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The Meaning of Life in a Very Short Introduction
on 27 September 2013
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.