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.




Albert Schweitzer in Time of War

One hundred years ago this week, the slaughterous battle of Passchendaele, on the Western Front in Flanders, was coming to its end. In Siegfried Sassoon’s poem ‘Memorial Tablet’, one of the men whose “gilded” names are cut into this imagined memorial says

                        I died in hell –         1024px-Douglas_W._Culham_-_Mud_Road_to_Passchendaele
(They called it Passchendaele)

And of course they took the animals to hell with them, as Douglas Culham’s stygian painting very well shows. Then and since, however, we’ve always done our best to send the animals there ahead of ourselves, by using them in preparatory research. The British military science establishment at Porton Down was established in the year before Passchendaele. It has been using animals ever since, to test the known and the merely feared resources of modern warfare. In 2016, its own centenary, it got through 2,745 of them, including 116 monkeys.

Well, but as the Ministry of Defence habitually says, “Our armed forces could not be provided with safe and effective protective measures without this research.” And an official account of Porton Down speaks of “the constantly evolving threat posed by chemical and biological weapons”, reminding us that not just our armed forces are in danger; evidently we should all be afraid. In such an alarming context, how are we to give our minds to the welfare of mice, pigs, or even monkeys?

To go backwards in war yet further, this was a question which the German pioneer of animal rights Christian Dann felt that he had to answer when he published his book Bitte der armen Thiere [petition of the poor animals] shortly after the Napoleonic Wars in which, as usual, the peoples of Europe had caused each other so much death and destruction. He said, “if men have brought themselves so to destroy each other, that is because they have not been trained in compassion from their youth onwards.” In fact times of war are really, he said, the exactly right time to review our obligations to other animals, as the premise for a recuperation of our ethics in general.

Or rather, that’s what Albert Schweitzer reports Dann as saying (I haven’t read Dann’s book). It was also what Schweitzer himself was doing, speaking out about our relation with animals boldly and conspicuously amid the ruins of war. For the allusion to Dann comes in the series of sermons which, as a Lutheran pastor, Schweitzer gave in the church of St Nicolai, Strasbourg, immediately after the First World War.

The province of Alsace, of which Strasbourg is the chief city, had been under German rule when Schweitzer had departed from there some years earlier to set up a hospital in the jungle of Gabon, part of the French colony of Equatorial Africa. So when war broke out, he had been arrested by the French, and then deported and interned as an enemy alien. Eventually he was released back to his home village of Günsbach, situated more or less on the Western front and accordingly itself a victim of war:

Everywhere there were brick emplacements for machine guns! Houses ruined by gun-fire! Hills which I remembered covered with woods now stood bare. The shell-fire had left only a few stumps here and there. In the villages one saw posted up the order that everyone must always carry a gas-mark about with him.

From what was left of Günsbach, Schweitzer had moved to Strasbourg to work in the hospital there, and to act as pastor at St Nicolai. By now Alsace was part of France again, with all the human turbulence which that reversion of nationality entailed (including the departure of St Nicolai’s former anti-French pastor). And even now the slaughter was not over: the ‘Spanish’ flu was killing more people than the war itself had achieved. “the time of great misery that we face”, as Schweitzer summarized it in one of his sermons. [64]

Convinced that the war was not just a catastrophe in itself, but evidence of a general collapse of values, Schweitzer wanted to propose a “true, proper, inalienable ethic” [12] to replace the one which, when it came to the test, proved insubstantial and “fell away from us” with such disastrous consequences [11]. It was a theme he was preparing to argue in his great book The Philosophy of Civilization (1923). But here in Strasbourg he presents it already complete, from the pulpit of St Nicolai.

He begins with that précis of the commandments which, in the Gospel of St Mark, Jesus is said to have provided for a questioner: to love God, and to love your neighbour as yourself. What do these instructions really mean? Evidently we cannot love God as we might a human; rather, because “God is everlasting life” [8], what we should feel is “reverence for the incomprehensible, infinite, and living One”, for which ‘God’ is our chosen name. And loving our neighbour is an implication of this: our neighbour is a part of that One, just as we are. In fact, since all lives are part of it, all lives are neighbours to us. “In sum, therefore, the commandment of love means this: For you there are no strangers.” [8]

The first two examples of this “removal of the strangeness” between separated lives, which Schweitzer offers in his very first sermon, must surely have very much surprised his congregation: a snowflake (it was February 1919) and, first, a dead beetle. “The beetle that lies dead in your path – it was something that lived, that struggled for its existence like you, that rejoiced in the sun like you, that knew anxiety and pain like you.” [10] His listeners may well have smiled uneasily at this bold, almost tactless positioning of the beetle’s body among the countless war-dead gradually being memorialized all over Europe. But about the snowflake, Schweitzer spoke to them even more absolutely: “The snowflake, which fell upon your hand from boundless space, which glistened there, trembled, and died – that is you. Wherever you see life – that is you!”

To name this ethic that he was introducing, Schweitzer carried over the word which he had used to re-formulate the idea of love of God: ehrfurcht, which is usually (though not quite adequately) translated ‘reverence’. So in English the name was to be ‘reverence for life’: not the life only of our own side, as must have been the natural temptation at that time of “prejudice and nationalist passion”; nor only the life of our own kind; but every life, “no matter how externally dissimilar to our own” [11]. Life “radically viewed” is the phrase he uses in a later sermon. The beetle and the snowflake, then, as far away in kind as possible from humans, and in fact not even alive: these he must have chosen in order to jolt his congregation into recognizing the ambition of his ethic.

But I think he must also have chosen them to establish from the start the tragic setting for his essentially hopeful philosophy. For all the earnestness of the beetle’s struggle, or Schweitzerthe beauty of the snowflake, nature itself is indifferent to their continuation. It creates and sacrifices impartially. It teaches to each individual “cruel egoism” [16], and pits life against life in helpless ignorance: a “ghastly drama”, Schweitzer elsewhere calls it. And this puzzle of contradictory interests becomes even more mystifying if we suppose God to be directing it. “Why is the God who reveals himself in nature the negation of all that we experience as ethical?” It’s a problem which Schweitzer considers insoluble: there can be no “harmonious philosophy of life”. This is the tragic setting.

However, in the coming of the human species Schweitzer sees “the great event in the development of life … Here, in one existence, life as such comes to consciousness of itself. Isolated individual existence ceases. Outside existence floods into ours.”  To know and to feel the true solidarity of all living things, as humans may, was a revolutionary novelty in the world, and for Schweitzer it is the foundation of ethics: to act upon this awareness is “our great mysterious duty in the world”. [23] And it’s in his third sermon that he sketches out the relations with other forms of life which it involves. Schweitzer wasn’t, of course, a vegan, not even a vegetarian (though he did abjure meat later in life), but he speaks with unhappiness even of those exploitations of other animals which he regarded (rather too readily, no doubt) as inevitable: “that in order to live we must offer the lower form of life to the higher is terrible”. [32] Unhappiness, but not resignation, for there are two things we can do about it.

Firstly, he says, we should indeed do things. He speaks of horses, chickens, cats, fish: “We must consider our responsibility in every individual case.” And again he outfaces the charge of sentimentality (“Do not be afraid to be ridiculous, but act!”) with examples taken from the farthest reaches from the human:

Keep your eyes open so that you do not miss any opportunity where you can be a redeemer! Do not go carelessly past the poor insect that has fallen into the water, for instance, but imagine what it means to struggle with a watery death. Help it to get out with a hook or a piece of wood … The worm on the hard street, onto which he has strayed by error, languishes because he cannot bore into it. Put him on soft earth or in the grass!

These detailed and unsensational actions are typical: not fine sentiment but “activist ethics” (Schweitzer’s phrase), and not morally calibrated by size, number, and relative importance, but unconditional. In this sermon, he even deplores the picking or cutting of flowers.

But secondly, because reverence for life was, in this way, an absolute, every falling short of it was provisional only, something that we would be restlessly trying to grow up and away from. He stresses the sorrow in our relations to other life, just because it’s this sorrow that will urge us on to “be a redeemer”, of ourselves and of nature more generally. But he also does speak with especial warmth about the shared delight in other lives which is the counterpart of the compassion with which we must share their pains – as with that insect helped from the water: “when it cleans its wings, you know you have experienced something wonderful: the happiness of having saved life.”  Indeed these sermons at St Nicolai must have been astonishing and moving events. Soon afterwards, Schweitzer gave some lectures in other countries on his ethic of ‘reverence for life’. In one such lecture, he later recalled, “I was so moved that I found it difficult to speak.”

That lecture tour included Oxford University (which later awarded Schweitzer an honorary degree): he gave the Dale lectures at Mansfield College in Hilary Term of 1922. At that time, memorials like the one in Siegfried Sassoon’s poem were going up in college chapels, churches, and other places throughout the city. In Schweitzer’s audiences there must have been many former soldiers, and many who had lost family, friends and colleagues in the War. It may be that some of these listeners didn’t like to hear this man with his German accent setting them right about the failed ethic which had allowed European civilization to fall into world war, or advising them about the suffering of insects. Nor, of course, can it now be said that we ever have cured ourselves of the habit of making wars. But as, yet again, the occasion comes round for communally recalling what these wars have cost, so again it’s exactly the right time to recall Schweitzer’s beautiful and saving ethic, and especially the rightly famous formulation of it, “Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.”


Notes and references:

There will be a service of remembrance at the Animals in War memorial, in Park Lane, London, on Sunday 12 November, starting at 3 p.m. The memorial and its implications have been discussed in this blog at

The numbers of animals used at Porton Down, and the explanation from the Ministry of Defence, is quoted on the Forces Network web-site at The quoted official account of Porton Down is at

Bitte der armen Thiere, by Christian Adam Dann, was published in Tübingen in 1822.

A translation of Schweitzer’s sermons of 1919 is published by Macmillan as A Place for Revelation (1988). Quotations are from that edition, and mostly from the first three sermons, the finest of them. In a few cases I have altered the translation. Schweitzer’s account of Günsbach after the war comes from My Life and Thought, Allen and Unwin, 1933, (pp.210-11), as also does his recollection of his lecture tour. The phrases “ghastly drama” and “activist ethics” come from The Philosophy of Civilization, Prometheus Books, 1987, pp.312 and 315. The last quotation is referenced in Jon Wynne-Tyson’s The Extended Circle to The Philosophy of Civilization; I haven’t found it there, and only know it from Wynne-Tyson’s anthology.

Douglas Culham’s 1917 painting is titled Mud Road to Passchendaele, and is in the collection of the Canadian War Museum. The reproduction is in the public domain.