In philosophy, it is a good tradition (if it might be said so) to look for answers to very general questions, such as questions about the origin of the universe, human nature, good and evil, and so on. One of these is the question of the meaning of life.
While it is relatively new in the Anglo-American tradition, it has a “venerable pedigree” in philosophy (Metz sec. 0), and this legacy offers a variety of views on the issue. In this paper, after discussing the term “meaning of life,” a number of varying views on it will be scrutinized.
It will be shown that, because the opinions about the “meaning of life” differ significantly, it is at least hard to establish a single “meaning of life” for everybody, and a person does not need to formulate the “meaning of their life” once and for all.
The Term “Meaning of Life”
To begin the discussion on the meaning of life, it is paramount first to define what is meant when this term is employed. There are a number of ways in which this concept can be used and understood. First, one might utilize it to denote what makes the life of an individual “meaningful,” that is, what goal or goals they pursue while acting throughout the course of their life.
Another option is to use the term to refer to certain “goods that are qualitatively superior, worthy of love and devotion, and appropriately awed” (Metz sec. 1). It is also possible to consider that the notion refers to making choices that are worthy of being made, such as those which highlight the humaneness in a person, their mental qualities, in contrast to the animal nature, which only demands the satisfaction of the basic needs (supposedly).
Finally, an option is to consider the term as one that refers to the single, metaphysical purpose of human existence (Metz sec. 1). Clearly, there exist more ways to utilize the term, but these are some of the most often employed usages of it.
Aristotle and the Meaning of Life
While the “meaning of life” was not of the primal focus of Aristotle’s works, it is possible to speculate about what might be concluded from the philosopher’s ethical theory that is related to the issue. In fact, one of the foci of his theory is the pursuit of happiness by an individual throughout the course of their life (Bartlett 677), so one might conclude that happiness might be considered the meaning of one’s life if a stance close to that of Aristotle is adopted.
However, the happiness in Aristotlean ethics is achieved through the advancement of virtue, which involves not only the cultivation of physical well-being, mental health, and proper feelings but also the maintenance of the mean – the balanced, weighted path.
And yet, doing so also requires the presence of other goods, such as wealth and friends; without them, it is impossible to be balanced and happy (Kraut sec. 2). Therefore, it is possible to state that in Aristotlean ethics, there is no single, ultimate goal or purpose of a person’s existence, but, in contrast, multiple goals and aims, which need to be pursued throughout the course of life.
Kant and the Meaning of Life
It is rather well-known that Immanuel Kant developed a large-scale system that covers numerous aspects of existence. One of the elements of his system is his moral philosophy. According to the philosopher, there exists the universal moral law, called by Kant “the categorical imperative,” which is as follows: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law” (Kant 30).
Although a person is free to choose to neglect it, it is the duty of any free, rational individual to act according to the categorical imperative. While doing so, a person exercises the virtue of being able to act this way, demonstrating their nature of a rational being.
In fact, freedom is only viewed as a condition that is necessary for people’s actions to be directed by the categorical imperative (Kohl 355). Thus, it is possible to speculate that, according to the Kantian philosophy, the meaning of life is to exercise the ability to act as a rational being, following the categorical imperative (Metz sec. 3.2).
Supernatural Views on the Meaning of Life
There are also a number of views that have roots in various theories about the supernatural; these most often originate from religious teachings and doctrines. Metz states that it is effective to divide the philosophers who created the theories about the supernatural based on the monotheistic religious views into thinkers who advanced soul-centered views, and those who promoted God-centered views (sec. 2).
According to the proponents of God-centrism, there exists the ultimate meaning of life, the ultimate goal of every person is to fulfill the plan that “God” (an eternal, perfect being) created for that person.
On the other hand, according to the soul-centrists, the meaning of life is to properly relate to one’s “soul” and act in a way that would benefit it; the “soul” is an immortal substance that governs a person’s body and will continue to live after the body’s death. However, it might be hard to prescribe what plans exactly God has about a person, or what benefits the soul, let alone prove the existence of either of these (Metz sec. 2.1-2.2).
To sum up, it can be seen that various philosophers and thinkers had different views on “the meaning of life.” While it may be argued that the Aristotlean ethics might be utilized to describe the “meaning of life” as it pertains to a number of understandings of this term, namely, what makes a person’s life meaningful, or what goods are worth pursuing, and what choices should be made, Kantian approach might be shown to account for the choices that are worthy of being made; however, it is more likely that Kant should be considered a philosopher whose system should be interpreted in an absolute sense, and the need to act according to the categorical imperative is the absolute goal. Simultaneously, supernaturalist thinkers also argue for the existence of a single, universal goal.
However, the polyphony of their voices might be considered evidence demonstrating that every person establishes their own meaning of life.
One may pursue the goal of saving their soul, whereas another will argue that it is doubtful if it even exists; some will invent moral laws, or utilize the already existing ones, and try to live according to them, whereas others will state that only require some general moral guidelines, and need not look for the meaning of life; and many people will not even ask the question of the meaning of life, simply doing what they do. In any case, it appears that one needs not to limit oneself by artificially establishing the “meaning of their life” once and for all, or, much worse, impose their view on it on the others.
In other words, life does not have to be regarded as a list of things to do; it can simply be lived, and the meanings will come throughout its course, becoming more sophisticated in some cases, or remaining simpler in others.
Bartlett, Robert C. “Aristotle’s Introduction to the Problem of Happiness: On Book I of the ‘Nicomachean Ethics.” American Journal of Political Science 52.3 (2008): 677-687.
Kant, Immanuel. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. James W. Ellington. 3rd ed. 1993. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing. Print.
Kohl, Markus. “Kant on Determinism and the Categorical Imperative.” Ethics 125.2 (2015): 331-356. EBSCOhost. 2016.
Kraut, Richard. Aristotle’s Ethics. 2014.
Metz, Thaddeus. The Meaning of Life. 2013.