Of the many subjects covered in the Oxford University Press "Very Short Introductions" series, few can be as diffuse and difficult to understand as "The Meaning of Life" as explored in this 2008 volume by Terry Eagleton. Many readers believe that philosophers explore and address the question of "the meaning of life" and are frustrated when the philosophers appear to back away. The question persists in study, among many people whether religious or non-religious, and in popular culture. It is a subject for serious people and for cranks and charlatans. Although his short book shows wide philosophical reading, Eagleton is not a professional philosopher but rather the John Edward Taylor Professor of English at the University of Manchester and a Fellow of the British Academy. He has written many books on literary criticism.
Eagleton takes his subject seriously but writes in an accessible, peppery style with considerable humor and irony. The book shows erudition in its discussion of philosophers and psychologists, but Eagleton is most at home with literature. Discussions of Shakespeare, Conrad, Beckett, Joyce, Sophocles, and others abound in its pages. The philosophers discussed include Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, among others, but the emphasis among the philosophers considered is on Ludwig Wittgenstein. The short book is loosely organized. Discussion moves back in forth among the chapters from topic to topic and ranges from discussion and formulation of issue to history to consideration of the views of various writers almost in free-flow.
A book on "the meaning of life" must first discuss whether this much-raised question makes sense and if so what kind of sense. Eagleton devotes the larger part of the book to analyzing the question. As he points out, none of the words in the question are easy and it is far from obvious that the question is well-formed. The word "the" seems to presuppose a single, one-size-fits-all answer. The word notoriously slippery word "meaning" most usually applies to propositions rather than to things ( There is no sense to "What is the meaning of an apple", say)there are a variety of understandings that can be teased out of meaning. Finally, "life" is a diffuse term for purposes of the question, covering perhaps all life, all human life, an individual life, or stages in a life. Eagleton explores the difficulties but bravely pushes on.
Together with understanding and formulating the question, Eagleton also explores its history. I found the historical discussion valuable but brief. While the question about "the meaning of life" has a long history, Eagleton argues that it tended to be raised less often and with less urgency in earlier times when people were more likely to think they had a ready answer. Thus in times and places of devout religious faith in God, there would be less tendency to raise the question or to answer it immediately with theology when it was raised. For Eagleton, the question assumed its force in modern times with its breakdown of religious belief and with the development of a competing, plurality of values, none of which commands a consensus.
The question of "the meaning of life" is a question of modernism. Eagleton states: [w]hat marks modernist thought from one end to another is the belief that human existence is contingent -- that it has no ground, goal, direction, or necessity and that our species might quite easily never have emerged on the planet." Late in the book he says, [m]odernity...is the epoch in which we come to recognize that we are unable to agree even on the most vital, fundamental issues." Eagleton distinguishes modernism from its more radical successor, post-modernism, which with its sharp distrust of abstractions declines even to raise the question.
Most of the book explores the difficulties of the question and a variety of approaches to it. Eagleton moves towards accepting the question but reformulating the way to answer it. He wants to move a way from an individualistic answer to the question such as "meaning is what one makes of it in one's own life" and from a theoretical answer. He proposes instead an approach based on ethics and on the shared character of human life. He sees the question of meaning as the question of a goal, and he relies heavily on Aristotle and his concept of the good life and the Christian concept of agape as providing ways towards understanding the question.
Serious books and considerations of the question of "the meaning or life" continue to be written, perhaps at an increased pace. Before reading Eagleton's book, I read a new book by the late legal philosopher, Ronald Dworkin, "Religion without God" (2013) which explores the question eloquently in Dworkin's own terms. Eagleton offers a learned and provocative if brief "very short introduction" to a "very difficult question.
on 22 March 2012
Contrary to some reviewers, I found this book interesting and enlightening. But is suffers from serious biases concerning human beings and disturbing visions of desired futures.
The author tends to optimistic versions of human nature which are fashionable but lack convincing supportive evidence. Thus, he thinks that the "only ultimate solution to terrorism is political justice" (p. 10). Admitting later that this may not work for fanatic-fundamentalist terrorism, he explains this away stating "this may be to say no more than that the problem has now escalated beyond all feasible resolution." The grounding of extreme violence in deeply held faiths and beliefs with culturally constructed meanings of "justice" is just pushed aside.
Similarly the author seems to assume that most people would reject living in a state of virtual complete happiness because of wishing to "live our lives truthfully" (p. 84). He does not provide any shred of evidence for this view of humanity, and indeed no reliable evidence for or against this image exists. But expressions of self-doubts on such problematic statements are scarce in the book.
Towards the end, the author proceeds to a desirable vision of the future which I cannot but regards as a dystopia. A hint at his vision is provided by his warning against "hubristic projects which bring ourselves and others to grief" (p. 90). He does not specify what projects he has in mind nor does he discriminate between heroic projects advancing humanity and evil ones. What about space travel, for instance?
The impression that the author wishes for a human existence of tranquil stability is validated by the vision which he presents of human existence as a species being based on Agape in the sense of non-erotic love with each one contributing to all while expressing his individuality, with a jazz group serving "as an image of the good life" (p. 98). Added to this is a remark to religious believers that "God, too, is his own end, ground, origin, reason, and self-delight, and that only by living this way can human beings be said to share in his life" (p. 101).
This is very strange theology. Ignored are negative theology which rejects all use of adjectives about God; all religious postulates that God is beyond human understanding; and radically other views on what it means to live according to the commandments of God and fulfill the portion allocated by him to humanity, such as the Kabala views of humans participating in continuous creation.
To conclude, I hope I am doing no injustice by reaching the conclusion that the author seems to tend towards a rather boring and static view of a meaningful good life. Thus, "creativity" is not emphasized, though it may well be central to meaningful human individual and collective life. And "heroic deeds" are excluded, though they may well be an essential part of an elevated live as long as they are not evil, despite their human costs.
Professor Yehezkel Dror
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
on 3 March 2014
I picked this up on the off chance; it’s not a book that had been on my reading list, it was just a chance encounter. I have, however, been intending to catch up with some of Terry Eagleton’s writings, in particular his Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God debate which I have heard positive mumblings about.
From the outset, Eagleton acknowledges the potential difficulties in dealing with such a large subject; he also points out that he might not be the best placed person to answer it, given how he is not a professor of philosophy. However, this does not mean that he is poorly read or ignorant of a great many points of view, as any readers of this work will quickly come to realise.
Instead of trying to go through every major thinker over the last umpteen-thousand years and attempt to distil what they thought, what they got right or what they got wrong, Eagleton states that he is happy to take us on his journey with a light, sometimes frivolous touch. For a VSI, I think this was a very good approach to take, since to attempt to deal in total po-faced seriousness and with all due rigour necessary for a serious academic study would leave any author in great difficulty when trying to squeeze their summary down to 100 or so pages.
Light, though some of the tone may be, Eagleton doesn’t veer away from the darker thinkers, with his summary of the thought of Schopenhauer having the deepest impression on this particular reader. Covering, as he does, an approximate timeline from Aristotle to Julian Baggini, Eagleton does a remarkably good job. That said, those who are wanting to get a list of viewpoints will be a bit frustrated as Eagleton’s take is a bit more sophisticated than that. As a professor of English, his primary concern seems to be semantics. So most of the book is ostensibly a discussion of the word “meaning” and what they may or may not denote. It is within this discussion that he touches upon a variety of viewpoints, religious, non-religious and anti-religious.
This may frustrate some readers, particularly if you are looking for a thorough exposition of a wide variety of viewpoints; there just isn’t enough room for such a study. Rather, take it for what the series is: a very short introduction. There is a reasonable ‘further reading’ list at the back of the book, so you can explore some viewpoints in greater depth.
Eagleton presents things from his own point of view, at times, probably due to brevity, over-simplifying. For example, I noted that he speaks of ‘religion’ but he doesn’t express a particularly nuanced view, to the extent that some generalisations are a little misleading. In terms of what he set out to do, however, he has done an admirable job and I’d happily recommend this to someone who is gently looking at the question of the meaning of life, perhaps to take with them on holiday, to read whilst at the top of the mountain. On second thoughts, given some of the nihilism present therein, maybe taking it to such a peak may not be advised. Maybe read it somewhere where any temptation to follow through with the occasional bleak outlook will be lessened.
on 20 October 2009
For such a large topic in so few pages it is well-written and entertaining. It poses many of the questions regarding this topic very well and gives some good insights into the various problems posed by the seemingly simple quesion, "What is the meaning of Life?" He even quotes Douglas Adams answer of 42 and goes into why it is funny although I think most of us worked that one out ourselves. What let's the book down is that although the author is well-read (he should be as he's a professor of English) he is only well-read within European culture which makes the whole work Euro-centric leaving out all the major contributions avilable from other great cultures around the world. Add in the fact that there is a general if not overt biase towards Marxist politics and this does leave the book well short of where it could otherwise have gone. The author is also clearly not content with a review of the various possibilities and does treat us to his own "theory" at the end of the book. It isn't an unintelligent approach nor is it completely out of the question as a reasonable response. However, it has no more to credit it than any of the other ideas here, or those left out of the book completely, yet it is given as if it were some kind of summation of those ideas. All in all, if you want a pocket book to read while travelling (that's how I read it) then it is small and a good read but certainly neither comprehensive in its scope nor unbiased in its presentation.
The "Meaning of Life" is one of those age-old questions that people of all walks of life have been pondering for at least as long as we know that people have been pondering anything. There have been many approaches to this question, and the three most prominent ones have come from philosophy, theology/religion, and literature. In this very short introduction Terry Eagelton sets out to explore all those approaches to this perennial big question. Even thought his approach is not strictly speaking philosophical, the preponderance of ideas about the meaning of life have been taken from various philosophers. Eagelton is very good at problematizing the whole "What is the meaning of life?" question. At the surface it appears like any other question to which we can give an objective answer (like "How far is Bloomington from Indianapolis?"), but at closer inspection almost every single word in that question can be very ambiguous. Eagleton's approach is to explore those ambiguities, and show how they had been addressed by other thinkers and writers. The book has a feel and style of a very long polemical essay, and an overall a very enjoyable one at that. My only big objection to it is that no attempts have been made to incorporate any of the ideas about the meaning of life, human happiness and personal integrity that have come out of the modern Psychological research. It has been known for quite a while that creating a coherent narrative of one's life is an essential part of the psychological theories of self. Other than that, the book is extremely well written and despite some grim ideas and passages an overall enjoyable and worthwhile read.
on 24 September 2011
I've read several very good VSI books on philosophical topics. You'd think something like "The Meaning of Life" would be a philosophical topic, but this book is essentially a linguistic investigation of the question "What is the meaning of life?" with half the book being devoted to exploring the many senses of "meaning". Yawn. A very big yawn. I finished the book (a victory of hope of enlightenment over experience of pretentiousness) but the author's bombastic rhetoric was very tedious to wade through. If you're interested in the workings of the English language then this may be a useful diversion for you but I feel an author who was well versed in anthropology, history or comparative philosophy would have produced a more relevant read; this book is rooted firmly and parochially in western Christian thinking. There was no mention at all of Taoism, which has a lot to say about the meaning of life, and there were just two mentions of Buddhism, one being "There is no official Buddhist position on West Yorkshire waterfalls" (p79) which illustrates both the parochialism of the text and the intellectual self-indulgence of the author. I really didn't enjoy this book. It did not whet my appetite for more because, due to the limited ambition of the book, there was no more.
on 1 September 2009
Terry Eagleton writes in a very readable style conveying complex, deep issues in a way that is very accessible. Highly intelligent, clever and witty, this Very Short Introduction to arguably the biggest of all questions does an amazing job of answering it, if "answering" is the right word. Eagleton remains credible throughout, never resting on easy standpoints and never afraid to either praise or criticise different philosophies and movements for their pros and cons, and he never slips into simplistic reductionist explanations. Highly recommended!
on 16 April 2009
I tried my utmost to read this book till the end, but found my eyes would glaze over. I barely made it to the end and the experience was not pleasant.
Maybe it is the fault of trying to cram too many ideas into too small a book. These ideas lack a sufficient introduction/explanation and the experience was like attending a high level lecture in a subject I had no familiarity with. Disappointing as this was supposed to be an 'introduction'.
I didn't personally feel as if the author made much effort to clarify anything he was talking about and the text seemed to regularly bounce from subject to seemingly unrelated subject without any solid conclusion being produced.
Maybe I am being a bit harsh. If you are already well read in philosophy and the other subjects touched upon in the book, then this may well be a good summary.
on 6 October 2009
Those familiar with Eagleton's work will find nothing here that has not been covered in his other books, and will encounter the same articulate but often glib survey of modern thought, with a line up of the usual suspects - Heidegger, Freud, Marx etc. And once again you cannot escape the odd sensation of an intellect that ranges comfortably across the cultural terrain of contmporary thinking without really offering something original and incisive that engages in a truely productive or creative way with any of the ideas discussed. There is always the nagging suspicion that the author has gleaned his knowledge of these various titans of modern thought from other sources and has somehow managed to avoid the actual tedious business of reading these great bores.
And this seems to me Eagleton's great talent - the lucid reduction or distillation of obscure and impenetrable verbage into entertaining and readable prose.
Perhaps the short commings are due to the nature of the work - a brief survey rather than an a unique contribution to the subject - whatever the subject might be. But isn't this yet another 'survey' from Eagleton, which as readable and entertaining as it is, does not offer anything that has not been covered in his other works.
It is true of course that there is no answer to 'the meaning of life' but this is not the point, no one would seriously expect an answer, but what they might expect is something less glib and knowing, that avoids the self satisfied tone that reduces everything to a nudge nudge, wink wink, we know better leftist sneer. Of course Eagleton's Marxism is less evident than it once was, it seems even he has realised this was an ideology long past it's sell by date. Those unfamiliar with Eagleton's oeurve will find this a succinct introduction to his modus operandi.
I recall in one of the Star Trek films that Kirk and Bones were singing the song, `Row, Row, Row Your Boat.' Spock was puzzled at the idea presented in the simple song. He concluded, quite logically, that the song was wrong - life is not a dream. But then, what is life? What is the meaning of life? Eagleton's small text doesn't purport to give a once-and-for-all definitive answer to this question (for the shortest answer to this, perhaps one must go to `The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe' or one-syllable meditative objects of some Eastern practices). This book is part of the Very Short Introduction series by Oxford University Press, but the copy of the book that I possess is actually under a different cover (the internal text is the same).
Eagleton begins with a preface that starts, `Anyone rash enough to write a book with a title like this had better brace themselves for a postbag crammed with letters in erratic handwriting enclosing complex symbolic diagrams.' One of the difficulties, of course, is that this is an area where philosophers and theologians overlap with every armchair (and pub stool) analyst. And there may be as much validity in the workings of the later as in the former. One of the advantages that the philosopher might have over the less academic is that the structure of the questions that follow from this are perhaps more apropos. The meaning of life proceeds quickly to the question of why there is anything at all, and this gets into the realm of understanding being vs. nothingness, but then it also gets into the linguistic areas that the twentieth century in particular is noted for - Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Sartre, Freud, and others whose thinking has had profound effect on the twentieth century (even if they themselves were not twentieth century figures) are discussed. Eagleton freely allows that `philosophers seem to have been reduced to no more than white-coated technicians of language.' Of course, language is how we make meaning and interpret meaning even a la many non-verbal communicative forms, but we then get into a chicken-and-egg dance about which comes first.
Eagleton states that we often have recourse to the question of the meaning of life when things that we take for granted break down - it has been common through history that in times of crisis, religious sentiment and practice increases, as people look for something stable. And yet our very way of trying to make meaning in the modern to postmodern world is unstable. Looking at works like those of Samuel Beckett, Eagleton describes `the evaporation of stable meaning', but then goes on to look at literature, art, music, and other aspects of culture as well as philosophy to try to construct something back into existence. Love and Happiness, in the end, are key components to Eagleton's prescription for making an answer to the question of the meaning of life, and this is something that is done both individually and communally, in tension with each other.
This book is a short one - the pages are small format (large index-card sized) and there are fewer than 200 pages at that, and thus the book could be read in one or two sittings quite easily. However, this is just to take in the text; for real analysis of the questions, one will want to ponder it for a longer time. Eagleton comments in a footnote that he saw a film entitled `The Meaning of Life' (not the Monty Python one; however, he did see that one, too) at Salt Lake City, as a production by the Mormon Church, but noted that he only really remembered that the duration of the film was a mere four minutes long. In the world of philosophy texts, Eagleton's brief text might be the literary equivalent of such a brief encounter with the question, and yet if one takes the time to ponder the question, one can realise that this is but one step along the way toward understanding life in the deepest way.
This book will not have all the answers, but it can help one to formulate the questions.