This is part 1 of a 5-part series, “Don’t Ask about ‘the Meaning of Life’ (An argument in five blog posts)”.
Part 1. The invention of “the Meaning of Life”
As we’re used to hearing, the question of the meaning of life is a timeless philosophical concern. Rooted deep in the human heart, it has been explored by great philosophers including Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Pascal and Rousseau, Kant and Marx. It is so fundamental a question it has occupied intelligent minds from outside of formal philosophical circles by pastors and men of letters, by essayists like Montagne and Emerson, by poets like Virgil and Dante, Milton and Shakespeare. Indeed, one could hardly count as an educated person without having surveyed history’s rich variety of answers to the question of “the meaning of life.” Just to ask the question is to participate in a fundamental human quest.
That’s the common account, anyway, so familiar as to be trite. It is also entirely false. Every single claim of it, false. The question of the meaning of life is not a timeless philosophical concern. No character in a Platonic dialogue ever asks about the meaning of life, no Aristotelian treatise considers it, no homily or tract by Augustine addresses it. Aquinas never formulated a questio about it. None of the people I named – not Pascal or Rousseau, Kant or Marx, Virgil or Dante, Milton or Shakespeare, Montagne or Emerson – not one of them ever wrote about “the meaning of life.” One could study almost all of intellectual history and never come across the question of the “meaning of life.” To think of intellectual history in terms of that question is, in the best case scenario, valiantly creative revisionism; more likely, sloppy naivety. The documentary record simply does not support the idea of a fundamental human quest for “the meaning of life.”
The question of the meaning of life has a particular, and very short, recent history. It is a 19th Century invention. Before about 1850, almost nobody asked about the meaning of life, and even then it barely gained any attention. The question of the meaning of life was asked only in fits and starts through the later 19th century, until the question took hold at the beginning of the 20th Century, and it was only then that past thinkers were interpreted through the lens of this new, very late-modern question.
Even when the phrase “the meaning of life” originally entered the English language, it seems to have been as part of a joke. Apparently the first known English use of the phrase was by Thomas Carlyle, in Sartor Resartus (1834). (An earlier Unitarian tract from 1827 twice refers to “life’s meaning.”) The strange book (originally serialized) imagines a fictional philosopher, Diogenes Teufelsdröckh (whose last name means “Devil’s-filth”), author of a philosophical treatise about clothing; a fictional narrator tries to make sense of Teufelsdröckh’s work, which includes the following reflection:
‘Temptations in the Wilderness!’ exclaims Teufelsdröckh: ‘Have we not all to be tried with such? Not so easily can the old Adam, lodged in us by birth, be dispossessed. Our Life is compassed round with Necessity; yet is the meaning of life itself no other than Freedom, than Voluntary Force: thus have we a warfare; in the beginning, especially, a hard-fought battle. For the God-given mandate, Work though in Welldoing, lies mysteriously written, in Promethean, Prophetic Characters, in our hearts; and leaves us no rest, night or day, till it be deciphered and obeyed; till it burn forth, in our conduct, a visible, acted Gospel of Freedom.’ (Chapter IX, “The Everlasting Yea”.)
Freedom, necessity, interior restlessness and struggle, the self’s attempt to transcend the world – Carlyle was writing a send-up of German idealism. There are genuine, redeemable insights here to be sure, about the challenge of human freedom, insights that we will later come to associate with existentialism. But Carlyle has the narrator criticize this particular passage as an “ambitious figure,” and the philosopher’s work generally as pompous and vague, “Nothing but innuendoes, figurative crotchets: a typical Shadow, fitfully wavering, prophetico-satiric; no clear logical Picture.” If there is a timeless, universal question about human life, do we really want to trace it only back this far, and to a comic stunt, a parody of philosophy, a fictional crazy German pronouncing about “the meaning of life”?
This might seem to be pressing too hard on a narrow, pedantic, and purely linguistic point. Even if the particular phrase “the meaning of life” has a short history, that phrase could capture a common underlying idea, about the significance of the human condition. Might it be reasonable to think that there is something rather universal about the quest for this, whatever particular label we might put on it in one age or another? Perhaps. On the other hand, even if the phrase “the meaning of life” is only a novel linguistic phenomenon, it is one reflected not only in English. The emergence of a formulation for “the meaning of life” was a general Western phenomenon, occurring during the same specific period in all major European languages. We should be curious why it emerged, and what else might have accompanied its emergence. What prompted people to speak in terms of “the meaning of life,” when they had never done so before? And [a question to be addressed in a subsequent post], if people didn’t used to ask about “the meaning of life,” what question did they once ask instead, and what does it say if today we might no longer be asking that question?
Next: POST #2, THE EMERGENCE OF “THE MEANING OF LIFE”
Joshua P. Hochschild is the Monsignor Robert R. Kline Professor of Philosophy at Mt. Saint Mary’s University.