The Meaning of Life

One of the threads that works its way through several of Dostoevsky’s major novels is that if there is no God then “anything is possible.” In a word, without a supreme being morality is a sham and each of us can do whatever he or she wants to do without fear of punishment — except by the state if we are caught. Nietzsche echoed these thoughts when he announced at the end of the nineteenth century that God is dead and each of us must create our own morality, “beyond good and evil.”

In Dostoevsky’s greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the atheist brother, Ivan, convinces his disciple half-brother (who isn’t very bright) that “anything is possible” and the latter murders their father. This is not what Ivan had envisioned, but it is certainly a possibility in a world in which there is no moral high ground. Ivan goes made in the end — which may be Dostoevsky’s answer to Ivan.

For centuries Westerners have sought to find the meaning of life in the word of God or a religion of some sort — even if it is in pagan gods. When Nietzsche pronounced God dead he was not far off the mark because, beginning with the age of “enlightenment” in the West, there have been fewer and fewer people in the West who seek to find meaning through religion of any sort. This was especially the case after  the First World War. As the years have passed church attendance, for example, has fallen off precipitously — except for mega-churches which are really nothing more than grand social clubs with comfortable chairs and  hot coffee and the promise of everlasting life to all who attend and pay their dues. In a word, those who seek to discover the meaning of life must look elsewhere. Many look within — or perhaps at their electronic toys. But for most, especially the young, the church is no longer the answer.

John Carroll, to whom I have referred several times in this blog, suggests that the meaning of life for modern Westerners is best found in the small things that are commonplace. By this he means that we can find meaning in our work, in sports, in friends, in our homes, in our families, in projects, in Nature. Indeed, he contends that Nature has displaced God in the Western world, though I would point out that the way we treat the earth raises some doubts on that score. But the key to finding meaning and avoiding nihilism, as he sees it, is the total involvement of the individual in the world and in others. Our guide, he contends, is our conscience. As he puts it:

“. . .all humans, unconsciously, know the true and the good, and are inwardly compelled to find what they know, through their lives and what they see. . . an instinctual knowing prevails, seeking meaningful shape in cultural forms. It does so for almost all and for most of the time. It signals that there is beauty and goodness and an order in the everyday, affirming why we are here.”

He refers to some of the interviews published by Studs Terkel years ago in which people tell what it is about their work that they love or hate. He mentions a waitress who takes special pride in the presentation of the silverware on the table, in the way she takes an order or brings the order to the table. She doesn’t just do a job, she works and takes pride in the manner she does what many would see as a menial job.

Meaning is not to be found in the self alone, which Carroll calls, simply, the “ego.” In order to find true meaning we need to become one with the world around us, immerse ourselves in what we do, doing it with total absorption and concentration and taking justifiable pride in a job well done. We need to turn our attention outwards to others and, especially, to the beauty and goodness that surrounds us.

Now some are lucky enough to have real faith and to find meaning in a God that loves them and promises them a reward for doing the right thing. But most no longer share this faith despite the fact that deep down most of us, Carroll insists, still have traces of the conscience that directs us to do the right thing. Our friend Jill reminds us each week that there are good folks out there doing good things, many of whom go unnoticed and unrewarded. They find that doing the deed in itself is reward enough. We need to listen to the small voice inside each of us and to direct our attention away from ourselves and to others and to the world we share. If there is meaning in life, that it where it will be found.


22 thoughts on “The Meaning of Life

  1. Good post, Hugh, and thanks for the mention. Your first paragraph brought a thought to my mind: If religion, or a belief in God or some other higher power, is necessary for morality, or to keep people from simply doing whatever they want, then how is it that most atheists do have a conscience? They still know right from wrong, and try to do the right thing more often than not. I just can’t equate a religion or belief in a supreme being with conscience.

    And, why is it that humans are the only creatures on earth to feel a need to believe in something more, to establish religions to control people? You don’t see wolves and tigers holding Sunday morning services, or shunning members of their community for having fur that is a slightly different colour than the rest of the pack. It seems to me that we would be better off just to try to do the right thing at least most of the time than to worry about WHY we should do the right thing. Just a few thoughts from my bouncy mind today. Happy Anniversary!!!

    • I don’t think conscience has anything to do with religion per se. It’s what Freud called the “super ego” and is the result of upbringing. What Dostoevsky means, I think, is that if there is no God then there is no reason whatever to do the right thing. Some simply do it because they were raised to do the right thing; others not so much. (They run for high political office, I gather.) But the grounds for morality no longer support anything. Then, as we know, morality becomes simply a matter of opinion.

      • But, even without a God, there is still reason to do the right thing, and that is, I believe, where conscience comes in. I don’t go around beating up people who annoy me (and there are plenty of them), not because of any belief in God, or fear of hell, but simply because I have a conscience that says, “No, that is not the right thing to do”. Because I was raised that way? Perhaps, but I have also overcome much of my upbringing, for I swore I would never be like my mother (who was often cruel and was a bigot), and I succeeded in rising above that. Why? How? My conscience, or something inside me said I wanted to be better than that, I wanted to be a kind, caring person. I don’t know the answer, but I think that quite often, from what I’m seeing these days, religion actually leads people in a different direction, one of being less tolerant, less kind. I wonder if, left to figure things out for themselves, people might not become better people than when led by religion?

      • I do think folks generally need to be led. There are exceptions of course — just as there are folks who have NO conscience whatever. But most people need to be taught rjght right from wrong. In the end I would agree that many who regard themselves as “religious” people are not good people. There is no simple answer.

  2. Prof. Curtler,

    If there is such a thing as true (or positive) freedom, as opposed to negative freedom, is there also positive, as opposed to negative, meaning of life? If so, how can one tell the difference? If not, why not?

    Having no formal training in humanities, I’ve always wondered how scholars in these fields evaluate the quality of their works and the verity of their theses.


    • I have never heard of the “negative meaning of life.” But I have heard of nihilism which is the view that nothing is worthwhile. I would assume that this would lead to despair. It also leads to social and political chaos. Dostoevsky deals with this head-on in his novel in his novel “The Possessed.”

  3. Prof. Curtler,

    It is not clear to me why meaning cannot be found in the self, as something worthwhile. Carroll seems to treat that as a sort of false meaning of life, but I don’t quite see how that is different from or worse than what he is advocating.


    • How does one find meaning in the self? I don’t see how that would work. The meaning of one’s life must be found, if it found at all, outside the self — either in God, nature, or perhaps others. It requires that we look elsewhere.

      • Prof. Curtler,

        Maybe I misunderstanding the words “self” and “meaning” in the present context. As I see it, to “find meaning in the self” is to do good to oneself, to do anything and everything that would contribute to the well-being of the self. For example, if we strive to become healthier, happier, more knowledgeable, or more virtuous, it would be worthwhile and meaningful, wouldn’t it?


    • Perhaps so. I’ve simply not heard the term used that way — and folks in our culture is far too immersed in themselves, More of the same doesn’t seem the healthy way to go.

      • Prof. Curtler,

        I can’t speak for others, but I would admit that I’m self-centred too, and one symptom of self-centredness is the inability to appreciate others’ viewpoints. I explained how I understand “meaning”, in the hope that I could better understand how you (or Carroll) use the term. Could you elaborate a little on this point? I would much appreciate it.

        I don’t see how paying attention “to goodness and beauty that surrounds us” is different from paying attention to goodness and beauty (and their opposites) in ourselves. If the former is finding true meaning, then so is the latter, I would think.


      • Prof. Curtler,

        I’m not sure if you read my comment/question immediately above. I’ve been hoping you could help me understand how you (or Carroll) use the term “meaning”, and the difference between finding meaning in ourselves vs in the world around us.

        So I’m re-posting the question, just in case you missed it. If I don’t receive a response from you this time, I’d take the hint and refrain from posting any more comments.


      • Let me take a stab at this. I person’s life has meaning if it makes sense, if it has direction and purpose. For those with a deep and abiding belief in, say, God, that person’s life has meaning. Contrast that with the person whose life is meaningless: it has no purpose or direction; it is absurd. The existentialists had a hay-day with this after the Second World War when disbelief was rampant. Folks like Sartre and Camus (who lived through the occupation) insisted that the world was absurd, it has no meaning whatever. Those who would disagree are those whose lives make sense, whose lives are meaningful. Presumably those folks are much happier, and that seems to be a corollary.
        Does this help??

      • Prof. Curtler,

        Thank you for taking the time to explain.

        You wrote, “person’s life has meaning if it makes sense, if it has direction and purpose”

        If something doesn’t make sense to us, it doesn’t follow that it is meaningless in itself. For example, the language of the barbarians didn’t make sense to the ancient Greeks, but it was certainly not meaningless — it was full of meaning to those who spoke the language.

        “Meaning”, understood in this way, seems quite subjective. Can a person bestow meaning on his/her own life, if s/he can’t make sense of it otherwise? If I understand the existentialists correctly, their answer is yes. In the same vein, a person can choose a direction or purpose for his/her own life. It doesn’t have to be grand, but only needs to be “abiding” as long as the person lives.

        If the above makes sense, then, coming back to my original question, it seems possible to find “meaning” in the self. Why must we look elsewhere?


      • Lives do not have meaning in the same sense that words have meaning. If a life is meaningless it is absurd. The existentialists such as Camus would insist that we keep on despite the fact that our lives have no meaning. We push the rock up the hill only to see it roll again to the bottom. They do not say that life has no meaning “for me.” It has no meaning whatever. Period. The believer would say it has meaning for those who know where to look and how to live.

      • Prof. Curtler,

        When you said “life has meaning if it makes sense”, I thought you were saying lives make sense in a similar way words make sense, i.e., they are comprehensible, reasonable to people (or not). The same event may be understandable to some, but not to others. In other words, life may be “absurd” to some, but not to others. That’s why I made the point that just because (some) existentialist say life has no “meaning” doesn’t ‘t make it so.

        We’ve just about eliminated all the senses of “meaning” I can think of. In what sense do you use the word?

        (I really appreciate your taking time to help me “get it”, but feel free to ignore my questions, if they are wearisome to you.)


      • I tried to make clear how I understand the phrase “the meaning of life” in the extended comment I made the other day. I’m not sure what to add to that. Sorry.

      • Prof. Curtler,

        If you were asked to provide a definition of “meaning”, as a philosopher, what would it be?


    • I would characterize it as significant or purposeful. A meaningful life is one that has direction or purpose. It contrasts with meaningless, which is to say absurd.

  4. A promising Optimism, but wholly unrealistic. It’s hard to understand how a professional Philosopher could come to such a conclusion. Perhaps it arrives as a desperate grasp of Idealism, once life has had its way, or the early hopes of mistaken belief unhinged, which our youth are so prone to eventuate, and which Education too much inspires but should dispel. Whatever, a mistaken notion..

  5. Hugh, I like Carroll’s interpretations. HIs focus “outwards” resonates. What Jill reveals in her weekly posts about people doing good deeds, is outreach is what matters. Helping others pays a psychic income to the helper, as well. To me, this is religion or spirituality or true compass at its finest. Walking the talk, so to speak.

    In Charles Duhigg’s book “Habits,” he notes Alcoholic Anonymous data reveals people with a higher purpose, be it a sense of religion, spirituality or family, tend to have better outcomes on average.

    Well said, professor. Keith

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