The meaning of life is a philosophical question concerning the significance of life or existence in general. It can also be expressed in different forms, such as “Why are we here?”,”What is life all about?”, and “What is the purpose of existence?” It has been the subject of much philosophical,scientific, and theological speculation throughout history.
There have been a large number of proposed answers to these questions from many different cultural and ideological backgrounds. The meaning of life is in the philosophical and religious conceptions of existence, social ties, consciousness, and happiness, and borders on many other issues, such as symbolic meaning, ontology, value, purpose, ethics, good and evil, free will, the existence of one or multiple Gods, conceptions of God, the soul, and the afterlife. Scientific contributions focus primarily on describing related empirical facts about the universe, exploring the context and parameters concerning the ‘how’ of life. Science also studies and can provide recommendations for the pursuit of well-being and a related conception of morality. An alternative, humanistic approach poses the question “What is the meaning of my life?” The value of the question pertaining to the purpose of life may coincide with the achievement of ultimate reality, or a feeling of oneness, or even a feeling of sacredness.
Questions about the meaning of life have been expressed in a broad variety of ways, including the following:
• What is the meaning of life? What’s it all about? Who are we?
• Why are we here? What are we here for?
• What is the origin of life?
• What is the nature of life? What is the nature of reality?
• What is the purpose of life? What is the purpose of one’s life?
• What is the significance of life?
• What is meaningful and valuable in life?
• What is the value of life?
• What is the reason to live? What are we living for?
Platonism – Idealism
Plato was one of the earliest, most influential philosophers—mostly for idealism—a belief in the existence of universals. In the Theory of Forms, universals do not physically exist, like objects, but as heavenly forms. In The Republic, the Socrates character’s dialogue describes the Form of the Good. In Platonism, the meaning of life is in attaining the highest form of knowledge, which is the Idea (Form) of the Good, from which all good and just things derive utility and value. One of the most important concepts Plato developed was his theory of Forms. Plato states that reality exists on two specific levels:
1. The visible world that is made up of sights and sounds
2. The intelligible world (the world of Forms) that gives the visible world its being. For example, when a person sees a beautiful painting, that person has the ability to identify beauty because he has an abstract concept of what beauty is. Therefore, beautiful things are seen as beautiful because they are a part of the Form of beauty. While things in the visible world can change and lose their beauty, the Form of beauty is eternal, never changes, and cannot be seen. Plato believed that concepts like beauty, courage, goodness, temperance, and justice exist in an entire world of Forms, outside of space and time, unaffected by what happens in the visible world.
In the Hellenistic period, the Cynic philosophers said that the purpose of life is living a life of Virtue that agrees with Nature. Happiness depends upon being self-sufficient and master of one’s mental attitude; suffering is the consequence of false judgments of value, which cause negative emotions and a concomitant vicious character. The Cynical life rejects conventional desires for wealth, power, health, and fame, by being free of the possessions acquired in pursuing the conventional. As reasoning creatures, people could achieve happiness via rigorous training, by living in a way natural to human beings. The world equally belongs to everyone, so suffering is caused by false judgments of what is valuable and what is worthless per the customs and conventions of society.
Existentialism is not a school of thought so much as a trend that appears throughout philosophy during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Prior to this time, philosophical thought had grown to become increasingly more complex and abstract. In dealing with ideas of nature and truth, philosophers began to exclude the importance of human beings. However, starting with Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche in the nineteenth century, several philosophers emerged placing a newfound focus on the human experience. Though there are significant differences between philosophers of existentialism (a term that would not be used until the twentieth century), the one common theme among all of them is the notion that philosophy should focus on the experience of human existence in this world.
In other words, existentialism seeks out the meaning of life and finding oneself. Though existentialist thought varies from philosopher to philosopher, there are several common themes. One of the key ideas of existentialism is that the meaning of life and discovering oneself can only be attained by free will, personal responsibility, and choice.Existentialism deals with the question of what it means to exist as a human being. Existentialists believe that humans have been thrown into this universe, and therefore it is existing in this world, and not consciousness, that is the ultimate reality. A person is an individual who has the ability to think and act independently and should be defined by his actual life. It is through an individual’s own consciousness that values and purpose are determined.
Stoicism teaches that living according to reason and virtue is to be in harmony with the universe’s divine order, entailed by one’s recognition of the universal logos (reason), an essential value of all people. The meaning of life is “freedom from suffering” through apatheia (Gr: απαθεια), that is, being objective and having “clear judgement”, not indifference. Stoicism’s prime directives are virtue, reason, and natural law, abided to develop personal self-control and mental fortitude as means of overcoming destructive emotions. The Stoic does not seek to extinguish emotions, only to avoid emotional troubles, by developing clear judgement and inner calm through diligently practiced logic, reflection, and concentration. The Stoic ethical foundation is that “good lies in the state of the soul”, itself, exemplified in wisdom and self-control, thus improving one’s spiritual well-being: “Virtue consists in a will which is in agreement with Nature.” The principle applies to one’s personal relations thus: “to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy”.
Theists believe God created the universe and that God had a purpose in doing so. Many theists, including the former atheist Anthony Flew, have been persuaded that God created because of the scientific evidence for a low entropy Big Bang more than 13 billion years ago. Theists also hold the view that humans find their meaning and purpose for life in God’s purpose in creating. Theists further hold that if there were no God to give life ultimate meaning, value and purpose, then life would be absurd.
Determinism – Materialism
Determinism is the philosophical theory that, because every event has a cause, all human action is predetermined and therefore choices made by free will do not exist. Though the assertion of the hard determinist that nothing can occur without a cause may seem rational, the conclusion that no one ever acts freely has sparked much debate in the philosophical world.Determinism is often associated with Newtonian mechanics/physics, which depicts the physical matter of the universe as operating according to a set of fixed, knowable laws. The “billiard ball” hypothesis, a product of Newtonian physics, argues that once the initial conditions of the universe have been established, the rest of the history of the universe follows inevitably.
If it were actually possible to have complete knowledge of physical matter and all of the laws governing that matter at any one time, then it would be theoretically possible to compute the time and place of every event that will ever occur (Laplace’s demon). In this sense, the basic particles of the universe operate in the same fashion as the rolling balls on a billiard table, moving and striking each other in predictable ways to produce predictable results. In other words, all existence is a kind of machine that came into existence by chance, or for an unknown reason and our sense of self and free will is merely an illusion which are a by-product of brain or this machine-like activity. Life in this belief in itself does not carry any meaning or purpose.
Confucianism is not officially considered a world religion because it is not organized as such. It is often grouped with religions, however, perhaps because it is a spiritual philosophy, a social ethic, a political ideology, and a scholarly tradition. The belief system began in China around the sixth to fifth century B.C. by Confucius. It has been followed by the Chinese people for over two millennia. A major part of the belief is its emphasis on learning; Confucianism is also a source of values. Its influence has spread to many other countries, including Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Confucianism made its mark extensively in Chinese literature, education, culture, and both spiritual and political life.
Taoism arose in the first century A.D. The name came from the Chinese character that means path or way: Tao. In English it is pronounced “dow.” The Tao is a natural force that makes the universe the way it is. Taoism advocates the philosophy of disharmony or harmony of opposites, meaning there is no love without hate, no light without dark, no male without female — in other words, yin and yang.
Taoist thought permeated the Chinese culture in the same way that Confucianism did, and the two are often linked. Taoism became more popular than Confucianism, even though Confucianism had state patronage. Taoism was based on the individual and tended to reflect the organized society of Confucianism. The traditions became so well entrenched within China that many people accepted both of them, although they applied the concepts to their lives in different ways. Taoism was first conceived as a philosophy and evolved into a religion that has a number of deities. Lao-tzu (or Laozi), whom many believed was the founder of Taoism, was so revered that he was thought of as a deity. On the other hand, there were some who thought of him as a mystical character. A key Taoist concept is that of nonaction or the natural course of things. It is a direct link to yin and yang.
Yin (dark/female) represents cold, feminine, evil, and negative principles. The yang (light/male) represents good, masculine, warmth, and positive principles. Yin (the dark side) is the breath that formed the earth. Yang (the light side) is the breath that formed the heavens. Yin and yang are not polar opposites; they are values in people that depend on individual circumstances. So, what is cold for one person may be warm for another. Yin and yang are said to be identical aspects of the same reality. The study, practice, and readings of yin and yang have become a school of philosophy in its own right. The idea is for the student to find balance in life where yin represents inactivity, rest, and reflection, while yang represents activity and creativity. The basic feature of Taoism is to restore balance.
Shinto is the native religion of Japan. Shinto means “the path of the kami”, but more specifically, it can be taken to mean “the divine crossroad where the kami chooses his way”. The “divine” crossroad signifies that all the universe is divine spirit. This foundation of free will, choosing one’s way, means that life is a creative process. Shinto wants life to live, not to die. Shinto sees death as pollution and regards life as the realm where the divine spirit seeks to purify itself by rightful self-development. Shinto wants individual human life to be prolonged forever on earth as a victory of the divine spirit in preserving its objective personality in its highest forms. The presence of evil in the world, as conceived by Shinto, does not stultify the divine nature by imposing on divinity responsibility for being able to relieve human suffering while refusing to do so. The sufferings of life are the sufferings of the divine spirit in search of progress in the objective world.
Theosophy (from Greek θεοσοφία theosophia, from θεός theos, divine + σοφία sophia, wisdom; literally “divine wisdom”), refers to systems of esoteric philosophy concerning, or investigation seeking direct knowledge of, presumed mysteries of being and nature, particularly concerning the nature of divinity. Theosophy is considered a part of the broader field of esotericism, referring to hidden knowledge or wisdom that offers the individual enlightenment and salvation. The word esoteric dates back to the 2nd century CE. The theosophist seeks to understand the mysteries of the universe and the bonds that unite the universe, humanity, and the divine.
The goal of theosophy is to explore the origin of divinity and humanity, and the world. From investigation of those topics, theosophists try to discover a coherent description of the purpose and origin of the universe. The word theosophia appeared in both Greek and Latin in the works of early church fathers as a synonym for “theology”. The theosophoi are “those who know divine matters.” During the Renaissance, use of the term diverged to refer to gnostic knowledge that offers the individual enlightenment and salvation through a knowledge of the bonds that are believed to unite her or him to the world of divine or intermediary spirits. By the 16th century the word theosophy was being used in at least one of its current meanings.
Mysticism is a term with various, historical determined meanings. Derived from the Greek μυω, meaning “to conceal”, it referred to the biblical, the liturgical and the spiritual or contemplative dimensions in early and medieval Christianity, and became associated with “extraordinary experiences and states of mind” in the early modern period. In modern times, “mysticism” has acquired a limited definition, but a broad application, as meaning “the pursuit of communion with, identity with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, instinct or insight.”The limited definition has been applied to include a worldwide range of religious traditions and practices. In this contemporary usage “mysticism” has become an umbrella term, conflated with spirituality and esotericism. During the early modern period, the definition of mysticism grew to include a broad range of beliefs and ideologies related to “extraordinary experiences and states of mind.
“In modern times, “mysticism” has acquired a limited definition, with broad applications, as meaning the aim at the “union with the Absolute, the Infinite, or God”. Broadly defined, mysticism can be found in all religious traditions, from indigenous religions and folk religions like shamanism, to organized religions like the Abrahamic faiths and Indian religions, and modern spirituality, New Age and New Religious Movements. Since the 1960s scholars have debated the merits of perennial and constructionist approaches in the scientific research of “mystical experiences. ” Many religious and mystical traditions see religious experiences (particularly that knowledge that comes with them) as revelations caused by divine agency rather than ordinary natural processes. They are considered real encounters with God or gods, or real contact with higher-order realities of which humans are not ordinarily aware.
Christianity has its roots in Judaism, and shares much of the latter faith’s ontology, its central beliefs derive from the teachings of Jesus Christ, as presented in the New Testament. Life’s purpose in Christianity is to seek divine salvation through the grace of God and intercession of Christ. (cf. John 11:26) The New Testament speaks of God wanting to have a relationship with humans both in this life and the life to come, which can happen only if one’s sins are forgiven (John 3:16–21; 2 Peter 3:9). In the Christian view, humankind was made in the Image of God and perfect, but the Fall of Man caused the progeny of the first Parents to inherit Original Sin. The sacrifice of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection provide the means for transcending that impure state (Romans 6:23). The means for doing so varies between different groups of Christians, but all rely on belief in Jesus, his work on the cross and his resurrection as the fundamental starting point for a relationship with God.
In Islam, man’s ultimate life objective is to worship the creator Allah(God) by abiding by the Divine guidelines revealed in the Qur’an and the Tradition of the Prophet. Earthly life is merely a test, determining one’s afterlife, either in Jannah (Paradise) or in Jahannam (Hell). For Allah’s satisfaction, via the Qur’an, all Muslims must believe in God, his revelations, his angels, his messengers, and in the “Day of Judgment”. The Qur’an describes the purpose of creation as follows: “Blessed be he in whose hand is the kingdom, he is powerful over all things, who created death and life that he might examine which of you is best in deeds, and he is the almighty, the forgiving” (Qur’an 67:1–2) and “And I (Allah) created not the jinn and mankind except that they should be obedient (to Allah).” (Qur’an 51:56). Obedience testifies to the oneness of God in his lordship, his names, and his attributes. Terrenal life is a test; how one acts (behaves) determines whether one’s soul goes to Jannat (Heaven) or to Jahannam (Hell). However on the day of Judgement the final decision is of Allah alone. Allah may coverup short comings and allow some people to go to heaven even though they may have some sins in the record.
The Baha’i Faith emphasizes the unity of humanity. To Baha’is, the purpose of life is focused on spiritual growth and service to humanity. Human beings are viewed as intrinsically spiritual beings. People’s lives in this material world provide extended opportunities to grow, to develop divine qualities and virtues, and the prophets were sent by God to facilitate this.
Hinduism is a religious category including many beliefs and traditions. Since Hinduism was the way of expressing meaningful living for a long time, before there was a need for naming it as a separate religion, Hindu doctrines are supplementary and complementary in nature, generally non-exclusive, suggestive and tolerant in content. Most believe that the ātman (spirit, soul)—the person’s true self—is eternal. In part, this stems from Hindu beliefs that spiritual development occurs across many lifetimes, and goals should match the state of development of the individual. There are four possible aims to human life, known as the purusharthas (ordered from least to greatest): Kāma (wish, desire, love and sensual pleasure), Artha (wealth, prosperity, glory), Dharma (righteousness, duty, morality, virtue, ethics), encompassing notions such as ahimsa (non-violence) and satya (truth) and Moksha (liberation, i.e. liberation from Saṃsāra, the cycle of reincarnation).
In all schools of Hinduism, the meaning of life is tied up in the concepts of karma (causal action), sansara (the cycle of birth and rebirth), and moksha (liberation). Existence is conceived as the progression of the ātman (similar to the western concept of a soul) across numerous lifetimes, and its ultimate progression towards liberation from karma. Particular goals for life are generally subsumed under broader yogas (practices) or dharma (correct living) which are intended to create more favorable reincarnations, though they are generally positive acts in this life as well. Traditional schools of Hinduism often worship Devas which are manifestations of Ishvara (a personal or chosen God); these Devas are taken as ideal forms to be identified with, as a form of spiritual improvement.
There is no one Buddhism; no essential Buddhism that can be taken apart from its tradition. In fact, the term Buddhism is a relatively recent invention, first coined by scholars in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Prior to this Buddhists were called “followers of the Buddha.” There are three different vehicles, or schools, of Buddhist teachings, and virtually all sects of Buddhism fall into one of these three schools. Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism grew out of the early councils as differences arose in practice and philosophy.
Mahayana Buddhism emerged as a reaction to early Buddhist orthodoxies in the first century, although the term Mahayana does not appear until the sixth century. Mahayana took root in northern India and made its way east and north to Tibet, Mongolia, China, and Japan. Mahayana diverges philosophically with Theravada and claims to be based on texts attributable to the Buddha that are not in the Pali Canon and were not discovered until centuries after the death of the Buddha. On the one hand, Mahayana offers the possibility of becoming a buddha to everyone and on the other hand elevates the Buddha from a compassionate teacher to a celestial guru. Such “buddha realms” or “pure lands” may be taken literally or metaphorically to represent
certain states of being.
Devotion to your teacher is also a key feature of Mahayana traditions such as Zen and Vajrayana. The Mahayana placed more emphasis on the bodhisattva and deemphasized the historical Buddha and also the Four Noble Truths. What is a bodhisattva? A bodhisattva vows to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. It’s an explicit commitment toward awakening with an added dimension, predicated on the idea of rebirth, to keep taking a human life to be of benefit to others. To accomplish this formidable goal the bodhisattva must undertake six (or ten) paramitas (perfections): generosity, morality, patience, vigor, meditation, and wisdom. The expanded list of ten paramitas includes in addition to the six: skillful means, conviction, strength, and knowledge. The bodhisattva also pursues the five margas (paths) and the ten bhumis (grounds or stages of spiritual attainment).
Theravada Buddhism can be traced all the way back to the First Council, shortly after Buddha’s death. Theravada Buddhists claim that they have adhered to the Buddha’s original teachings and are, therefore, the purest form of Buddhism. They established the Pali Canon, the teachings that were passed down orally for 400 years. The Theravada (Doctrine of Elders) is the sole surviving school of Buddhism from the early days of Buddhism. It traces it roots back to the Buddha himself and his closest disciples. It is also known as Southern Buddhism because this is where it has flourished over the centuries: Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, and Laos. Theravada keeps its ties close to the life of the Buddha and the Pali Canon (unlike Mahayana that has introduced new texts and concepts).
Vajrayana Buddhism developed out of the Mahayana school of teachings sometime between the third and seventh centuries B.C. It is said that the Buddha practiced this esoteric tradition, but because of its advanced and special nature it didn’t evolve into common practice. Vajrayana Buddhists believe the Buddha taught these practices through special texts, called tantras, but the tantras themselves didn’t come to light until the seventh century. Vajrayana Buddhists believe their teachings can be directly linked to the Buddha and that they practice the purest form of Buddhism. Vajrayana is found predominately in Tibet, a remote country, surrounded by the Himalayan Mountains, and isolated from the rest of the world. Tibetan Buddhism emerged when Mahayana Buddhism reached Tibet and it became intertwined with the native Bön folk religion.
Wicca is the witches’ religion, said to derive from an ancient Celtic society that is older than Christianity. Other sources say the religion is a modern one that does not have a long historical connection. Either way, Wiccans were, and are, seen by the churches as having ties to Satan, which they did, and do strongly deny. They insist that Wiccans are no more like Satanists than Buddhists, Hindus, or Muslims. Modern Wiccans maintain that present-day Wicca was created by the merging of some of the ancient Celtic beliefs, deity structure, and seasonal days of celebration, with modern material from ceremonial magic. The general belief is that Wicca arose as an important movement in England during the 1950s.
The movement has claimed a fast-track expansion into North America and Europe. Some estimates put the number of adherents at 800,000 in the United States alone. That’s at best an estimate because Wiccans are, understandably, reticent about telling people of their beliefs. Imagine someone at a company meeting standing up and saying he had to go because he was late for a meeting at his coven, essentially announcing he was a warlock. Not quite the same as being late for a meeting of the Sunday school choir. If the adherent figures are true, that would make Wicca one of the largest and fastest-growing minority religions in the United States.
However, it is doubtful if the correct figures will be ever be known or substantiated. Wiccans see themselves as victimized, more so than any other religious group. Wiccans worship in a coven. Traditionally, a coven consists of thirteen people. It is preferred that the makeup of the group is six couples who are emotionally connected. The thirteenth member will be the High Priestess or Priest. Generally, there are no rules about the group, it can be mixed gender or not. However, some covens do have one gender, for instance Dianic Witches. Typically, covens meet in private homes or meeting rooms. On some occasions, holidays in particular, they meet out of doors. Nights of the full or new moon are times of choice. Witchcraft members adhere strictly to an ethical code called “Wiccan Rede.” They believe that whatever they do comes back to them threefold. Thus, if they did harm they would get harm back to the power of three. Therefore, they have no incentive to curse anyone; the curse would come back to haunt them three times over. All witches practice some form of ritual magic, which must be considered “good magic.” Their ethical code is spelled out in the saying: “An’ it harm none, do what thou wilt.”
This article is a short summary from the books:
- Philosophy 101: From Plato and Socrates to Ethics and Metaphysics, an Essential Primer on the History of Thought
- Religion 101: From Allah to Zen Buddhism, an Exploration of the Key People, Practices, and Beliefs that Have Shaped the Religions of the World