By Nicolas Pérez Barley, EEB4 S6 DEA
Featured image info: “The creation of Adam” in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City by Michelangelo.
Who are we? Why are we here? Were do we come from? Where do we go? The question of the meaning of life is one of the core questions of philosphy. The Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) once said that “[t]here is nothing in the world (…) that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life“. As human beings we want our existence to have a meaning and to serve a porpuse but is there even reason to think that there is one? In this article, we will present to you four different theories by different philosophers throughout history about the meaning of life.
The quest for the meaning of life is indeed as old as society itself. In ancient Greek philosophy, multiple thinkers tried to find an answer to this question, one of the most notable of which was Epicurus of Samos (341 – 270 BC). Epicurus was a follower of the ancient atomist theory. As such, one of his core beliefs was that everything in the universe was made from very small, inseparable particles, the so-called atoms. After a human´s death, his soul and body would then simply dissolve again into atoms. Therefore, since for Epicurus there was no life after death nor a supernatural power, the meaning of life was simply to enjoy life as much as possible by pursuing true happiness. In this case, “true happiness” refers to inner peace, a balance with oneself, and mental pleasures, such as being with friends, more than to bodily pleasures, such as food or sex. Loyal to his own philosophy until the end, Epicurus spend is last days in great pleasure with his loved ones, despite the pain that his illness inflicted upon his body.
Searching for the meaning of life was not limited to Western Philosophy. On the contrary, it has been a fundamental question for philosophers around the world, including one of the earliest eastern civilisations: Japan. For centuries, the meaning of life has been referred to with the Japanese term “ikigai”, which consists of the words for life and value. Ikigai does not give one single meaning of life, but it instead offers a way for everyone to achieve happiness and fulfilment while at the same time being a productive member of society, by searching for the connection between four fundamental aspects of a purpose: you should love to do it, be good at it, it should be useful to the world and you should be able to earn money from it. Ikigai is supposed to offer everyone motivation for getting out of their beds every day. In western societies, money or the income generated is often seen as an important part of ones ikigai, while it is generally seen as not very important in Japan itself, instead, the part “what the world needs” is seen as the most important one in Japanese culture. This leads to many people trying to find lifelong purpose, meaning that they often don´t retire and instead continue to try to be useful to their communities for as long as possible. Due to the reduced stress and increased satisfaction that many people achieve by finding their ikigai, this system has often been named as a cause for the famous longevity of the Japanese people.
One of the most influential and important philosophers of modern times is undoubtedly the German Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900). Nietzsche is often wrongly seen as a nihilist, meaning as someone who does not believe that there is any meaning in life. However, Nietzsche opposed the rules, laws, and obligations that society imposes upon its people. For him, these are all just social constructs that stop each individual from living a truly free live and defining own goals and values. The person that manages to overcome the barriers of the social construct and live life by their own definitions are what he calls the “Übermensch” (German for Superman, literally the “overman”). Nietzsche names several notable figures in history as examples for people that came close to be a Übermensch, such as Napoleon, Jesus, Caesar, and Buddha. However, he never gave an explicit definition of the Übermensch and implied that nobody has reached this level of individualism so far. According to Nietzsche, the meaning of life is to become the master of one’s own fate.
But what if there is no meaning in life at all? Is life still worth living then? In his work “The Myth of Sisyphus”, French philosopher Albert Camus (1913 – 1960) uses a myth from ancient Greece as a metaphor for the absurdity of life. In the myth, the gods punish Sisyphus by condemning him to roll a heavy rock up a large mountain, just so it can roll back once he reaches the top. For Camus, this story offers an excellent illustration of how meaningless our every-day lives are. No matter what we achieve, ultimately it will all vanish, and we and our stories will be forgotten. Yet, despite all of this, Camus does not believe that this makes our lives not worth living. He says that instead of being frustrated and paralysed by the meaningless of our actions, we should recognize the meaningless and absurdity, while similarly overcoming it and finding fulfilment in our lives, as absurd as they may be. Camus says that instead of envisioning a tortured Sisyphus, we should imagine him as being happy.
Note: There are many more philosophers, religions, and schools of thought that tried to explore the meaning of life. Naturally, not all of them could be mentioned in this article and the ones mentioned had to be oversimplified.