What is the meaning of life? Can we get to grips with it? Philosophers have wrestled with this question for as long as mankind has existed. For many it remains a mystery. Bertrand Russell one of the most celebrated philosophers of his day sat in the back of a London cab, the cabby asked him ‘what’s it all about then….?’ needless to say Bertrand didn’t answer. How can you answer such a question in the time it takes to drive from Victoria to Kings Cross? The question itself is a hodgepodge. That’s why Douglas Adams gag about the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything is 42. You can’t expect a sensible answer unless you ask a sensible question.
What was the cabby really asking? Let’s try to imagine what he really wanted to know, the most natural interpretation is the question about where we came from and where we are going. The explanation you are interested in depends on what you need to know. Life is rather like being birthed into the middle of a movie at the precise time we become part of the story without any understanding of the plot.
If we want to know why we are here we can look backwards or forwards to try to get the answers we need which will satisfy different quests. Many of us, think that if we knew where we came from that would lead us to the meaning of life. The recent Guinness advert on television where mankind’s evolution is speeded up in reverse, from satisfyingly slurping a Guinness to seeing our origins as mere slugs slurping mud, makes the point that even then in our primitive state we thought, ‘there must be something better than this!’
Perhaps the meaning to life can be ascertained by looking forwards. What future purpose or goal would make this life worth living? Aristotle identified the problem with this line of thinking over 2000 years ago. He pointed out that we do many things for the sake of something else. We eat to live, work to pay the mortgage, study to pass exams etc. Aristotle goes onto say that unless something is done for its own sake, there is no point in doing anything. Not everything can be a means to an end, there must be ends which are valuable in their own right. So if living must at some stage be valuable in itself, if it is worthwhile why not here and now?
Nevertheless there are many things about life that are worth holding on to and savouring. We often think of success, happiness, helping others or surprising ourselves will make life worth living, but life is unpredictable and we inevitably get let down and frustrated by events often beyond our control. Philosophers have a lot to say about these things, but little to say about the one most valuable things of all – love.
So in conclusion we can at least be clear about what it means for life to have meaning, it must be worthwhile and have value and that involves love.