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On the Meaning of Life

Ray Long & Richard R. Smith, Inc; New York: 1932

Will Durant

The problem is set forth in a dark/despondent way, considering what religion contributed, science, history, utopia, how the intellect committed suicide, and some final words.

Durant wrote a letter, sent it to some prominent people on the earth at that time, looking for some answers to their perspective on the meaning of life. He painted as dark a perspective of his own to set forth what he thought was the problem in a worse-case scenario. With the time of the enlightenment and with the advance of science, “[t]he growth and spread of knowledge, for which so many idealists and reformers prayed, has resulted in disillusionment which has almost broke the spirit of our race” (4). He wrote these words after the First War and during the time of the Depression, when it started to grip man. The old morality is breaking down and man’s desire to discover truth was a great mistake. “God, who was the consolation of our brief life, and our refuge in bereavement and suffering, has apparently vanished from the scene” (5).

In the next 20 pages, Durant notes the destructive contributions of man’s advancement. Religion, man’s one contribution to hope, when it begins to weaken, life in the spiritual realm turns into life in the biological realm, the heart is (or becomes) empty. What does science do to overcome this? Four contributions of science are (as I enumerated them): 1) science unfolds a picture of universal struggle and death, 2) it points aimlessly to circularity and repetition of life, 3) man comes to understand that he is but a specie, a passing experiment of Nature, 4) man is not the center and summit of the universe (8-14). What contribution from history was made to answering this question? Durant mentions Aristotle, saying “[a]ll things, said Aristotle have been discovered and forgotten many times over…” What changes might appear is only on the surface, for like the sea, as one enters into the depth, the sea is calm, changeless (15). (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:9-11, written some 600 years before Aristotle). With all the progress of the 18th, 19th and early 20th century, looking for the world of Utopia, all that which is promised comes to nothing, and the only foundation left is character, moral character; already, however, that has been undermined, so what is left (17-20)? With the intellect, “[t]he greatest question of our time is not communism vs. individualism, not Europe vs. America, not even East vs. the West; it is whether men can bear to live without God” (23).

Solomon wrote so many years before Durant and Aristotle: “I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 3:18-19, ESV).

The fascinating thing about this book, among others, was in the replies given. The people who took time to address the inquiry made by Durant were people of some significant accomplishments. They were not economically “poor wretched souls” trying to find the next meal, they were not people of some educational failings, but whatever their education (formal or informal), they were influential in society.

L. Mencken (journalist, satirist, cultural critic and scholar of American English, pessimist and agnostic): replied in materialistic terms. He was born a writer, and he had no choice in the matter. “There is very little conscious volition in all this. What I do was ordained by the inscrutable fates, not chosen by me” (31). His opinion of life is that it has no meaning at all (35). He rejected Christianity because he saw God as “a most stupid, cruel and villainous fellow” (34). Those who believe in immortality have “puerile [childish, silly, trivial] egos” and are “inferior men” (35). What he found to be the most pleasurable thing on earth is music. “It has given me more pleasure in life than any other external thing. I love it more every year” (33).

Sinclair Lewis (novelist, playwright, Nobel Prize winner in Literature, died 1951): Life has value and meaning, but it does not need religion to make it that way. Ethic, morality is a matter of social convenience (37). Life’s meaning comes from living/functioning healthily (some he did not do), physical and metal exercise.

John Erskine (educator, author, pianist, composer; his work was the inspiration for The Great Books for the Western World): he had a more cheerful outlook, but chose to accept the fact that man has both a material and non-material aspect to him; otherwise, the meaning of life, he had no answer to that. “I believe the divine element in man is whatever it is which make us wish to lead a life worth remembering, harmless to others, helpful to them, and increasing our own store of wisdom and peace” (41).

Charles Beard (historian; 1874-1948): the question posed to him is difficult, perhaps impossible to answer (41). The “good life” he wanted to know what it is (was), but he could offer nothing except what he thought. There is value in working, there is value in the human spirit meandering in the world of tragedy, but the good life seemed to be associated with technology. “A knowledge of the good life is our certain philosophic heritage, and technology has given us a poser over nature which enable us to provide the conditions of the good life for all the earth’s multitude” (43).

John Cowper Powys (British Philosopher; 1872-1963): the good life is found in the individual. “The collapse of organized supernaturalism and the absence, from the organized polities of the world, of any essential social liberty or culture, throws the individual back upon himself. For himself and in himself he can re-discover the secrets of faith, of hope, of happiness” (44). In addition he said, “all cruelty is evil” and “all lives are holy and sacred” (46), but he did not say why this is the case.

Edwin Arlington Robinson (pp. 47-49; American Poet; 1864-1935): Knowledge of truth is unknown, but a materialist has a “belief in futility,” but as far as he knows this futility, this absurdity may be factual or truth.

Andre Maurois (pp. 50-58; French Author of novels, histories, children books, science fiction; 1885-1967). The meaning of life needs to be understood in the life lived, not in something outside of life as in whether or not the soul is immortal. He asked a question, but in his question, he affirmed a position: “Shall we not confess, at last, that every proposition that goes beyond human experience is uncertain?”

Will Rogers (pp. 58-62; 1879-1935; actor, humorist, social commentator). His answer to Durant’s inquiry was “Believe in something for another World, but don’t be too set on what it is, and then you won’t start out that life with a disappointment. Live your life so that whatever you lose, you are ahead” (62).

Charles Mayo. (1865-1939; Medical Doctor). Doctor Mayo gave no answer to the inquiry but did identify people as “human insects” (p. 62).

Ossip Gabrilowitsch (pp. 63-65; 1878-1936, a Russian born American pianist). “I am unable to discern any plan leading to a higher fruition here or elsewhere.” He expressed a pessimistic philosophy, a philosophy based on his own observations in an unbiased form. He believed in fate and the “hand of Destiny,” finding his personal happiness in art and family.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson (pp. 66-67; 1879-1962; Canadian Artic explorer, ethnologist). He is unable to identify the meaning of life, but he rejects the other side that life has no meaning. The meaning of life, in his case, was in relation to food, which he called fuel, and how one felt after being fueled up (if you will).

Carl Laemmle (pp 70-73; 1867-1939; Film Producer). He recognized the potential influence of religion in his life but was not particularly religious. The thing that kept him going was work. “But the thing that keeps me going is the work itself and the sense of achievement.” He chose to be an optimist with a goal in life, one of which was taking care of his family. He was not convinced “truth will make one free”, but it was not the words of Jesus to which he referenced, but the idea.

Ernest Hopkins (pp. 73-76; 1877-1964; President of Dartmouth College (1911-1945)). He is the first of those who replied to give substance to religion, and nothing to the value of philosophy divorced of life’s daily activities. “The incapacity of philosophy to reign and rule seems to me to have been its obliviousness to human experience. It has therein failed to check the validity of its intellectual process” (75). Religion brings great value, but I have not been able to conclude from what he said just how religion brings substance; I do see, however, his thinking on philosophy (well informed) is that it is of lesser value.

Adolph S. Ochs (pp. 76-77; 1858-1935, American Newspaper Publisher, former owner of NY Times; Jewish). God played a significant role in his Jewish upbringing, and thus it gave him “sound moral principles” wherein he lived, worked and help others conscientiously.

Jawaharlal Nehru (pp. 78-81; 1889-1964; a student of Gandhi; Prime Minister of India). Though not used, he makes use of the sentiment of Solomon. “For your argument leads to the inevitable that all of life is futile and all human endeavor is useless” (78). He sees the difficulty of the inquiry posed to him, but he is unable to give an adequate answer. His own philosophy of life was as a socialist who knew there was more to life than mere logic and science. “I have believed in science and logic and reason, and I believe in them still, but at times they seem to lack something and life seems to be governed by other and stronger forces…” (80). Religion and metaphysics had little appeal to him, but action in life was his motivation to do: “But because I hope and believe that something can be done to better it [life], I continue to act” (81).

V. Raman (pp. 82-83; 1888-1970; Indian physicist, having won Nobel Prize for Physics). A short letter, but his religious sensibilities show forth. “…but the teachings of Buddha or Christ, if not taken too literally, have value which I recognize and which I believe time cannot diminish” (82-83). Life is not self-indulgent, but happiness is in self-control.

Mohandas Gandhi (pp. 83-84; 1869-1948). Gandhi’s reply was in bullet points, which included service to others; he looked on life as a gift from the divine, with religion and morality being synonymous terms.

John Haynes Holmes (pp. 85-87; 1879-1964; Preacher at the Community Church in New York (Unitarian); co-founder of NAACP and ACLU). Not once in his letter did he mention Jesus; he did mention a response to what he sees in life as wrong, unjust but he never said how he measured something to be wrong or unjust. If I have understood him correctly, it was like he looked at the grandeur of what good be and allowed this to motivate him toward that end to make a “what could be” to a “what is.”

Ernest Dimnet (pp. 88-93; 1866-1954; French priest, author of “The Art of Thinking”). He wrote as a teacher to a wayward student (Durant) about why and how he wondered off the path his parents set forth him with a religious way of thinking; Durant, Dimnet said, put too much faith in science; “Your scientific certainties bred pessimism; more distrust [of science] would have saved some hope and there is no hope without an admixture of faith” (93).

Mary E. Woolley (pp. 94-96; 1863-1947; President of Mt. Holyoke College; peace activists). She spoke more about Jesus than all the early contributors Durant included. “I think that if it were not for that [religion] I could not go on for I am more conscience of the suffering of the world, more troubled by it. I cannot quite understand how a human being can face life without a belief in a Supreme Power, a personality with communion can be a real thing. My creed is a simple one, with little theology embodied in it. Jesus Christ is to me the supreme revelation of Love and so of God, and His life an inspiration showing how a human life may be lived in kind if not in degree” (95).

Gina Lombroso (pp. 96-97; 1872-1944; Italian physician). “Love which ties us one to another, while living, which ties us to those that have left us, to our posterity” (97). In other words, though not mention of the Divine or religion, in her mind, the tie that binds is love. Love is the reason of life.

Helen Wills Moody (pp. 97-105; 1905-1998; Top professional tennis player). As a 25-year old answering, she considered herself uninformed to answer such an inquiry, but restless to seek perfection in some areas of life. Religion was to her crucial in giving peace, but the form of religion she loathed. The idea of forbiddance was not at all compatible with her disposition of seeking, learning and doing.

Bertrand Russell (p. 106; 1872-1970, philosopher, logician, mathematician). I marveled at his self-defeating reply to Durant. “I am sorry to say that at the moment I am so busy as to be convinced that life has no meaning whatever…I do not see that we can judge what would be the result of the discovery of truth, since none has hitherto been discovered.”

George Bernard Shaw (p. 107; 1856-1950; Irish Playwright). “How the devil do I know? Has the question itself any meaning?”

 

LETTERS TO A SUICIDE (pp. 111-134). This is an attempt of an atheistic or agnostic philosopher reasoning with one contemplating suicide, why it would be a mistake to take one’s life. Though the philosopher can’t give an answer to the meaning of life, he suspects there is one just the same. Though the philosopher thinks the mechanical philosophy of life is hopeless, he believes the lives of people are more than just machines. He does not believe man has an immortal soul, but that is no good reason to despair of life and commit suicide (pp. 114-5), especially if one dies because of a philosophical perspective, such a materialism. In an ever-so-brief scan of man’s tendency, the greatest disappoint to the philosopher is man’s moral fiber deteriorating (120), something he recognizes exist because of “the decay of supernatural belief,” but he is unable to offer anything better (122-3). Durant tries to give life meaning, but he knows that apart from the natural realm he can’t do it (127); so, from within the natural realm he tackles the idea. “The simplest meaning of life, then, is joy – the exhilaration of experience itself, of physical well-being” (124). “For to give life a meaning one must have a purpose larger than one’s self, and more enduring than one’s life” (127). In the following pages (128-133) he writes his own confession to what he thinks is the meaning of life and why. First, he rejects the idea of God, though he was raised with the teachings of Christianity. It’s interesting how he reflects of the pleasantries of that teaching and their meaningfulness, but at the time of his writing he had come to reject them. Second, he says meaning is in contributing to something outside oneself (128), but he is not able to say why this should be one’s personal philosophy; nonetheless, it does give meaning even if only temporary. He subscribes to because it benefits someone else. He brings his letter to suicide to a close (133-134), a letter that attempts to dissuade someone from suicide. He can’t say there is any meaning to life, but even still, the optimist in him says life is worth living. To the suicide contemplator, he said, engage in productive work and have a family that takes the mind off self.

 

APPENDIX: A letter from a Convict (pp. 137-144).  From prison came an exceptionally well-written letter. The incarcerated man’s name was Owen C. Middleton. Durant’s letter was given to him and he replied. He answered the meaning of life is nothing more than what a person makes of it. “…life is worth just what I am willing to strive to make it worth” (138). He was an educated man, but his philosophy was more material than not. In his well-thought-out reply, he spoke of truth in a very significant way. “Truth is not beautiful, neither is it ugly. Why should it be either? Truth is truth, just as figures are figures” (139). Figures are facts of one’s business venture, whether good or bad. Based on those figures, one decides to do this or that. Truth is similar. In the end, the incarcerated man, thoughtful as he was, offered nothing different than those earlier replies Durant received.

 

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MAKING SENSE OF IT: There is no meaning to life without there being meaning in life; but meaning in life is generated from one of two sources. It is either something generated from within, or it is something generated from without. In my estimate, Solomon sought to determine meaning to life from the source within (“under the sun”), but he could make no sense of it. He determined that meaning in life can only be understood when there is recognition that life comes from God, and only this way can one make sense of the perplexities of life that man has contributed to and corrupted so badly; and even then, he can hardly make sense of it. Nevertheless, the recognition that life came from God is important, but it is only the foundation from which one builds his/her life; the follow-up is to obey the “giver-of-life,” or God.

Though Will Durant did not believe God existed, he penned words that express a profound truth: “The greatest question of our time is not communism vs. individualism, not Europe vs. America, not even East vs. West; it is whether men can bear to live without God” (23).

Many people (most people) assign meaning to life, but they are not sure if the meaning individually assigned is correct, and British philosopher John Powys saw this clearly in his reply to Will Durant’s inquiry. In the meantime, a person does the best one can. In the end, however, one perhaps wonders why he/she even existed in the first place! What is my place in the world? Why was I born at this time and in this place? What did I do to make the world better? Why did I use this standard of right/wrong rather than that standard of right/wrong? Will anyone remember me? What is my legacy? On and one and on questions are asked. Without clarity of knowledge and understanding, the last remaining bit of hope is taken away when life is over because the individually assigned meaning is vanity.

Man cannot make sense of this which he does not understand. What he understands about evil can only be measured by a standard of good that is greater than himself and the cumulative wisdom of man; the only standard like that (of good) belongs to Him who is the Author of what is good. When man rejects the Author of what is good, he fails to understand. Try as he might, he can’t. Solomon illustrates this as well as anyone can…under the sun!