CM Magazine Cover
From Vol. 4, Issue 12, December 2022

The meaning of life and the meaning in life

Feature || Sharon Lebell

View PDF Back to Latest Issue

Seductions of philosophy

Philosophy holds many seductions. Its study stimulates intellectual vitality. Its engagement with life’s most foundational questions adds gravity and splendour to what might otherwise feel like the pedestrian tasks and cares that fill our days. Philosophy draws back the curtain of the human condition to invite us to peer at the very nature of the cosmos and to consider what it means to be a human being within that matrix.

In particular, the study of Stoic ethics is enchanting, because its questions and real world applications are evidently relevant to our everyday lives: to our confusion; to our fears and ambitions, to our trials and our triumphs. Reading classic Stoic works is a beneficial place to turn when facing the big fat problem that dogs each and every one of us, each moment, however quietly. The problem is we want to matter. We want to count. We want our life to mean something. And, we want the world with which we are in dialog to be meaningful too.

We. Want. To. Matter.

If we peer down at our lives sub specie aeternitatis, we are offended to realize that we don’t look that different from the pappus, that fuzzy filament on the head of a dandelion children are wont to blow into the wind, whose only evident purpose is to broadcast seed for its descendants. Ouch. Wait a second: We. Want. To. Matter. We even want to be special. We even, if we are really honest about it, want to be exceptional.

Moreover, we want life itself to matter, to perhaps be describable by an epic heroic story. How rude if our own life, or even all of life, turns out to be merely some unfathomably huge chemical and mechanical system of laws, causes and effects, hormones, fur, dirt, electrons insanely dancing around, and crude preprogramed animalistic impulses.

The meaning of life vs. the meaning of our life

When we philosophically consider the problem and challenge of meaning, we have to underscore the distinction between searching for a prior fixed meaning of life to be unearthed or decoded, as in “what is the meaning of life?” versus what is the meaning of our own particular life. This is the life meaning where passion – good passion, not the out-of-control unchecked variety – comes into play. This is the meaning in life aptly pointed to by Stoicism’s elevation of personal duty and its widely lauded altruism born of the cosmopolitan ethic advanced by Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. This version of life’s meaning embraces the crusades worth mounting, the injustices that merit repair, and the compassion and love we naturally feel for others. In this regard Stoic thought is perfectly compatible with passion, in spite of its commonly mistaken characterization as an austere, unemotional, withdrawn, or indifferent world view.

Though classic Stoic discourse doesn’t tend to explicitly use meaning-of-life language in its literature, its themes and life advice are rich with constructive ideas about both the meaning of life and the meaning to be found or made in our personal lives. Stoicism’s conception of the flourishing life, eudaimonia, does not translate as meaning or meaningfulness, but I think it is a cousin to our modern sense of meaning.

One of Stoicism’s most valuable lessons is that eudaimonia or meaning in life is not necessarily congruent with fun, happiness, or ease. Meaning in life does not necessarily always feel like contentment, joy, achievement, nor glory. When people say their goal in life is to be happy, one suspects they might be confessing to being miserable. Happiness becomes a project, seeking fulfillment at some undefined future time. This quest for meaning misses the point. Meaning, however, is not antithetical to positive feelings or experiences, it just isn’t one and the same. Knowing this helps us realistically modulate our expectations, especially during trying times. The prize is an inner peace that endures unperturbed regardless of outside circumstances.

The absolute importance of disciplining the mind

Another important Stoic theme that promotes meaning in life is its emphasis on the absolute importance of disciplining the mind and the soul through self-scrutiny and the constant awareness of virtue as an ideal toward which we seek to steer our thoughts, words, and deeds. Through their writings and what is known about their personal examples, the Stoics teach us that meaning and a disorderly life cannot coexist. Meaning itself is order. Meaning is pattern, synchronicity, cohesion, fit, aptness. Meaning is the courageous decision to do an end run around fear. Meaning is the decision to make something, to change something, to be an agent of something that moves the needle of life in the direction of virtue.

The meaning in life is attainable

While the meaning of life will no doubt remain enigmatic, the Stoics show us that meaning in life is attainable, but it’s on us to make it.

Sharon Lebell is the author of The Art of Living, a modern interpretation of Epictetus’ teachings, the first contemporary treatment of Stoic teachings. She cofounded, with Simon Drew and Kai Whiting, an online philosophical society, The Walled Garden. Please come visit us.