In Search of the Meaning of Life

The phrase ‘meaning of life’ is hard to take seriously after its association with the Monty Python film of that name. And the motive behind it, the quest for a comprehensive explanation of “Life, the Universe, and Everything”, was the subject of another celebrated send-up in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where after more than seven million years of high-powered attention to the question the computer named Deep Thought produces the answer ‘42’. Both of these satirical treatments are spoken of in a more serious attempt on the subject by a former professor of English at Oxford University, Terry Eagleton. His book The Meaning of Life is published in the Oxford University Press series of ‘very short introductions’, and it is indeed short (101 pp), as well as witty and unsolemnly learned. Eagleton shows how the decay of institutionalized religion has raised the “meaning-of-life question” into urgent view, and he looks at some of the flawed or impenetrable answers given by philosophers, as well as at the less-cerebrated answers which others of us have implicitly lived by, well or badly.

Eagleton’s sympathy is with this second category of answer more than with the first. His own answer is of course partly that no answer is possible, at least no answer of the thorough-going ‘42’ kind. Instead, he “takes the meaning-of-life question out of the hands of adepts or cognoscenti and returns it to the business of everyday living”, and he says this:

The meaning of life is not a solution to a problem, but a matter of living in a certain way. It is not metaphysical, but ethical.

Eagleton’s immediate illustration of what he means comes from Saint Matthew’s gospel in the New Testament, where Jesus speaks of the ending of the world (chs 24-5). There, it turns out that the momentous business of personal salvation, to which earthly life has been directed as its final meaning, will depend on the ordinary kindness we have shown. It is, so Eagleton says, “an embarrassingly prosaic affair – a matter of feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the imprisoned.”

But his preferred authority is not the Bible, but our “specific kind of nature” as humans. Our “species being”, he says, makes us not just insistently gregarious, in the manner which the gospel illustrates at its essential best; it makes us also “individual beings who seek our own fulfilment.” How then to “reconcile our search for individual fulfilment with the fact that we are social animals”? The answer is to arrange life so that it is “a common or reciprocal project”, in which “the flourishing of one individual comes about through the flourishing of others”.

This human reciprocity Eagleton calls ‘love’ – in the sense of the Greek word agape, something more like fellowship – and he means it with such earnestness that, in a rare rhapsodic moment, he writes of our thus “sharing in the love which built the stars.” He then summarizes his offered answer in a more mundane but appealing image: a jazz group freely improvising, creating a music which is at the same time self-expression on the part of individual players and a “medium of relationship among the performers”. If we could only “construct this kind of community on a wider scale”, Eagleton concludes, we might indeed find the meaning of life, or at least make life meaningful.

For all the exhilarating intelligence and sagacity of this survey of the subject, it’s patently unsatisfactory. I’m reminded of what Albert Schweitzer says about Aristotle and the Nichomachean Ethics: “He brings together material for a monumental building, and runs up a wooden shack.” Because of course the vast majority of lives that there are and ever have been on earth, enduring the meaning of life or its meaninglessness, are simply absent from Eagleton’s calculation. Occasional mention of non-human animals there is, but they appear as momentary foils to the human questors in the foreground. Mainly, they seem to be chosen for humorous contrast.

The polyp, for instance, features briefly in Eagleton’s breezy dismissal of Arthur Schopenhauer, one of the very few philosophers for whom the ‘meaning of life’ really did embrace all life on the same terms. Schopenhauer’s version, as Eagleton notes without taking the lesson, makes “no notable distinction between humans and polyps.” Or the warthog and the tortoise: they come in to illustrate Martin Heidegger’s observation that humans alone among all the animals are capable of asking the meaning-of-life question. The implication of this unique talent, accepted throughout Eagleton’s book, is that the answer must therefore be exclusively for and about them.

It’s a wholly unsound assumption. When Albert Schweitzer (to go back to him) was pondering this same question, “the enigma we call life”, about one hundred years ago in books, sermons, and lectures (including two at Mansfield College, Oxford), he acknowledged of course the unique situation of the human, as the one animal that can “transcend the ignorance in which the rest of creation languishes”. In fact he calls it “the great event in the development of life”, that “here, in one existence, life as such comes to consciousness of itself.” But you notice the phrase “life as such”. The consciousness is not a property of man; it is the whole life-project acting in or through the human, and uncovering to itself not the peculiar nature of one species, as Heidegger and Eagleton have it, but “everything that life is”. Schweitzer uses the word “recognition”: the solidarity of life was always there, but now at last it can be noticed. “Wherever you see life”, he exclaimed in one of his sermons (he was, among other things, a Lutheran pastor), “that is you!”

This indeed is the mansion of ethics instead of the shack. The human is no longer puzzling over a private world in a private language (or just ‘language’ as philosophers and others call it with careless parochialism); the aim and the effect of life’s self-consciousness in the human is nothing less than “ethical union with Being”. Ethical because, like Eagleton, Schweitzer puts aside the metaphysics as unintelligible: we can know the situation of life in the world, and our own part in it, but we can and must do this without also “having to understand the world”, or what Eagleton calls “the value or meaning of the world as a whole”.

So what matters is not the idea but “the act”. And here, again like Eagleton, Schweitzer thinks of that passage in the Matthew gospel (25.31-46), but in his case with a larger-minded interpretation. Matthew’s Jesus, describing to his disciples the last judgement, says that those who are to be welcomed into the company of Heaven will be the ones who showed compassion to him in earthly life:

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat [i.e. food]: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger and ye took me in. Naked and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison and ye came unto me. [35-6]

The favoured ones, with touching diffidence, will ask Him when it was that they did these things for him. And his answer, a most beautiful one, will be “In as much as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

Note the context in Schweitzer’s discourse for this portentous moment in scripture with all its grand eschatological properties: he is illustrating his plea that we should rescue “the poor insect that has fallen into the water” or the “worm on the hard street, onto which he has strayed by error”. For the rule of practical compassion which Jesus teaches in Matthew 25 “ought to determine what we do also to the least among living Schweitzer creatures”; all are to be counted among “these my brethren”. In fact we should make “no distinction between higher and lower, more precious and less precious lives”. Or indeed, between serious and more or less comical lives. Our obligation is to life as such.

That image of the insect rescued from drowning is Schweitzer’s equivalent for Eagleton’s jazz band, summarizing his argument for the solidarity of life. And although it is from one of his sermons that the particular insect and worm are quoted here, they are not there in the sermon as one of those homely touches which preachers go in for, still less for light relief, like Eagleton’s polyp or warthog; they are essential to his case. The insect therefore appears again in Schweitzer’s great survey of Western ethics, The Philosophy of Civilization (a book which might itself have been titled In Search of the Meaning of Life): “If I save an insect from a puddle, life has devoted itself to life, and the division of life against itself has ended.”

Terry Eagleton rightly says that the meaning-of-life question became urgent not just because the great Christian explanation faltered, but also because that failure coincided with “the bloodiest epoch on historical record”, the twentieth century. The “overwhelming danger” of our own times likewise, he says (in 2007), makes the search for “common meanings” a matter of urgency. His offered solution, the communal jazz band, is a socio-political one, utopian (as he admits), moving also, in the way utopias characteristically are, but yes, a wooden shack all the same.

Schweitzer took the same view of the danger, as it presented itself in his time, but he was equally conscious of the crisis timelessly inherent in life’s situation – that “division of life against itself” which rescuing an insect symbolically and pragmatically heals. This “ghastly drama” of life pitted against life has entailed suffering for all living things always. Therefore Schweitzer’s early twentieth-century account of the meaning of life, though prompted by the special horrors of that period (more is said about this context to Schweitzer’s philosophy in this blog for 6 November 2017) is paradoxically less dated than Eagleton’s twenty-first century version. It shows us that the ‘human condition’ which philosophers like to talk about doesn’t exist separately from the condition of all other life (are we not being reminded of that truth exactly now?). And it provides us with the ethical motive which would fit us to give our lives meaning accordingly: that is, to carry all life with us in one “reciprocal project” of flourishing co-existence, or perhaps, more modestly, of mere collective survival.

 

Notes and references:

Terry Eagleton’s The Meaning of Life was first published in 2007, then as part of OUP’s very short introduction series in 2008. The quotations are from p.20 (“bloodiest epoch”) and pp.94-101. The book is very well-worth reading.

Albert Schweitzer is quoted mainly from the two sermons titled ‘On Reverence for Life’, delivered in 1919, and published in A Place for Revelation, transl. David Holland, Macmillan 1988; also from Reverence for Life: the Teaching of Albert Schweitzer, transl. R. and C. Winston, Peter Owen, 1966, p.47 (“no distinction between higher and lower”) and from The Philosophy of Civilization (first published as Kulturphilosophie in 1923) transl. C.T.Campion, Prometheus Books, 1987, pp. 127 (“wooden shack”), 285 (“having to understand the world”), 309 (“ethical union with Being”), and 313 (“If I save an insect from a puddle”). The last two chapters of this latter book contain the summary of his philosophy of ‘reverence for life’ in all its bearings.

The photograph by George Rodger showing Schweitzer working at his hospital settlement in Lambaréné in 1951, with the kitten Pierrette, is from the front cover of A Place for Revelation.

 

 

 

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