“In A Significant Life, May has produced a tour de force. It is a thoughtful, subtle, beautifully written discussion of what it takes to live a meaningful life. A careful study of this book will tell you what it takes to make life worth living. It is refreshing to encounter someone worrying about such a big question in the small-minded times we live in, and an absolute joy to discover that he may actually have provided an answer.”–Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less
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A Meaningful Life?
Let us start with a question. What does it mean to ask about the meaningfulness of life? It seems a simple question, but there are many ways to inflect it. We might ask,“What is the meaning of life?” Or we could ask it in the plural: “What are the meanings of life?” If we put the question either of these ways, we seem to be asking for a something or somethings, a what that gives a human life its meaningfulness. The universe is thought or hoped to contain something—a meaning—that is the point of our being alive. If the universe contains a meaning, then the task for us becomes one of discovery. It is built into the universe, part of its structure. In the image that some philosophers like to use, it is part of the “furniture” of the universe.
When we say that the meaning of life is independent of us—that is, independent of what any of us happens to believe about it—we do not need to believe that there would be a meaning to our lives even if none of us were around to live it. We only need to believe that whatever meaning there is to our lives, it is not in any way up to us what it is. What makes our lives meaningful, whether it arises at the same time as we do or not, does not arise as part of us.
The idea that something exists independent of us and that it is our task to discover it, is how Camus thought of the meaning of life. If our lives are to be meaningful, it can only be because the universe contains a meaning that we can discern. And it is the failure not only to have discerned it but to have any prospect of discerning it that causes him to despair. The silence of the universe, the silence that affronts human nature’s need for meaning, is that of the universe regarding meaning itself.
The universe, after all, is not silent about everything. It has yielded numerous of its workings to our inquiry. In many ways, the universe seems loquacious, and perhaps increasingly so. There are scientists who believe that physics may be on the cusp of articulating a unified theory of the universe. This unified theory would give us a complete account of its structure. But nowhere in this theory is there glimpsed a meaning that would satisfy our need for one. This is because either such a meaning does not exist or, if it does, it eludes our ability to recognize it.
The idea that the universe is meaningful precisely because it contains a meaning independent of us is not foreign to the history of philosophy. It is also not foreign to our own more everyday way of thinking. It has a long history, a history as long as the history of philosophy itself, and indeed probably longer. One form this way of thinking has taken is that of the ancient philosopher Aristotle.
For my own part, I long detested Aristotle’s thought, what little I knew of it. For me, Aristotle was just a set of sometimes disjointed writings that I somehow had to get through in order to pass my qualifying exams in graduate school. It wasn’t until a number of years into my teaching career that a student persuaded me to read him again. In particular, he insisted, the Nicomachean Ethics would speak to me. I doubted this, but I respected the student, so one semester I decided to incorporate a large part of the Ethics into a course I was teaching on moral theory. Teaching a philosopher is often a way to develop sympathy for him or her. It forces one to take up the thinker’s perspective. Before embarking on the course, I recalled the words of the great historian of science Thomas Kuhn, who once said that he came to realize that he did not understand a thinker until he could see the world through that thinker’s eyes. In fact, he said that he realized this after reading Aristotle’s Physics. I figured that if anything would do the trick with Aristotle, teaching his Ethics would be it.
It did the trick.
Not only do I find myself teaching the Ethics on a regular basis. Once, in a moment of hubris, I signed up to teach a senior-level seminar on Aristotle’s general philosophy. In doing so, I told my students that I would try to defend every aspect of his thought, even the most obsolete aspects of his physics and biology. This forced me and the students to take his thought seriously as a synoptic vision of human life and the universe in which it unfolds.
Aristotle’s ethics, his view of a human life as a trajectory arcing from birth to death and his attempt to comprehend what the trajectory of a good human life would be, has left its mark on my own view of meaningfulness. His attempt to bring together the various elements of a life—reason, desire, the need for food and shelter—into a coherent whole displays a wisdom rarely found even among the most enlightened minds in the history of philosophy. It stands out particularly against the background of more recent developments in philosophy, which often concern themselves less with wisdom and more with specialized problems and the interpretations of other thinkers.
Aristotle talks not in terms of meaning, but of the good. So the ethical question for Aristotle is, What is the good aimed at by human being? Or, to put it in more Aristotelean terms, What is the human telos? It is, in the Greek term, eudaemonia. Eudaemonia literally means“good” (eu) “spirit” (daemon). The term is commonly translated as “happiness.” However, happiness as we use the word does not seem to capture much of what Aristotle portrays as a good human life. For Aristotle, eudaemonia is a way of living, a way of carrying out the trajectory of one’s life. A more recent and perhaps better translation is “flourishing.” Flourishing may seem a bit more technical than happiness, or perhaps a bit more dated, but that is one advantage it possesses. Rather than carrying our own assumptions into the reading of the term, it serves as a cipher. Its meaning can be determined by what Aristotle says about a good life rather than by what we already think about happiness.
Flourishing is the human telos. It is what being human is structured to aim at. Not all humans achieve a flourishing life. In fact, Aristotle thinks that a very flourishing life is rare. It is not difficult to see why. In order to flourish, one must have a reasonably strong mental and physical constitution, be nourished by the right conditions when one is young, be willing to cultivate on’s virtue as one matures, and not face overwhelming tragedy during one’s life. Many of us can attain to some degree of flourishing over the course of our lives, but a truly flourishing life: that is seldom achieved.
What is it to flourish, to trace a path in accordance with the good for human beings? The Nicomachean Ethics is a fairly long book. The English translation runs to several hundred pages. There are discussions of justice, friendship, desire, contemplation, politics, and the soul, all of which figure in detailing the aspects of flourishing. But Aristotle’s general definition of the good for human beings is concise: “The human good turns out to be the soul’s activity that expresses virtue.” The good life, the flourishing life, is an ongoing activity. And that activity expresses the character of the person living it, her virtue.
For Aristotle, the good life is not merely a state. One does’t arrive at a good life. The telos of a human life is not an end result, where one becomes something and then spends the rest of one’s life in that condition that one becomes. It is not like nirvana, an exiting of the trials of human existence into a state where they no longer disturb one’s inner calm. It is, instead, active and engaged with the world. It is an ongoing expression of who one is. This does not mean that there is no inner peace. A person whose life is virtuous, Aristotle tells us, experiences more pleasure than a person whose life is not, and is unlikely to be undone by the tribulations of human existence. And a virtuous person, because he has more perspective, will certainly possess an inner calm that is not entirely foreign to the idea of nirvana. However, a good life is not simply the possession of that calm. It is one’s very way of being in the world.
To be virtuous, to have any virtue to express, requires us to mold ourselves in a certain way. It requires us to fashion ourselves into virtuous people. Human beings are structured with the capacity to be virtuous. But most of us never get there. We are lazy, or we do not have the right models to follow, or else we do have the right models to follow but do’t recognize them, or some combination of these failures and perhaps others. A human being, unless she is severely damaged by her genetic constitution or early profound trauma, can become virtuous, whether or not she really does. But to do so takes work, the kind of work that molds on’s character into someone whose behavior consistently expresses virtue. Most of us are only partly up to the task.
What is this virtue that a good life expresses? For Aristotle, virtues are in the plural. Moreover, they come in two types, corresponding to two aspects of the human soul. The human soul has three parts. There is the vegetative or nutritive part: the part that breathes, sleeps, keeps the organism running biologically. Then there is desire. It is directed toward the world, wanting to have or to do or to be certain things. But desire is not blind. It is responsive to reason, which is the third part of the soul. And because desire is responsive to reason, there are virtues associated with desire, just as there are virtues associated with reason. There are virtues of character and virtues of thought.
The vegetative or nutritive part of the soul cannot not have its own virtues, because it is immune to reason. Unlike desire, it cannot be controlled or directed or channeled. To be capable of virtue is to be capable of developing it. It is not to be already endowed with it. This requires that we can both recognize the virtue to be developed and develop ourselves in accordance with it. And to do that, we must be able to apply reason. I can apply reason to my desire to vent anger on my child when he has failed to recognize the need to share his toys with his little sister. In fact, I can do more than this. I can notice the anger when it begins to appear in inappropriate situations, reflect on its inappropriateness, lay the anger aside, and eventually mold myself into the kind of person who does’t get angry when there is no need for it. With anger I can do this, but not with breathing.
The virtues of character include, among others, sincerity, temperance, courage, good temper, and modesty. For Aristotle, all of these virtues are matters of finding the right mean between extremes. Good temper, for example, is the mean between spiritlessness and irascibility. It is the mean I try to develop when I learn to refrain from getting angry in situations that do not call for it, as with my child. If I never got angry at all, though, that would not display good character any more than a readiness to vent would. There are situations that call for anger: when my child is older and does something knowingly cruel to another, or when my country acts callously toward its most vulnerable citizens. Virtues of character are matters of balance. We reflect on our desires, asking which among them to develop and when. Sometimes we need to learn restraint; sometimes, alternatively, we need to elicit expression. We are all (almost all) born with the ability to do this. What we need are models to show us the way and a willingness to work on ourselves.
Virtues of thought, in contrast to virtues of character, are matters of reason alone: understanding, wisdom, and intelligence, for instance. The goal of virtues of thought is to come to understand ourselves and our world. Like the virtues of character, they are active. And like the development of virtues of character, the development of virtues of thought is not a means to an end. The goal of these virtues is not simply to gain knowledge. It is to remain engaged intellectually with the world. As Aristotle tells us, “Wisdom produces happiness [or flourishing], not in the way that medical science produces health but in the way that health produces health.”
This point is easy to miss in our world. In contrast to when I attended college, many of my students are encouraged to think of their time in a university as nothing more than job training. It is not that previous generations were not encouraged to think in these terms. But there were other terms as well, terms concerning what might, perhaps a bit quaintly, be called “the life of the mind.” In 1998, the New York Times reported that “in the [annual UCLA] survey taken at the start of the fall semester, 74.9 percent of freshmen chose being well off as an essential goal and 40.8 percent chose developing a philosophy. In 1968, the numbers were reversed, with 40.8 percent selecting financial security and 82.5 percent citing the importance of developing a philosophy.” The threat faced at many universities to the humanities, from foreign languages to history to philosophy, signals a leery or even dismissive attitude toward a view of the university as helping students to “develop a philosophy.” Aristotle insists that a good life is not one where our mental capacities are taken to be means to whatever ends are sought by our desires. It is instead a life in which our mental capacities are exercised as an end in itself. In fact, although we need not follow him this far, for Aristotle contemplation is the highest good that a life can achieve. It is the good he associates with the gods.
What might a good life look like, a life that Aristotle envisions as the good life for human beings? How might we picture it?
We need not think of someone with almost superhuman capacities. A good person is not someone larger than life. Even less should we think of someone entirely altruistic, who dedicates her life to the good of others. That is a more Christian conception of a good life. It is foreign to Aristotle’s world, where a good life involves a dedication to self-cultivation. Last, we should not light upon famous people as examples of those who lead good lives. It may be that there are good lives among the famous. But a good life is not one that seeks fame, so whether a good person is famous or popular would be irrelevant to her. For this reason, we might expect fewer good lives among the famous, since public recognition often alights upon those who chase after it.
Instead, a good life is likely to be found among on’s peers, but not among many of them. It would be among those who take up their lives seriously as a task, a task of a particular sort. They see themselves as material to be molded, even disciplined. Their discipline is dedicated to make them act and react in the proper ways to the conditions in which they find themselves. This discipline is not blind, however. It is not a military kind of discipline, where the goal is mindless conformity. It is a more reflective discipline, one where an understanding of the world and a desire to act well in it are combined to yield a person that we might call, in the contemporary sense of the word, wise. e
It would be a mistake to picture the good life as overly reflective, though, and for two reasons. First, a good life, in keeping with the Greek ideal, requires sound mind and sound body. Cultivation of character is not inconsistent with cultivation of physical health. In fact, if recent studies are to be believed, good physical health contributes to a healthy mind. It is, of course, not the sole contributant. We cannot assume that because someone is athletic, he is a paragon of good character. On the contrary, the list of examples that would tell against this assumption would make for long and depressing reading. There is a mean to athleticism as there is a mean to the virtues. But the person lost to reflection, the person who mistakes himself for an ethereal substance or sees his body merely as an encumbrance to thought, is not leading a good human life. Even if, for Aristotle, contemplation is the highest good, it can only be sustained over a long period by the gods. The good human life is an embodied one.
Second, if a person cultivates herself rightly, then over time there should be less of a need for continued discipline. A good person will learn to act well automatically. It will become part of her nature. Someone who is flourishing, confronted with a choice between helping others where it would benefit herself and helping them in spite of the lack of benefit, would not even take the possibility of benefit as a relevant factor in the situation. It would remain in the background, never rising to the level of a consideration worth taking into account. The fact that she would benefit just wouldn’t matter.
It is not surprising, then, that for Aristotle the person who does not think of acting poorly, for whom it is not even a possibility, is leading a better life than someone who is tempted to evil but struggles, even successfully, with herself to overcome it. The latter person has not cultivated herself in the right way. She may be strong in battle but she is weak in character. This is one of the reasons Aristotle says that a good life is more pleasurable to the one living it than a bad one. Someone who has become virtuous is at peace with herself. She knows who she is and what she must do and does not wrestle with herself to do it. Rather, she takes pleasure in not having to wrestle with herself.
It might be thought that the good life would be solitary or overly self-involved. But for Aristotle this is not so. In fact, what he calls true friendship is possible only among the virtuous. The weak will always want something from a friend: encouragement, support, entertainment, flattery, a sense of one’s own significance. It is only when these needs are left behind that one can care for another for the sake of that other. True friendship and the companionship that comes with it are not the offspring of need; they are the progeny of strength. They arise when the question between friends is not what each can receive from the other but what each can offer.
The flourishing life depicted by Aristotle is certainly an attractive one. It is attractive both inside and out, to oneself and to others. To be in such control of one’s life and to have such a sense of direction must be a rewarding experience to the person living it. As Aristotle says, it is the most pleasurable life. And from the other side, there is much good that such a life brings to others. This good is given freely, as an excess or overflow of one’s own resources, rather than as an investment in future gain. It is a life that is lived well and does good.
But is it a meaningful life?
In order to answer that question, we must know something about what makes a life meaningful. If we were ask Aristotle whether this life is meaningful, he would undoubtedly answer yes. The reason for this returns us to the framework of his thought. Everything has its good, its telos. To live according to on’s telos is to be who or what one should be. It is to find one’s place in the universe. For Aristotle, in contrast to Camus, the universe is not silent. It is capable of telling us our role and place. Or better, since the universe does not actually tell it to us, whisper it in our ear as it were, it allows us to find it. What we need to do is reflect upon the universe and upon human beings, and to notice the important facts about our human nature and abilities. Once we know these, we can figure out what the universe intends for us. That is what the Nicomachean Ethics does. When Camus seeks in vain for meaningfulness, he is seeking precisely what Aristotle thinks is always there, inscribed in the nature of things, part of the furniture of the universe.
The problem for us is that we are not Aristotle, or one of his contemporaries. We do not share the framework of his time. The universe is not ordered in such a way that everything has its telos. The cosmos is not for us as rational a place as he thought. Perhaps it can confer meaning on what we do. But even if it can, it will not be by means of allocating to everything its role in a judiciously organized whole.
Copyright notice: Excerpted from A Significant Life: Human Meaning in a Silent Universe by Todd May, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2015 by University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)