Durant's On The Meaning of Life
Will Durant's On The Meaning Of Life is one of those great old books: hardbound without a jacket, no flashy images on the cover or overwrought blurbs in back; published by an obscure house no longer extant (Ray Long & Richard Smith, Inc., 1932); drab in appearance, gray and dusty around the edges -- and yet, every page sparkles with some scintillating insight into life and humanity. Durant was a prolific writer, widely respected educator, and an avid student of history and philosophy.
Will you interrupt your work for a moment and play the game of philosophy with me?
"I am attempting to face a question which our generation, perhaps more than any, seems always ready to ask and never able to answer -- What is the meaning or worth of human life? Heretofore this question has been dealt with chiefly by theorists, from Ikhnaton and Lao-tse to Bergson and Spengler. The result has been a kind of intellectual suicide: thought, by its very development, seems to have destroyed the value and significance of life. The growth and spread of knowledge, for which so many idealists and reformers prayed, has resulted in a disillusionment which has almost broken the spirit of our race.
"Astronomers have told us that human affairs constitute but a moment in the trajectory of a star; geologists have told us that civilization is but a precarious interlude between ice ages; biologists have told us that all life is war, a struggle for existence among individuals, groups, nations, alliances, and species; historians have told us that 'progress' is a delusion, whose glory ends in inevitable decay; psychologists have told us that the will and the self are the helpless instruments of heredity and environment, and that the once incorruptible soul is but a transient incandescence of the brain. The Industrial Revolution has destroyed the home, and the discovery of contraceptives is destroying the family, the old morality, and perhaps (through the sterility of the intelligent) the race. Love is analyzed into a physical congestion, and marriage becomes a temporary physiological convenience slightly superior to promiscuity. Democracy has degenerated into such corruption as only Milo's Rome knew; and our youthful dreams of a socialist Utopia disappear as we see, day after day, the inexhaustible acquisitiveness of men. Every invention strengthens the strong and weakens the weak; every new mechanism displaces men, and multiplies the horror of war. God, who was once the consolation of our brief life, and our refuge in bereavement and suffering, has apparently vanished from the scene; no telescope, no microscope discovers him. Life has become, in that total perspective which is philosophy, a fitful pullulation of human insects on the earth, a planetary eczema that may soon be cured; nothing is certain in it except defeat and death -- a sleep from which, it seems, there is no awakening.
"We are driven to conclude that the greatest mistake in human history was the discovery of 'truth.' It has not made us free, except from delusions that comforted us and restraints that preserved us. It has not made us happy, for truth is not beautiful, and did not deserve to be so passionately chased. As we look on it now we wonder why we hurried so to find it. For it has taken from us every reason for existence except the moment's pleasure and tomorrow's trivial hope.
"This is the pass to which science and philosophy have brought us. I, who have loved philosophy for many years, now turn back to life itself, and ask you, as one who has lived as well as thought, to help me understand. Perhaps the verdict of those who have lived is different from that of those who have merely thought. Spare me a moment to tell me what meaning life has for you, what keeps you going, what help -- if any -- religion gives you, what are the sources of your inspiration and your energy, what is the goal or motive-force of your toil, where you find your consolations and your happiness, where, in the last resort, your treasure lies. Write briefly if you must; write at length and at leisure if you possibly can; for every word from you will be precious to me.
"It is not merely the War of 1914 that has plunged us into pessimism, much less the economic depression of these recent years; we have to do here with something far deeper than a temporary diminution of our wealth, or even the death of 26,000,000 men; it is not our homes and our treasuries that are empty, it is our 'hearts.' It seems impossible any longer to believe in the permanent greatness of man, or to give life a meaning that cannot be annulled by death. We move into an age of spiritual exhaustion and despondency like that which hungered for the birth of Christ. . .
"All the hopes of the Enlightenment were realized: science was free, and was remaking the world. But while the technicians were using science to transform the earth, philosophers were using it to transform the universe. Slowly, as one science after another reported its findings, a picture was unfolded of universal struggle and death; and decade by decade the optimism of the nineteenth century yielded to the pessimism of today. . .
"Our schools are like our inventions -- they offer us new ideas, new means of doing old things; they elevate us from petty larceny to bank wreckages and Teapot Domes. They stake all on intellect, only to find that character wins in the end. We taught people how to read, and they enrich the 'tabloids' and the 'talkies'; we invented the radio, and they pour out, a hundred times more abundantly than before, the music of savages and the prejudices of mobs. We gave them, through technology and engineering, unprecedented wealth -- miraculous automobiles, luxurious travel, and spacious homes; only to find that peace departs as riches come, that automobiles over-ride morality and connive at crime, that quarrels grow bitterer as the spoils increase, and that the largest houses are the bloodiest battlegrounds of the ancient war between woman and man. We discovered birth-control, and now it sterilizes the intelligent, multiplies the ignorant, debases love with promiscuity, frustrates the educator, empowers the demagogue, and deteriorates the race. We enfranchised all men, and find them supporting and preserving, in nearly every city, a nefarious 'machine' that blocks the road between ability and office; we enfranchsed all women, and discovered that nothing is changed except clerical expense. We dreamed of socialism, and find our own souls too greedy to make it possible; in our hearts we too are capitalists, and have no serious objection to becoming rich. . .
"The greatest question of our time is not communism vs. individualism, not Europe vs. America, not even the East vs. the West; it is whether men can bear to live without God."
"You ask me, in brief, what satisfaction I get out of life, and why I go on working. I go on working for the same reason that a hen goes on laying eggs. There is in every living creature an obscure but powerful impulse to active functioning. Life demands to be lived. Inaction, save as a measure of recuperation between bursts of activity, is painful and dangerous to the healthy organism -- in fact, it is almost impossible. Only the dying can be really idle...
"I have done, in the main, exactly what I wanted to do. Its possible effects upon other people have interested me very little. I have not written and published to please other people, but to satisfy myself, just as a cow gives milk, not to profit the dairyman, but to satisfy herself. I like to think that most of my ideas have been sound ones, but I really don't care. The world may take them or leave them. I have had my fun hatching them. . .
"The act of worship, as carried on by Christians, seems to me to be debasing rather than ennobling. It involves grovelling before a Being who, if He really exists, deserves to be denounced instead of respected. I see little evidence in this world of the so-called goodness of God. On the contrary, it seems to me that, on the strength of His daily acts, He must be set down a most stupid, cruel and villainous fellow...I simply can't imagine revering the God of war and politics, theology and cancer.
"I do not believe in immortality, and have no desire for it. The belief in it issues from the puerile egos of inferior men. In its Christian form it is little more than a device for getting revenge upon those who are having a better time on this earth. What the meaning of human life may be I don't know: I incline to suspect that it has none. All I know about it is that, to me at least, it is very amusing while it lasts. Even its troubles, indeed, can be amusing. Moreover, they tend to foster the human qualities that I admire most -- courage and its analogues. The noblest man, I think, is that one who fights God, and triumphs over Him. I have had little of this to do. When I die I shall be content to vanish into nothingness. No show, however good, could conceivably be good forever."
"It is, I think, an error to believe that there is any need of religion to make life seem worth living...I know several young people who have been reared entirely without thought of churches, of formal theology, or any other aspect of religion, who have learned ethics not as a divine commandment but as a matter of social convenience. They seem to me quite as happy, quite as filled with purpose and with eagerness about life as any one trained to pass all his troubles on to the Lord, or the Lord's local agent, the pastor.
"Their satisfaction comes from functioning healthily, from physical and mental exercise, whether it be playing tennis or tackling an astronomical problem. . .
"If I go to a play I do not enjoy it less because I do not believe that it is divinely created and divinely conducted, that it will last forever instead of stopping at eleven, that many details of it will remain in my memory after a few months, or that it will have any particular moral effect upon me. And I enjoy life as I enjoy that play."
"When we analyze ourselves we find conflicting motives. We have moments of shivering selfishness, when we think only of our personal gain. And we have moments of exaltation when we feel the thrill of the prodigious and hear the call to high action. That seems to be true of all men and women, high and low, and the outcome in each case is a matter of proportion.
"For myself I may say that as I look over the grand drama of history, I find (or seem to find) amid the apparent chaos and tragedy, evidence of law and plan and immense achievement of the human spirit in spite of disasters. I am convinced that the world is not a mere bog in which men and women trample themselves in the mire and die. Something magnificent is taking place here amid the cruelties and tragedies, and the supreme challenge to intelligence is that of making the noblest and best in our curious heritage prevail. If there was no grand design in the beginning of the universe, fragments of one are evident and mankind can complete the picture. A knowledge of the good life is our certain philosophic heritage, and technology has given us a power over nature which enables us to provide the conditions of the good life for all the earth's multitudes. That seems to me to be the most engaging possibility of the drama, and faith in its potentialities keeps me working at it even in the worst hours of disillusionment. The good life -- an end in itself to be loved and enjoyed; and intelligent labor directed to the task of making the good life prevail. There is the little philosophy, the circle of thought, within which I keep my little mill turning.
"This is the appearance of things as I see them, and even profound philosophers can merely say what they find here."
"I received, in 1930," Durant says, "several letters, from separate persons, declaring their intention of committing suicide. I have brought together here the substance of my correspondence with them..." -- below are a few excerpts from a long but interesting chapter:
"Let me confess at once that I cannot answer, in any absolute or metaphysical sense, your question as to the meaning of life. I suspect that there is some ultimate significance to everything, though I know that our little minds will never fathom it. For the meaning of anything must lie in its relation to some whole of which it is a part; and how could any fragment or moment of life, like you or me, pretend to rise out of its individual cell and survey or understand the entirety of things? . . .
"The meaning of life, then, must lie within itself; it must be independent of individual death, even of national decay; it must be sought in life's own instinctive cravings and natural fulfilments. Why, for example, should we ask for an ulterior meaning to vitality and health? -- they would be goods in their own right, even if they were not also means to racial ends. If you are sick beyond cure I will grant you viaticum, and let you die; let me not to the ending of botched lives put an impediment. But if you are well -- if you can stand on your legs and digest your food -- forget your whining, and shout your gratitude to the sun. . .
" 'Be a whole or join a whole,' said Goethe. If we think of ourselves as part of a living (no merely theoretical) group, we shall find life a little fuller, perhaps even more significant. For to give life a meaning one must have a purpose larger than one's self, and more enduring than one's life.
"...we can say of any life in particular that its meaning lies in its relation to something larger than itself. Hence the greater fulness of the married and parental, as compared with the celibate and sterile, life; a man feels significant in proportion as he contributes, physically or mentally, to the entity of which he acknowledges himself a part. We who are too superior to belong to groups, who are too wise to marry or too clever to have children, find life empty and vain, and wonder has it any meaning. But ask the father of sons and daughters 'What is the meaning of life?' and he will answer you very simply: 'Feeding your family.' . . .
"Where, in the last resort, does my treasure lie? -- in everything. A man should have many irons in the fire; he should not let his happiness be bound up entirely with his children, or his fame, or his prosperity, or even his health; but he should be able to find nourishment for his content in any one of these, even if all the rest are taken away. My last resort, I think, would be Nature herself; short of all other gifts and goods, I should find, I hope, sufficient courage for existence in any mood of field and sky, or, shorn of sight, in some concourse of sweet sounds, or some poet's memory of a day that smiled. All in all, experience is a marvelously rich panorama, from which any sense should be able to draw sustenance for living."