What “the meaning of life” replaced

Aristophanes & Sophocles. Photo by rai_19 on Flickr.

This is part 3 of a 5-part series, “Don’t Ask about ‘the Meaning of Life’ (An argument in five blog posts)”.

Part 3. What “the meaning of life” replaced.


In the previous two posts, we traced the circumstances of the emergence of the question of “the meaning of life,” which, far from being a timeless question rooted deep in the human heart, is a late 19th Century invention in a particular European intellectual context.


What then did people wonder about before they wondered about the meaning of life?  This is not a difficult to discover.  The question about human life asked for most of Western history, up into the 20th Century, is not about the meaning of life, but about the goal, good, or end of life.  The question was most commonly formulated in terms of “the end of man” or “man’s chief good” (where “man” is obviously the gender-neutral term for the human species).  The Greeks called it the “telos,” Latins the summum bonum or ultimus finis.  We may call it the question of human purpose – where by “purpose” we don’t mean an individual agent’s intention or conscious sense of purpose, nor a personal vocation or path to fulfill, but the intrinsic, essential why of the species.  What are human beings for?  What is the ultimate point of our existence?


This is the question that dominates the center and largest of the three parts of Thomas’ Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae – Question 1 of the First Part of the Second Part is “On Man’s Last End,” and the following several hundred questions examine all that is entailed in answering that question.  The question of man’s purpose or end is addressed in Augustine’s City of God and Confessions.  It is the question that motivates Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.  Many of Plato’s dialogues consider the human good or end explicitly (e.g. Republic and Philebus), and those that don’t can easily be read as relating their subjects – virtues, laws, speech, knowledge, pleasure, friendship, love and death – to that question.


The tone could be said to be set by Greek drama.  Could we imagine trying to interpret Sophocles’ Antigone as a meditation on the meaning of life?  Hardly.  It is clearly and forcefully about the end or good of man.  Even the great Western stories about a particular character finding his personal path – Illiad and Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy – only make sense as reflections on how an individual’s destiny makes sense as a the pursuit of the human good.  It would seem to trivialize these epic stories to force them into the paradigm of exploring “the meaning of life.”


Into the 19th Century, even as the new question of the meaning of life was beginning to be formulated, the question of an intrinsic human purpose remained dominant in secular and religious contexts.  When Thoreau set out “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” he did so explicitly questioning the catechism’s answer to “the chief end of man,” but still in pursuit of his own, alternative answer.  We do not find Marx speaking of “the meaning of life,” though he did formulate his materialistic anthropology in terms of “the purpose of life.”  Herbert Spencer, even while articulating a utilitarian ethics grounded in positivism, still speaks of human nature and human purpose; the question of life having “meaning” does not arise for him.


The purpose of life was, quite explicitly, the primary pedagogical question of Catholic instruction.  Major 19th Century Catholic thinkers, like John Henry Newman and Orestes Brownson, never asked about “the meaning of life,” but frequently spoke of “the end of man” or “the chief good of man.”  And of course the 1885 Baltimore Catechism’s very first lesson – the starting point from which it proceeded to instruct in the essentials of the faith – was entitled, “The End of Man” – a phrase further glossed by the catechism as “the purpose for which he was created.”



Joshua P. Hochschild is the Monsignor Robert R. Kline Professor of Philosophy at Mt. Saint Mary’s University.