The meaning of life is a philosophical question concerning the significance of life or existence in general. It can also be expressed in different forms, such as “Why are we here?”, “What is life all about?”, and “What is the purpose of existence?” It has been the subject of much philosophical, scientific, and theological speculation throughout history. There have been a large number of proposed answers to these questions from many different cultural and ideological backgrounds.
The meaning of life is in the philosophical and religious conceptions of existence, social ties, consciousness, and happiness, and borders on many other issues, such as symbolic meaning, ontology, value, purpose, ethics, good and evil, free will, the existence of one or multiple Gods, conceptions of God, the soul, and the afterlife. Scientific contributions focus primarily on describing related empirical facts about the universe, exploring the context and parameters concerning the ‘how’ of life. Science also studies and can provide recommendations for the pursuit of well-being and a related conception of morality. An alternative, humanistic approach poses the question “What is the meaning of my life?” The value of the question pertaining to the purpose of life may coincide with the achievement of ultimate reality, or a feeling of oneness, or even a feeling of sacredness.
Ancient Greek philosophy
Plato and Aristotle in The School of Athens fresco, by Raphael. Plato is pointing heavenwards to the sky, and Aristotle is gesturing to the world.
Plato was one of the earliest, most influential philosophers — mostly for idealism – a belief in the existence of universals. In the Theory of Forms, universals do not physically exist, like objects, but as heavenly forms. In The Republic, the Socrates character’s dialogue describes the Form of the Good.
In Platonism, the meaning of life is in attaining the highest form of knowledge, which is the Idea (Form) of the Good, from which all good and just things derive utility and value. Human beings are duty-bound to pursue the good.
- Aristotelian ethics
Aristotle, an apprentice of Plato, was another early and influential philosopher, who argued that ethical knowledge is not certain knowledge (such as metaphysics and epistemology), but is general knowledge. Because it is not a theoretical discipline, a person had to study and practice in order to become “good”; thus if the person were to become virtuous, he could not simply study what virtue is, he had to be virtuous, via virtuous activities. To do this, Aristotle established what is virtuous:
Every skill and every inquiry, and similarly, every action and choice of action, is thought to have some good as its object. This is why the good has rightly been defined as the object of all endeavours. Everything is done with a goal, and that goal is “good”.
- Nicomachean Ethics 1.1
Yet, if action A is done towards achieving goal B, then goal B also would have a goal, goal C, and goal C also would have a goal, and so would continue this pattern, until something stopped its infinite regression. Aristotle’s solution is the Highest Good, which is desirable for its own sake, it is its own goal. The Highest Good is not desirable for the sake of achieving some other good, and all other “goods” desirable for its sake. This involves achieving eudaemonia, usually translated as “happiness”, “well-being”, “flourishing”, and “excellence”.
What is the highest good in all matters of action? To the name, there is almost complete agreement; for uneducated and educated alike call it happiness, and make happiness identical with the good life and successful living. They disagree, however, about the meaning of happiness.
Nicomachean Ethics 1.4
In the Hellenistic period, the Cynic philosophers said that the purpose of life is living a life of Virtue that agrees with Nature. Happiness depends upon being self-sufficient and master of one’s mental attitude; suffering is the consequence of false judgments of value, which cause negative emotions and a concomitant vicious character.
The Cynical life rejects conventional desires for wealth, power, health, and fame, by being free of the possessions acquired in pursuing the conventional. As reasoning creatures, people could achieve happiness via rigorous training, by living in a way natural to human beings. The world equally belongs to everyone, so suffering is caused by false judgments of what is valuable and what is worthless per the customs and conventions of society.
Cyrenaicism, founded by Aristippus of Cyrene, was an early Socratic school that emphasized only one side of Socrates’s teachings—that happiness is one of the ends of moral action and that pleasure is the supreme good; thus a hedonistic world view, wherein bodily gratification is more intense than mental pleasure. Cyrenaics prefer immediate gratification to the long-term gain of delayed gratification; denial is unpleasant unhappiness.
Bust of Epicurus leaning against his disciple Metrodorus in the Louvre Museum.
To Epicurus, the greatest good is in seeking modest pleasures, to attain tranquillity and freedom from fear (ataraxia) via knowledge, friendship, and virtuous, temperate living; bodily pain (aponia) is absent through one’s knowledge of the workings of the world and of the limits of one’s desires. Combined, freedom from pain and freedom from fear are happiness in its highest form. Epicurus’ lauded enjoyment of simple pleasures is quasi-ascetic “abstention” from sex and the appetites:
“When we say … that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do, by some, through ignorance, prejudice or wilful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not by an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not by sexual lust, nor the enjoyment of fish, and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul.”
The Epicurean meaning of life rejects immortality and mysticism; there is a soul, but it is as mortal as the body. There is no afterlife, yet, one need not fear death, because “Death is nothing to us; for that which is dissolved, is without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us.”
Stoicism teaches that living according to reason and virtue is to be in harmony with the universe’s divine order, entailed by one’s recognition of the universal logos (reason), an essential value of all people. The meaning of life is “freedom from suffering” through apatheia – that is, being objective and having “clear judgement”, not indifference.
Stoicism’s prime directives are virtue, reason, and natural law, abided to develop personal self-control and mental fortitude as means of overcoming destructive emotions. The Stoic does not seek to extinguish emotions, only to avoid emotional troubles, by developing clear judgement and inner calm through diligently practiced logic, reflection, and concentration.
The Stoic ethical foundation is that “good lies in the state of the soul”, itself, exemplified in wisdom and self-control, thus improving one’s spiritual well-being: “Virtue consists in a will which is in agreement with Nature.” The principle applies to one’s personal relations thus: “to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy”
- Enlightenment philosophy
The Enlightenment and the colonial era both changed the nature of European philosophy and exported it worldwide. Devotion and subservience to God were largely replaced by notions of inalienable natural rights and the potentialities of reason, and universal ideals of love and compassion gave way to civic notions of freedom, equality, and citizenship. The meaning of life changed as well, focusing less on humankind’s relationship to God and more on the relationship between individuals and their society. This era is filled with theories that equate meaningful existence with the social order.
- Classical liberalism
Classical liberalism is a set of ideas that arose in the 17th and 18th centuries, out of conflicts between a growing, wealthy, propertied class and the established aristocratic and religious orders that dominated Europe. Liberalism cast humans as beings with inalienable natural rights (including the right to retain the wealth generated by one’s own work), and sought out means to balance rights across society. Broadly speaking, it considers individual liberty to be the most important goal, because only through ensured liberties are the other inherent rights protected.
There are many forms and derivations of liberalism, but their central conceptions of the meaning of life trace back to three main ideas. Early thinkers such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith saw humankind beginning in the state of nature, then finding meaning for existence through labour and property, and using social contracts to create an environment that supports those efforts.
Immanuel Kant is regarded as one of the most influential thinkers of the late Enlightenment.
Kantianism is a philosophy based on the ethical, epistemological, and metaphysical works of Immanuel Kant. Kant is known for his deontological theory where there is a single moral obligation, the “Categorical Imperative”, derived from the concept of duty. Kantians believe all actions are performed in accordance with some underlying maxim or principle, and for actions to be ethical, they must adhere to the categorical imperative.
Simply put, the test is that one must universalize the maxim (imagine that all people acted in this way) and then see if it would still be possible to perform the maxim in the world without contradiction. In Groundwork, Kant gives the example of a person who seeks to borrow money without intending to pay it back. This is a contradiction because if it were a universal action, no person would lend money anymore as he knows that he will never be paid back. The maxim of the actions, says Kant, results in a contradiction in conceivability (and thus contradicts perfect duty).
Kant also denied that the consequences of an act in any way contribute to the moral worth of that act, his reasoning being that the physical world is outside one’s full control and thus one cannot be held accountable for the events that occur in it.
The origins of utilitarianism can be traced back as far as Epicurus, but, as a school of thought, it is credited to Jeremy Bentham, who found that “nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure”, then, from that moral insight, deriving the Rule of Utility: “that the good is whatever brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people”. He defined the meaning of life as the “greatest happiness principle”.
Jeremy Bentham’s foremost proponent was James Mill, a significant philosopher in his day, and father of John Stuart Mill. The younger Mill was educated per Bentham’s principles, including transcribing and summarizing much of his father’s work, and later came up with influential work on liberty.
Nihilism suggests that life is without objective meaning.
Friedrich Nietzsche characterized nihilism as emptying the world, and especially human existence, of meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, and essential value; succinctly, nihilism is the process of “the devaluing of the highest values”. Seeing the nihilist as a natural result of the idea that God is dead, and insisting it was something to overcome, his questioning of the nihilist’s life-negating values returned meaning to the Earth.
To Martin Heidegger, nihilism is the movement whereby “being” is forgotten, and is transformed into value, in other words, the reduction of being to exchange value. Heidegger, in accordance with Nietzsche, saw in the so-called “death of God” a potential source for nihilism:
If God, as the supra-sensory ground and goal, of all reality, is dead; if the supra-sensory world of the Ideas has suffered the loss of its obligatory, and above it, its vitalizing and up-building power, then nothing more remains to which Man can cling, and by which he can orient himself.
The French philosopher Albert Camus asserts that the absurdity of the human condition is that people search for external values and meaning in a world which has none, and is indifferent to them. Camus writes of value-nihilists such as Meursault, but also of values in a nihilistic world, that people can instead strive to be “heroic nihilists”, living with dignity in the face of absurdity, living with “secular saintliness”, fraternal solidarity, and rebelling against and transcending the world’s indifference.
- 20th century philosophy
The current era has seen radical changes in both formal and popular conceptions of human nature. The knowledge disclosed by modern science has effectively rewritten the relationship of humankind to the natural world. Advances in medicine and technology have freed humans from significant limitations and ailments of previous eras; and philosophy—particularly following the linguistic turn—has altered how the relationships people have with themselves and each other are conceived. Questions about the meaning of life have also seen radical changes, from attempts to re-evaluate human existence in biological and scientific terms (as in pragmatism and logical positivism) to efforts to meta-theorize about meaning-making as a personal, individual-driven activity (existentialism, secular humanism).
Pragmatism, originated in the late-19th-century U.S., to concern itself (mostly) with truth, positing that “only in struggling with the environment” do data, and derived theories, have meaning, and that consequences, like utility and practicality, are also components of truth. Moreover, pragmatism posits that anything useful and practical is not always true, arguing that what most contributes to the most human good in the long course is true. In practice, theoretical claims must be practically verifiable, i.e. one should be able to predict and test claims, and, that, ultimately, the needs of mankind should guide human intellectual inquiry.
Pragmatic philosophers suggest that the practical, useful understanding of life is more important than searching for an impractical abstract truth about life. William James argued that truth could be made, but not sought. To a pragmatist, the meaning of life is discoverable only via experience.
Theists believe God created the universe and that God had a purpose in doing so. Many theists, including the former atheist Anthony Flew, have been persuaded that God created because of the scientific evidence for a low entropy Big Bang more than 13 billion years ago. Theists also hold the view that humans find their meaning and purpose for life in God’s purpose in creating. Theists further hold that if there were no God to give life ultimate meaning, value and purpose, then life would be absurd.
Edvard Munch’s The Scream, a representation of existential angst.
According to existentialism, each man and each woman creates the essence (meaning) of his and her life; life is not determined by a supernatural god or an earthly authority, one is free. As such, one’s ethical prime directives are action, freedom, and decision, thus, existentialism opposes rationalism and positivism. In seeking meaning to life, the existentialist looks to where people find meaning in life, in course of which using only reason as a source of meaning is insufficient; this gives rise to the emotions of anxiety and dread, felt in considering one’s free will, and the concomitant awareness of death. According to Jean-Paul Sartre, existence precedes essence; the (essence) of one’s life arises only after one comes to existence.
Søren Kierkegaard spoke about a “leap”, arguing that life is full of absurdity, and one must make his and her own values in an indifferent world. One can live meaningfully (free of despair and anxiety) in an unconditional commitment to something finite, and devotes that meaningful life to the commitment, despite the vulnerability inherent to doing so.
Arthur Schopenhauer answered: “What is the meaning of life?” by stating that one’s life reflects one’s will, and that the will (life) is an aimless, irrational, and painful drive. Salvation, deliverance, and escape from suffering are in aesthetic contemplation, sympathy for others, and asceticism.
For Friedrich Nietzsche, life is worth living only if there are goals inspiring one to live. Accordingly, he saw nihilism (“all that happens is meaningless”) as without goals. He stated that asceticism denies one’s living in the world; stated that values are not objective facts, that are rationally necessary, universally binding commitments: our evaluations are interpretations, and not reflections of the world, as it is, in itself, and, therefore, all ideations take place from a particular perspective.
“… in spite of or in defiance of the whole of existence he wills to be himself with it, to take it along, almost defying his torment. For to hope in the possibility of help, not to speak of help by virtue of the absurd, that for God all things are possible – no, that he will not do. And as for seeking help from any other – no, that he will not do for all the world; rather than seek help he would prefer to be himself – with all the tortures of hell, if so it must be.”
In absurdist philosophy, the Absurd arises out of the fundamental disharmony between the individual’s search for meaning and the apparent meaninglessness of the universe. As beings looking for meaning in a meaningless world, humans have three ways of resolving the dilemma. Kierkegaard and Camus describe the solutions in their works, The Sickness Unto Death (1849) and The Myth of Sisyphus (1942):
Suicide (or, “escaping existence”): a solution in which a person simply ends one’s own life. Both Kierkegaard and Camus dismiss the viability of this option.
Religious belief in a transcendent realm or being: a solution in which one believes in the existence of a reality that is beyond the Absurd, and, as such, has meaning. Kierkegaard stated that a belief in anything beyond the Absurd requires a non-rational but perhaps necessary religious acceptance in such an intangible and empirically improvable thing (now commonly referred to as a “leap of faith”). However, Camus regarded this solution as “philosophical suicide”.
Acceptance of the Absurd: a solution in which one accepts and even embraces the Absurd and continues to live in spite of it. Camus endorsed this solution, while Kierkegaard regarded this solution as “demoniac madness”: “He rages most of all at the thought that eternity might get it into its head to take his misery from him!”
- Secular Humanism
For secular humanism, the human species came to be by reproducing successive generations in a progression of unguided evolution as an integral expression of nature, which is self-existing. Human knowledge comes from human observation, experimentation, and rational analysis (the scientific method), and not from supernatural sources; the nature of the universe is what people discern it to be. Likewise, “values and realities” are determined “by means of intelligent inquiry” and “are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience”, that is, by critical intelligence. .”As far as we know, the total personality is [a function] of the biological organism transacting in a social and cultural context.”
People determine human purpose without supernatural influence; it is the human personality (general sense) that is the purpose of a human being’s life. Humanism seeks to develop and fulfil. “Humanism affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfilment that aspire to the greater good of humanity”.Humanism aims to promote enlightened self-interest and the common good for all people. It is based on the premises that the happiness of the individual person is inextricably linked to the well-being of all humanity, in part because humans are social animals who find meaning in personal relations and because cultural progress benefits everybody living in the culture.
The philosophical sub-genres posthumanism and transhumanism (sometimes used synonymously) are extensions of humanistic values. One should seek the advancement of humanity and of all life to the greatest degree feasible and seek to reconcile Renaissance humanism with the 21st century’s technoscientific culture. In this light, every living creature has the right to determine its personal and social “meaning of life”.
From a humanism-psychotherapeutic point of view, the question of the meaning of life could be reinterpreted as “What is the meaning of my life?” This approach emphasizes that the question is personal—and avoids focusing on cosmic or religious questions about overarching purpose. There are many therapeutic responses to this question. For example Viktor Frankl argues for “Dereflection”, which translates largely as: cease endlessly reflecting on the self; instead, engage in life. On the whole, the therapeutic response is that the question itself—what is the meaning of life?—evaporates when one is fully engaged in life. (The question then morphs into more specific worries such as “What delusions am I under?”; “What is blocking my ability to enjoy things?”; “Why do I neglect loved-ones?”:
- Logical positivism
Logical positivists ask: “What is the meaning of life?”, “What is the meaning in asking?” and “If there are no objective values, then, is life meaningless?” Ludwig Wittgenstein and the logical positivists said: “Expressed in language, the question is meaningless”; because, in life the statement the “meaning of x”, usually denotes the consequences of x, or the significance of x, or what is notable about x, etc., thus, when the meaning of life concept equals “x”, in the statement the “meaning of x”, the statement becomes recursive, and, therefore, nonsensical, or it might refer to the fact that biological life is essential to having a meaning in life.
The things (people, events) in the life of a person can have meaning (importance) as parts of a whole, but a discrete meaning of (the) life, itself, aside from those things, cannot be discerned. A person’s life has meaning (for himself, others) as the life events resulting from his achievements, legacy, family, etc., but, to say that life, itself, has meaning, is a misuse of language, since any note of significance, or of consequence, is relevant only in life (to the living), so rendering the statement erroneous. Bertrand Russell wrote that although he found that his distaste for torture was not like his distaste for broccoli, he found no satisfactory, empirical method of proving this.
When we try to be definite, as to what we mean when we say that this or that is “the Good,” we find ourselves involved in very great difficulties. Bentham’s creed, that pleasure is the Good, roused furious opposition, and was said to be a pig’s philosophy. Neither he nor his opponents could advance any argument. In a scientific question, evidence can be adduced on both sides, and, in the end, one side is seen to have the better case — or, if this does not happen, the question is left undecided. But in a question, as to whether this, or that, is the ultimate Good, there is no evidence, either way; each disputant can only appeal to his own emotions, and employ such rhetorical devices as shall rouse similar emotions in others … Questions as to “values” — that is to say, as to what is good or bad on its own account, independently of its effects — lie outside the domain of science, as the defenders of religion emphatically assert. I think that, in this, they are right, but, I draw the further conclusion, which they do not draw, that questions as to “values” lie wholly outside the domain of knowledge. That is to say, when we assert that this, or that, has “value”, we are giving expression to our own emotions, not to a fact, which would still be true if our personal feelings were different.
Postmodernist thought—broadly speaking—sees human nature as constructed by language, or by structures and institutions of human society. Unlike other forms of philosophy, postmodernism rarely seeks out a priori or innate meanings in human existence, but instead focuses on analysing or critiquing given meanings in order to rationalize or reconstruct them. Anything resembling a “meaning of life”, in postmodernist terms, can only be understood within a social and linguistic framework, and must be pursued as an escape from the power structures that are already embedded in all forms of speech and interaction. As a rule, postmodernists see awareness of the constraints of language as necessary to escaping those constraints, but different theorists take different views on the nature of this process: from radical reconstruction of meaning by individuals (as in deconstructionism) to theories in which individuals are primarily extensions of language and society, without real autonomy (as in poststructuralism). In general, postmodernism seeks meaning by looking at the underlying structures that create or impose meaning, rather than the epiphenomenal appearances of the world.
- Naturalistic pantheism
According to naturalistic pantheism, the meaning of life is to care for and look after nature and the environment.
- East Asian philosophy
Chinese philosophy dominates
The Mohist philosophers believed that the purpose of life was universal, impartial love. Mohism promoted a philosophy of impartial caring – a person should care equally for all other individuals, regardless of their actual relationship to him or her. The expression of this indiscriminate caring is what makes man a righteous being in Mohist thought. This advocacy of impartiality was a target of attack by the other Chinese philosophical schools, most notably the Confucians who believed that while love should be unconditional, it should not be indiscriminate. For example, children should hold a greater love for their parents than for random strangers.
Confucianism recognizes human nature in accordance with the need for discipline and education. Because mankind is driven by both positive and negative influences, Confucianists see a goal in achieving virtue through strong relationships and reasoning as well as minimizing the negative. This emphasis on normal living is seen in the Confucianist scholar Tu Wei-Ming’s quote, “we can realize the ultimate meaning of life in ordinary human existence.”
Further information: Legalism (Chinese philosophy)
The Legalists believed that finding the purpose of life was a meaningless effort. To the Legalists, only practical knowledge was valuable, especially as it related to the function and performance of the state.
- Religious perspectives
The religious perspectives on the meaning of life are those ideologies which explain life in terms of an implicit purpose not defined by humans.
- Western religions
- Symbols of the three main Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado mountain in Rio de Janeiro is symbolic of Christianity, illustrating the concept of seeking redemption through Jesus Christ.
To start off, Christianity has its roots in Judaism, and shares much of the latter faith’s ontology, its central beliefs derive from the teachings of Jesus Christ, as presented in the New Testament. Life’s purpose in Christianity is to seek divine salvation through the grace of God and intercession of Christ. (cf. John 11:26) The New Testament speaks of God wanting to have a relationship with humans both in this life and the life to come, which can happen only if one’s sins are forgiven (John 3:16–21; 2 Peter 3:9).
In the Christian view, humankind was made in the Image of God and perfect, but the Fall of Man caused the progeny of the first Parents to inherit Original Sin. The sacrifice of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection provide the means for transcending that impure state (Romans 6:23). The means for doing so varies between different groups of Christians, but all rely on belief in Jesus, his work on the cross and his resurrection as the fundamental starting point for a relationship with God. Faith in God is found in Ephesians 2:8–9 – “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast.” (New American Standard Bible; 1973). A recent alternative Christian theological discourse interprets Jesus as revealing that the purpose of life is to elevate our compassionate response to human suffering. Nonetheless the conventional Christian position is that people are justified by belief in the propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus’ death on the cross. The Gospel maintains that through this belief, the barrier that sin has created between man and God is destroyed, and allows God to change people and instil in them a new heart after his own will, and the ability to do it. This is what the terms “reborn” or “saved” almost always refer to.