A Review of The Meaning of Life: A Short Introduction

The Meaning of Life: A Short Introduction
Terry Eagleton, Oxford University Press, 2007

In his new little book, The Meaning of Life, Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton sets out to discover the question people have been asking and answering over the vast confusion of human history: what is the meaning of life? For Eagleton, as with Wittgenstein, the question is as important as the answer, for the form of the question in some sense determines the possibilities of its answers. Perhaps, says Wittgenstein, we are getting grammar mixed up with real philosophy. Perhaps we are making the false assumption that the question, “what is the meaning of life?” can have an answer like “what is the meaning of the word ‘apple’?” does. What do we really mean when we ask, “what is the meaning of life?” Is it a real question or a pseudo-question we assume to have an answer because it assumes the same grammatical form as other real questions? This is what Eagleton sets out to figure out, and this is why he, a literary theorist, is interested.

Perhaps, Eagleton writes, what we really mean when we ask ourselves the question, is really something more along the lines of, “why is there anything at all?” or “why is there something rather than nothing?” or “Why is existence?” But this doesn’t seem satisfying. After all, Eagleton asks, isn’t this just a Teutonic way of saying “wow!”? Again, the question in some sense determines what the answers are, and if all we are getting to is a Teutonic “wow,” then perhaps we’re asking the wrong question.

Eagleton then considers the way this question of life’s meaning is possibly modeled on a different type of question altogether. For example, perhaps it is modeled after those questions for which we assume there to be answers, but it is possible this isn’t the case. Eagleton holds that some questions just do not have easy, if any, answers. The example he gives: which of your children do you sacrifice to a Nazi soldier? In literature, a question without an answer is called tragedy, for which the best we can do in this case is not to answer the question, but to bravely peer into the fragility of the human condition. For postmodernists, there is no such thing as a human condition to be peered into, merely differences, and Eagleton is sharp in his critique of postmodernism as a self-imploding ideology.

For religious people, Eagleton writes, the meaning of life is not a what, but a who. But for him, the problem lies not in the “what” in “what is the meaning of life,” but in the “meaning.” What, after all, does “meaning” mean? What does it mean to mean something? Eagleton suggests there are three senses in which we employ this word: meaning as an intention (“I mean to do my homework tonight”), meaning as signification (“Those clouds mean rain”), and the intention of signification (“I don’t mean that”). Whereas the latter two are more semantic and apt for the meaning of words, the first, meaning as intention, speaks to an existential element, and makes more sense when we speak of phenomena. So when we ask ourselves the meaning of a particular phenomenon, we are not so much worried with its synonyms or denotations as we are with its intentions. Perhaps in asking the question of life’s meaning then, we really mean to be asking the question of life’s intention, that is, “what is life for?,” “what is the purpose of life?” But inherent to this question is another: whose purpose?

For many Christians, it is God. The meaning of life is what God intended. But what about atheists? Can life have meaning without a super-being who super-intends this meaning into the world? Drawing again on his background, Eagleton reframes this question literary: can there be a significant meaningful narrative without an author? Eagleton thinks yes. But he believes meanings of this sort are more like functions and less like intentions. And surely this is true: life without God could still display some pattern, but when we ask ourselves if our lives contain meaning, we are generally not concerned with whether our lives display some intelligible pattern, but whether we have a good enough reason to continue living.

Can life have not merely function, but also purpose, without God? For the German pessimists — Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud — no. In order for life to have existential and not mere semantic or functional meaning, God’s function as author (or purpose-giver) must be sustained, a simulacrum, even after the God myth, from which that function derives, has been dissembled. With God out of the picture as the divine author, Man then needs to step up to take his functional place as legislator of values.

But what happens when Man becomes the divine legislator? Here Eagleton draws us to poetry, where the questions of ascribed versus inherent meaning have been debated since time immemorial: is the meaning of a poem already there, or is meaning something that readers bring to and infuse into the poem? Eagleton isn’t satisfied with this sort of “anything goes” pessimist positivism, the illusion that you can stamp meaning onto things as if they don’t have meaning there of their own. For example, says Eagleton, we cannot just “construct” words however we want: we cannot “construct” tigers to be coy and cuddly. And here, he states something like a thesis: “Meaning, to be sure, is something people do; but they do it in dialogue with a determinate world whose laws they did not invent, and if their meanings are to be valid, they must respect this world’s grain and texture.” In materialist vein true to his Marxist roots, Eagleton argues that we cannot escape the being of the world, its “grain and texture.”

I think Eagleton here makes the very kind of mistake he warns against: the category mistake. Here he seems to be talking about meaning as a semantic signifier (man cannot “mean” lion into a pet cat), but what the atheists like Nietzsche, Freud, and Schopenhauer were concerned with was not so much meaning as a signifier, but meaning as intention. For them then, the intention or purpose of one’s life is self-ascribed. I have other problems with this, but to be fair, Eagleton’s critique is not applicable here. For these atheists, the question “what is the meaning — that is, purpose — of life?” is false insofar as one can only answer the question for him or herself: “what is the purpose of my life,” or in other words, “why do I choose to live?” It’s reasonable to posit that one does not live one’s life for a reason proffered by another person. One lives because one chooses to live, and for his or her own reasons. Though we’ve hitherto been talking about atheists, we see the situation at this point is really not so different for the believer. All we’ve really done is deconstructed the fallacy in assuming that all people live for the same reason. All people, not just atheists or theists, choose to live for their own reasons. What really matters then is what they choose to live for. For the theists, it is God, and for the atheists, it isn’t.

What then, Eagleton asks, competes with God as a reason for living? Money? Power? Honor? Truth? Pleasure? Freedom? In other words, which of these, like God, is as it were, pointless, an end unto itself, for which the question “why?” cannot be answered? Of course, Eagleton cannot answer for all people, but he can represent some of the most common or universal candidates for this title. Happiness seems to most people a reasonable candidate. But it is a happiness of the Aristotelian type, not the debauched pleasure of a Camusian hedonist. So it is God and happiness. But Eagleton doesn’t see much different at all here. For both, he says, are not solutions to problems, but a matter of living in a certain way. He writes of the gospels: “It is just this kind of bathos that Matthew sets up in his gospel, where he presents the Son of Man returning in the glory surrounded by angels for the Last Judgement. Despite this off-the-peg cosmic imagery, salvation turns out to be an embarrassingly prosaic affair — a matter of feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the imprisoned … The cosmos revolves on comforting the sick. When you act in this way, you are sharing in the love which built the stars. To live in this way is not just to have life, but to have it in abundance.” In the end, Eagleton says, Christian love is Aristotelian happiness viewed in relational terms.

Eagleton is of course oversimplifying here. One must admit he doesn’t quite do justice to the unique and uncompromising vision of Christian love. He perhaps too easily overlooks the substantive differences between the conceptions of happiness and love that most atheists and most Christians have, and fails to consider why this is the case. Nevertheless, Eagleton here brilliantly dispels the fundamentalist myth that atheists cannot be good people, or that Christian morality is somehow more logical than an atheistic morality. Every normative system has its terminating point, its point of irreducibility. It’s just that for atheists whose conception of love is similar of that of Christians, this terminating point is as it were one step prior, so that for a Christian, God is the teleological termination of love itself whereas for an atheist, love is the teleological termination in itself. But even this reeks of Wittgensteinian grammatical magic and pseudo-philosophy. So in theory at least, atheists can be just as Christian as Christians are. In theory, an atheist could adopt the Christian moral system — some Christians think they already have most of it — without the Christian God. But whether or how this theoretical possibility becomes real and living practice, Eagleton does not concern himself with answering, for that is a subject which warrants its own thorough analysis.

Eagleton is a brilliant writer and perhaps one of the most interesting theorists around, a thinker who, in a discourse characterized by crude caricature, has the good manners to both appreciate and critique Christianity for what it actually is. He is able to draw together disparate fields of knowledge in a way that elucidates them all. In this book, he daringly weaves the discourses of literature, philosophy, and religion into a brilliant meta-discursive intertext and though at times his discursive versatility makes his writing difficult to follow, disorienting and seemingly unorganized, Eagleton in The Meaning of Life nevertheless synthesizes ideas in a way only a maverick intellectual like him can. He gets us questioning our own questions and the ways in which we ask them, and in doing so, achieves in this work that rare quality of good critical literature: a rigorous but enjoyable challenge.

Kelly Maeshiro ’14, a religion concentrator in Leverett House, is on the staff on The Ichthus.

Thumbnail image by Willgame, from Stock Free Images.

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