What is the Meaning of Life? This is a notoriously difficult question to attempt to answer seriously in the English language. Indeed, it is almost always seen as a ridiculous question, and as the starting point for a joke.
Satirical author Douglas Adams came up with the answer: “42”. And the Monty Python comedy group realised that “The Meaning of Life” would be a good title for a popular film that mocks everyone whose life has meaning.
It seems that, here in England, only satirists and comedians dare to tackle, or can be bothered to tackle, the question: What is the meaning of life? When my fellow countrymen ask the question, they are not expecting a serious answer, but a funny answer. This is not usually the case outside the Anglo-Saxon world, as we will see.
I think that one of the reasons the Anglo-Saxon world is obsessively pragmatic, and generally unreflective and anti-philosophical, is because the English language is a very poor language in which to do philosophy.
If you think about it, there have been no great English abstract thinkers and visionaries in the history of Western philosophy: no Plato and no Socrates, no Thomas Aquinas and no Maimonides, no Hegel and no Descartes.
English thinkers have been great “natural philosophers” (or what we today call “scientists”) of course, and the English-speaking philosophers who have had an obvious influence on Western philosophy have tended to work on practical solutions to practical problems, be they material, mathematical, political or constitutional. Even the great English medieval thinker of the Church, William of Occam (in Surrey) was coldly logical, political, scientific and practical (hence we still refer to his methodology as “Occam’s Razor”).
Occam, with Duns Scotus (a Scot), essentially broke down the great and holistic vision of Thomas Aquinas (or Tommaso d’Aquino) and, to all intents, reduced the study and discourse of “God” to science and hard facts and ‘explanations’. They laid the foundations for what we know call the Enlightenment, in which thinkers eventually became so enamoured with progress and practical solutions to problems that it seemed pointless to waste time discussing the meaning of life.
And this is where we are today: at the arse end, or “le cul de sac”, of the Enlightenment.
In the philosophy departments of English universities today, you will find logicians and experts on all kinds of things such as ethics, medical ethics, political philosophy, the history of philosophy, transhumanism, the philosophy of science … etc. But you won’t find anyone who claims to be tackling the question: What is the meaning of life?
The mantra seems to be, “is it useful?” and never “is it meaningful?”
An Inspector Calls
The great author and playwright J.B. Priestley was one of very few 20th-century English writers who consistently sought out meaning, and who went against the mainstream obsession and uncritical belief in technological “progress”.
Priestley wrote his most celebrated play An Inspector Calls in 1945, but set the play in 1912. In the play, Arthur Birling – politician and wealthy factory owner – is full of optimism for capitalism, industry and new technology, promising a bright future, so long as businessmen and other strong men such as himself were left alone to get on with the task of Trickle Down, and allowed to stop worrying about “community” or “society”, or health and safety of people.
Birling talks enthusiastically about the Wright brothers, and the upcoming age of flight. But, of course, as soon as man learned to fly, he learned to drop bombs from the air. Dropping bombs from aircraft were crude efforts in the First World War, but a mere thirty years later, in 1945 when Priestley wrote his play, the Wright brothers’ American successors dropped nuclear bombs that destroyed two whole Japanese cities. And the USA proudly declared itself the “indispensable nation”, which essentially means, “we have the biggest and most bombs”.
Today, the bombs have got bigger and ‘better’. The science is ‘better’. The scientists and engineers have progressed. Indeed, the UK’s American Trident weapon is 1000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. And today there are more nuclear weapons, possessed by more nations, than ever in history. And so, to what are we all ‘progressing’?
What is the Meaning of Life?
Do you think there is purpose and intent in Creation? Or do you think that Creation is meaningless?
If you think that Creation is meaningless, I don’t think any of my writing will interest you. If you have made up your adult mind that – as the English philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell claimed – human being is “the result of an accidental collocation of atoms”, I cannot help you. Rather, I would point you to Monty Python, or Douglas Adams, or other people whose idea of meaning is to laugh at a world they see as meaninglessness, absurd, contingent.
But if you accept with me that Creation, i.e. the Cosmos, has innate purpose, then we can start to discuss meaning.
Let’s speak French
In Western philosophy, almost all thinkers of note have believed in linear time (chronos), and a progression of something (some have also believed in kairos, or cycles too, but not exclusively kairos). This belief has been shared by theologians and atheists alike, and all kinds of philosophers.
And because we have all accepted there is an arrow of time, i.e. of time moving in one direction, all kinds of thinkers, philosophers, scientists, politicians, theologians . . . have accepted some kind of overarching progress.
I say that we can think of the meaning of life as the journey of life, individually and corporately, and the destination of life, individually and corporately.
There is a sense, almost everywhere in Western thought and popular culture, of a destiny or goal, including a goal to evolution of life, and evolution of human being and the human mind. Even in all the crap that comes out of Hollywood, there is a consistent monomyth, as if even simple man intuits some kind of satisfactory chronological unfolding, that he likes to affirm by watching, perhaps every day, the tedious entertainment from Hollywood: the same theme reproduced a million times but which, by changing the actors and the title and the backdrop, never fails to satisfy mass-man, especially if it ends with a “violent redemption”. (Benighted men, religious and irreligious alike, generally think that violence will have the last word. And the Yanks are suckers for this kind of stuff, hence they will vote later this year for Donald Trump or Killary Clinton.)
I know there are some people who baulk at the idea that the human mind is waking up to greater awareness and purpose. For instance, some neuroscientists are now trying to tell us that we are not actually conscious at all, but that consciousness is just a kind of delusion caused by electromagnetic chatter of neurons and receptors and whatnot. This is a great irony of our times. As creature man become more conscious and aware of his place in Creation, and more and more conscious of Creation, he is now trying to deny that he is conscious at all ! The Hungarian philosopher/polymath Michael Polanyi (1891 – 1976) called this phenomenon “moral inversion”: as man starts to wake up, he wants to convince himself, and everyone else, that he is asleep.
This is a dangerous phenomenon of course: at no time has man needed to be more aware of himself, including of his moral responsibilities and the moral consequences of his actions, and yet an increasing number of people are trying to convince themselves there is no such thing as moral human being: just electromagnetic chatter.
In my recent book (the first of a trilogy of books, averaging 90,000 words, that I have completed this year), I tackle meaning-of-life questions by working from the French expression for “meaning of life”.
The French talk about le sens de la vie, meaning literally the direction of life.
Sens means “sense” too, and the translation for “common sense” is le sens commun, which of course implies the common direction, or the mainstream.
Le sens de la vie is not a case of double-meaning of the word sens. The French have other ways of explaining the significance of things without needing to use sens. Rather sens is to be taken literally. The French are contemplating the direction, individually and corporately. The French are just as likely to take the wrong or bad direction as the English, of course, but nevertheless, I find the French language, my second language, very useful in philosophy, which is why I embarked on my French-language studies many years ago, shortly after I embarked on my study of philosophy.
When we Anglo-Saxons ask about the meaning of life, we are usually asking for explanations.
When the French ask about the meaning of life, they are asking for directions, and questioning their own direction, or sharing notes about direction.
As a philosopher, I would describe myself as (Christian) theological philosopher, but I like to think that my writings appeal to people of all faiths or no faith. I am certainly interested in all faiths, including the wisdom of Indigenous peoples across the globe: wisdom that is needed now more than ever.
My first book, Manifesto for Harmony – Three Essays for Peace on Earth, is now available as an e-book (Kindle) on Amazon:
You can purchase it for £4.49 on Amazon.co.uk
Or $5.49 on Amazon.com
Or €5.49 on the European Amazon sites.
Alternatively, if you are one of my LinkedIn “connections”, and would prefer to read the book as a PDF rather than on Kindle (or if you don’t use Kindle), contact me with your email address, and I will send the PDF for no charge. (I am hoping to publish all three books on Amazon print-on-demand within a couple of months, should you prefer to read printed material.)
My Manifesto for Harmony builds on a book by HRH The Prince of Wales called Harmony. I am in contact with the Prince’s philosophical academy (the Temenos Academy), whose academic chairman, Prof. Grevel Lindop (Manchester University) has endorsed my book:
“Pickles is a polymath, a philosopher, scientist (electronics), a painter (professional) and a bit of a joker (some of the jokes are quite good). . . If you are interested in the state of the world, in big questions, in religion, politics, the environment, science, the (lamentable) human condition generally, and in where we might go from here, read his work. Frankly it is different from anything else I’ve seen, and I am intrigued. You may be too.”
Professor Grevel Lindop, Academic Chairman of the Temenos Academy (the philosophical academy of the Prince of Wales).