“If he [Man] could without effort see what the meaning of life is, and if he could fulfill his ultimate purpose without trouble he would never question the fact that life is worth living. Or if he saw at once that life had no purpose and no meaning, the question would never arise.” – Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island.
In the course of living, most humans will ask in one form or another the ultimate question: what is the meaning of life? or perhaps why am I here? This seemingly rhetorical question is in fact of vital interest to us as the answer traces the lines of perspective that converge in the focal point of life, our eventual death. Alternatively rejection of the question or of all possible answers threatens to lead us on a course towards nihilism or absurdity.
Following our preparatory work we are ready at last to systematically address the inevitable question of the significance of our existence and means to an optimal life. I will divide the subject into four parts. In the introductory section of which this post is the first, I hope to clarify the question particularly looking at alternative versions and to delineate its nuances. Then I will evaluate whether the question itself is coherent or mere nonsense. Next we will consider various contexts including that of biology and pleasure, before looking for some criteria by which to judge any answer. We need to then investigate the two magnetic poles – the role of God as a potential source of human meaning contrasted with the nihilistic view. The introductory section will conclude with a logical justification, if one exists, for the pursuit of a meaningful life.
The second section will describe the four classic proposed courses in the quest for a meaningful life: virtue, purpose, contentment, and relationship with ultimate reality. We will stop briefly to look at other possible solutions or features such as love, fame, and aesthetics. Finally we will assemble the structure of a meaningful life from the various possibilities using the simple criterion of internal consistency.
The third section will examine and critique an assortment of answers offered by other thinkers including philosophers such as Aristotle and Epicurus and non-philosophers such as Loren Eiseley and H.L. Mencken. I hope to distill from their thoughts a group of confirmatory principles for additional clarification. In the final section I will attempt to synthesize the best blueprint for a meaningful life that can be individualized by the reader.
This stage of our work will be methodical and perhaps tedious, but patience will be rewarded. Again I urge you to review the preparatory work on this site if you have not already done so as many earlier points will be reiterated or assumed during this process. Join me next time as we clarify the question itself.