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The Meaning of Life by Terry Eagleton

Ernest Dempsey finds out the meaning of life from Terry Eagleton.

Taking up a topic as philosophically huge as ‘the meaning of life’ is a daring task, not only because the question may sound rather pretentious in an age of techno-commercial preoccupation, but also because of the vastness and vagueness of the concepts of both ‘meaning’ and ‘life’. The vagueness makes it hard to know where to start, and the vastness clouds one’s certainty how and where to wrap it up. And yet, not inquiring into the meaning of life at all would feel like an intellectual swindle, with the associated burden of some nameless guilt – much like in Kafka’s The Trial. Taking the question up as a serious philosophical inquiry, one of the world’s leading contemporary academic critics, Terry Eagleton of the University of Lancaster, attempts to ‘pressure’ conventional wisdom on the topic.

Eagleton begins rather carefully (and, for the anxious reader, caringly) by pointing to the general public conception that the meaning-of-life question is entertained either by the crazed or the comic (he wittily hopes he’s reckoned among the former, not the latter). Then, instead of going for any off-the-peg answers, the author chooses to scrutinize the presumed clarity of the very question. Can ‘What is the meaning of life?’ be a genuine question; and how could it be misleading? Thus the discussion is channelled ineluctably into talking about the linguistic meanings of the concepts in (the) question. At the same time, Eagleton keeps a watch on the fathomless historical background to the concepts ‘meaning’ and ‘life’ and their combined signification. And one need not frown when he confines his discussion of meaning and life to the human version: the three main spheres of meaning – religion, culture and sexuality – are, after all, human.

For most of the book, Eagleton’s concern is ‘meaning’ rather than ‘life’. For him, meaning is the primary concept, since life is made sense of by its meaning, at least theoretically. Within this endeavour, the author does confront the question of the multiplicity of meanings, both on an individual level and on the level of different systems of meaning. The Meaning of Life divides the concept of meaning into three main schools of thought: premodern, modernist, and postmodernist. Each of these schools have evolved a generalized system of meaning that’s a sum of the combined influences of science, culture, semiotics and individual thought.

This is where the topic nearly slips out of Eagleton’s grip. The comparative validity of any one system of meaning over the rest is hard to endorse confidently, and thus meanings become elusive. Accordingly, E agleton’s own position does not come to rest at any one ideological platform, but moves from classical Aristotelian virtue as the baseline of a meaningful life, through Schopenhauer’s Will, Nietzsche’s will-to-power and Freudian and Marxist systems of acquiring life’s essence, to the modern era of fundamentalism and nihilism. Alongside the philosophical approaches Eagleton quotes literary masterpieces – led by the plays of Shakespeare and Beckett – which portray the human situation and create meanings, or which reshuffle existing ones. Eagleton’s treatment of the philosophical and literary treasures of humanity implies that attempts to get a single answer or hard-headed position on the question of life’s meaning are doomed: thus the elusiveness of meaning is itself the best possible answer to the question.

Yet here we stumble upon another hurdle – escapism. Isn’t ‘elusiveness’ just another term for avoiding the question? Eagleton considers the question of the meaning of life to be an ethical one: but it’s doubly hard to find the core values of life and struggle toward living them out without singling out any ideology from which to make ethical judgements. Ethics aim at bringing integration and harmony to human life, not vagueness, and so measuring one’s life against some kinds of ethical standards or values is central to the pursuit of life’s meaning. In this sense the question cannot be prevaricated. And ultimately, the author considers two core values as the defining features of a meaningful life: love and happiness. Readers are of course free to come up with their own values by which to measure their life’s meaningfulness (or meaninglessness). Yet the most precious advice that we get from The Meaning of Life is that using values, even the most positive values, as means to an end, is a dangerous road to travel if you really are setting out for the meaning of life. Rather, attaining meaningfulness requires that positive values be ends in themselves, not the road to some hidden destination. Practicing good values is the ultimate treasure, and no meaning surpasses it.

The Meaning of Life is an important work for all readers of serious issues, in that it invites discussion on one of the most difficult questions which concern everyone. At the end of the book Professor Eagleton reminds his readers that his discussion is not supposed to provide a final answer to the mega-question of life, nor does he expect any other treatise to do so. He does, however, succeed in reminding us that the question is there; that it is worth contemplating; and that engaging in the quest for meaning is an exciting adventure which itself constitutes part of the meanings of life as much as breathing is part of physical life.

© Ernest Dempsey 2010

Ernest Dempsey is a freelance writer. He has authored four books and is currently the editor of the print quarterly Recovering the Self (recoveringself.com) and an assistant editor at the Loving Healing Press of Michigan.

The Meaning of Life by Terry Eagleton, OUP, 2007, 200 pages. pb, £10.99, ISBN: 0199210705.

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