live in is imperfect. My efforts on earth are only a preparation for the world to come, and as long as I keep that in mind, life right now has a very clear and important point. Next, life after death addresses the problem of cosmic insignificance. While I may be a mere speck in comparison to the unfathomable cosmos, ultimately the cosmos itself will die out while I will live on for eternity in heaven. Finally, life after death addresses Job’s problem of suffering. If I suffer right now because of a bodily ailment like cancer, I am comforted by the fact that I will have no physical pain in the afterlife. If I suffer now because thieves have stolen my property, I can take comfort in the fact that the scales of justice will be balanced in the afterlife: the bad guys will be punished, and the good guys rewarded. If I suffer now because of the death of a loved one, I am comforted by the knowledge that I will see them shortly in the afterlife.
With such an all-encompassing solution to the problem of life’s meaning, it is no surprise that the idea of life after death has been so uniformly embraced by the world’s religions. What could be wrong with a solution that is so widespread? The first obstacle to the life after death solution concerns how strongly we actually believe in it. Let’s set aside the issue of whether an afterlife realm really exists – a matter that is stubbornly resistant to absolute proof or disproof. The more important issue concerns the level of conviction that the idea holds within us. Suppose that we passed a questionnaire out to all religious believers around the world with these two questions:
- On a scale of one to ten, how strong is your conviction that Paris, France exists?
- On a scale of one to ten, how strong is your conviction that an afterlife realm exists?
The Paris question would uniformly get a ten, but even among believers the afterlife question would not do as well. On a good day, a believer’s conviction might hover around a ten; on a bad day, it might dip down to a one. The idea of an afterlife is the kind of conviction that requires reinforcement on a regular basis, which is precisely what religious institutions do. By contrast, there is no organization devoted to reinforcing our conviction that Paris exists; we believe it without any pep talk from the “Paris Exists” organization. The crucial question is whether a person’s belief in an afterlife is consistently strong enough to counteract the problems of life’s meaning. Sometimes it is, sometimes it is not.
Suppose that you can get passed this first obstacle and you firmly believe in an afterlife – at least most of the time. The next obstacle is having confidence that you’ll actually get there. While belief in an afterlife may be widespread, paths to getting there are as numerous as the many world’s religions themselves. Again, we must set aside the question of which if any religion is the true path. The more pressing question is how confident you are that you have picked the right one. Do you have nagging doubts that maybe the religious denomination across the street is a better gamble than yours? Further, most religions set out pretty tough requirements for entrance into an afterlife – being morally upright, regularly following specific religious rituals, devotion to specific religious founders, earnestly believing a long set of doctrines. Are you sure that you have done everything that required of you to gain salvation? While you might still enter the afterlife, a serious oversight might send you to hell rather than heaven. Some of history’s most famous religious figures were consumed with worry about whether they were fulfilling God’s expectations. Insecurity about the fine print might burden believers with more unhappiness in this life, rather than relieve the worries that they already have about a meaningful life in the here and now. At best, the hope of life after death will have limited success in giving meaning to life, and, at worst, it may add to our earthly torment.
Furthering God’s Kingdom
Photo by Peter Mulligan, Creative Commons
During the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Christian philosopher Augustine (354-430) wrote a treatise titled The City of God in which he described two “cities.” On the one hand there is an earthly city, which represents a way of life that is driven by self-love and contempt for God. People of the earthly city are unhappy and experience despair since earthly notions of self-love are so distorted and misguided. On the other, there is a heavenly city which is a way of life that glorifies God and is ultimately achieved in the afterlife. While on earth, followers of the heavenly city live a God-centered life and work to advance God’s kingdom. This defines who they are, and gives a meaning to their lives which followers of the earthly city cannot experience. One Christian denomination that exemplifies this devotion to God’s kingdom is the Latter Day Saints – better known by their nickname the Mormons. Upon leaving high school, every young Mormon man and woman is expected to serve as a missionary for two years, often taking them to the far corners of the world. During this time they abstain from the leisure activities of watching movies, playing sports, and listening to popular music. Their single focus is to spread the message of God and baptize new believers. Through their devotion they become connected with a higher purpose which gives a special meaning to their lives.
Regardless of the denomination, there are several common features that these religious missions exhibit, which make them larger-than-life experiences for believers. First, these are typically group-efforts among a community of believers, rather than simply isolated campaigns of individual people. It is often this connection with a larger group that gives believers a sense of belonging that they would not otherwise have and, thus, enhances their sense of life’s meaning. Second, there is devotion to a firm and sacred set of beliefs about God’s role in human affairs. While theories about the nature and existence of God are a dime a dozen, not just any view of God will do. Leaders within these religious traditions formulate precise doctrines, and believers pledge exclusive devotion to them, thereby rejecting the views of rival religious groups. By embracing these sacred doctrines, believers see themselves as participating in a higher mission from God and not merely participating in routine human-created social activity. Third, participating in this higher mission involves self-sacrifice. Furthering God’s kingdom is no easy task: it is financially costly, time consuming, and mission efforts are commonly met with brutal opposition. Yet, by enduring these hardships, believers feel a special accomplishment when they make progress.
While the notion of “furthering God’s kingdom” is distinctly religious in nature, there are many non-religious groups that similarly try to transform society through some moral or political ideology. Like religious missions, these involve group efforts among like-minded people who are devoted to a specific higher calling and willingly endure hardship. Some of these social causes are preserving the environment, eliminating poverty, defending political freedoms, ending minority oppression, or creating global harmony. Devotees to these ideologies often gain a sense of life’s meaning similar to that of their religious counterparts.
Whether religious or secular, there is a serious price to pay when devoting oneself to a higher mission, namely, conformity. For a group to speak with a single voice, individual members must give up much of their private identities and follow the direction of the larger collection. There is little room for dissenting opinions about the precise nature of the higher mission: this is firmly fixed in the group’s sacred doctrines and enforced by their leaders. Many believers are content to uncritically follow the directives of their traditions, but others are not. Ex-members of conservative religious groups regularly describe how restricting life was for them and how their leaders used various intimidation tactics to keep them in line. Their leaders, in turn, dismiss the disaffected members as mere trouble makers. The clash between the individual and group becomes more serious when the group’s evangelizing tactics are morally questionable, such as launching smear campaigns against rival religious groups. Loyal members comply, outspoken critics are shown the door. While furthering God’s kingdom may help give meaning to the lives of some people, it will be less effective for nonconforming troublemakers.
Eastern Religious Solutions
Religions of Eastern Civilization include Daoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and perhaps a dozen other traditions of varying sizes. Eastern religions have advocated all three of the above Western solutions to life’s meaning with their own regional twists. In addition to these, though, we find solutions grounded in the more unique philosophical elements of the Eastern traditions themselves. Again, it is important to understand that each religion—Eastern or Western—has its own long and elaborate tradition of beliefs and worship practices that give meaning to believers’ lives. We will look at only three highlights here.
Daoism and the Way of Nature
Priests of the Zhengyi order bowing while officiating a rite at the White Cloud Temple of Shanghai / Photo by Thomas Berg, Wikimedia Commons
The Daoist religion emerged in China about 2,500 years ago, and its principal message is that of the Dao – the Chinese word for “way” or “path”. More precisely, it is the path of nature itself, which creates and guides everything we see. The Daoist solution to life’s meaning is picturesquely presented in a classic tale. One day a prince stopped by to see his cook who was in the process of cutting beef. All of the cook’s motions were like a harmonious ballet as he placed his feet, moved his knees, heaved his shoulders and brought his knife down on the meat. “You have very admirably perfected your art” the prince said. The cook laid down his knife and explained, “I follow the Dao, which is more important than any other skill. Many years ago when I began cutting meat, all I saw was a large chunk of flesh, which I chopped away at. In time I noticed the natural crevices in the meat and, in a spirit-like manner, allowed my knife to glide through them with ease. By doing this I avoided tough ligaments and large bones. An ordinary cook changes his knife every month because he hacks. A good cook changes his every year because he cuts cleanly. I’ve been using this knife now for nineteen years.” The prince responded, “Amazing! By hearing you speak of your craft, I’ve learned how to tend to my life!”
The cook’s message is that we should live in accord with the flow of nature, and not aggressively go against it. Picture a stick floating down a river. When it bumps into a rock, it does not bash its way through the obstruction; instead, it gently moves around it and continues down its course. Daoism has a range of specific recommendations for how we should tend to our lives. For example, we should abandon needless rules of law, morality, and etiquette and instead spontaneously follow the simple inclinations that nature has implanted in us. When we are hungry, nature will direct us to acquire food. If other people are hungry, nature will direct us to assist them. We should even avoid expanding our knowledge through study since this will obstruct the wisdom that nature has already placed within us. By following the Dao, our entire social environments will be transformed. Gone will be the hustle and bustle of big cities, our reliance on intrusive technology, and the endless conflicts between each other. We will instead live more tranquil lives in natural surroundings, and work more directly with nature to meet our immediate needs.
Daoism also has definite suggestions for dealing with life’s woes. If I become gravely ill, I should recognize this as part of the natural cycle of things from growth to decay. The prospect of dying itself should not agitate me since from my raw elements nature will bring forth new life in the continuing cycle of birth and death. By understanding and experiencing the Dao, I see my place in the natural course of things, yield to its power, and peacefully accept whatever happens to me.
It is hard to be critical of a philosophy whose central theme is to return to nature – an intuition that resonates within many of us. But Daoism relies on an extreme conception of human nature that is difficult to accept. Let’s grant that humans are products of natural forces and we are ultimately at the mercy of natural cycles of growth and decay. Still, humans come into existence with very few natural inclinations to guide us through life. Our survival skills have been honed through thousands of years of trial and error, and passed down from one generation to another. Without this pool of acquired knowledge to draw from, even the simplest task of finding our next meal would be insurmountable. Nature’s unforgiving message to the human race has been “Good luck in finding your own way: if you fail, you die.” There are indeed important lessons that we can learn from observing nature at work, but the most valuable of these – building construction, successful farming, cures for diseases — result from careful and even scientific analysis. Our actual lot in life does not seem to be as passive as Daoism suggests, and any happiness we experience must be achieved while we aggressively acquire the knowledge that we need to survive. Thus, there is little opportunity to peacefully glide through life as Daosim recommends, and its solution to the problem of life’s meaning looks a little impractical.
Buddhism and Extinguishing Desire
Standing Buddha statue at the Tokyo National Museum. One of the earliest known representations of the Buddha, 1st–2nd century CE. / Wikimedia Commons
The Buddhist religion was founded around 500 BCE in India by a man named Siddhartha Gautama – later given the honorary title of “Buddha,” which means enlightened one. After many years of attempting to achieve enlightenment through traditional religious paths, the Buddha worked out an approach which he felt answered the fundamental question of life’s meaning. He encapsulated his position in Four Noble Truths. The first truth is that life is suffering. From the moment that we are born until we die, everything we do involves suffering – physical pains, emotional traumas, endless frustrations and disappointments. While Job’s problem of suffering was sparked by specific tragedies, Buddha maintained more generally that suffering is an integral part of our daily lives and is the obstacle we face in our life’s quest for meaning and happiness. The second noble truth is that the source of all suffering is desire. We crave almost anything that might bring us pleasure – sensuality, personal opinions, cherished traditions – and these yearnings become so intense that they rise to the level of addictions. The third is that the cure for suffering is the elimination of desire. If suffering is caused by desire, then it stands to reason that by eradicating desire we thereby end suffering. The fourth is what he calls the eightfold path, which is a series of eight techniques for eliminating desire. The specific paths involve the proper cultivation of our understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration.
Buddha modeled the Four Noble Truths after the method used by physicians of his day for treating illnesses, namely, identify the disease and its cause, determine whether it is curable, and then prescribed the cure. This is a perfect way of understanding the issue of life’s meaning: target the problem and offer a solution. Virtually all of Buddhist philosophy and theology is an extended commentary on the Four Noble Truths. But it is the third truth — eliminating desire – that concerns us here. This is the celebrated Buddhist concept of nirvana,which literally means “to extinguish.” In essence, we extinguish our desires just as we might blow out the flame of a candle. Extinguishing our desires, though, involves much more than losing our various cravings: I must lose my individual identity and even my self-consciousness as a distinct being. As long as I experience life in the usual way, I will be tainting everything through my private, self-indulgent identity. By eliminating my identity, I eliminate all the suffering that I’ve created through my desires.
From one perspective, Nirvana appears to be the ultimate solution to the problem of life’s meaning. Once the “I” is removed from the equation, there is nothing left to experience life’s misery. There are questions about this solution, though, which Buddhists themselves raise. First, to truly extinguish my identity, don’t I have to be dead? As long as I remain alive, I will always be experiencing my self-identity. It seems strange to say that the goal of life is to be completely annihilated through death. Second, while most Buddhists feel that nirvana can be achieved while we are still alive, the concept of nirvana-in-this-life is almost impossible to describe, and very difficult to achieve. The Dalai Lama, one of Buddhism’s great leaders, describes the frustration that many Buddhists experience regarding nirvana:
I myself feel and also tell other Buddhists that the question of nirvana will come later. There is not much hurry. But if in day to day life you lead a good life, honestly, with love, with compassion, with less selfishness, then automatically it will lead to nirvana. Opposite to this, if we talk about nirvana, talk about philosophy, but do not bother much about day to day practice, then you may reach a strange nirvana but will not reach the correct nirvana because your daily practice is nothing. [Kindness, Clarity, and Insight, Chapter 1]
In short, nirvana is shrouded in mystery, and the best I can do is follow the recommended paths for achieving it, while closing my eyes to what nirvana actually is. While nirvana might be an effective solution to the problem of life’s meaning, it is difficult for us to examine this possibility when we cannot easily put it into words.
Hinduism and the Four Goals of Life
Temple wall panel relief sculpture at the Hoysaleswara temple in Halebidu, representing the Trimurti: Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu / Wikimedia Commons
Originating around 3,500 years ago, the Hindu religion is a diverse collection of beliefs and practices that emerged throughout India’s rich history. The religion has many different gods, devotional practices and philosophies, which believers can freely select from — kind of like a religious a la carte menu. Similarly, when it comes to the question of life’s meaning, Hindu tradition does not restrict itself to one simple answer. Rather, it offers four distinct goals of life, which people should embrace in varying degrees during different periods of their lives.
The first goal of life is pleasure in its assorted emotional and physical forms: food, art, music, dance, and even sex. One of the more infamous Hindu writings, the Kama Sutra, is actually a handbook on sexual activity, vividly describing dozens of techniques. We are naturally inclined to pursue pleasures, and in their proper setting it is fully appropriate for us to fulfill our desires. The second goal is material success. Like pleasure, we are naturally inclined to acquire wealth and power, which not only keeps us from being impoverished but gives us a sense of accomplishment. The goals of pleasure and material success are most fitting for younger couples who are raising families. As we mature, we embrace the third goal, namely moral harmony, which helps regulate our desires for pleasure and success, but also sparks our social responsibility towards other people. The fourth goal is religious enlightenment where believers become spiritually released from the constraints of human life and attain ultimate happiness. This final goal is best pursued when our family responsibilities are behind us and we can go off in seclusion and practice meditation without distraction.
There is nothing particularly original with any of these four goals individually. We find each advocated by different philosophers from around the world, such as Epicurus’ recommendation to pursue pleasure. The unique insight of Hinduism, though, is that we are complex creatures who change over the years, and there is no single goal that will give us meaning at every stage of our lives. It does not make sense to offer a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of life’s meaning when people are so diverse. But this is precisely what many philosophers have done. For example, the Stoics recommend that we should resign ourselves to fate, and this single formula, they believe, is the sole solution to the problem of life’s meaning. This may be why the question of life’s meaning still seems to demand an answer after thousands of years of attempted answers: we have given overly simplistic solutions to a very complex problem.
In keeping with Hindu tradition, perhaps we should approach the meaning of life as we would an a la carte menu: we can pick a few solutions now and, when life’s circumstances change, go back to the menu and pick a few others. While Hinduism suggests four specific ones – each of which is an excellent menu item – we could add all of the other solutions that we have discussed so far, Greek, Western religious and Eastern religious. If I ever become a prisoner of war, then I might want to pick the Stoic option of resigning myself to fate. If life becomes too frenzied for me, I might want to pick the Daoist option of following the way of nature. Religiously inclined people can pick the Christian option of furthering God’s kingdom, or the Buddhist option of seeking nirvana, depending on their religious preferences. The point is to seek a solution that best addresses a specific life circumstance or problem. The more creative we are in adding items to the menu, the less likely we will be overcome by Gilgamesh’s problem of death, Sisyphus’s problem of futility, Boethius’s problem of cosmic insignificance, Job’s problem of suffering, or any other problem that undermines our sense of purpose or happiness.
Philosophy and Life’s Meaning
While the subject of the meaning of life is philosophically interesting in its own right, it is also a good introduction to the various fields of philosophical exploration. We have seen that questions of life’s meaning lead to puzzles about how we know things, such as the existence of an afterlife, the nature of nirvana, or whether the table in front of me actually exists. Important questions are also raised about the nature of reality – whether God exists and whether there is a spiritual realm beyond the physical one that we see around us. A range of issues emerge about human nature, such as whether my mind can exist independently of my body and whether my actions are within my control. Finally, there are value questions relating to our conduct towards other people and what kind of social structure will best facilitate happiness.
The discussion of the meaning of life in this chapter also illustrates another feature of philosophy: no theory is sacred, and every proposed idea will inevitably be followed by criticisms, and these criticisms followed by responses. For example, the story of Gilgamesh suggests that we are burdened by a fear of death. The life-after-death solution aims to address this fear by giving us hope beyond the grave. One criticism of this solution is that even believers occasionally have doubts about the existence of an afterlife. The debate need not end here, though. The believer might counter this with an argument for the existence of an afterlife; the critic might then challenge the validity of the believer’s argument. Hopefully at some point in the debate one side will seem more compelling than another. But even if the discussion appears to end in a stalemate – as it certainly may with many solutions to the problem of life’s meaning – all is not lost. In some cases truth is not necessarily found in the philosophical theories themselves but rather in the critical give-and-take surrounding those theories.
Finally, we see from the discussions in this chapter that there are different ways of addressing philosophical issues. Some are more scientific, drawing on tangible experience and the contributions of researchers. Others are more introspective, relying on private reflections about the human thought process. Still others rest on pure logic, such as whether two positions can be consistently held at the same time. Philosophy also developed different forms of expression that communicate different content. While many philosophical works are in the form of systematic treatises, philosophy is also expressed in the form of dialogues, meditations, poetic expressions, diaries, confessions, fragments, commentaries, geometric structures. Philosophers have pretty much used every style of written communication to express their ideas. In every case, though, philosophy aims to challenge us to rethink our old assumptions. While philosophy involves a certain amount of mental gymnastics, the rewards are worth the effort as we begin to see issues in new ways.
Gilgamesh. A recent translation is by Stephen Mitchell, Gilgamesh: A New English Version (New York: Free Press, 2004)
Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time (1927). A standard translation is by John MacQuarrie and Edward Robinson, Being and Time (New York, Harper and Row, 1962). Part II, Chapter 1 discusses his views on death.
Homer, The Odyssey. A standard translation is by Robert Fagles, The Odyssey (London: Penguin, 2001). The discussion of Sisyphus is in Book 11.
Camus, Albert, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955.
Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy. A recent translation is by Victor Watts (London: Penguin, 1999).
Ricoeur, Paul, “Narrated Time,” Philosophy Today, Vol. 29, 1985.
Gildenberg, B.D., “Roswell Explained,” The Skeptic Magazine, 2003, Vol. 10, no. 1.
Chuang-Tzu, The Chuan-Tzu. A recent translation is by Burton Watson, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968). The “Tale of the Cook” appears in Chapter 3.
Bstan-‘dzin-rgya-mtsho, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Kindness, Clarity, and Insight, Tr. Jeffrey Hopkins, Snow Lion Publications, 1983.
Law of Manu. A recent translation is by Wendy Doniger and Brian K. Smith, The Laws of Manu (London: Penguin Books, 1992)