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Are you living a ‘provisional life’? Time to get stuck in!

Unthinkable: Three new books on ‘the meaning of life’ offer different advice on an age-old question

“The meaning of life is a subject fit for either the crazed or the comic,” according to critic Terry Eagleton. I mean, how can you take “the ultimate question” seriously after the likes of Monty Python or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

The latter produced – following a suitable, comedic pause – the answer 42.

That still gets a good laugh.

Three new books on the meaning of life have hit the shelves before Christmas – and none of them is particularly funny. So are the authors crazy instead?


It would be unfair to say. Each book has an original slant on the ultimate question, providing wisdom and consolation in different measure, even if none of them provides an entirely satisfactory answer.

Steven Cassedy’s What Do We Mean When We Talk about Meaning? is the most theoretical of the trio. He goes back to basics in examining where and when this slippery concept first emerged. The result is a truly groundbreaking piece of scholarship (and I say that as someone who has read a lot of books of this subject) as Cassedy locates the rot starting with German romanticism and spreading under today’s self-help industry.

The German word originally used for meaning is ‘Sinn’ (pronounced with a ‘z’ rather than the Irish ‘sh’), and its invention reminds us that this is a relatively new concern

According to Cassedy, an American professor of literature, “the noun that is equivalent to our meaning is exceedingly rare in ancient Greek” despite Aristotle’s interest in teleology, or the study of the purpose of things. The first sign of a “modern metaphorical/metaphysical use of meaning” was in early Christian commentary that wove humans into a heavenly narrative.

The German word originally used for meaning is “Sinn” (pronounced with a “z” rather than the Irish “sh”), and its invention reminds us that this is a relatively new concern judged by the expanse of human history. The “meaning of life” as a phrase, Cassedy says, “first emerges in German-speaking lands in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, during the Romantic era, when the notion becomes absolutised, so that meaning appears in the singular, as the metaphysically grand, mysterious, often indefinable, and generally unattainable object of a human quest”.

Insight or obfuscation?

Cassedy is not against talking about Sinn – “lots of words have several meanings” – but he is intolerant of philosophers and writers who throw it about without definition. He runs the rule over Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Camus, among others, picking apart their sometimes loose use of the word “meaning” with unsentimental enthusiasm. Particularly effective is his device of retaining Sinn when trying to comprehend whether authors are providing insight or just obfuscating. A familiar quote of Viktor Frankl’s, for example, is rendered alien when translated: “It is not man… who must pose the question of the Sinn of life; rather… man himself is the one being asked.”

Cassedy highlights how the modern use of meaning became bound up with “existential psychotherapy” for today’s age of anxiety. There is good reason for that. Psychological studies show that mental well-being correlates with a sense of purpose. Moreover, religious believers who reckon “everything happens for a reason” tend to be happier. “It’s evident that the fluidity of that word [Sinn], its ability to signify or suggest a host of meanings and nuances… is no doubt precisely what gives it the power to produce the documented therapeutic results,” Cassedy writes.

Towards the end of the book he softens on those who bandy around phrase “the meaning of life”, acknowledging it is very human to contemplate it. Not just that, but talking about meaning can serve as a useful metal jolt. Even if there is no answer, it can jump-start fruitful and potentially transformative introspection.

Gentle advice

Kieran Setiya reinforces this point in Life is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way. A more personal exploration of the subject, he tries to make sense of setbacks and suffering in his life, including managing chronic pain over recent decades.

Setiya comes from a more holistic tradition of philosophy that straddles moral thought and self-help. While there is no skimping on academic rigour, he makes existential inquiry relatable – offering gentle advice on how one might approach such experiences as grief and failure.

On the question of life’s meaning, he presents the drama of “two Simones” – French compatriots Simone Weil and Simone de Beauvoir – who gave us different ways of defining purpose. One was centred on self-sacrificial action and the other on abstract thought.

A professor of history and physics with ‘deeply ingrained Yorkshireman sensibilities’, Rickles delivers the right balance of admonishment and encouragement, like a philosophical Jack Charlton

Beauvoir recalled a famous meeting in the Sorbonne: “She [Weil] declared in no uncertain tones that only one thing mattered in the world: the revolution which would feed all the starving people of the earth. I retorted, no less peremptorily, that the problem was not to make men happy, but to find the reason for their existence. She looked me up and down: ‘It’s easy to see you’ve never been hungry,’ she snapped.”

Setiya writes: “Though Weil had the final word, Beauvoir was right… If we cannot see our way to a better future, what meaning can we find in life today?”

Here Setiya puts forward a tentative solution to “the meaning of life”. It lies, he suggests, “in our halting, perhaps perpetual, progress towards justice in this world”. The idea secularises the presence of divine justice. There is no God holding a Grand Plan. Instead we humans hold the plans for our species and our planet.

By doing our bit – like Weil, giving practical help; or Beauvoir, campaigning for equality – we can be part of the greatest story that will ever be told. (Setiya, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, concludes on Seamus Heaney’s vision of “hope and history” rhyming.)

Life is Short

The third book for review wins the prize for the best subtitle. Life Is Short: An Appropriately Brief Guide to Making It More Meaningful. Its author Dean Rickles doesn’t mess about. “I’m not against long books”, he writes, but “it would surely be inappropriate for a book on a topic such as this to take too much time away from your short life”.

A professor of history and physics with “deeply ingrained Yorkshireman sensibilities”, Rickles delivers the right balance of admonishment and encouragement, like a philosophical Jack Charlton. He has no patience for procrastinators and reiterates Seneca’s advice against believing your life will start once you have retired.

Many of us are crippled by an inability to commit, and Rickles warns against trying to “bulletproof” your life by attempting to insulate yourself from harm. The great temptation is to settle for a “provisional life”, which usually means holding on to childish things and favouring stimulation over substance.

“Should I watch a monkey riding backwards on a pig on YouTube now or do some homework or preparation for a talk?” he asks, capturing this universal tension.

One practical piece of advice is to punch your data into a “life expectancy calculator”. The answer – however many years it may be – will help concentrate the mind, Rickles argues: “Consider the countdown to be rather the number of days remaining to create a real life you can be proud of, rather than a death timer.”

So put away that phone! Get stuck in! Yes, you’re going to get hurt! Who said life was meant to be easy? So speaks Rickles, or maybe that’s Charlton.

Anyway, the punchline is in the title. The “essential requirement” of a meaningful life is that it is “a (relatively) short one bookended by birth and death”. Thus, Rickles provides a pithy solution to our quest:

Where does meaning reside? In this one-and-only life.

Or, in German-Irish: Sinn, eh? Sin é.

* What Do We Mean When We Talk about Meaning? by Steven Cassedy is published by Oxford University Press. Life is Hard by Kieran Setiya is published by Penguin. Life Is Short by Dean Rickles is published by Princeton.