Death and the Meaning of Life
Written by: Steven Luper
Living a Life of Meaning
In the final post of this three-part series, Steven Luper, the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Life and Death, discusses the powerful topic of meaning, happiness, and the brevity of life.
Like Socrates, many of us long to live forever, and to engage in the rich, limitless endeavors that eternity would make possible. Once glimpsed, the possibility of endless life leaves its mark on us. By contrast, an ordinary life, lasting no more than about 90 years, seems ephemeral, and for many it seems utterly valueless and devoid of meaning. As Miguel de Unamuno said, doubts about the prospect of immortality can leave us with a tragic sense of life, or vacillating between hope for a place in eternity and the despairing fear that life is absurd, devoid of meaning.
Happiness is cumulative. Meaning is not. It is lives as wholes that have meaning.
However, if we can put aside the contrast between a normal lifetime and eternity, we will see that despair is not appropriate. Properly understood, meaning is possible even for mortals, no less than for immortals. If, as I argue in my contribution to the forthcoming book Cambridge Companion to Life and Death, meaning is a matter of achieving what we are living for, and we determine what we are living for by freely choosing what our lives are to accomplish, then both mortals and immortals can give meaning to life, by setting and achieving their goals for life. Our days are numbered, but this does not preclude giving meaning to our brief lives.
Meaning is one of the things that make life go well. It is not the only thing. Happiness is also important to us. The brevity of life can easily reduce our overall happiness, given the plausible assumption that the more happy days we have the happier we are over the long run. Happiness is cumulative. Meaning is not. It is lives as wholes that have meaning. A short life can have meaning in the fullest sense, just as a long life can: however long it is, one might achieve what one devoted life to.
There is another important difference between meaning and happiness: other things being equal, meaning is far more important to us than happiness. To accomplish the aims that we devote life to, we are willing to make grave sacrifices, and to endure great suffering. It is true that achieving our aims brings us happiness too, but this is not part of the calculus of meaning. In striving for meaning, we put happiness aside, and focus on the goals we have set for ourselves. Or at least this is true of those who have risen to the task. Not everyone aspires to a life of meaning.