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The Meaning of Life compiled by John Gabay

Tim LeBon browses an anthology on The Meaning of Life.

At times of crisis people sometimes begin to wonder if life has any meaning at all. Some may turn to philosophy for the answer but Jonathan Gabay, after employment, health and stress problems, instead wrote to over a hundred people, many of them outstanding achievers in their field, and asked them for their answer. This excellent book is a compilation of the answers, the proceeds being donated to the Red Cross.

The format of the book is winningly simple – a selection of the answers received are listed in alphabetical order preceded by a few sentences about the contributor. To add gravitas, quotes from the great and the good of the past are intermingled with those of contemporaries, with the curious result that one can see the views on the meaning of life of ex-boxer John Conteh a few pages after Jesus Christ’s and the actress Beryl Reid’s just after Bertrand Russell’s.

Those wanting a thorough account of the philosophical questions relating to the meaning of life would be better off looking elsewhere. To give just one omission, I could find no mention of Camus or the myth of Sisyphus which many philosophers have thought illustrates the absurdity of the human condition. Neither is contemporary academic philosophy well represented. Peter Strawson, as the sole standardbearer, dissects the question with commendable logic. When we ask about the meaning of life, he says, we are either asking about the genesis of life, its consequences or its purpose. The first question is one for the natural sciences and the second is unanswerable. As for life’s purpose, Strawson thinks that personal meaning varies between individuals and societies, and that ends the matter.

It would be wrong though to suggest that the book is intellectually lightweight. The answers vary in enlightenment as much as in length (one word – creativity – to four pages – Bernard Levin), not necessarily proportionately. The main battle line is drawn between the religious and the humanists. The former tend to draw their inspiration from St John’s Gospel rather than Ecclesiastes and are characterised by their certainty that life has an absolute meaning which is to be found in an obedient and loving relationship with God. The humanists are much less sure that life has an absolute meaning but most find personal meaning in their own way, for example in happiness or a commitment to ideals. Where the two world views seem to overlap most is in their belief in the importance of love and helping others.

There is humour too, especially in the contributions of a number of cartoonists. Patrick White’s nightmare of queuing in a supermarket checkout manned by a musing philosopher makes a point philosophers would do well to note. People sometimes need a positive response to the question about the meaning of life, not only an analysis of the concepts. Where philosophers fear to tread, others have constructive answers which can be a source of inspiration for those in need. Whether or not one agrees with John Harvey-Jones that the meaning of life is “to leave the world a little better” or Danielle Aarons Meghan that “life is the art of picnics and wildflower smelling” both are pleasing images that will stay will me, as will the comedian Ronnie Barker’s affirmation that “Life is meaningless but it is wonderful.”

The book’s claim to be a snapshot from a cross-section of society a few years before the millennium may be somewhat overstated in so far as white, middle-aged and successful Englishmen are grossly overrepresented. Equally it is probably best dipped into for titbits like a bag of mixed sweets, rather than read from cover to cover. Nevertheless I know of no other book where one can find such a broad spectrum of intelligent thought-provoking ideas about the meaning of life. Most people will soon find something in it they can relate to which may even enhance the meaning of their own life.

© Tim Lebon 1999

Tim LeBon organises the London Group of the Philosophical Society of England.

The Meaning of Life – Revelations, reflections and insights from all walks of life compiled by John Gabay (ISBN 1-85227-592-8) is published by Virgin at £9.99

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