The Meaning of Life

Meaning is definition. The meaning of life is therefore essentially the definition of life. Hence, the search for the meaning of life is a search for a definition that will tell us what we are really doing when we live, or (if we believe in freedom of the will) what we ought to be doing.

I emphasize the point that meaning is definition because it clarifies the alternatives entailed by “the desire for meaning,” or “the search for meaning.” In brief, meaning is either something we create or something we discover. If it is created, then we are in effect defining ourselves, whether individually or communally. If it is discovered, then this implies that there is a human nature which determines certain specific purposes, endeavors, or aspirations as the most essentially human (i.e., highest) ones.

The idea that we create or choose our life’s meaning is consistent with and strongly related to nihilism, existentialism, relativism, and in general all views which deny that there is a reality which may in principle be known and adhered to. The idea that life’s meaning is something independent of our will which must be discovered, or divined through intuition or inspiration, is consistent with opposition to nihilism, existentialism, and relativism, and embodies the belief that there is a reality which may, at least in theory, be known through reason.

The former view, namely that we create or will our life’s meaning, is certainly more democratic. The latter, namely that our life’s meaning, as it were, creates or wills us, is decidedly undemocratic. But who ever said the cosmos or the soul had to be democracies?

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