The Oxford University Press publishes a series of Very Short Introductions to a breathtaking array of topics: from postmodernism and postcolonialism to agriculture and physics. Written lucidly, presupposing no specialist knowledge, in 100 pages or fewer, each VSI introduces the key topics and perspectives in its subject. Whether you’re dipping your toes into a new field, or broadening your general knowledge – a VSI is a good starting-point. This is the fifth VSI I’ve read. (Reviews of the others: forthcoming.)
The VSI to the Meaning of Life is by Terry Eagleton, my go-to Marxism explicator. In four short chapters, Eagleton surveys the question: What is the meaning of life? ‘This question,’ writes Eagleton, ‘Is fit for either the crazed, or the comic. I’ve tried to take the latter tone.’ Eagleton’s tone isn’t quite comic: but it is light. Meaning engages with perspectives on its question offered by philosophers from Aristotle to Derrida, and by writers from Shakespeare to Sartre. Eagleton penetrates to the heart of each thinker’s ouvre, articulates their stance, pairs or contrasts it with other thinkers’ stances, entertains it seriously – then drops it and moves on. Eagleton is like a precocious child set loose in a fairgrounds littered with brilliant toys. The fairgrounds is the whole emotional and cultural landscape of western thought; Eagleton’s erudition is not just promiscuous but intimate. The result is an accessible book that rewards careful rereading, seriously engages with but ultimately dismisses many apparently eligible candidates, and offers a surprising but charming final answer: The meaning of life is a jazz band.
Eagleton begins by analysing the nature of the question: What is the meaning of life? Is this question genuine, or the product of a linguistic error? We begin with Wittgenstein’s idea that philosophy’s main task is, not to solve, but to dissolve, this and many other magnitudinous questions that prove to be spurious: the result of ‘mistaking one kind of language game for another.’
But suppose this question is genuine. What then? It appears to accommodate not one, but multifarious answers. This brings us to the tragedy inherent in liberalism. Eagleton quotes Max Weber: ‘The [numerous] ultimately possible attiudes to life are irreconcilable, and hence their struggle can never be brought to a final conclusion.’ Liberalism opens the door to multiple, mutually incommensurable answers to the meaning-of-life question; this creates a tragedy that liberalism itself often refuses to acknowledge – as Eagleton remarks, in one of the many satires on liberalism/postmodernism he manages to pack into these 101 pages.
I thoroughly enjoyed these satires: I have no time for postmodernism, and I’m growing increasingly sceptical of liberalism. Your mileage may vary – but don’t let that put you off this book. Eagleton is too good a writer to let his politics muddy his writing. Meaning is not a polemic. Though Eagleton is a well-known Marxian, Meaning also questions Marxist solutions to its question.
One longstanding source of an answer to this question was religion. Eagleton analyses the rift between Catholic vs. Protestant attitudes to the relationship between god’s will, and the meanings inherent (or not) in reality itself. Whereas Catholic theologians like Thomas Aquinas saw a world ‘thick’ with essential meanings, Protestant thinkers realised that essential meanings curtailed god’s absolute will. For some Protestant thinkers, the only admissible answer to, say, the question, ‘Why is torture wrong?’ was ‘Because god says so.’ Protestant ‘nominalists’ had to ‘thin’ out reality – alienate from reality all essential meanings. The only to make room for god’s will, to make god the only ultimate source of meaning, was to claim that ‘meaning’ was just a verbal (‘nominal’) fiction.
In stark contrast stand other Protestants: including Friedrich Schleiermacher: inventor of hermeneutics (the science of interpretation). Schleiermacher sources in scripture itself the legitimacy of the quintessentially human sensemaking endeavour. E.g. in Genesis, ‘God put before man each animal and plant… and whatever man called that thing, henceforth that thing was called by that name.’ In short, religious faith doesn’t preclude deciding what to call things, and deciding the meaning of life – remaining a human enterprise.
Of course, when religion exits stage right, then meaning-of-life questions assume an urgency qualitatively new, and unmoored from any certainty of an answer.
Why is it that the meaning-of-life question recurs more insistently in some historical epochs? Specifically, why is this question so archetypally modern? In Marxian fashion, Eagleton proposes a material explanation for this psychological phenomenon. In the last century, life’s material conditions have changed abruptly. The individual is no longer bound up in religious faith; in traditional occupations and rituals; or in inviolable bonds to family, friends, and life-partners. In modernity, these historical sources for meaning have failed many of us:
“Meaning-of-life questions, when launched on a grand scale… arise at times when taken-for-granted roles, beliefs, and conventions are plunged into crisis… Surely it’s no ccoincidence that this is also when the most distinguished works of tragedy are created… Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad raised these questions with an urgency unimaginable in William Thackeray or Anthony Trollope… When we see such large-scale inquiries, it’s a fair bet that things have come unstuck… Inquiring into the meaning of one’s own existence is a different matter. If one’s life is going well, it is probably because you brood from time to time on what in your life needs tinkering or transforming.”
Eagleton briefly examines some 20th century events that spurred such large-scale inquiries. The two world wars, and other conflicts of unprecedented violence, confronted us with the fragility of life. Sexuality and religion, instead of continuing to serve as sources of meaning, became commercialised like the rest of public life: and thus became also drained of meaning. Meanwhile, capitalism itself seemed to offer a surfeit of answers to the meaning-of-life question. Some observers found meaning in this very multiplicity of possible answers to the meaning-of-life question.
After engaging with, explicating, and dropping a series of candidate answers, Eagleton finally settles on the book’s final answer: Maybe the meaning of life is a jazz band.
In a jazz band, every player is engrossed in developing and articulating his/her own creative potential – while also collaborating to further the creative potential of his fellow-humans.
Creativity and sociality are to the Marxian Eagleton – as they are to existentialists – the twin defining human traits. What better answer, then, to the uniquely human question of What is the meaning of life? – than ‘A jazz band band.
Eagleton’s VSI to the Meaning of Life is a delectable, digestible introduction to landmark schools of thought whose debates on big questions have shaped European cultural history; and, via that route, global political history. Savour this book for a succinct, insightful introduction to the worldviews of intellectuals from Samuel Beckett to Julian Baggini. Or just read it for the witty barbs against postmodernism.