Think Piece

The Emergence of the Modern Notion of the Meaning of Life in the Early Nineteenth Century

by guest contributor Frank Martela

By Frank Martela

“‘Futile! Futile!’ laments the Teacher. ‘Absolutely futile! Everything is futile!”

“I reflected on everything that is accomplished by man on earth, and I concluded: Everything he has accomplished is futile – like chasing the wind!”

We come from the dust, and to dust we return. The Book of Ecclesiastes is a powerful manifesto of the futility of all human strivings – even though the book eventually comes to emphasize that everything is in the hands of God and we should not doubt his plan. Written somewhere around the 3rd century BCE, I have yet to see other examples from the same era where the vanity of existence in the face of death is so clearly articulated. Futility, the key word of the book, comes from the Hebrew word ’hevel’, which literally refers to evanescent vapor, to wind, to man’s transitory breath. It beautifully captures the transient nature of life: Our brief life and our strivings are but a disappearing vapor in the wind.

While the book of Ecclesiastes thus comes to capture much of the modern existential despair, it seems to be somewhat of an outlier. Most ancient thinkers seemed to be quite confident that human life exists for a reason and that there is some inherent human good that our life aims to fulfill. Aristotle, for example, aims in his Nicomachean Ethics to identify the highest human good, the inherent “virtue of a human being“ as a result of which “a human being becomes good.” The background assumption is that the cosmos is intelligible and human beings exist for a purpose, thus the task of the thinker is only to unveil and discoverthe specific human good – whose very existence was self-evident and beyond doubt. As Professor Joshua Hochschild argues, this question about humans’ chief good, called telos by the Greeks and summum bonum in Latin, was “the question about human life asked for most of Western history.” It aims to identify the why of humanity’s existence: To what purpose were human beings created for?

However, through Enlightenment and the rise of the scientific worldview, a new way to understand the human condition started to slowly emerge, culminating, around the turn of the nineteenth century, with the invention of a new phrase: the meaning of life. Most sources credit Thomas Carlyle with the honor of having coined the phrase in English in his book Sartor Resartus, published between 1833-1834. The book’s tremendous influence is underscored by the enthusiasm with which thinkers from Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Stuart Mill to Herman Melville and Walt Whitman all praised it – and by the contempt Nietzsche had for Carlyle. Two decades after its publication, George Eliot observed that ”there is hardly a superior or active mind of this generation that has not been modified by Carlyle’s writings.”

Carlyle himself was deeply influenced by German idealists and romantics, from whom he not only borrowed the worldview expressed in Sartor Resartus but also the phrase meaning of life, which is a direct translation from the German ‘der Sinn des Lebens’. This German phrase seems to have been coined, according to Stephen Leach and James Tartaglia, during the final years of the eighteenth century among the Jena romantics, a loose circle of thinkers spending some time in the city and University of Jena during that time, which included Novalis, Schelling as well as Friedrich and August Schlegel. Novalis wrote that ”only an artist can divine the meaning of life” in an unpublished manuscript written around 1797-98, while on the last page of Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde the soul “understands the deep significance of the mysterious hieroglyphs on flowers and stars”, and through them “the holy meaning of life as well as the beautiful language of nature.”

The invention of the new phrase marks a new way of thinking about human life. The romantics were reacting to the increasing rationalization and mechanization of life in modernizing Europe where the self-evident divineness of the human life had become challenged and people in educated circles were losing touch with traditional Christianity. Carlyle, who grew up in strict Scottish Presbyterian Christianity but lost his faith in the university, vividly expresses the effect of the new secular worldview forced upon him: “To me, the Universe was all void of Life, of Purpose, of Violation, even of Hostility: it was one huge, dead, immeasurable Steam-engine rolling on, in its dead indifference, to grind me limb from limb.”

In art, in novels and poetry, the romantics hoped to find an authority for “certain human values, capacities, energies, which the development of society towards an industrial civilization was felt to be threatening or destroying”, as Raymond Williams puts it in Culture and Society: 1780-1950 (p. 36). The natural laws guiding physical bodies, the vast geological periods before our existence, the juxtaposition of natural against supernatural, and the slow marginalization of the latter, and later in the nineteenth century the evolutionary understanding of the origin of life, all contributed to a new understanding of the position of the human being in the universe. Through the lens of science, life was revealed to be brief, accidental, and lacking any inherent value. Within this new mechanistic worldview it no longer was certain that any inherent meaning to human life existed. How could your life have some meaning when, as Tolstoy observed in his autobiographical Confession, you are just “a temporal, accidental conglomeration of particles. The interrelation, the change of these particles, produces in you that which you call life.“ When the interaction of these particles stops “that which you call life and all your questions will come to an end.“

Meaning of life as a phrase was thus invented to describe what was missing, what urgently needed to be found. It was a reactionary phrase used by thinkers desperately trying to circumvent the inevitable void gaping at the center of the new scientific way of understanding life that they had become exposed to. While the answers of those discussing meaning of life were varied, I see that what unites them is the fact that they pose the question against the backdrop of the possibility that without such an answer, life could be revealed to meaningless.

Of course, this transition from a worldview where everything inevitably exists for a purpose to the explicit challenging of any purpose to human life didn’t happen overnight. There had been thinkers touching upon the topic in previous times from the author of Book of Ecclesiastes to Shakespeare’s Macbeth who proclaims that life is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” But slowly these ideas started to become more widespread and explicit. Immanuel Kant with his Critique of Teleological Judgment and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe with his Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship inspired the Jena romantics in Germany in whose stories the protagonist fell into a brief existential anguish before finding one’s way back to a purposeful world guaranteed by God. Directly influenced by them were then Carlyle, Kierkegaard, and Schopenhauer who dared to express the potential meaninglessness of human life in even stronger words. And finally Nietzsche, who had read his Schopenhauer and Carlyle, famously proclaimed in Gay Science in 1882 that ‘God is dead.’

Today, the meaning of life is a question that everyone recognizes. Not only visible in classics like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or the existential ponderings of Camus and other philosophers, the meaning of life has come to symbol the emblematic mystery at the heart of life to the degree of becoming a constant reference in popular culture. There is a tension in our relation to the question: On the one hand, we recognize it as a noble question that desperately needs some answer. On the other hand, many have resigned themselves to the probable fact that no answer exists. We cope with the discrepancy of having a question that absolutely needs an answer but seems to have none by turning the whole question into a joke. In Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a supercomputer expressly built to compute the answer to the grand question about life and its meaning spits out the famous answer: “forty-two.” The story highlights the ridiculousness of the question itself—we expect a kind of all-clarifying answer we know doesn’t even exist.

The takeaway is that the question of meaning of life in its modern form is not something we have always asked. Instead, it was born in a particular historical juncture. Schlegel, Carlyle, Tolstoy, and other pioneers of the quest for meaning of life were seeking for new foundations that could be used to guarantee the meaningfulness of life, each having experienced a religious crisis through which the self-evidency of purposefulness of human life had been challenged. Schlegel’s Lucinde is essentially an attempt to articulate a new religious understanding founded on love, while Carlyle and Tolstoy were both raised in religious families but came to lose their faith in adulthood when encountering the scientific worldview. Their existential crisis, where they desperately sought after a meaning of life, was thus also a religious crisis.

Many modern philosophers make a distinction between a meaning of life and meaning in life, as I observe in my book A Wonderful Life. While the former asks about the meaning of life as such, and typically requires some externally imposed purpose applying to all human life, the latter is a more psychological question about whether the person in question experiences their own life as meaningful. Many people today seem ready to admit that life as such might not have any purpose or meaning to it or that one’s life doesn’t matter from the point of view of the universe, yet still experience that their own life is meaningful and worth living. They have found meaning in life, without seeking externally guaranteed meaning of life. While the meaning of life was the question troubling many great nineteenth and twentieth century thinkers, it could be that the defining existential question of the twenty-first century becomes the question about meaning in life.

Frank Martela, PhD, researches the philosophy and psychology of meaning in life at Aalto University, Finland. Beyond his academic work, he has written for Scientific American Mind, Philosophy Now, and Harvard Business Review, and just published the book A Wonderful Life – Insights on Finding a Meaningful Existence (Harper Design 2020).

Featured Image: William Blake, Newton (1795 – c.1805). Courtesy of Tate.

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