Your complimentary articles
You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please
The Meaning of Life
The Meaning of Life (III)
Richard Taylor says that lives are meaningful only if they are creative.
The question, What is the meaning of life? invites either banality or sophistry. The uneducated supply the banalities with such answers as “love”, “service to others” and so on, while a philosopher is apt to say (as one actually did), “either rephrase your question or consult a dictionary.”
Yet it is a serious question and was at the very heart of the classical moral philosophy initiated by Socrates. It is strange indeed, then, that modern moralists, who owe their very subject to the ancients, should treat it with embarrassment and disdain.
The ancients were not primarily concerned with distinguishing moral right and wrong. They thought custom supplied that distinction. Instead they asked, What is human goodness? What is personal excellence or virtue? In the answer to that lies the meaning of life, that is, the whole point to living. They had a word for it – eudaimonia – but differed as to what this is. Today that word is almost always misleadingly translated as ‘happiness’, and then it is assumed that this refers to some psychological state, or even, as in J.S. Mill’s case, to feelings of pleasure. We have, in short, gotten completely off the track, and the wisdom of the ancient moralists is largely lost to us.
The question has no clear meaning as it stands, but it can be given meaning by first getting before us a clear image of meaningless existence, and then seeing what needs to be done to convert that image to one of meaningfulness.
A perfect image of meaningless existence is provided by the ancient myth of Sisyphus. Here Sisyphus is condemned to roll a rock to the top of a hill, only to see it roll back to the bottom, then to be rolled again to the top, whereupon it again rolls back to the bottom – and so on, endlessly, through all eternity.
The first thing this image suggests is heavy toil. That is, we imagine that the stone is a huge one, resulting in profound exhaustion. But that does not capture the essence of its meaninglessness. Work that is hard and onerous is not thereby rendered meaningless. Indeed, it is almost a mark of truly meaningful tasks that they are hard. Important goals are seldom reached easily. If Sisyphus’s task were to carry a pebble up the hill, requiring minimal effort, and to keep on doing this pointless thing forever, then the element of meaninglessness would be fully preserved.
Nor is the meaninglessness of this image captured by the fact that the stone never stays put. We can, for example, imagine that Sisyphus rolls a different stone to the top each time, and that each one stays there, such that the pile of stones gets endlessly larger as new ones are added. This does not help. It is still an image of meaningless existence.
What is it about this image, then, that so perfectly expresses the idea of meaninglessness, if it is not the idea of heavy toil nor endless frustration?
It is, clearly, the element of endless and pointless repetition. The same thing just happens over and over and nothing ever comes of it. A meaningless life, then, is just that – a life of perhaps simple and even easy tasks, endlessly repeated, with no significant result except more of the same.
Is that, then, an image of life as we actually find it?
It is certainly a correct description of all non-human life. The lives of all the creatures we see around us consist of nothing but endless repetition, the same behaviour day after day, and all to no purpose whatever beyond more of the same, that is, the begetting of new generations that will repeat the same meaningless cycles. The robin you see today is doing exactly what those you saw as a child were doing, and the same as those seen by our distant ancestors. The species has no history. Each generation replicates those that went before. It is an endless cycle that culminates in nothing new, just more of the same. And so it is throughout creation. This meaninglessness of life does not consist of the suffering that is so common throughout nature, nor in the harshness and often the brevity of such life. It is meaningless just because it exactly resembles the image with which we began. Is this, then, also a picture of human existence? To a very large extent it is. The lives of most people are like clockwork, endlessly repetitive. They rise, do essentially the same things today that they were doing yesterday and that they will do again tomorrow, repeating this pattern year after year until, finally, they go to their graves leaving nothing of worth behind except a new generation to repeat the cycle. This is the pattern even for many of those who amass great power or riches and thus become objects of envy in the eye of the foolish. They do essentially the same things day after day and then finally leave the world much as they found it. Their lives resemble that of Sisyphus, and it makes no difference that they do not complain of this. If we imagine Sisyphus enjoying what he is doing, perhaps as a result of a drug-induced state, then that would add no meaning to his living. It would only show that, like most mortals, he has been rendered content with a meaningless existence.
What, then, must we add to this picture to convert it to one of meaningful life?
It does not, as already noted, help to remove the element of burdensome toil, nor to suppose that it is a different rock, whether large or small, that is moved each time. The mere accumulation of worthless stones gives no meaning to anything.
But now suppose that these rocks, instead of just accumulating into a pile of rubble, are assembled there into something of grandeur and beauty – an inspiring temple, for example, on the order of the Taj Mahal, something that will inspire the generations of humankind for all time. Have we now given meaning to Sisyphus’s labours?
To some extent, to be sure, for we can no longer say that his efforts all come to nothing. But still, what we have now is consistent with supposing that Sisyphus himself knows nothing of this, that the temple is entirely the creation of others, and that Sisyphus’s role is no more than that of a beast of burden. His life has no more meaning that that of an ox driven to the same task. We have here, in short, an image of servitude, not meaningfulness.
But now suppose that he does know why he toils, that he can see the wonderous temple taking shape, and can see his own role in this great work.
This improves his lot, no doubt, but we still have not gotten to a meaningful existence, for this is still consistent with servitude. He is entirely subject to the will of others. All his masters have done for him is allow him to see what is happening to all the stones he is compelled to move. He has no role at all in this, other than that of a slave.
Now let us take what is obviously the next step, supposing that Sisyphus not only moves all these stones, but it is he who places them, according to the plan which he alone has created by thought and reason, and that the result is an awesome structure of lasting beauty. Now, at last, we have the picture of a meaningful life.
Let it not be said here that the thing Sisyphus has created is a source of deep satisfaction to him, and that, therefore, so long as people derive satisfaction from what they do then their lives are made meaningful. A man might spend his life creating a tremendous ball of string, as one actually did, or digging a hole in the ground deeper than any ever seen. People might be impressed by the energy and industry of the creators of such things, but that would not confer meaningfulness, because things like that are of no real worth. We are supposing, however, that the great temple built by Sisyphus is truly beautiful, and would be thus seen even if its origin were unknown, notwithstanding any failure of vulgarians to appreciate that worth.
The answer to our question now lies before us: A meaningful life is a creative one, and what falls short of this lacks meaning, to whatever extent. What redeems humanity is not its kings, military generals and builders of personal wealth, however much these may be celebrated and envied. It is instead the painters, composers, poets, philosophers, writers – all who, by their creative power alone, bring about things of great value, things which, but for them, would never have existed at all.
And it should be noted that human beings are the only beings that do this and that, indeed, relatively few even of these are capable of such creativity. Other creatures often produce things that are striking and even beautiful – the spider’s web, the call of certain birds, things of this kind. But these are mere products, not creations, in the sense we are considering. These beings, like most people, simply do what others of their kind do, and what was done by their ancestors. Every great poem, painting, composition or treatise, on the other hand, is unique. It is unlike anything that has ever been done, or even could be done by someone else. Many have composed sonatas, but only Beethoven could create the sonatas that he did. Had he not created them, they would never have been.
© Professor Richard Taylor 1999
Richard Taylor is renowned for his contributions to the Meaning of Life debate and is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Rochester, New York.