“An act of goodness is of itself an act of happiness. No reward coming after the event can compare with the sweet reward that went with it.”– Maurice Maeterlinck, Nobel Laureate in Literature, 1911.

After self-mastery, virtuous interaction with others is likely the next most vital prerequisite for happiness and a meaningful life. It emanates directly from inner selflessness, temperance, and commitment to ethical behavior in the world. Many great thinkers believe that the habit of goodness towards others is essentially identical to happiness.

Virtue to others takes on two forms: usual and extraordinary. At a minimum each person must learn to live harmoniously with others, adopting appropriate norms of behavior which we have labelled propriety. This includes etiquette, civil demeanor, respect for others, and wisdom in choosing friends. In addition we must exercise fairness and decency in dealing with others, which we have labelled justice. Aristotle tells us this is a habit of doing the right thing, through deliberation, judgment, and decisiveness such that we reach the end of prudent liberality and magnanimity. It also involves voluntary obedience to legitimate laws, the free choice of proportionate distribution of goods, and virtuous action – pledging oneself to risk suffering injustice rather than committing it.

Exceptional virtue in the realm of proximate reality has two forms – heroism and saintliness. Everyday heroism ranges from the common spontaneous acts of accepting risk in the service of others or deliberate acts such as donating blood to occupational forms such as military service or firefighting. Exceptional heroism involves assuming spectacular risks such as probable harm of death in the service of others or unrelenting determination and personal sacrifice in a great enterprise. Underlying heroism is a philosophical dimension, a personal journey to full power over oneself, a final acceptance of one’s finitude and inevitable death, and the dedication to hopeful action and “living the truth of creation.” The second form of exceptional virtue in this realm is the saint – the religious or secular figure who sacrifices the needs and wants of the self for the love of others.

Happiness and meaning in life come through many levels of human experience. The choices we make in our behavior with those around us are powerful determinants of the likelihood of our fulfillment. Propriety, justice to others, courageous action, and personal sacrifice for the good of others are the four key components of enduring satisfaction and meaning in our immediate environment.


“How the devil do I know? Has the question itself any meaning?” – George Bernard Shaw (response to Will Durant on the meaning of life).1



In the last two blogs I introduced a book based on a letter Will Durant sent to prominent individuals seeking solace from the melancholy of the 1930’s and their thoughts on what makes life meaningful. We saw how answers fell into categories of activity in life, domestic affectations, human accomplishments, spirituality, ethics, and Nature. Today we look at the thoughts of Durant himself and a surprising letter he received from a life-term convict.


Using this title,  Durant begins, “I suspect there is some ultimate significance to everything, though I know our little minds will never fathom it.”2 The meaning of anything lies in its relation as a part to a whole making it impossible for us, as parts, to understand ultimate meaning. However humanity’s limits in knowing apply equally to optimistic and pessimistic views of meaning. In the face of uncertainty, equanimity comes from healthy skepticism and even a humorous view of scientific, historical, and philosophical pronouncements. We must recognize that men are mortal but are not machines, vices are vestiges of historic virtues, and progress involves setbacks.

He tells us while “life has no meaning outside of its own terrestrial self…within these limits is still much room to find significance for one’s life and a moderate content.”3 The meaning of life must be “sought in life’s own instinctive cravings and natural fulfillments.”4 The simplest of these are joy in the very experience of living itself, the appreciation of beauty, the love of friends and family, and parenthood. In order to give life greater meaning, one must be part of a something larger than oneself, some cause which becomes “a task which consumes all one’s energies and makes human life a little richer than before.”5 He advises us, “a man should have many irons in the fire”6 – don’t tie happiness entirely to a single outlet. And as a last resort there is always the contemplation of Nature herself.


The book ends on a response received from Owen C. Middleton, a prisoner serving a life sentence. Despite this grim future, Middleton believes his life can be meaningful – as he says “life is worth just what I am willing to strive to make it worth.”7 Truth is neither ugly nor beautiful, but simply truth; and most ‘truths’ are simply beliefs. “Truth tells us that happiness is a state of mental contentment”8 which can be found anywhere, thus “its logical abode must be within the mind.”9  Beyond this he thinks progress like evolution comes from inventiveness, the world is orderly, and life and the universe are like a river moving invariably forward despite the eddies and currents. No man who chooses to continue living can deny life has meaning even if it is only in the hope of the future.

Middleton closes: “How I play my part is all that concerns me. In the knowledge that I am an inalienable part of this great, wonderful, upward movement called life, and that nothing, neither pestilence, nor physical afflictions, nor depression, nor prison, can take away from me my part, lies my consolation, my inspiration, and my treasure.”10


1Durant, Will and Middleton, Owen C., On the Meaning of Life. Ray Long & Richard R. Smith, Inc., New York, 1932. Page 107.

2Ibid., page 112.

3Ibid., page 123.

4Ibid., page 124.

5Ibid., page 129.

6Ibid., page 130.

7Ibid., page 138.

8Ibid., page 140.

9Ibid., page 141.

10Ibid., page 144.


Last time I introduced Will Durant’s 1931 book, On The Meaning of Life, by outlining the letter he sent to over 100 prominent individuals seeking a their thoughts on the melancholic view of the meaning of life in the midst of a world-wide depression.


He does not specify how many responses he received to his letter, but he publishes at least parts of twenty-seven. The categories of perceived meaning in life in order of declining frequency of mention are:

  1. Active function in life – particularly being occupied in something you love, commitment to action or to a cause. As H. L. Mencken tells us, “Life demands to be lived.”2
  2. Domestic affections – family and friends. Gina Lombroso writes, “I think the primordial reason of living is love. Love for the family is the best known and the easiest.”3
  3. Man’s accomplishments – especially knowledge, science, music, and art.
  4. Spirituality with or without religion – or as Gandhi replied, “Religion not in the conventional but in the broadest sense helps me to have a glimpse of the Divine essence.”4
  5. Ethics and morality- or as John Erskine says it, “I believe the divine element in man is whatever it is which makes us wish to lead a life worth remembering, harmless to others, helpful to them, and increasing our own store of wisdom an peace.”5
  6. Nature – expressed beautifully by John Cowper Powys, “The most magical powers, values, sensations of these secrets of life are still to be found in Nature…”6

It is worth noting that several respondents specifically state they see life as meaningful even in the absence of belief in God and immortality. Some also scoff at the question particularly the writers Theodore Dreiser and  George Bernard Shaw and the philosopher Bertrand Russell.

So we see that modern people come to similar answers as the ancient sages: Aristotle (the active life), Christ (the love of others), Epicurus (man’s accomplishments), Hindu wise men ( human spirituality), the Stoics (ethics), the Cynics (Nature), the Skeptics (the absence of an answer). We continue next time with Durant’s thoughts and the thoughts of a life-term convict.


2Durant, Will and Middleton, Owen C., On the Meaning of Life. Ray Long & Richard R. Smith, Inc., New York, 1932. Page30.

3Ibid., page 96.

4Ibid., page 84.

5Ibid., page 41.

6Ibid., page 44.


“The horrible thing about looking for truth is that one finds it.” – Remy De Gourmont.


“I am sorry to say that at the moment I am so busy as to be convinced that life has no meaning whatever…I do not see that we can judge what would be the result of the discovery of truth, since none has hitherto been discovered.” – Bertrand Russell (response to Will Durant on the meaning of life).

For Christmas this year I asked for and received one of the books that I did not have by Will Durant with the intriguing title On the Meaning of Life.  The pretext is simple – Durant prepares a letter in 1931 sent to over 100 famous contemporaries summarizing the melancholy outlook of his generation on the meaning of life and asking for a response. This seemingly naïve endeavor nets a number of interesting replies which make up the body of the book. Durant himself responds to his original pessimistic letter and some of the replies he received in the third section of the book which finally closes with an essay on life’s meaning by a life-term convict.


Durant starts by admitting he is not himself despondent about the value of life, but wishes to confront the “the bitterest possibilities…in such a ways as to guard against the superficial optimism with which men are wont to turn aside the profounder issues of life.”1  He breaks the argument for doubt into 5 categories:

  1. Religion – the failure of hope and faith and the risk of despair in the turbulent world.
  2. Science – diminishing man and his place in the universe and his noble emotions such as love.
  3. History – change without progress and civilizations as futile and often forgotten.
  4. Utopia – a vain hope as man does not change and war destroys all progress towards it.
  5. Suicide of the Intellect – without God, thought including philosophy appears ultimately destructive.

In his letter he freely admits to the recipients that his has been a life of thought and now he seeks answers from persons who have lived as well as thought.

(continued next post)


1Durant, Will and Middleton, Owen C., On the Meaning of Life. Ray Long & Richard R. Smith, Inc., New York, 1932. Page 6.


The consummate example of a saint in modern times seems to be Mother Theresa, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize plus over a dozen other humanitarian awards for her missionary work for the destitute and the dying in the slums of Calcutta and more than 25 countries worldwide. She was canonized in 2015 by Pope Francis and so meets the formal definition as well as the general designation of saint.

In her 1982 book, The Love of Christ, she gives us clues to the inner thinking of the saintly mind. “The work is our only way of expressing our love for God, our love must pour on someone.”3  “We can work, but we cannot do it without God’s help.”4 “One cannot expect to become a saint without paying the price, and the price is much renunciation, much persecution, and all sorts of sacrifices.” 5 “At death we will not be judged by the amount of work we did, but by the love we put into it. And this love must come from self-sacrifice and be felt until it hurts.” 6 She also she tells us of the spiritual side of sainthood: silence is the means to God. “Remain as ‘empty’ as possible so that God can fill you. Even God cannot put anything into what already is full.”7

In brief, for Mother Theresa saintliness depends on charity, faith, love, humility, service, self-denial, suffering, and sacrifice. She offers a beautiful quote by Nath Tagore:

“I slept and I dreamed

that life is all joy.

I woke and I saw

that life is all service.

I served and I saw

that service is joy!”8

The second form of the saint is more secular, emerging in a world of diminished belief in God and formal religions. The absence of divine inspiration and presumed assistance places the secular saint between the traditional saint and hero. Its backdrop is humanism and its force is existential. Absolute freedom entails responsibility which thus underpins the human search for meaning.

Francis Ambrosio offers the example of Simone Weil, an early twentieth century French philosopher and antifascist who defined justice as seeing no avoidable harm is done by any persons. Absolute freedom imposes on us a strict responsibility to do all in our power to meet the needs of body (food, shelter, clothing, physical security) and soul (meaning and value) of every other person. Late in life she admitted to belief in a personal God, but declined to join any religion.9

Ambrosio also considers Martin Luther King a secular saint. While Christian, King draws on Greek philosophy, extracting from Plato’s body-soul distinction the concept of a poverty of spirit characteristic of modernity and the cause of its violence and oppression. His righteous solution, founded on self-mastery and self-respect, is the path of non-violence.10

Ambrosio closes: “the secular saint does not live human questions in terms of their truth of falsehood, but rather in terms of the way his or her participation in the dialogue shapes that one human identity for which he or she alone is responsible, and for the meaning the one life and death that is given to them within the condition of human existence.”11


3Mother Theresa of Calcutta, The Love of Christ. Harper and Row Publishers, San Francisco, 1982. ISBN 0-06-068229-9, page 15.

4Ibid., page 18.

5Ibid., page 21.

6Ibid., page 55.

7Ibid., page 60.

8Ibid., page 59.

9Ambrosio, Francis J., Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life. 2009, The Great Courses. Lectures 30 and 31.

10Ibid., Lecture 32.

11Ibid., guidebook, page 113.


“What makes saintliness in my view, as distinguished from ordinary goodness, is a certain quality of magnanimity and greatness of soul that brings life within the circle of the heroic.”– Harriett Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Having completed our analysis of heroism we proceed to the second of two roles of exceptional virtue in dealing directly with others, saintliness. Both epitomize the inner triumph of unselfishness over self-interest, and although there is substantial overlap, the fundamental virtue in heroism is courage while the fundamental virtue in sainthood is temperance. Both also indicate immense love of others in one’s choice of action.

Webster’s unabridged dictionary defines the word saint as “(1) any of certain persons of exceptional holiness of life, formally recognized as such by the Christian Church, esp. by canonization, (2) a person of great holiness, virtue, or benevolence.”1  Regarding the first definition, in Catholicism, an initial posthumous beatification  of a martyr or of the extremely pious and benevolent, is followed by canonization or designation as a saint only if miracles by the saint are confirmed by Church authorities. We are not particularly concerned with sainthood as decreed by any religious denomination, rather the less forma, more accessible, extraordinary benevolence of an individual, making the second definition more appropriate for our use. We will defer issues of holiness and piety to future posts as well since these fall more into the realm of communion with the ultimate.

Francis Ambrosio adds a further criterion in his definition of a saint as “someone whose identity is based on trust based on the promise made by another, offering the hope of a fulfillment in life that the saint recognizes could only be achieved through the help that the other promises to give as a gift.”2 I can accept this supplemental standard as long as the idea of covenant imbedded in his concept applies to humanity or the universe should one be agnostic or should there be no God. The saint then converts the gift, from Nature or God, of his or her life and faculties into a supererogatory devotion to the good of others at the expense of himself or herself. This synthesis of saintliness then offers a profound sense of meaningfulness and joy to a human life.

(continued next post)


Last time we began a discussion of Ernest Becker’s thoughts on authentic heroism  which begins with accepting the fact of human limitations. We continue now.

With the correct attitude towards life we see “The most one can achieve is a certain relaxedness, an openness to experience that makes him less of a driven burden on others.” Becker warns us:  “If men lean too much on God they don’t accomplish what they have to in this world on their own powers. In order to do anything one must first be a man, apart from everything else,” but also notes that “the urge to cosmic heroism …is sacred and mysterious and not to be neatly ordered and rationalized by science and secularism.”

Becker looks to the example of Paul Tillich’s ‘New Being’ with “the courage to be himself…to face up to the eternal contradictions of the real world… absorb the maximum amount of nonbeing … the problematic in life… His daily life then becomes truly a duty of cosmic proportions… his courage to face the anxiety of meaninglessness becomes true cosmic heroism…the task of conscious beings at the height of their evolutionary destiny is to meet and vanquish this new emergent obstacle to all sentient life.” Authentic heroism depends on “hopeful action,” and “living the truth of creation.” We must also understand that “the fear of death is not the only motive of life; heroic transcendence, victory over evil for mankind, as a whole for unborn generations, consecration of one’s existence to higher meanings – these motives are just as vital and they are what give the human animal his nobility even in the face of his animal fears.”

When we examine nature we see an eternal truth: “in this world each organism lives to be consumed by its own energies; and those that are consumed with the most relentlessness, and burn with the brightest flame seem to service the purposes of nature best, so far as accomplishing anything on this planet is concerned.” And “in one’s own person, he tries to achieve what creative powers of emergent Being have themselves so far achieved with lower forms of life: the overcoming of that which would negate life.” The New Being “takes more of the world into himself and develops new forms of courage and endurance.” In short, “taking life seriously means something such as this: that whatever man does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation, of the grotesque, of the rumble of panic underneath everything. Otherwise it is false.”

I will refrain from attempting to summarize Becker’s thoughts, rather suggest you reread the outtakes above or better yet read Chapter 11 of The Denial of Death.




Ernest Becker was a cultural anthropologist, philosopher, and author of the Pulitzer Prize winning The Denial of Death. The thesis of that book comes down to the following:

(1) Humans are unique as the only species which knows of its finitude and inevitable death, leading to existential anxiety and terror.

(2)  The most powerful response to the terror of death is ‘heroism’ – a self-deceptive view of oneself as having a unique value to the universe (the ‘vital lie’ of ‘cosmic heroism’).

(3)  Culture exists as the arena for a fictitious heroism of its members and thrives only to the extent it succeeds in this purpose.

(4) Flawed heroism leads to failure in dealing with the terror of death (causing neurosis or psychosis) and/or evil in the world.5

Insightful and challenging as this cultural critique is, my immediate interest is in Becker’s analysis of what makes for authentic heroism in a mature, well-adjusted person against the background of society’s fabricated versions. I will reorder his thoughts while using as much of his superb prose as possible.6

It begins with recognition of the basic truths above and accepting that for humans, “not everything is possible.” Maturity is seeing the balance between our tragic limitations and real possibilities. A certain amount of self-imposed repression related to the terror of the existential facts is necessary: “Repression is not falsification of the world, it is ‘truth’ – the only truth that man can know, because he cannot experience everything…calling us back to…a stoical acceptance of the limits of life, the burden of it and of ourselves.”


further continued next post)


5Becker offers many examples, but an excellent one is Hitler and Nazism whose heroic self-image included their distorted conception of racial superiority and sociopathic motivation – if we can’t create like gods, at least we can kill like them.

6Becker, Ernest, The Denial of Death. The Free Press, 1973. ISBN 0-02-902310-6, pages 255-283.


“Gilgamesh said to Utanapishtim the Faraway: “O woe! What shall I do, Utanapishtim, where shall I go? The Snatcher has taken hold of my flesh, in my bedroom Death dwells, and wherever I set foot there too is Death!”The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet XI, Line 236.




In in the last two blogs, we analyzed real-life heroism as commonly understood – an arena worthy of our concentration – but now we will examine the philosophical dimensions of heroism, particularly as presented by Friedrich Nietzsche and Ernest Becker. Heroism in this internal sense involves (1) the power over self and commitment to excellence in self-initiated action, (2) a mature response to human finitude and the inevitability of death.


In his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche attempts to formulate the development of the ancient Greek concept of the tragic hero. On the one hand is the Apollonian culture – where the Olympian figures of the Gods with ‘exuberant triumphant life’ justify the mortal life of man. “Existence under the bright sunshine of such gods is regarded as desirable in itself, and the real grief of Homeric men is caused by parting from it.”1   The Apollonian legacy is the sense of proportion manifested in Greek sculpture and architecture or in the poetry of Homer, that is, the creative force, mimicking the immortals.

On the other hand is the Dionysian satyr voicing a tragic wisdom that “the gulfs between man and man give way to an overwhelming feeling of unity leading back to the very heart of nature. The metaphysical comfort – with which …every tragedy leaves us – that, in spite of the flux of phenomena, life at bottom is indestructibly powerful and pleasurable…”2 The Dionysian outlook then advocates the endurance of suffering and a sheer delight in being alive.

Thus armed, Nietzsche reformulates the tragic hero in his later book, Thus Spake Zarathustra. He chooses as his protagonist the ancient prophetic figure, Zoroaster, whose religion is based on the cosmic struggle between good and evil and truth and falsehood. Nietzsche argues that with will to power (self-mastery), one can remake oneself into a greater being, an uberman or superman, who rises above trivial societal conceptions of good and evil and participates relentlessly in this struggle. This heroic individual achieves self-actualization and becomes what professor Francis J. Ambrosio calls the ‘secular saint.’3 Ernest Becker seems to agree when he concludes Nietzsche saw that “heroism was necessary and good and that nothing less than the urge to heroism would do to typify the place of man in the animal kingdom.”4

(continued next post)


1Nietzsche, Friedrich,  The Philosophy of Nietzsche. The Modern Library, New York, 1954. Page 963.

2Ibid., Page 983

3Ambrosio, Francis J., Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life. 2009, The Great Courses. Lecture 20.

4Becker, Ernest, The Birth and Death of Meaning. The Free Press, New York, 1971, page 77.



When most of us think of heroes, we are thinking of individuals who take spectacular risks, especially of death, in the performance of extraordinary acts in duty or service to others or a great cause. This includes military heroes such as Audie Murphy who personally killed or wounded 50 enemy troops in an astonishing battlefield action re-enacted in his movie To Hell and Back or Joan of Arc who turned the tide in the Hundred Years’ War. But it also includes those who engage in high risk adventures in the interests of humanity such as Charles Lindberg, the first man to fly across the Atlantic or Yuri Gagarin the first human to journey into outer space, and those who risk everything for social justice such as Martin Luther King who died in the fight for racial equality or Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani girl who survived a gunshot wound to her head after standing up to the Taliban for girls’ education.

There is a second form of supererogatory heroism, the person of great enterprise. These heroes generally do not risk danger to their person, but rather demonstrate heroic determination in achieving a grand purpose in their lifetime. Whether it is Henry Ford making the automobile available for the common man, Will and Ariel Durant compiling a multidimensional history of human civilization, or Elon Musk investing in SpaceX with the mission to revolutionize space transportation to allow life to expand to other planets, we recognize the heroic effort expended to change the world.

All these forms of heroism beyond the call of duty inspire those of us who are less bold, less courageous, or less capable, by serving as examples for us to follow in achieving our own meaningful lives.* Next we will take a closer look at heroism from a philosophical standpoint including pitfalls for the unwary.


*Two exceptional cases of supererogatory heroism that do not quite fit the above categories are worth remembering. On January 13, 1982, a Boeing 737-222 plunged into the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., killing 73 people on impact leaving only six survivors in the freezing river. A police helicopter arrived and began assisting the survivors in a risky operation. Known as the “sixth passenger,” Arland Williams survived the crash, and passed lifelines on to others rather than take one for himself, drowning before the last line came. Williams received the Coast Guard Gold Lifesaving Medal posthumously and the bridge the plane struck was later renamed the Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge.

The second involves United Airlines Flight 93 which was hijacked by four al-Qaeda terrorists as part of the September 11 attacks. It crashed into a field in Pennsylvania during an attempt by the passengers and crew to regain control. All 44 people on board were killed. The intended target was the U.S. Capitol Building. United Airlines Flight 93 was the only aircraft that did not reach the hijackers’ intended target, and only because the passengers rose up, in the face of certain death, and forced the hijackers to crash the plane in a field away from other innocents. The last words of one of the heroes, Todd Beamer, are a poignant statement of the human triumph of good over evil in the world, “Are you guys ready? Okay. Let’s roll.” A permanent Flight 93 National Memorial was dedicated on September 10, 2011.