CURRENT READING – ON THE MEANING OF LIFE –  PART II

“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 PRISONER

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

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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.

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CURRENT READING – ON THE MEANING OF LIFE –  PART I (continued)

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.

RESPONSES

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.

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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.

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CURRENT READING – ON THE MEANING OF LIFE –  PART I

“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.

THE SET-UP

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)

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

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