“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.
LETTER TO A SUICIDE
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.