In my fairly limited experience with philosophy, it seems that no other question seems to have trumped an entire discipline as much as the question: “What is the meaning of life?”. Not only does every great philosopher attempt in their own way to answer this question, but the question also appears in popular movies and television shows, music, and books. Since humans had the capacity to think about our station in life, we have wondered about not only what the cosmos has to offer us, but also why it is there, and consequentially, why we are here. I believe it is a natural question without a natural answer, and I hope to explain well why I think so. First, however, we must explore why exactly this question is worth answering in the first place.
In Kai Nielsen’s article “Linguistic Philosophy and ‘The Meaning of Life,’” Nielsen posits some answers to why this question is asked, and why it is worth answering. Nielsen argues that when we ask this question, “we are not at all sure what we are asking” (Nielsen 316). What kind of answer would we be provoking when we ask this question, and how might we cope with a potential answer if we are to come up with one? When people ask this question, they are usually feeling troubled and conflicted, and the question can usually be better phrased as “What have I been doing with my life, and what will I do with the rest of my life?” These are questions with a more direct answer, and, as Nielsen says, are usually more about “unconsciously expressing his fear of making decisions” (Nielsen 331). This question is asked ultimately to alleviate anxiety, and to try and grasp some sort of answer for the panic associated with not knowing what to do. Even though our modern society is so strictly set up in terms of what people should be doing, or how people should be dressing, or how people should be acting, etc., we are still ultimately only doing what we think we should be doing to fulfill a certain role in society.
Frankly, it can be hard to try to find for yourself some sort of universal “meaning,” because the meanings our society gives for how to be a good citizen, or how to be a functioning member of a community, are societally constructed. So, when someone asks themselves: “What is my meaning in life?” they are asking not what the cosmic meaning of life is for humanity, but what is their personal meaning in life—i.e, what should they be doing to make themselves and the others around them feel like they are a productive, happy, and well-adjusted member of society? This question is about anxiety versus the unknown. Humanity, doomed with the ability to think about our station in life, is ultimately cursed with thinking about how we all fit in, and cursed with the ability to ask this question in the first place. A dog doesn’t think about why he exists, he just thinks about his next meal. Because of our sentience and our advanced consciousness, we must know that we seem alone in the universe, and that we can commit pain and feel no solace for it, and that we are capable of great technological advances but are so ignorant on so many topics. I believe this is the crux of human narcissism: we believe we are so smart and more technologically advanced than any other species (and to be fair, on this earth, we are), and yet when confronted with the question of our own meaning, we come up short and we are unable to answer it. Perhaps human curiosity is to blame—if we weren’t so intelligent, we wouldn’t have this one question on our minds, but unfortunately: we are cursed with an unanswerable question.
This is humanity’s burden to carry, but perhaps it is not a completely negative question. Hundreds of years ago, we believed the ability to find out if the Earth revolved around the Sun was impossible. We have made so many technological advances since then. Perhaps the question to our own meaning as humans is just as accessible—if we become smart enough to attempt to answer it. Answering this question, however, is not just about proving that as humans we are capable of answering this seemingly unanswerable question. If we think back to our anxiety-ridden human (of which there are many, including at times, myself) we can see the true reason for why this question is worth answering. It is because we want to feel that our time on Earth had some sort of meaning. None of us want to die with regrets in our hearts—just like Nietzche’s idea of amor fati. We all want to live knowing that we have made a mark on this universe—that we have improved something, made someone’s life better, or that all of these years have been spent doing something worthwhile. We, with this cursed trait we have called emotion, require answers to the question of the meaning of life, not just because it’s a seemingly unanswerable question, but because it will make us feel at peace with ourselves as a species.
Of course, we have attempted to answer the question of the meaning of life—but no answers so far can be universally agreed upon. One of the most heartbreaking—and sometimes convincing—attempts to answer the question of the meaning of life is that of nihilism. Nihilism posits that life does not have a meaning, or that which would give life meaning does not exist. E.M. Cioran, a famous nihilist, states his case on the matter in “On the Heights of Despair.” He argues that any action, good or bad, has no consequence, and that achieving something or failing at something also has no consequence. Cioran goes on to say: “Have courage when you don’t need to, and be a coward when you must be brave! Who knows? You may still be a winner! And if you lose, does it really matter? Is there anything to win in this world?” (Cioran 131). These questions, I would argue, are along the same lines of the ultimate question of whether or not there is meaning in life—and Cioran responds that there cannot be meaning in life, because no matter what you do, there is no consequence or reward. Why does Cioran think this? Because everything is subjective, he says: “[Men] cherish the illusion that they have all contributed to their creation. They all aspire to great achievements through which they hope to attain immortality. As if they will not crumble into dust!” (Cioran 89). Cioran is arguing here that regardless of what triumphs humanity may make, regardless of whether you improve something in the world or not, it will ultimately be reduced to nothing, as the time of the world moves on. In Cioran’s view, nothing good lasts, and therefore—there is nothing good on Earth worth doing.
Jean-Paul Sartre, in his short story “The Wall,” demonstrates this idea in a horrifying example. The main character, Pablo Ibbieta, is a prisoner condemned to death in the Spanish Civil War. He is given an option to be let free if he gives his captors the name of his friend, who is also wanted. As he sits in the cell, along with his other strange cellmates, he realizes he doesn’t care about his own life anymore. However, he continues to deny his captors what they want until he is about to be executed, when he gives his captors what he believes is false information about his friend’s location. Unfortunately, his friend did end up being in the spot that Pablo identified, and is killed, so Pablo is let free. At the end, Pablo laughs as to the absurdity and randomness of the situation. This last part is particularly relevant. Cioran states that no action is worth doing, because the world is so chaotic, and ultimately, there is no way to get past the ending of all life. Pablo randomly chose a hiding place that he figured his friend would not be at, and yet, his friend happened to be there on a ridiculous and absurd spot of bad luck. This proves Cioran’s point. Pablo was ready for death, and gave a fake meeting place just to mess with the guards, and it happened to be right—so Pablo lived. Pablo didn’t have to think or know about the hiding place to do that. It was just a random guess, thus proving the absurdity of life. Whatever you try to do, there is no ideal or guaranteed outcome. The world randomly goes on regardless if you try to change it, so why try?
Nihilism, while it has its practicality, fails to answer the question “What is the meaning of life?” because it inherently negates the question. You could argue that this is semantics, and that it could be a reasonable answer to the question—if we cannot find any solid evidence of meaning in life, is there any? However—it solves nothing. Nihilism, while its logic is sound, fails to comfort the anxious person we mentioned at the beginning of the essay. Nihilism forces humanity to give up—to throw away all of the actual good that we’ve accomplished (even if it’s small), and all of the lives of the people on this Earth. To follow nihilism means to admit that life inherently does not matter, because the act of murder would not matter. To inflict pain on someone would not matter—with the excuse that “people die anyway” or “the world is meaningless, I’m doing that person a favor.” Nihilism is an inherently apathetic and destructive maxim, which promotes the negation of morality and ethical good. I refuse to pay attention to any line of arguing that makes irrelevant the importance of human lives, and so, I must deny nihilism.
Another philosophical view that attempts to answer the question of the meaning of life is that all meaning comes from the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful God. The most famous proponent of this view is Tolstoy, who wrote in Confessions that while there is irrational and rational knowledge and that the belief in God is irrational, it “provides humanity with an answer to the question of life, thus making it possible to live” (Tolstoy 60). Put simply, rational knowledge is focused strictly on reason and science, and irrational knowledge is the exact opposite, the greatest example of it being faith itself. Rational knowledge essentially gave nihilism to Tolstoy—the unfortunate existential knowledge that life is meaningless and that everything ends. With faith, however, Tolstoy was provided “the meaning of life and the possibility of living” (Tolstoy 60).
To a certain degree, I agree with Tolstoy that faith does serve an important purpose. It is a crucial part of human culture and has been for hundreds of years. Religion has been a cornerstone of group mentality in human communities and continues to be an important part of many people’s lives. I am an atheist myself, but church-based communities have played a large part in my life. My mother was very active in the Unitarian Universalist church, whose maxim was essentially that you can believe whatever you want to believe, as long as you respect others on their spiritual journeys. I attended Religious Education there, countless summer camps, and made many friends. I valued those years there, just as other religious communities are valued to individuals across the world. I would not want to propose that faith does not provide any meaning to anyone, because it would be hypocritical of me to do so. However, I refuse to believe that faith is the only way to obtain a sense of meaning in life. Irrational beliefs can be incredibly helpful when dealing with difficult issues in life—some people pray to God when they are dealing with tragedies, and I do not deny that that can be helpful in providing comfort. But people without faith are also able to find meaning in life without irrational beliefs. There are many atheists and even spiritual people who don’t believe in a god or gods who are able to find meaning in life. Comfort does not have to be found only in a faith in something greater—I would argue that hope is the greatest comfort. Hope is a universal emotion, felt by every human, regardless of creed. And so, I must deny faith as the ultimate answer to the meaning of life.
Another spiritual journey that proposes a meaning in life but does not believe in the existence of a god or gods is that of Buddhism. I have always been an admirer and even a prospective learner of Buddhism. I find it to be the most philosophically pleasant doctrine, and I do sometimes try to take its teachings to heart. Buddhist teachings essentially instill the knowledge that one should accept that change and suffering is inevitable, and that everything is interconnected. Buddhism teaches that suffering stems from greed, attachment, and an abundance of pleasure-seeking, and that one should hold close the virtues of kindness, compassion, patience, wisdom, etc. in order to live a good and peaceful life (The Buddhist Society). Buddhism is an incredibly practical faith, as it gives its followers loose guidelines for how one should live life in a compassionate way, and promotes above all self-reliance, kindness, and mindfulness. A major difference that Buddhism has in relation to the god/gods based religions we mentioned earlier is that Buddhism is more of a guideline for life, without strict boundaries for following it (unless, I suppose, you become a Buddhist monk). Buddhism is meant to be a sort of path for someone to follow if they want to be a compassionate, peaceful person. I believe that the passive acceptance of Buddhist teachings can be incredibly good to have, but holding yourself to impossible standards with Buddhist guidelines seems to be its only flaw. Buddhists often are vegetarian and give up worldly possessions to live a modest life. This is, unfortunately, not possible for some people who may be in disadvantaged classes and cannot afford to life simplistically.
I do hold, however, that most Buddhist teachings are useful. They follow the standard for morality that all individuals on Earth can pretty much agree is set in stone. The ability to recognize that suffering is inevitable is incredibly difficult. In my experience, it can sometimes be disheartening to acknowledge that suffering is inevitable, but it can be truly freeing, as well. Sometimes, when people get overwhelmed by the amount of suffering in the world, it can be good to understand that suffering is inevitable, but we still must make the most of our lives. To Buddhists, the meaning of life is to relieve suffering as much as possible—within yourself and others. Even if you’re not a practicing Buddhist, I believe this maxim can be compatible with everyone, regardless of beliefs. As it relates to the meaning of life, Buddhism can definitely be an answer.
Nihilism, faith, and Buddhism all attempt to answer the question of the meaning of life in different ways. I believe that this question is the epicenter of what it means to be a human. This question is meaningful to us because it regards our very existence and purpose here on Earth. The truth is, we don’t know what our purpose here is (or even if we have a purpose), and odds are we will likely never know. We continue living and building a global community because we are too stubborn to die, and we cling to our lives because it’s the one true commodity we have.
Why is it worth asking this question? Because we have evolved to be capable of complex thought, and yet, this is a question we are incapable of answering. Maybe it truly is about stubbornness that we continue seeking the answer to this question, even though it’s likely we will never know the answer. Maybe we need to know that this—that everything that humanity has done, negative and positive—has been worth it. No worker likes to work on something knowing that the work they’re doing was for nothing. Perhaps at the center of this question lies hope. We hope and pray to our gods that all of this has been worth it. We hope that these wars, these deaths, all of this blood and sweat and heavy emotion lead to some amazing finality. This question is meaningful because our lives and deaths are meaningful, and because of our complex capacity for emotion, we are capable of assigning meaning to human lives, and we want to know that we are right. We don’t want to acknowledge that we are worthless, because if we do, there would be no personal meaning to our lives. If all of this does matter, for what purpose? To what end? If none of this matters, why do we even exist at all?
Camus argues: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide” (Camus). Faced with the unfaceable in life, millions of people have claimed their own lives. Why do we not follow in their footsteps? There must be some invisible thing keeping us on this world, keeping us all from attempting the irreversible. I argue that that invisible force is emotion, and the next step up from emotion is meaning. We are uniquely capable of millions of mental states through which we can relate to others. Even bad emotions, like regret, anger, sadness, or envy, remind us that we are all human, with plenty of imperfections. Like Sisyphus, we are doomed to continue through hardship, to keep pushing the boulder up the mountain, until we eventually die. The most human thing we do, every day, is to continue pushing the boulder up the mountain. This is our meaning in life. Through sadness, through pain, through suffering, we find little moments of happiness and joy. This is the meaning of being a human—to continue to have hope, to continue to try and find the next happy moment, even though we continue suffering and cannot be free of it. Asking why all of this exists is an existential cry into the void—one which we will not get an answer back in return. But it is a necessary question. Even though we don’t know the answer, we keep going. Even though we acknowledge that suffering is inevitable, we keep going. Through death, through pain, through negative emotion, we keep going. As Camus says, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” We are burdened with a universal struggle. And we must keep going.
Nielsen, Kai. “Linguistic Philosophy and ‘The Meaning of Life.’” CrossCurrents, vol. 14, no. 3, 1964, pp. 313–334. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24457430.
Cioran, Emile M. On the Heights of Despair. The University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Wall. 1939.
Tolstoy, Leo. Confession. W W Norton & Company, 1983.
The Buddhist Society: Fundamental Teachings, The Buddhist Society, http://www.thebuddhistsociety.org/page/fundamental-teachings.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. 1955.