For centuries Philosophers have tried to answer the unanswerable — what is the meaning of life?
While it hasn’t been put out as a theorem, we have all strived to figure out the answer on our own. Or, foregoing that, ignoring the question altogether. Before I give my version, let’s look at the answers provided by the greatest minds in history.
Eudaimonia is about individual happiness. As there are so many different ways to translate the term into English, it may be helpful to look at the etymology. Eudaimonia is a combination of the prefix eu (which means good, or well), and daimon (which means spirit) (Gåvertsson, n.d.).
“…well-being is not so much an outcome or end state as it is a process of fulfilling or realizing one’s daemon or true nature — that is, of fulfilling one’s virtuous potentials and living as one was inherently intended to live.”
To Epicurus, the goal of living was to find happiness through friendship, living humbly, and avoiding pain and anxiety. He believed that by living peacefully and avoiding fear and pain, we could live fully. To Epicurus, living a virtuous and a peaceful life were one and the same. This is seen when he states,
“It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely, honorably, and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely, honorably and justly without living pleasantly.”
Epicurus believed that finding a life of peaceful contentment devoid of pain or fear should be the goal of every person.
Thomas Aquinas: Beatific vision
Thomas Aquinas explained the Beatific Vision as the ultimate goal of human existence after physical death.
“All men agree in desiring the last end, which is happiness.” — Augustine (354–430), De Trin. xiii, 3
But above this happiness, there is still another, which we look forward to in the future. This is perfect happiness, what Thomas calls Beatitude, or the beatific vision. It is the ultimate perfection of our intellect and will — full knowledge and full goodness, leaving behind no remainder for these appetites to “hunger” for. All other things that people might consider as their ultimate end turn out to mean they use to attempt to attain this true end. Let us then look at these “other things” and finally at the Beatific vision.
Manuel Kant: The highest good
The idea of a final end of human conduct — the highest good — plays a vital role in Kant’s philosophy. Unlike his predecessors, Kant defines the highest product as a combination of two different elements, namely virtue, and happiness. This conception lies at the center of some of the most influential Kantian doctrines such as his famous “moral argument” for the rationality of faith, his conception of the unity of reason and his views concerning the final end of nature as well as the historical progress of mankind
“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”
Postmodernism: A Paradigm shift towards technology
While most of the ancient philosophers found the purpose of life to be happy the modern world is filled with amusements designed to jump-start our dopamine receptors. So, I believe, the answer needs to be tweaked to the current scenario.
Our purpose is to facilitate the betterment of something else. It is the evolution and progression of consciousness and the eternal (soul) into higher realms of being. Life exists to foster more life (a better life), to foster evolution, it is the midpoint between matter and energy; a consequence of this interplay/exchange. The meaning of life is thus to give rise to more life, better life, higher life.
As an individual, we might feel powerless, but as a society, we are a force to reckon with and its partly because we all have a role to play.
During a visit to the NASA space center in 1962, President John F. Kennedy noticed a janitor carrying a broom. He interrupted his tour, walked over to the man and said, “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?”.“Well, Mr. President,” the janitor responded, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”
No matter how large or small your role, you are contributing to the larger story unfolding within your life, your business, and your organization.
We all are. Either creating, destroying or maintaining the status quo.
Whether you are working for Google or a textile company as a line function or staff function, you are contributing to the work done. As mentioned earlier if you believe in your organization and can see its contribution to society, your only purpose is to do your job.
Whenever you are waiting for the signal to turn green, there is a temptation to cross it; however, you wait for the green signal. That’s maintaining the status quo.
Whenever someone quits smoking, he is demolishing an old habit to create room for a new one. Destruction is often accompanied by creation. The removal of slavery was accompanied by the creation of opportunities, which finally gave us music, art, and literature that define our century.
As humanity progresses, so will its evolution and search for the purpose of life. Someday we might finally be able to answer the unanswerable but for now, let’s have a placeholder for it.
“People take different roads seeking fulfillment and happiness. Just because they’re not on your road doesn’t mean they’ve gotten lost.” ―Dalai Lama
If you enjoyed this article and want to know about Stoicism you might like this article I wrote about Way of Stoics: