What distinguishes human beings from other kinds of living beings on our planet is our ability to think in categories such as past, present and future. What goes along with these skills is the fact that humans are not satisfied with WHAT our life is like. In the course of all human history one can observe a growing obsession with the question of WHY things are the way they are. The question about the meaning of life, or whether there is such a thing at all or not, seems to be at the very core of human existence. The cultural critic Terry Eagleton, placed at the very left side of the political spectrum, was presumptous enough to publish a book called "The Meaning of Life" this year. And one can only applaud Eagleton for his magnificent effort. In only 100 pages he gives us a brief but insightful introduction to the history of the human search for life's ultimate meaning and eventually comes up with a definition which is as convincing as any answer to this question can ever be (and yes, I will quote Eagleton's approach towards the end of my review, so go on reading if you are interested in the meaning of your life!!).
Up until the 18th century the category meaning exclusively belonged to the domain of religion. Religion provided an easy answer which pretty much consisted in stating, to put it bluntly, that the meaning of life is to serve God, to obey his laws and to be eventually rewarded by enjoying the infinite pleasures of paradise. The era of Enlightment with thinkers such as Kant and Voltaire did away with that conviction by shifting the emphasis from eternity to the the here and now. In short, the thinkers of the Enlightenment started to question the entity called God being the provider of all meaning. The entity favoured by Kant to replace God is called Reason.
This process of secularization took up even more momentum in the last decades. The basic premise of postmodernism, a way, among other things, of thinking which started after the Second World War, is that ultimately meaning is impossible to achieve since we do not even have the appropriate means to make ourselves understandable. Our language is not able to define anything in positive terms. It can only express what things or concepts are not, a notion which was first introduced by the Structuralist linguist Ferdinand de Saussure in 1916 and put a step further by the philosopher Jacques Derrida (cf. 68). For postmodernists, however, this is no reason to despair and jump from the next bridge: "In this situation, it is always possible for some to find the meaning of life, or at least a sizeable chunk of it, in the very diversity of views on the subject [...]. What some see as hopeless fragmentation, then, others see as exhilarating liberation" (29). Thus, the first possible answer to the question concerning the meaning of our life is that meaning is something we do, we create and not something which is given, which inherently lies into things: "If our lives have meanings, it is something with which we manage to invest them, not something with which they come ready equipped" (32). According to this definition meaning is an individual construction performed by individual people to give meaning to their life which they would otherwise perceive as being empty and futile. At the moment the world is plagued by religious fundamentalists, be it the Evangelicals in the United States or the Muslims in the Arab World, who display their intellectual impotence by claiming that without God there cannot be any meaning at all. Here Eagleton comes up with a very clear response: "Religious fundamentalism is the neurotic anxiety that without a Meaning of meanings, there is no meaning at all. It is simply the flip side of nihilism" (45).
Let's see now how Eagleton himself tends to answer the meaning-question. He accepts that meaning is something that people do. He, however, stresses the point that the individual construction of meaning cannot happen in total independence from the physical facts provided by the world: "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 there meanings are to be valid, they must respect this world's grain and texture" (71). What remains certain, though, is the fact that the construction of meaning is a personal and individual affair which is only prestructured to a certain extent by the physical prerequisites of our universe. At the end of his short book Eagleton suggests that the answer to the question of the meaning of life does not lie in doing certain things but rather in the way we live our life: "What we need is a form of life which is completely pointless [...]. Rather than serve some utilitarian purpose or earnest metaphysical end, it is a delight in itself. It needs no justification beyond its own existence. In this sense, the meaning of life is interestingly close to meaninglessness. Religious believers who find this version of the meaning of life a little too laid-back for comfort should remind themselves that God, too, is his own end, ground, origin, reason, and self-delight, and that only by living this way can human beings be said to share in his life [...]. [I]f there is such a thing as eternal life, it must be here and now. It is the present moment which is an image of eternity, not an infinite succession of such moments" (100f.).
Conclusion: Very short but very insightful book about the question we all think about at at least some point in our life. Terry Eagleton's "The Meaning of Life" is highly recommendable for everybody who would like to start to think seriously about that all-important question.