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The Meaning of Life and the Great PhilosophersReview - The Meaning of Life and the Great Philosophers
by Stephen Leach and James Tartaglia (Editors)
Routledge, 2018
Review by Kamuran Elbeyoğlu
Jan 8th 2019 (Volume 23, Issue 2)

The meaning of life is an everlasting question searched by great many people throughout human history. The same question has been in the agenda of philosophers since Ancient times, since it is mainly a philosophical question, strongly tied to the conception of what a good life consists of. But as the editors of this enlightening collection of essays acknowledge, this topic is typically discussed amid so many other concerns, and under such a wide range of different terminologies, that it can sometimes be far from obvious that a particular philosopher’s view in the area amount to. Stephen Leach and James Tartaglia, in order to find out more about what great philosophers from Ancient times to today have told about the meaning of life, chose thirty-five philosophers from Confucius to Rorty in their selection of philosophers, who imaginatively engage with the topic from their own perspective. Each chapter was written by leading experts such as John Cottingham, A.C. Grayling, Thaddeus Metz, Stephen Leach to mention just a few, who reveal views in the area which have been covered over or overlooked and also to scrutinize old arguments which still hold sway.

The first three chapters cover Eastern philosophers, Confucius, the Buddha and Vyäsa, whose teachings and preoccupation with the meaning of life, contrary to Ancient Greek philosophers, bear a deeply practical orientation as to provide values to pursue an ethical lifestyle. Richard Kim and J.W.  Seachris on Confucius, conclude that Confucius has a contribution to make to our understanding of meaning in life, directing us toward neglected values such as family and rituals as a way to lead an internally fulfilling and consequently happy lives. According to Mark Siderits, Buddha’s response to the question of the meaning of life is to deny that there is an enduring self to suffer after death. Foe Buddha, one overcomes the problem of suffering by realizing that there is no I for whom the question of the meaning of life can arise. Vyäsa, on the other hand, recommends that because life is made up of actions, our public communicative actions must turn into a sacrifice of our ego-centric biases, which is possible only through dialogue and discourse. Arindan Chakrabarti concludes that the hearth of Vyäsa’s life affirming message is: Live to give”. Life is the sacrifice of all dualities. Seventh chapter is also on Chinese thinker Zhuangzi, written by David Cooper. Zhuangzi advances a conception of the good life, of what it is to be a fine or consummate perso, a sage, who manifests what is authentically human in accordance with the Way, that gives human beings, like everything else, their inborn nature.

Chapters four, five, six, eight and nine and eleven are on Greek thinkers. A.C. Grayling, who wrote on Socrates, says that the point about the examined life is not so explicitly textually based, but as an implication of Socrates’ insistent and utterly central practice, and accordingly as the task he saw himself as bound to—namely, to be a gadfly, goading people into thinking about what they meant by the ideas they lived by, and what therefore, what they should do and be—it is the quintessential Socratic legacy to ethics. The meaning of life for Plato, written by David Skrbina, is necessarily a question not only of morality but also of knowledge and of the nature of ultimate reality. In order to live a virtuous and hence meaningful life, one first must know what virtue is. Will Desmond, who writes on Diogenes, says that Diogenes offer a Cynic conception to the meaning of life by abandoning home and possessions to wander city streets, to harden himself to the simple pleasures of the moment, and to bark at others for their slavery to convention. Monte R. Johnson claims that Aristotle is the first philosopher on record to subject the meaning of life to systematic philosophical examination. From an Aristotelian perspective asking about the meaning of life is on the one hand, asking a theoretical question about the definition of the term life, and on the other hand, asking a practical question about the final end or the purpose of life. For Aristotle answering the theoretical question is central to answering the practical question of how to live a meaningful life. Catherine Wilson on Epicuros, concludes that for Epicuros there is no pleasure greater than that we experience being spared some disaster. So, according to Epicuros, the answer to the meaning of life or how we should live is simply and straightforwardly to live prudently and harmlessly. And finally, the last chapter on Greek philosophers is on Epictetos by A. A. Long. The Stoic term that corresponds most likely to meaning of life is telos, to be translated by purpose, end or goal.

Chapters ten to fifteen is on Medieval philosophers. Koheleth written by Thaddeus Metz, is the first Hebrew thinker whose book Ecclesiates has been considered as the clearest instance of what one could call Biblical existentialism. According to Koheleth, even though everything is futile, that means life cannot have a point or be significant, there is still a way to have a pleasant life. Happiness is one thing, meaningfulness is another. Svavar H. Svavarsson, who writes on Sextus Empiricus, says that as a sceptic, he claimed no knowledge and no beliefs, and consequently he would not assert anything about the meaning of life, or whether any such meaning exists. Yet, he believes that by giving up belief, people can attain tranquility, or more accurately the absence of anxiety. In Avicenna’s tthought, written by Nader El-Bizri, the ontological reflections on the question of being establishes the basis for the philosophical consideration of the meaning of life. The Avicennian rational soul that is distinct from the body, despite being individuated by it, is immortal and survives the bodily death, and returns to its source via the way in which the intellect guides meditations in this ontic life to reveal how best to return to the One. Maimonides, written by Alfred Ivry, is the founder of rabbinic Judaism by giving a Talmudic interpretation to Biblical law. As people differ in their understanding the nature of divinity, Maimonides suggests that there are many diverse ways of living meaningfully as there are many lives within a community. But still, he finds meaning in life to the degree that he exercises his intellect to reach, through scientific understanding of nature and the cosmos, an appreciation of the divine providence that pervades the world. Edward Feser on Aquinas asserts that Aquinas has a thoroughly worked out view about the meaning of life. For Aristotelians like Aquinas, the intrinsic teleology of a natural object entails an objective standard of goodness and badness for the object. The meaning of life lies on the fact that humans as rational beings can chose whether to pursue the ends toward which their nature directs them.

The rest of the chapters are on the modern philosophers. Stephen Leach on Montaigne, claims that for Montaigne our ephemeral nature is a condition of our happiness in life. Because life is absurd, all we can do is to appreciate the absurdity of our existence. John Cottingham claims that Descartes has never said a word on the meaning of life. But we can infer that Descartes believes that human beings, through the gift of reason, can still orient their lives towards an objective source of meaning and value and thus achieve fulfilling and meaningful lives. According to Genevieve Lloyd, Spinoza’s philosophy seems to provide an answer to the nature of the good human life. Spinoza claims that a good life, in its highest form, involves a mind coming to understand itself as an eternal idea in the mind of God. Terry Godlove says that even though the question of the meaningfulness of life does not explicitly arise for Kant, much of his writing and thinking about ethics, knowledge and religion is relevant to it. For Kant, the meaning of life is the pursuit of the highest good coming from categorical imperative. Robert Wicks asserts that Schopenhauer approaches the question of the meaning of life by asking whether life is worth living in view of the objective worth of reality itself. And Schopenhauer finds the world to be essentially meaningless, fundamentally vicious, and morally objectionable. According to Kierkegaard, written by Mark Bernier, meaning in life resides in accepting oneself as the task; but one can only secure meaning through a proper relation to God.

Amy Wendling claims that Marx’s work has important implications for understanding human suffering and so for the meaning of life. According to Frans Svensson, who writes on Mill, Mill believes that happiness constitutes the source of all normative reasons, and the satisfaction of the craving for higher things is crucial for a happy life; it follows that there is strong reason for us to cultivate humanism and religion. Raymond A. Belliotti states that Nietzsche understands life as a bold narrative, a relentless project of self-creation, aesthetic creativity, or grand striving underwritten by robust will to power. Accordingly, to live vigorously meaningful lives means running form goal to goal and desire to desire, till the end of our lives, as each temporary satisfaction impels us to new imaginings and pursuits.

Pedro B. Gonzales asserts that for Ortega’s philosophy of the meaning of human existence is that one must learn to live within oneself, which is a reflective life with respect for our circumstances. Reza Hosseini, who writes on Wittgenstein. Syas that even though Wittgenstein never wrote in a systematic fashion about meaning a s a normative category, his writings on value, broadly construed, bear important contributions to the question of the meaning of life. Wendell O’brien asserts that for Heidegger the meaning of the being of Dasein or the life itself is threefold, as care, time and authenticity. The meaning of life for Sartre, written by Joseph Catalano, can be reached through the meaning of each life reveals. According to Jonathan Webber, for Beauvoir, the question of the meaning of life is a moral question and living a meaningful life in pursuit of genuinely valuable ends requires obeying the categorical imperative to respect human agency. Lissa Mccullough, who writes on Weil, says that the rue meaning of life transcends life; all other meanings are conditional and ephemeral. James Tartaglia writes that for Ayer there is no intrinsic connection between living a socially meaningful life and living one that is morally worthy. William McBride asserts for Camus that Camus was master of his world, giving his own meaning to his life without any obvious external, much less transcendental, assistance, at his best moments joyful, happy and free. Murdoch, according to Bridget Clarke, did not attend to give any answer regarding the meaning of life; regardless, for Iris Murdoch, moral value is real and radiant part of the world, but human beings must exercise loving attention to apprehend it. Samuel Imbo who writes on the philosopher of liberation, Fanon, asserts that Fanon’s legacy lies in his continuing relevance on the issues of colonialism, imperialism, racism and sexism, and his conception of humanism. For Fanon, the meaning of life is in action. According to Alan Malachowski, who writes on Rorty, what would Rorty must likely to offer for the meaning of life is to plunge back into life and start to exercise the meaning-detecting and meaning-creating capacities that history has fortunately endowed humans with.

Leach and Tartaglia also includes a Postscript on the historical origins and original significance of the phrase “meaning of life” at the end of the essays. This comprehensive volume offers a rich panoply of ways of approaching the question of meaning of life from Ancient times to the present and also from a wide range of perspectives. This book is a valuable handbook for anybody who has a genuine interest in the meaning of life as well as for students and scholars in philosophy and psychology. I believe it will be a very useful tool for classroom discussions in history of philosophy, ethics, metaphysics, comparative philosophy or philosophical counseling.

 

© 2019 Kamuran Elbeyoğlu

 

Kamuran Elbeyoğlu (Prof. Dr.), Toros University, School of Business Administration and Social Sciences, Department of Psychology, Yenisehir, 33140 Mersin, Turkey.


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