Even the shallowest individual occasionally pauses to consider the deep questions. What is life? Why are we here? And, perhaps most important, what does it all mean? For some, these questions flit through their mind once or twice in their lifetime. Others are troubled by them almost every waking moment.
The Meaning of Life
When people ask themselves “what is the meaning of life?”, they naturally focus on the word “meaning.” Instead, it might be helpful first to consider what we mean by the word “life.” Over the past four centuries, the way that word is defined has profoundly changed. Put crudely, there has been a shift from the mythic and religious view to the scientific and materialist. Indeed, C. S. Lewis argued that this change, which began in 17th century England, Holland, and France, is the most profound in human history. It would be misleading to claim that the scientific model proves there is no supernatural dimension; it simply has no need of one. It also suggests that human beings are a part of nature, not something distinct from it. Indeed, some argue that human life is no more sacred or precious than any other form. After all, man, a rabbit, and even an earthworm all evolved from the same common ancestor.
The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould constantly reminded his audience that human beings might never have evolved at all. At several points, the number of Homo Sapiens dwindled to a few hundred, and we could easily have gone the way of 99% of other species and disappeared completely. According to the biologists, therefore, human life is the result of accident and luck.
A scientific materialist would begin by arguing that human beings are not here for anything; we were not brought into being to fulfil some divine purpose or plan. The monotheistic religions assume there is an all-knowing, human-like God who established certain moral laws and will reward or punish us after death. Even in a pre-Christian work like The Illiad, the gods are human-like in appearance and interested in mortals: demanding sacrifices and offerings, taking sides in their wars, and selecting their favorite warriors. The same is true of the Roman epic The Aeneid, in which Aeneas is given the divine task of founding the Roman Empire itself. Always there is the assumption that human beings are special, different, set apart from other creatures.
To existentialists like Albert Camus, our predicament is thus absurd. We are born with the need to find a meaning or purpose, and yet we soon realize that there isn’t one. Instead, we must find it for ourselves.
If human beings must choose their own purpose, then surely happiness is a top contender. Ask a dozen random people on the streets of New York or London why they are here, or what they think is the purpose of their life, and no doubt most would say “happiness”. But happiness is a vague word, one that means different things to different people – not all of them pleasant. After all, a psychopath is made happy by torture and murder. Others find their happiness in petty status symbols like cars and houses. But then, if there really is no higher authority, who is to say which form of happiness is superior?
It could be argued that happiness is a reasonable goal or purpose, but does happiness bring meaning? Can the two be linked, in other words? D. H. Lawrence once wrote that “we ought to dance with rapture that we should be alive and in the flesh and part of the living, incarnate universe.” For Lawrence, the answer to the meaning of life was life itself. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why are there trees and meadows and oceans and planets and stars instead of an infinite black void? Maybe witnessing all this, revelling in it, living in wonder and astonishment, in itself brings happiness and meaning. On a more mundane level, there is happiness and meaning to be found in the ebb and flow of daily life. Through the practise of mindful attention, this appreciation could be deepened and intensified.
Love and Compassion
For Aristotle, however, happiness was not some private, inner state of contentment. He did not see it as a passive state at all but as something you lived and lived with other people. Certainly, living for personal happiness, or even for the happiness of one’s family, seems somewhat shallow and immoral. If you are happy while others suffer, are you really leading a meaningful life?
Aristotle believed that self-growth was the purpose or meaning of life. The purpose of an acorn, for example, is to become an oak tree – to fulfil its destiny. But is there some divine essence, some quality human beings share and that each should try to cultivate? And could this be said to be the purpose or meaning of human life? If there is, then surely it is love. But not love in the soppy, mawkish way it is presented in Hollywood movies, rather love as Leopold Bloom defines it in Ulysses: “the opposite of hatred.” James Joyce, author of Ulysses, was himself a Catholic who has lost his faith. And if his novel, considered by many to be the greatest of the 20th century, is about anything it is about love: love for one’s friends, city, partner etc.
Ultimately, love, meaning, and happiness are related. When someone has a finely developed sympathy for other living beings, their wish to spare them from harm, to bring them comfort and relief, gives their life meaning, thus freeing them from their frightened little ego and bringing them happiness.