The question of the meaning of life is a modern question. This claim may elicit surprise. After all, didn’t ancient and medieval people, especially religious people, believe that they had answers to the meaning of life? Didn’t the great religions provide rich and sufficient accounts of human purpose, of the goal of human existence? Wasn’t the meaning of life “settled” in our predecessor cultures, dominated as they were by theistic metaphysics and correlated forms of life? Perhaps by saying that the meaning of life question is a modern question, we mean simply that it is a question that has arisen after the answers of the religious predecessor cultures have lost their plausibility. On this view, the meaning of life question has opened anew because the religious answers to it have receded.
There is some truth to this account, but it is far from the full story. It is more accurate to say that our ancestors did not ask explicitly about “meaning.” The application of the concept of meaning to life did not become intentional until the late 18th, early 19th centuries. There is a specific history to this development. In what may be the first appearance of the phrase, the German poet, Novalis, in 1797 wrote that the “meaning of the world” (Sinn der Welt) has been lost; only an artist can now divine the “meaning of life” (Sinn des Lebens). Novalis, and other romantics, such as Friedrich Schlegel who popularized the phrase, were reacting to what Weber would eventually call the “disenchantment of the world” (a phrase which itself was borrowed from Schiller’s 18th century poem, “The Gods of Greece,” which lamented the retreat of divinity from nature). A materialistic and deterministic discourse was ascendant. It banished not only divine presence from nature but also nature’s inherent value and significance, its capacity to give human beings orientation. The book of nature no longer had meaning.
Adrift in a meaningless natural world, it became possible to think that nature’s denizens, human beings, no longer mattered. Pascal had already in the 17th century intuited this crisis. In the Pensees, he wrote: “Engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which know nothing of me, I am terrified, and wonder that I am here rather than there, for there is no reason why here rather than there, or now rather than then.” Another way to put this is that modern human beings began to see themselves from the perspective of the universe, so to speak, rather than from the perspective of God. Unlike God, who presumably viewed them with care and concern, the Universe “viewed” them with complete indifference. What significance and value—what meaning—could their lives then have?
With the modern question of the meaning of life, a particularly disconcerting answer also enters learned discourse. The answer is that of “nihilism,” a word that also makes its appearance in the late 18th century. (Thanks to the conservative cultural critic and philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi.) Nihilism is the strong conviction of the meaninglessness of life accompanied by a keen critique of the illusions thrown up by people who refuse to accept the disconcerting answer. Nihilism need not imply personal or political violence or anarchy—although 19th century Russian literature takes it in that direction. Nor need it imply fatalism or pessimism—Nietzsche’s nihilism claims to be joyous and life-affirming. What it must imply is a relentless critique of proposals as to the meaning of life, the grounds of that meaning, the image of the human as the subject of meaning, the values that inform such putative meaning and so on. The philosophical conflict between the search for meaning, at the level of life, and nihilism is still very much with us.
What has changed is that philosophers, for the most part, no longer worry about “the meaning of life.” There is a thriving sub-field of Anglophone philosophy that addresses these matters, but it modestly limits its gaze to “meaning in life.” Meaning of life seems to imply a grand religion-like, one size fits all answer that would be out of keeping with the secular, democratic, individual temper of the times. Meaning in life trims its sails to how the contemporary wind is blowing. Philosophers such as the late Robert Nozick and the late Harry Frankfurt, Thomas Nagel, Susan Wolf, Thaddeus Metz, and many others have engaged with the problem. Even A.J. Ayer, in his last book, revised (slightly) his earlier logical positivist dismissal of the meaningfulness of the question of meaning. As with every field of philosophy, deep and unbridgeable differences exist among the thinkers. What seems to unite them, however, is their assumption that traditional religion is of no real help in answering their questions. Religion’s doctrinaire answers, they believe, are easy prey for the nihilistic critique that a viable proposal for meaning in life must overcome.
But is that the case? If “religion’s answers” were doctrinaire—if they trafficked in easily falsifiable superstitious or mythic beliefs, as religion’s harshest critics imagine—then perhaps they would deserve to be dismissed. I think that, at least in the case of Judaism, this is simply not true. Judaism has not developed as a belief-centered “faith,” which requires of its adherents a credal confession. Judaism rather is constituted by an endowment of thousands of texts which generate a framework for engaging, in a critical spirit, with existential questions. The Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, an ironic, absurdist demolition of prevailing proposals, including pious ones, for what people take to be happiness sets the tone. The Book of Job similarly demolishes the pious answers of other biblical texts on the problem of evil. The canon sets sources like these alongside and in contrast with more “orthodox” sources.
Although the tradition tries to domesticate dissenting views, they remain fecund and provocative. The tradition itself, in its rabbinic development, is one of endless intramural argument. Judaism seems to thrive intellectually on agon, aporia, and open-endedness. It has no dogmas to defend only tentative proposals for dogma to challenge. Judaism can live with the absurdity that surfaces in the Book of Ecclesiastes and endures. It can live with skepticism about the justification of its claims, both axiological and doxastic. It cannot live with ethical indifference, however. Its indulgence of absurdity ends where nihilism begins.
Both Judaism and contemporary philosophy reveal, at their heart, ineliminable perplexity about the significance and meaning of human life. This can be the basis of a conversation between them and perhaps of an alliance against the worst consequences of nihilism.