Albert Camus claimed that the only serious philosophical problem is "Why shouldn’t we kill ourselves?"  Why should we think that this life, with all its problems and pressures, really is valuable in itself?

In his movie Manhattan, Woody Allen’s character made his own personal list: Groucho Marx; Willie Mays; the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony; Louis Armstrong’s recording of Potato-head Blues; Swedish movies; Sentimental Education by Flaubert; Marlon Brando; Frank Sinatra; those incredible apples and pears by Cézanne; the crabs at Sam Wo’s; Tracy’s face.  

All of us know of things that give life value and another person’s list might focus less on their own pleasures: eliminating terrible suffering; helping one’s children build their lives; winning a personal struggle.

This is why there can be no final answer to the question of life’s meaning. There are many things that make life worth holding on to and savouring. But life is unpredictable and we are often mysteries even to ourselves. We think success, happiness, helping others, or surpassing ourselves will make life worth living, but we can always be wrong or frustrated by events.

Philosophers have a lot to say about the value of all these things, and a little less to say about one of the most valuable things of all – love. So we can be clear enough about what it means for life to have meaning and value, but when we put down our philosophy books and actually get on with living, meaning and value can be elusive. Living well is more art than science or philosophy.

The only sense we can make of the idea that life has meaning is that there are some reasons to live rather than to die, and those reasons are to be found in the living of life itself.

Trying to work out the meaning of life can be rather like trying to assemble Ikea furniture when you’re convinced that you’re missing a piece or haven’t been given the proper instructions. But the real problem is that you’re trying to put together an elaborate cabinet when you have only got a standard three-shelf bookcase. Something only seems to be missing because you’re expecting much more.

1 Comment
  1. mahla 13 years ago

    I think being an athiest makes it easier….. Not believing in a divine creator makes this world and the universe even more beautiful.  Because an athiest doesn”t believe there is a God, you have to then assume that although religion seems to bring great comfort to many people, it is a false comfort as it doesn”t really exist .  The fact that a belief is comforting doesn’t make it true. 

    Many people think that in order to find the meaning of life you have to either know why we are here or where we are going.  A religious person has a belief system or faith to answer this, but i do not.  I have my own ideas of why we came about, which involves probability, evolution and genetics but I can”t  say I know this to be 100% true, which essentially puts me in the same position as a religious person who equally can not say their belief is fact or 100% true.

    I don”t really have an answer to where i”m going, but I believe that this life is all I have, so i”ll put all my effort into being happy now and taking the ups as and when I find them.  A religious person probably believes in life after death, but again can”t be certain. And what if they”re wrong? At least if i”m wrong, it would be a great suprise!

    An atheistic worldview is life-affirming in a way that religion, with its unsatisfying "answers" to life”s mysteries, could never be, to quote Richard Dawkins.  Why do we need to have answers to everything anyway in order to enjoy this life, especially if those answers turn out to be wrong?

    (I certainly don”t mean to offend anyone who is religious, I respect other peoples” beliefs, but this just happens to be mine).

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