This is one of several posts on The Meaning of Life.
My last two posts looked at some of the classical Western and Eastern philosophical/religious responses to the question: what is the meaning of life? This post looks at some of the more modern, and mostly Western, thinking on the topic. I am going to cover about 350 years of philosophical thinking in relatively short order so my apologies to anyone who feels their favorite thinker gets short shrift.
The Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century brought significant changes to a wide range of philosophical/religious thinking. Social, scientific and political thought began to separate from religious influence. An early example is the Roman Church’s persecution of Galileo for promoting the idea that the earth revolved around the sun. As faith and reason went their own ways there was a greater emphasis on natural rights, individual freedom, equality and scientific inquiry as the basis for knowledge.
David Hume, a Scottish Philosopher, argued that our primary nature attracts us to those closest to us (parents, family, neighbors), but that we also have developed a second nature that is compassionate toward the broader population and affords us the ability to forge larger societies which are more stable and better able to provide a diversity of goods for all. John Locke (British) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (French) maintained we are all naturally free and entitled to (and entitled to defend) our life, liberty and the fruits of our labors. In order to protect these rights we enter into social contracts and build a society capable of resolving disputes in a civilized fashion.
Immanuel Kant (German) argued that a meaningful life is one in which we freely, openly and rationally engage in public discourse regarding science, politics and philosophy in order to build on what we have received from prior generations. He saw this engagement as a moral imperative that flows from our human nature and enables us to continue to make progress for human kind.
Moving to the 19th century, Jeremy Bentham (British) proposed the greatest happiness principle: the good is whatever brings the greatest aggregate happiness to the greatest number of people. His student, John Stuart Mill (British) agreed and argued further that moral and intellectual enjoyments were to be weighted more heavily than physical pleasures. Mill believed individuals should have the maximum personal liberty that is consistent with the liberty of others: “Over himself, over his own mind and body, the individual is sovereign.”
The 19th century also brought us the Nihilists who resolved the subject question by declaring that life has no meaning.
The Existentialists argued that we are each free to create our own life’s essence or meaning. Søren Kierkegaard (Danish) believed we each need to find a purpose that meets our personal values and that gives our lives meaning and then to commit ourselves to it. Arthur Schopenhauer (German) tells us: “The world in which a man lives shapes itself chiefly by the way in which he looks at it” and that we should “make the most advantageous use possible of the personal qualities we possess.”
Friedrich Nietzsche (German) argued that meaning is found in self expression and freedom from conformity. He saw conformity as being based on a sense of equality of individuals which in his view actually holds us back from being fully engaged in building lives of our own creation, based on our own values and goals.
In the 20th century, secular humanism argued that meaning is found in the fulfillment, growth and creativity of individuals and humankind in the aggregate, based on reason, science, fairness, justice, good will towards all, an open exchange of ideas, tolerance and environmental sensitivity with a goal of building a better world now and for succeeding generations. Secular humanists specifically reject the notion of a deity (God is dead) or an afterlife.
So in more modern times we see an increasing rejection of the paternalism of church and state with respect to how to live our lives and how to think about the meaning of our lives. The individual rises in importance but there is still recognition of the importance of society and societal relations. God is dead for some but not for others. Science and reason replace, or at least supplement, faith. Good and evil are still at odds with each other. And after thousands of years of human existence and philosophical reflection we still have the question: what is the meaning of life? My next post will try to focus the question a bit further in preparation for my attempt to answer it.
R. Kevin Price
© 2008-2012 R.K. Price