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A Significant Life

Human Meaning in a Silent Universe

What makes for a good life, or a beautiful one, or, perhaps most important, a meaningful one? Throughout history most of us have looked to our faith, our relationships, or our deeds for the answer. But in A Significant Life, philosopher Todd May offers an exhilarating new way of thinking about these questions, one deeply attuned to life as it actually is: a work in progress, a journey—and often a narrative. Offering moving accounts of his own life and memories alongside rich engagements with philosophers from Aristotle to Heidegger, he shows us where to find the significance of our lives: in the way we live them. 

May starts by looking at the fundamental fact that life unfolds over time, and as it does so, it begins to develop certain qualities, certain themes. Our lives can be marked by intensity, curiosity, perseverance, or many other qualities that become guiding narrative values. These values lend meanings to our lives that are distinct from—but also interact with—the universal values we are taught to cultivate, such as goodness or happiness. Offering a fascinating examination of a broad range of figures—from music icon Jimi Hendrix to civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, from cyclist Lance Armstrong to The Portrait of a Lady’s Ralph Touchett to Claus von Stauffenberg, a German officer who tried to assassinate Hitler—May shows that narrative values offer a rich variety of criteria by which to assess a life, specific to each of us and yet widely available. They offer us a way of reading ourselves, who we are, and who we might like to be.  

Clearly and eloquently written, A Significant Life is a recognition and a comfort, a celebration of the deeply human narrative impulse by which we make—even if we don’t realize it—meaning for ourselves. It offers a refreshing way to think of an age-old question, of quite simply, what makes a life worth living. 

240 pages | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2015

Philosophy: Aesthetics, American Philosophy, Ethics, General Philosophy, Philosophy of Society


“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

“May’s book is a thoughtful, widely accessible, and comprehensive account of meaning in life. . . . As someone well acquainted with work on life’s meaning composed by professional philosophers, I have profited from reading May’s book, especially his discussion of what can confer (substantial) meaning on a person’s life. I especially recommend his work in virtue of it being a ‘good read’, avoiding technicalities and reflecting on everyday examples with insight. It would be ideal to assign for an upper-level undergraduate course or to share as a gift with reflective friends and family outside the academy.”

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

“In this eloquent and inspiring book, May argues that meaning in life is not given to us by God or the universe; nor is it, as the existentialists claimed, something we invent for ourselves. It is found instead in living in accordance with what he calls ‘narrative values,’ which inform and structure our lives as wholes. May’s arguments are often illustrated with examples drawn from literature and his writing is frequently lyrical, though always accessible. The book does not claim to reveal the meaning of life. May is a seeker rather than a proselytizer. Indeed, it is in part because he is not content with simplistic certainties that he is able to offer such wise guidance in our efforts to understand how and why our lives matter.”

Jeff McMahan, author of The Values of Lives

“Todd May is something of a legend, known for his lively, conversational style of discourse, and this book—on no less than the meaning of life—showcases all of his best features. It is engaging and clear, with vivid examples from literature and May’s own life. It addresses a topic of very broad interest, yet it does so in a philosophically sophisticated way. Despite Pierre Hadot’s claim that all ancient philosophy was about the meaning of life, there is surprisingly little engagement of the question by contemporary philosophers. May’s book fills this void marvelously.”

Charles Guignon, author of On Being Authentic

“This is an engaging, beautifully written book that grabs the reader from the first page—something one cannot often say about a philosophy book. More important, May has given us a wise, humane reflection on one of the central questions of philosophy—what makes for a meaningful life? While accessible to a broad audience, A Significant Life also makes a significant contribution to the scholarly literature. I highly recommend it.”

Daniel Haybron, author of Happiness: A Very Short Introduction

Table of Contents

Chapter One: A Meaningful Life?
Chapter Two: Is Happiness Enough?
Chapter Three: Narrative Values
Chapter Four: Meaningful Lives, Good Lives, Beautiful Lives
Chapter Five: Justifying Ourselves to Ourselves
Conclusion: Not Everything, But Something
Suggestions for Further Reading

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