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Discussions on the Meaning of Life

Rosemary Steel

2004-04-01 00:00:00

One day a traveler in the desert was being pursued by a ferocious animal; he saw in front of him a disused well, the depth of which was sixty meters. He jumped in without looking to see what was at the bottom. However, laying in wait at the bottom of the well a large dragon was crouching, its jaws opened wide in anticipation. Unable to go back out of the well, as the ferocious beast was still above, yet unable to go down, he grabbed hold of some branches that were growing out of a crack in the sides of the well. As he looked around, he noticed that two mice, one black the other white, were gnawing on the stem of the branches. With horror he realized that soon the branch would be gnawed through, snapping and leaving him to fall to his fate. But then, he saw that there were some drops of nectar on the leaves of the branch, and he licked them off. He continued to cling to this branch of life, knowing that the dragon of death awaited him, ready to tear him into pieces... The nectar that had formerly consoled him no longer gave him any pleasure... He only saw the inescapable dragon and the mice; he could not tear his gaze from them...

Is this not the mysterious truth of human life? Will we not find ourselves in a similar place to the one in the fable one day? Maybe our world is made more bearable with the atmosphere that we need to breathe, with the beauty of nature, pleasant flowers, the magnificence of the sea, the fruit of the trees... These sound pleasant, but why are we here? Where are we going? And what will happen at the end? Who knows the truth behind everything?

Life and death are two concepts that cannot be thought of as being separate from one another. The moment we are born is also the moment we start to approach death. The world we find ourselves in may be full of potential pleasures and beauty, but in all cases the idea of an approaching end is everywhere, making every pleasure bitter. When people become aware of this contradiction they ask themselves, “If I will cease to exist, then why do I exist now, what is my purpose?” “What is the vocation of a human as a human, and what are the surest ways in which people can fulfill this?”

The questions on the meaning of life, the mission assigned to humanity, and its definition are unavoidable questions, and may be the most frequently studied problems of philosophy. It would not be stretching the point to state that these questions are in fact the questions of human life.

Philosophical Perspectives

Philosophy has generally adopted two approaches to the problem of trying to find the “meaning” of life: pessimistic and optimistic. Some people prefer an optimistic outlook, thinking that life has a meaning, while others are pessimistic, believing that everything is meaningless, thus making life not worthwhile.

I would like to start this discussion by looking first at the pessimists and their arguments. One of the most famous Pessimists is Schopenhauer. He thinks it would be better if the world did not exist at all. He expresses this idea in the following words: “We have not to rejoice but rather mourn at the existence of the world; that is non-existence would be preferable to its existence; that it is something which ought not to be.” Schopenhauer believes in the impossibility of happiness. For Schopenhauer, nothing is worth pursuing, and in any case, the things which may be worthwhile are impossible to reach. Moreover, people deceive themselves by thinking that in the past they were happy or that in the future they will be happy. He says, “The present may be compared to a small dark cloud which the wind drives over the sunny plain: before and behind it all is bright, only it itself always casts a shadow. The present is therefore always insufficient; but the future is uncertain and the past is irrevocable.”

There are people who were more pessimistic than Schopenhauer, like Clarince Darrow. He even becomes angry with the fact of existing. He sees life as being an “awful joke.”

The Pessimists consider the meaninglessness of life as being the unchangeable truth, and according to them there are few solutions to escape this painful fact; these can be briefly listed below:

a) We should ignore everything that is meaningless and we should not ask any questions, like “what is the meaning of life, if any” or “why do I exist?”

b) We should disregard death and try to make the most of time. We should enjoy life, have fun and not miss out on any opportunity to take pleasure. This idea has been so popular that it affected many English poets, called “Cavalier Poets,” who always encouraged people to enjoy themselves before they die.

c) The exact opposite solution is that we should commit suicide. According to most pessimists, this is the best solution, because in a meaningless world, it is meaningless to live. They even think, “It is better to be dead than alive; best of all is not to exist.”

d) We should accept that life is meaningless, yet learn to live with this fact and behave rationally.

Is Happiness Really an Unattainable Emotion?

I think the significant point here is to reconstruct our lives so that we can evaluate the events. If we have the ability to look on the bright side of every event then we will be able to see well and even take pleasure at the reality of death.

The Optimists commenting on the meaning of life argue that there is a reason to live. Life exists for a purpose. In other words, it has a meaning. The Optimist view is based on two suppositions: one, that God exists and that the promised afterlife will happen. However, some philosophers think that without God and immortality, life can still be meaningful. Providing that you choose an aim for your life or if you devote yourself to something, your life will become meaningful and you will have a reason to live. To put it more bluntly, supporting the superiority of a race, or of an idea, or the pursuit of science, or a career in a certain occupation and many similar goals can be an aim for life that makes it meaningful. Nonetheless, when we look for an absolute meaning which is valid for everyone, the optimist position invites us to presuppose the existence of God and afterlife. We can liken the Optimist understanding of life to the following situation: A fish still in its egg cannot see anything. Let us suppose that a young boy buys the egg from the pet shop. He wonders where he can put the egg. He takes a mixing bowl from the kitchen and spreads sand on the bottom, so that he can bury the egg. Then the boy plants a water plant in the aquarium and fills it up with water that has been given a chance to oxygenate. Having prepared this small aquarium, the boy puts the egg in the bowl. The new aquarium is a welcoming environment as everything in it meets the needs of the fish and is an indicator of the boy’s intentions and knowledge.

According to the Optimists, the situation of the fish in the example is not very different from that of humans. When we are born, we find a welcoming environment; an atmosphere that meets our respiratory needs, soil that produces food, sun that gives heat and light, plus many more wonderful features. Humankind found the Earth ready and waiting, it has always been in harmony with our needs. Such a design causes the Optimists to imply the necessity of a reason for existence and the necessity of the Creator of that reason, God, and the afterlife.

Of course, neither the Pessimist nor the Optimist view can dominate the other unless people want to believe in a Creator and an afterlife. If one chooses to believe in a Creator, then the interpretation of the fable changes directly; the Islamic thinker, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi says in the “Eighth Word” of his great work The Words, that the allegory in the fable is reality for all humans. It is only the individual perspective of everyone that can change the meaning of the allegory. The desert is the Earth, and the pursuing beast is death. The well is a person’s life, sixty meters being sixty years; the average life expectancy. The gnawing mice are day and night. The mouth of the dragon in the well is the mouth of the grave. For believers it is the door to the eternal Garden and the beast becomes a disciplined and well-trained horse that brings us to the eternal Garden.

Therefore, one whose goal is eternal life will find peace and happiness, despite all the darkness of life.

Why Men Search for the Meaning of Life

Whatever our preferences are, either optimist or pessimist, I think first we must answer the question as to why we search for the meaning of life. It may well be that most people are tired of looking for a meaning in life and simply continue to live without direction. On the other hand, some people make a decision and side with either the Pessimists or the Optimists. Before we adopt one of these views, however, the important thing is that we should begin with the question, what leads people to look for a purpose? This is the key question that proves that our lives are not meaningless; the question itself has the power to prove that we have a reason to live a meaningful life. If this were not the case, it would not have become the most frequently asked question in the history of the world.

Maybe people want to feel safe, to welcome the future by knowing about it in advance. They may want to use this knowledge to discover the importance or the meaning in their lives. Maybe it is something similar to the instinct that causes people to find food or plants that are useful and nourishing; it may be an instinct that is leading us to find the answer.

“Why Do I Exist?”

I think that people try to find an answer to this question because they want to decide how they should live. Different answers to this question will affect people in how they determine the way that they will live their life or the shape of their future. There are millions of people and all lead different lives. People observe others around them; they see their ways of life. While observing they search “How should I live?” “What am I to live for?” To make this a bit clearer, we can say that when people observe other people, they wonder, sometimes even worrying, “What should I do?” “Where should I go?” People want to avoid the uncertainty of the future and to make up their minds. To choose a way of life, they need an objective to attain, a reason to live for, and it is at this point that they ask if there is an absolute meaning of life that is worthwhile or even obligatory.

To clarify our point, I want to give an example that has much affected me and which illustrates the need of people to decide how to live. Fritjof Capra, in his book, Uncommon Wisdom, relates that he had serious questions about whether he should become a scientist, a hippie, or a Buddhist priest. He was trying to decide a way of life, but he had several choices and did not know which would be the correct one for him, which one would be the most worthwhile. His hesitation can be summed up like this: He was living as a part-time hippie and a part-time physicist. To be a complete hippie, he should have left behind physics and dropped out of school, because all hippies were dropping out and taking up a craft to earn their lives. They were cooking their own bread and living a communal life in tents. They had long hair and wore colorful clothes with flowers on them to protest against the rich businessmen who wore suits. They held special rituals, concerts, poetry readings... This was an ideology that protested against modern capitalist America and thus required a certain way of life. However, he enjoyed his scientific work, so science was important for him as well. He was offered a scholarship to do research and was invited to conferences. Apart from all these, he was interested in Eastern philosophy. Finally, he went to a conference given by J. Krishnamurti, a famous Buddhist master. He was talking about the basic problems of existence, such as fear, death, loneliness, love, etc. After the conference, he asked Krishnamurti about the contradiction he was in, and he received the following reply: “First, we are humans, then we are something else.” He was told about the meaning of being a human.

This is a good example that strikingly reflects the situation. Even if not to this degree, people, one way or another, live through doubts and try to choose the true way of life. Finding a way of life requires finding the meaning of life that will shape our future. The Taoist thinker Chuang Tzu says that he looked for a king to employ him for many years; that is, he looked for a fact to shape his destiny.

A second reason, which may cause people to ask, “Why do I exist?” may be the habit of living in a comfortable environment. When the sea is rough, people ask, “Why is the sea rough?” and they get the explanation: “There is a difference of pressure between two regions, so a breeze occurs which in turn forms a wind and the wind causes the water to be rough.” People expect an explanation for every event, a reason. To make this clearer, we can refer to the “formula of concrete,” invented by Claude Levi Strausse. He talks about this formula in his book Savage Mind. According to him, the human mind needs order and obtains this order by giving a role to everything that makes up its environment. For example, in a primitive African tribe the green leaf is a symbol of evil, while in another tribe it is the symbol of good. This is not because the green leaf actually has evil or good in it, but rather it is seen as such because people have imbued it with a role in order to make a network of relation and order in their world. As a result, we can conclude that as people tend to give a role or a meaning to such simple things as leaves, they cannot do this without asking, “What is the role of life?” and subsequently, life must be given a role as well.

A third reason may be the notion of death. The fact that everything has an end leads people to ask why there is existence. In every incident of death, people feel its coldness. Existence becomes an absurdity if we are to consider death as the end.

In conclusion we can say that no matter which answer people find, whether they cling to ideologies or they become people indulging in passing pleasures, they must be able to say “I lived for this or that reason.” Human beings have to be able to make this statement if they are to justify their battle to live in a causal world. 


  • Bubner, Rudiger, The German Idealist Philosophy, Penguin Books, London, 1997.
  • Edwards, Paul, Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Macmillan & Free Press, New York, 1967, Vol.4.
  • Kapra, Fritjof, Yeni Bir Dusunce, Iz Yayinlari, Istanbul, 1991. Originally published as Uncommon Wisdom.
  • Levi-Strauss, Claude, Yaban Dusunce, Yapi Kredi Yayinlari, Istanbul, 2000. Translated by Tahsin Yucel. Originally published as The Savage Mind, University of Chicago Press, 1972.
  • Nursi, Said, The Words 1, Kaynak A.S., Izmir, 1997.
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