WHAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE?

Terry Eagleton, the man who introduced millions to literary theory, tells us why George Bush is the ultimate postmodernist, how torture is wrong, and what "meaning" really means. "The Meaning of Life" is more a long essay than a full-length book, and its publishers probably hope it'll hit the same sweet spot as Harry G. Frankfurt's surprise success, "On Bullshit," another slim volume of intellectual nonfiction. That's unlikely; "The Meaning of Life" intends to challenge its readers -- not, like the Frankfurt, to provide them with the opportunity to sneer at other people (because who reads "On Bullshit" thinking it's about them?). Eagleton, unsurprisingly, has written an elegant, literate, cogent consideration of a maddeningly slippery topic, one whose conclusions run contrary to conventional wisdom, especially in this country. To be sure, "The Meaning of Life" is also occasionally waspish, condescending and even a little unfair, though always enjoyably so. It's saucy too; it takes cheek to suggest that George W. Bushis the ultimate postmodernist. Two primary tributaries feed into the body of Eagleton's thought: Marxism and the tradition of Catholic intellectualism in which he was educated as a boy. Although no longer a member of the church, Eagleton retains much respect for religious ideals, a respect that lies behind his recent, scalding review of Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion" in the London Review of Books. These two influences might seem incompatible today, but in the 1970s, when Eagleton was coming up as a working-class boy turned Oxbridge scholar, liberation theology and other exhilarating currents of social change combining faith with socialism were in the air. However much his work may have changed on the surface since then, Eagleton's underlying values remain much the same. In essence, "The Meaning of Life" is a brief against postmodernism, a movement Eagleton calls "superficially radical" but "secretly in cahoots with a Western ideology for which what matters is the meanings we stamp on the world and others for our own ends." Them's fightin' words in an academic climate where accusing someone of wanting to oppress anyone (let alone the whole world) is the ultimate insult. But before Eagleton delivers this coup de grâce, he takes his readers on a short, illuminating journey through the knottier aspects of the question "What is the meaning of life?" Being a literary critic, Eagleton must interrogate nearly every word in that question -- beginning with "is," in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Bill Clinton's famous testimony before Ken Starr. A presiding spirit here is Ludwig Wittgenstein, who, as Eagleton explains, was highly suspicious of such questions and many other philosophical preoccupations he dismissed as mere "language games." "I am not myself a philosopher," Eagleton remarks on the first page of "The Meaning of Life," "a fact of which I am sure some of my reviewers will point out in any case." Not being a philosopher myself, I won't attempt to evaluate his interpretation of Wittgenstein's ideas -- some of the most difficult and gnomic in an inherently hard-to-crack field. It may not matter much; Wittgenstein mostly just pops in now and then, like the ghosts in "Topper," to offer a few words of advice that might actually be jokes, and vice versa. The answer to the question "What is the meaning of life?" used to be fairly clear to most Western thinkers: The meaning of life was God, and his will, and his plan for the human beings who lived the lives he gave to them. Only when the bedrock faith in that particular answer began to erode did the question become a source of anxiety and even torment. The movement called modernism followed from, as Eagleton puts it, "the belief that human existence is contingent -- that it has no ground, goal, direction or necessity, and that our species might quite easily never have emerged on the planet. This possibility then hollows out our actual presence, casting across it the perpetual shadow of loss and death. ... There is no unimpeachable foundation to what we are and what we do." For those who don't believe in God, or at least in a God with a plan for the human race, the question "What is the meaning of life?" seethes with puzzles. Can existence mean anything at all without someone (i.e., God) to mean it? Those famous 100 monkeys, pounding away on 100 typewriters for eternity, might eventually produce the exact text of "Hamlet," but they won't mean "Hamlet" the way that the man who intentionally wrote it did. Eagleton brings contemporary linguistics-based theory to bear on the idea of "meaning," pointing out that it takes several forms. I might mean (that is, intend) to say the word "poisson" ("fish") to a French waiter, but I might actually say "poison," which in turn means (that is, signifies) something else entirely. ("Poison" has the same meaning in French, actually, as it has in English.) There's what I intend to signify or communicate when I speak, and then there's what my words mean in a larger system, such as a language. For linguists, the first kind of meaning is an "act" and the second is a "structure." If this distinction is making your eyes cross or is conjuring up ancient, bleary memories of trying to fathom Ferdinand de Saussure at a 3:30 p.m. study section, take heart. Eagleton has more in mind than just a technical discussion of the workings of language. But language is central to any discussion of the meaning of life, because language is what meaning is made of. Meaning is a human artifact, Eagleton points out; material objects -- a tomato, a hammer, ink on a page in the shape of the letter "I" -- have no meaning in and of themselves, only the meanings we human beings assign to them, and the main tool we use to make those meanings is language.

not a state of mind. It is not difficult to identify the inheritors of these doctrines in our own political world.life (even as he registers some caveats about the inequities of ancient Greek society)." as Eagleton puts it. private realm. "not metaphysical. an omission that makes this particular bit of the book sound suspiciously like special pleading. Eagleton prefers Aristotle's practical version of the good -. and he's right about that in more ways than he realizes. so things can only be what they are "because of his say-so. The need to do these things. meaning is always at least partly shared and collaborative. "but a matter of living in a certain way.) Eagleton strenuously objects to the constructivist rejection of absolute or inherent meanings. postmodernism. interior and individually constructed meaning of life are indulging in a delusion fostered by late capitalism. experiences and people can mean whatever we damned well please. These are. nothing is right or wrong in itself. like Humpty Dumpty in "Through the Looking Glass. theorists who claim that certain identities -. the more meaning we find in life itself and the happier we become. but ethical." He might add.." To Eagleton. hardly anyone even pretends to believe in this stuff. "the question is. say. the fulfilled -. "The meaning of life is not a solution to a problem.that is "a practice or a way of life. As long as citizens believe meaning can best be found in. (In fact. that's all. studying the kabala or concentrating on nuclear-family relations. any given thing's inherent nature would limit what God could do with it.in other words." he remarks of constructivism. Eagleton goes on to cite the scholar Frank Farrell. not because of themselves." In this belief Eagleton sees the seeds of the 20th century's "cult of the will. While the words I've used to write this piece reflect a meaning of my own individual making.a matter of feeding the hungry." Eagleton never details how the Catholic conception of an all-powerful God handles this dilemma. not because it is wrong in itself." "black. so some might be surprised to see the left-wing Eagleton condemning it. they won't demand more from public life than the empty utilitarianism of the free market. "Nobody actually believes this. This philosophy is intended to be liberatory." insist that "glory" really means "there's a nice knockdown argument for you. Complicated identities like gender roles are another matter." It is not an idea but a behavior. too. who has linked the postmodern insistence on an infinitely malleable reality to roots in early Protestantism. with its repudiation of inherent or "deep" meanings. a variation on the same theme. The old Catholic idea that things have "essences" or "determinate natures" could not be reconciled philosophically with the doctrine of an all-powerful God. giving drink to the thirsty. but Eagleton isn't making a religious argument on their behalf. he writes: "Torture is morally wrong because God's will has determined it to be so. so seeing it eviscerated isn't as important to the civilian reader as Eagleton seems to think. God could easily have decided to make failing to torture each other a punishable offence. that's idiotic. not just love for our kith and kin." "homosexual." and so on -. Eagleton has been criticizing deconstructionism and its spinoffs for decades.that is."male. Meanings. But if meaning has its own roots in language. not properties of reality itself. they'd be nonsense if I decided to make up all their meanings from scratch.are culturally "constructed" believe themselves to be freeing people from the straitjacket of social roles that have been falsely presented as bedrock facts of nature. In fact. "God's arbitrary will." Eagleton insists that "meaning is in fact the product of a transaction between us and reality. . "We are woven through and through with the meanings of others -. which is to be master. called "agape" -. To judge by the way language works." "female. then claiming this. which are there to serve his power. says Eagleton." but then my words would become useless as a form of communication -. the motto "Life is what you make it" may sound banal. for all its revolutionary rhetoric. of course. Of course we all realize that. specifically those thinkers (Eagleton doesn't name them) who argue that nothing has a fixed or deep meaning. people who cherish the notion of a purely private. I could. it's our essence. yet which provide the matrix with which we come to make sense of ourselves and the world. Torture could well be permissible if it suited his purposes. they insist. is. There can be no reason for his decisions." While Humpty Dumpty's absurd unilateralism maintains that when it comes to handling words. so things. the classic directives of Christian charity. He is the source of his own law and reason. he says." According to Eagleton. welcoming the stranger and visiting the imprisoned. arises not from God but from the nature of human beings themselves. Outside of academia. To get back to the question driving his book. Eagleton argues. we know they're at least partly configurable because they've changed in the course of history. We are social animals who thrive on love. he draws a provocative comparison between the anti-essentialist "cult of the will" and some modern political figures. ." he writes. is like claiming that everyone gets to make up their own personal meanings for words. to use Eagleton's example. We can't get away from it. to live this life. Nevertheless. since reasons would hamper his absolute freedom of action. working to change the social order so that more people have the ability to live according to this ethos." The more this type of love circulates in our community.meanings which we never got to choose.. It "reflects an individualist bias common to the modern age" by insisting that we all find our own meaning of life in a personal." And the ethics involved are not a lot of mystical mumbo jumbo but "an embarrassingly prosaic affair -. "it just would not work for us to 'construct' tigers as coy and cuddly". but it reeks of a similar hubris. but the kind of love. are the creations of human culture. cannot be constrained.Here is where the postmodernists come into it. they'd be meaningless. Still not naming names.caring for our fellow man -. This "constructivism" is a form of the "relativism" that cultural conservatives in this county love to denounce.

is almost always used to justify a conservative or libertarian.Outside of the academy. If our lives have meaning it is something with which we manage to invest them. Modern science can tell us. so it's a treat to see it recruited here for the leftist cause. writers who view meaning questions as blank canvases on which to paint their own gloomy view of the world. Wow!" It does not constitute a meaning." writes Eagleton. "the idea that there could be meaning to your life which was peculiar to you. essentialism-. nationalism and.. .. "is really just a ponderous Teutonic way of saying. sport. Since the great soliloquy. but it is my shadow and the brief hour on stage is mine. All I can say is that wonders never cease. Ask most people what life means to them. You want Shakespeare in half an hour? Or a brief history of the planet? Or humanity in a hundred words? We have it right here. If one person votes for family values. By now I am hanging on by my finger tips. First into the lists are such pessimists as Schopenhauer. postmodernism. irony of ironies. That is the gulf that divides Odysseus from Hamlet. He clearly has scores to settle with a number of "postmodernists" eager to strip meaning of meaning. would not have mustered many votes". Freud. Such intellectual "Spanish practices" are what turned me away from university work. neo-structuralism and pseudo-reductionism until girls swoon and review editors queue for autographs. Can we. THE MEANING OF LIFE The fad for pocket wisdom continues. for "on this view the meaning of life is a question of the style in which you live it. Space is inevitably given to linguistic analysis. as Nietzsche asked in tackling the question." But that. Eagleton is rightly unhappy with this. love. and the answer will be a melange of family. He returns for another dip into the meanings of meaning (with help from Macbeth's "brief candle" speech) and concludes that there are many. "It all depends what you mean by meaning". so be it. "believe that life is an accidental evolutionary phenomenon that has no more intrinsic meaning than a fluctuation in the breeze or a rumble in the gut ." I wouldn't want to be the one to tell him that. we can link hands with Wittgenstein and approach life as "wonderment".or it suggests an antiquated architect "widely considered to have a somewhat twisted sense of humour". Yet Eagleton requires the answer to his question to confront such nihilism. Nowadays we feel the need to "own" the question. not something with which they come ready equipped. I approached the book with trepidation. Life is but a walking shadow. Any old faith will do to infuse life with significance. Schopenhauer viewed "the whole human project as a ghastly mistake that should have been called off long ago". religion. They seemed distinctions without meaning. fine. God is passed at the first bend. with much brow-furrowing over the dreaded. so that for most people the answer is personal rather than collective. "What is mystical. as Eagleton remarks. how things work. created by an intellectual oligarchy to keep the plebs at bay and obscuring what should be expressed in plain English. So on we go. At the end of that road "it is even conceivable that not knowing the meaning of life is part of the meaning of life". another for world democracy and another for a hundred virgins in heaven. but having seen him make mincemeat out of his ideological opponents in "The Meaning of Life. if not of its actual content". or perhaps what "gives it meaning". So what is it all about? Since I regarded Eagleton as the Dave Spart of critical gobbledygook." As a signed-up neo-Darwinian (and as we are already on page 55). If Eagleton goes a bundle on Arsenal and I on Welsh mountains. to be or not to be has become my business. As a cultural historian Eagleton has made a thing of typologies. quite different from the meaning of other people's lives. Until recently. Now along comes Terry Eagleton's answer to the Bertrand Russell taxi driver question "Always wanted to ask you. home. Perhaps." said the great man. "is not how the world is but that it is. Eagleton sets off at a cracking pace. Bert. ever break free of the cultural shackles of our grammar? Eagleton himself risks seduction into the professional philosopher's bugbear of rephrasing the question rather than supplying the answer. Offering Him up as the meaning of life is either tautological God is the meaning of life because the meaning of life is God . Its "squalid and farcical" view of human existence forces us "to struggle hard" to make his own slowly apparent optimism seem anything more than anodyne consolation. or hope to tell us. Eagleton has demonstrated that essentialism is what you make of it? Maybe so.usually in the form of evolutionary psychology -. "A great many educated people. Those who once saw their purpose on Earth as fixed by the sages and myths of tribe and community are today adrift on a sea of modernist diversity. a man who clearly loves the stuff and writes plain English. again. Just keep them apart and pray to the great god. With that out of the way by page four. tolerance. He can strut the campus juggling modernism. Conrad and Ibsen. what's it all about?" And in just 200 (very small) pages. I'd sooner try to scratch a tiger under the chin. The search soon moves into the author's favourite territory of modernism. At this point Eagleton's argument lurches briefly towards silliness. This is popular philosophy by an amateur in the best sense of the word. not yours. dog-eat-dog view of human nature. I was inclined to say amen and wonder why we needed any more book. Life is our question and our answer. He points to the damage that science has done to religion's answer to his question.

Bluntly. Then." Surely it is the opposite. The meaning of life is thus not "what you make of it". for the anxious reader. Eagleton is clearly going somewhere. I already hear liberals crying that Eagleton's collectivism is ethically loaded. one of the world‟s leading contemporary academic critics. my meaning of life embraces freedom of opinion. Besides. If their meanings are to be valid. any more than does Conrad's portrayal of life in Lord Jim as "a devastating practical joke". not inquiring into the meaning of life at all would feel like an intellectual swindle. caringly) by pointing to the general public conception that the meaning-of-life question is entertained either by the crazed or the comic (he wittily hopes he‟s reckoned among the former. Eagleton claims that the writing of Beckett and his ilk tends to treat all meaning questions as superfluous.If Eagleton says A is modernist and B a postmodernist it may impress the higher education funding council. "its underlying laws reveal a beauty. "The cosmos may not have been consciously designed and is almost certainly not struggling to say anything. that he cannot slip so easily from the shackles of the individual id. I regard him as a brilliant stage craftsman but no more "meaningful" than the Dadaists. But he points out with Aristotle that happiness comes in many and devious forms. caring for those close to you. but "in dialogue with a determinate world whose laws they did not invent . thinking long term. Indeed it is not even an answer to a question. so answers to questions about life must convey significance beyond the realm of the individual. Eagleton begins rather carefully (and. Happiness disengaged from selfishness and allied to the Greek love for humanity (agape) passes muster. Hence when I am told. which humans share with animals. and the vastness clouds one‟s certainty how and where to wrap it up. at times almost lyrically so. They do not take our argument forward. a symmetry and economy which are capable of moving scientists to tears. attempts to „pressure‟ conventional wisdom on the topic. the author chooses to scrutinize the presumed clarity of the very question. they must respect this world's grain and texture. it must mean something. and how could it be misleading? Thus the discussion is . THE MEANING OF LIFE BY TERRY EAGLETON Taking up a topic as philosophically huge as „the meaning of life‟ is a daring task. What of the happiness of the tyrant? Happiness has long lived in sin with power and money. But that requires us to regard Beckett as philosophically substantial. Taking the question up as a serious philosophical inquiry. with the associated burden of some nameless guilt – much like in Kafka‟s The Trial. on neither of which Eagleton is keen. it must imply some sort of linguistic constancy. but I suspect it is just a matter of dates." Strip down the question as much as you like. In what is now becoming a philosophical whodunit. He points out that while meaning need not imply a supreme author. The exercise is not solipsistic. just as the meaning in a poem is a conversation between the words on the page and the mind of the reader. It is not a passing pleasure. It will not do to assert that "for me the meaning of my life lies in asphyxiating dormice". He firmly rejects liberal individualism as nihilistic. his works are wordplays. I stand convinced. "At the point of its supreme triumph. We are now well down the road with EO Wilson and the cultural geneticists: "The idea that I can determine the meaning of my own life is an illusion. The search for meaning is not something people do in a vacuum.. that Samuel Beckett's plays are "stranded somewhere between modernist and postmodernist cases". currently enjoying a revival among economists. (His passing putdown of capitalism is nonsense." I am a creature of the species Homo sapiens and I cannot escape it. and is a forceful answer to all purveyors of meaninglessness. And yet. during a search for the meaning of life.. like Alan Sugar in The Apprentice. The vagueness makes it hard to know where to start. but rather "a matter of living life in a certain way". but it is not just chaotic either. not only because the question may sound rather pretentious in an age of techno-commercial preoccupation. The meaning of life to Eagleton is like a jazz band. helping strangers. But he makes his case well and with a light touch." The liberation of the self from the priesthood of religion or whatever becomes a black hole into which all meaning is sucked and destroyed. I am equally lost in such allegedly post-modern sentences as: "Everything in this post-Auschwitz world is ambiguous and indeterminate. Terry Eagleton of the University of Lancaster. Can „What is the meaning of life?‟ be a genuine question. philosophers and even politicians. Finally Eagleton lines up his candidates. It is an ethical construct and involves treating others as you want them to treat you. I am lost. Like Magritte's This Is Not a Pipe or Sartre's clever contradictions. the mere assertion that the meaning of life is me." On the contrary. This must be so. but also because of the vastness and vagueness of the concepts of both „meaning‟ and „life‟. but you must give an answer that signifies to others. Eagleton finally plumps for happiness. [individualism] is struck empty. Yet this is no more than a passing attack of philosopher-itis. I do not. not the latter)." To Eagleton. individuals engaged on a collective endeavour in pursuit of happiness through the mutuality of love. surrealisms.) But he is undaunted. instead of going for any off-the-peg answers. to be fired or hired on sight.

At least if meaning is contingent and subjective. So an absence of meaning is no breeding ground for meaningful meaning either. suspensefully late in the game. as means to an end. not vagueness. and/or silly. And this is more than one would expect even from the most shapely. as are generalized abnegations of them. Eagleton finds those options unsatisfyingly narcissistic. or both. Readers are of course free to come up with their own values by which to measure their life‟s meaningfulness (or meaninglessness). Yet here we stumble upon another hurdle – escapism. and the dearth of them was horrifying. • The Meaning of Life is an important work for all readers of serious issues. The Meaning of Life divides the concept of meaning into three main schools of thought: premodern. Nietzsche‟s will-to-power and Freudian and Marxist systems of acquiring life‟s essence. Yet the most precious advice that we get from The Meaning of Life is that using values. to the modern era of fundamentalism and nihilism. or which reshuffle existing ones. For postmodern thinkers. or more than one. At the end of the book Professor Eagleton reminds his readers that his discussion is not supposed to provide a final answer to the mega-question of life. Eagleton‟s concern is „meaning‟ rather than „life‟. succeed in reminding us that the question is there. Eagleton keeps a watch on the fathomless historical background to the concepts „meaning‟ and „life‟ and their combined signification. and postmodernist. But whatever the meaning of life may include. right? Suffice to say that he strongly suggests. through Schopenhauer‟s Will. is a dangerous road to travel if you really are setting out for the meaning of life. well-integrated of works of art. however. And. Rather. In this sense the question cannot be prevaricated. The comparative validity of any one system of meaning over the rest is hard to endorse confidently. For most of the book. . culture and sexuality – are. Moreover. not the road to some hidden destination. at least theoretically. Eagleton‟s treatment of the philosophical and literary treasures of humanity implies that attempts to get a single answer or hard-headed position on the question of life‟s meaning are doomed: thus the elusiveness of meaning is itself the best possible answer to the question. not even those implicit normalcies existed. culture. and thus meanings become elusive. “in which case childbirth and clog dancing would indeed have to be viewed as aspects of a single. a passionate anti-religiousness. semiotics and individual thought. meaning is the primary concept. attaining meaningfulness requires that positive values be ends in themselves. Isn‟t „elusiveness‟ just another term for avoiding the question? Eagleton considers the question of the meaning of life to be an ethical one: but it‟s doubly hard to find the core values of life and struggle toward living them out without singling out any ideology from which to make ethical judgements. I‟m not sure one really could risk spoiling a book about the meaning of life -. since life is made sense of by its meaning. but moves from classical Aristotelian virtue as the baseline of a meaningful life. For him. or none at all. modernist.channelled ineluctably into talking about the linguistic meanings of the concepts in (the) question. that happiness and love might not be altogether irrelevant. E agleton‟s own position does not come to rest at any one ideological platform. then there‟s the whole definition-of-life issue. Within this endeavour. significant totality.‟” writes Eagleton. Ethics aim at bringing integration and harmony to human life. as if the meaning of meaning and the moral morass weren‟t obstacles enough. Practicing good values is the ultimate treasure. after all.how premoderns generally didn‟t worry about the meaning of life because they were wrapped up in religious certainties. oy. harked back more or less implicitly to a template of normalcy in which meaning and some accompanying civility had a place. the author considers two core values as the defining features of a meaningful life: love and happiness. arbitrary. in that it invites discussion on one of the most difficult questions which concern everyone. even the most positive values. liberating. Each of these schools have evolved a generalized system of meaning that‟s a sum of the combined influences of science. and so measuring one‟s life against some kinds of ethical standards or values is central to the pursuit of life‟s meaning. than we can all invent our own meanings. Eagleton cautions against elitist navel-gazing on such matters as the one he‟s addressing. he contends: The Meaning of Lifetakes is an interesting turn. whether in touchy-feely spirituality.after all. nor does he expect any other treatise to do so. considerations of it in such clever company could surely play a worthy part. smug.” Generalizations are suspect. or some other expression. Eagleton explores the history of the question -. and that it has much in common with jazz. human. the author does confront the question of the multiplicity of meanings. At the same time. either it has one. And one need not frown when he confines his discussion of meaning and life to the human version: the three main spheres of meaning – religion. Alongside the philosophical approaches Eagleton quotes literary masterpieces – led by the plays of Shakespeare and Beckett – which portray the human situation and create meanings. But no. both on an individual level and on the level of different systems of meaning. that it is worth contemplating. sports fandom. He does. And ultimately. This is where the topic nearly slips out of Eagleton‟s grip. and that engaging in the quest for meaning is an exciting adventure which itself constitutes part of the meanings of life as much as breathing is part of physical life. and no meaning surpasses it. “‟The meaning of life‟ might well mean „what it all adds up to. that it has one. in their explorations of meaninglessness. He considers how even the moderns like Kafka and Beckett. Accordingly.

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