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What’s It All About?
by Rick Lewis
The stranger leaned towards me through the tobacco smoke. It was his leaving party – he was taking early retirement after thirty-five years in the company for which we both worked. “I feel I’ve wasted my life”, he said. Being young and impressionable, this struck me as a terrible thing. If we only have the one life then to waste it would surely be to lose everything. Would I feel the same if I stayed in the same company all my life? Why? If I left, then how could I be sure that whatever I did instead wouldn’t be a waste too? What made life a waste? I decided that my life wouldn’t have been wasted if I could look back from my old age and see that I’d spent the time well. But how could I tell now in what way I should spend my life, without the benefit of hindsight? And what if you were enthusiastic about your work and then one year before retiring you decided for whatever reason that it had all been a pointless waste of energy, would that mean that your whole life had been wasted? Or just that last year? How can you tell whether your life is going well unless you know what your life is for? How can you avoid the danger of wasting your life unless you know your life’s purpose?
People stumble into these questions of life’s meaning from all sorts of directions and for all sorts of reasons. Life’s big transitions, birth, marriage, death, prompt questions about what it’s all for. Antony Flew says Tolstoy was virtually paralysed by these questions for a while. Some people are led to change their lives drastically, even to join cults and religions. In my case, it led me to go and study philosophy. Generally speaking, though, people think about these questions for a while, and then move on to other things. Their lives change and they stop worrying so much about it.
People are often faintly embarrassed to talk about life’s meaning. Firstly, many feel that the question is somehow confused, that it is a question about something unreal, so by asking it you are revealing your naivety. Simultaneously, they feel that the question is so big and difficult that for anyone to announce that they are trying to find an answer is pompous and laughably absurd. Like a little boy with a wooden sword announcing that he is going off to fight dragons. We sophisticated grownups laugh at him because we know there are no dragons and also because if there were dragons they would be big and fierce and he’d be no match for them.
Even to talk in this way suggests that the meaning of life, if it exists, is some great and hidden secret, a philosophers’ stone. It reminds me of Foucault’s Pendulum, by Umberto Eco, in which half the characters are looking for some big, hidden conspiracy ruling the world and somehow making sense of it. But there was no conspiracy – it was all an illusion. The search for meaning in life needn’t be the search for some big, hidden metaphysical truth. It could be the simple recognition that there are things which matter to us in life, and the further recognition that there is nothing beyond this to give our lives meaning, no external factors which we are missing.
Virtually since this magazine started, I’ve been saying that one day we should run a special issue on the meaning of life. Here it finally is. We wrote to many of the world’s top philosophers and a variety of religious leaders asking them for their views. The religious leaders generally opted to keep a low profile, quoting busy schedules of soul-saving and cathedral opening. However, a heartening number of philosophers, some of them very eminent indeed, agreed to give it a go. We have published as many as we can fit in, to give the greatest possible range of opinions. Interviews with H.H. the Dalai Lama and with the renowned philosopher of religion Peter van Inwagen give two very different religious perspectives. Many thanks to the large number of readers who sent in thoughtprovoking articles on the meaning of life two years ago, when I first suggested this special issue. Several of them were very publishable, but space limitations meant that in the end we could print only one. After much agonizing we chose Dominic Kirkham’s.
I will be getting married a few days after this issue hits the news-stands. The timing seems auspicious. The philosopher David Wiggins once wrote that “philosophy has put happiness in the place that should have been occupied in moral philosophy by meaning.”, but my fiancée has brought both happiness and meaning to my life.