Successful Retirement and The Meaning of Life VI

October 13, 2012

This is one of several posts on The Meaning of Life.

Over several posts I have looked at this topic from a variety of perspectives beginning with Calvin and Hobbes, then considering the contexts in which we might think about it, and then reviewing Classical Eastern, Classical Western and more modern philosophical views. I said at the beginning that I didn’t think there is an answer to the question “What is the Meaning of Life?” that would be definitive for everyone (obviously thousands of years of reflection have not produced a clear, or even a muddy, consensus). But I do think there are themes that emerge from all the thinking on this topic that enable us to at least begin to approach an answer.

In this post I want to focus the question a bit further and then in my next post I’ll attempt to approach the answer.

First I’d like to distinguish between the “meaning” of life and what makes a life “meaningful.” By “meaning” of life I am connoting that life has some significance, some import, some reason for being that extends beyond the purely biological and that exists whether life is short or long, happy or unhappy, pleasurable or painful, productive or not. By “meaningful” I am connoting that there are outcomes or results – good, neutral, bad or some combination thereof – from the mere fact of our living our lives, as well as how we live our lives, what we accomplish in life, how we affect others by our actions; in this sense our individual lives may be more or less meaningful relative to each other or in relation to some standard of meaningfulness that we as individuals or society might posit. My point: all lives may have meaning and perhaps a common meaning, but the meaningfulness of individual lives will certainly vary.

We should also note that we are social beings. While asking the question “what is the meaning of life?” may begin introspectively, it quickly extends to our loved ones, our neighbors, our fellow citizens, everyone around the world past, present and future. The answer to the question, if one can be found, has individual import but also collective, societal import.

We could also explore whether or not the meaning of life is “meaningful” with respect to other species. Certainly other species share our drive to reproduce and many share our desire to seek comfort and avoid pain.  And as we have noted Hinduism, for instance, recognizes souls in other species. But I suspect most animals are not reflecting on the meaning of life so I am not going to devote any energy at this point to seeking the nature of meaning in their lives.  Recall it was Calvin who asked: “Why do we exist?” Hobbes saw the answer in purely biological terms.

That is not to say that Hobbes’ view is entirely misguided. The Bible (Genesis) tells us to go forth and multiply. And certainly our sex drives and societal norms encourage reproduction. Some scientists even argue that the main driver of our behavior is survival of our gene pool. But while I accept the guidance of the Bible and Biology, as I said earlier I am seeking an answer that goes beyond the biological.

I am also not going to spend any more time on the view that life has no meaning. I agree with Albert Einstein who wrote: “…the man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life.” (The World As I See It, 1949)

Some people argue that the meaning of life is found in achieving our full potential. Abraham Maslow suggested we have a hierarchy of needs that we seek to address: Physiological (food, water, shelter, comfort), Safety (security stability, freedom from fear), Belonging/Love (friends, family, spouse) needs must be met before we can move onto achieving Self-esteem and Respect and then ultimately Self-actualization in which we seek fulfillment through pursuit of our inner talents and creativity. That seems to make some sense but it also seems very self-centered. In as much as we are social beings, the meaning of life seems to call for something larger than ourselves as individuals.

Other views of life’s meaning include: seeking knowledge and wisdom, caring for others, loving and being loved, doing good, seeking pleasure, achieving power or fame, having a relationship with the divine, achieving the victory of our ideals. All of these are worthy but seem inadequate to answer the question on their own.

In my next (and final, at least for now) post on this subject I will attempt to pull together thousands of years of diverse thinking on the subject and distill what I think are the major themes that point toward the meaning of life.

R. Kevin Price

© 2008-2012 R.K. Price