Words by James WF Roberts Photography by Navarre Fenwick
Let’s get it out of the way now, the meaning of life sadly is not 42. Well, it very well might be, but how do we prescribe any sort of meaning in what can seem like a meaningless existence?
You cannot talk about the meaning of life without talking about the sanctity of life.
Yes—that old chestnut. The ‘sanctity of life’ has become the slogan in moral and philosophical debates concerning such a wide range of problems; from bio-ethical issues, abortion, war, cloning, genetic engineering, euthanasia and LGBTQI rights. The sanctity of life argument is often used by groups who oppose technologies and practices that they believe violate the intrinsic value of human life.
The whole anti-abortion argument that life begins at conception is quite at odds with the Bible. In Genesis 2:7, the Bible states that life begins at birth, declaring that God “breathed into his [Adam’s] nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living soul.” This verse implies, rather explicitly, that until Adam took his first breath, he was not considered a living being.
Does modernity argue that life is sacred? Well, Neo-Darwinists would probably argue that there isn’t and that life was an accident of biochemistry, though Charles Darwin himself probably would not agree with this view. He was a strident Christian and nowhere in his scientific works does he say anything that discounts a higher power starting the evolutionary process; it only discounts if you take Genesis or any creation story literally. In 1927, the Belgian Catholic priest Georges Lemaître proposed an expanding model for the universe to explain the observed redshifts of spiral nebulae, and calculated the Hubble law. Though he based his theory on the work of Einstein and others, the Big Bang Theory was born, though he argued almost from the outset that the theory was neutral and did not prove or disprove either argument.
Analytical continental philosophers argued a very different interpretation of the meaning of life. Arthur Schopenhauer ended up saying that the meaning of life is to deny it; Søren Kierkegaard, that the meaning of life is to obey God passionately; Friedrich Nietzsche, that the meaning of life is the will to power, while he is often mistaken for a nihilist, his philosophy was the polar opposite.
Much of Nietzsche’s work is concerned with the problem of overcoming nihilism despite the slew of problems that drive people towards it. Then there is Leo Tolstoy, with his meaning of life lies in faith.
Martin Heidegger believed that the meaning of life is to live authentically or alternatively, to be a guardian of the earth. Conversely, Jean-Paul Sartre espoused the view that life is meaningless but urged us nonetheless to make a free choice that would give our lives meaning and responsibility, again individualistic and vague. Albert Camus also thought that life is absurd and meaningless. The best way to cope with this fact, he held, is to live life with passion and with an attitude of revolt and defiance.
The whole question of the meaning of life is a quagmire, and it is supposed to be, every great thinker has tried to put forward their own meaning, their own belief of the meaning of life. According to Plato, the meaning of life is to strive and attain the highest ideal, the ideal marriage, the ideal friendship and so on. In his work, he uses the word “form” instead of ideal. A form is a blueprint, a guide for achieving a good life. For Plato, forms are placed within a hierarchy and the Form of the Good is supreme. The Form of Good is abstract and confusing, but for us humans, it is the act of searching for philosophical reasoning in order to pursue a good life. It’s the highest form of knowledge. Plato’s ideas had an influence on Christian theology and the concept of pursuing God’s image.
The Judaic view is that the meaning of life is to elevate the physical world (‘Olam HaZeh’) and prepare it for the world to come (‘Olam HaBa’). This is called Tikkun Olam (“Repairing the World”).
In Hinduism, the meaning of life is tied up in the concepts of karma (causal action), saṃsāra (the cycle of birth and rebirth), and moksha (liberation). Existence is conceived as the progression of the ātman (similar to the Western concept of a soul) across numerous lifetimes, and its ultimate progression towards liberation from karma.
In Islam, the meaning of life is to know and worship Allah. Allah describes life as a test, while one cannot control what happens to them, they can control how they react. Life is a way to prove allegiance to Allah.
The Existentialists would argue that the meaning of life is to create your own meaning.
Ludwig Wittgenstein and the logical positivists would say something like, “what is the meaning in asking?”
So, why I have brought Lemaître and Darwin into the argument and why did I mention abortion and the sanctity of life? The meaning of life is an individual question but is also the building block of society and how religions and cultures are formed.
Maybe the meaning of life is not for any person to answer. Maybe the meaning of life is not the acquisition of wealth, power, property or even attainment of knowledge. Perhaps, the meaning of life is what we mean to other people. Maybe, it’s just to love each other. Maybe, as many have speculated before me, that the answer to the question is too profound to be known.