by Terry Eagleton
Oxford University Press, 2007 188 pp $19.95
ATTEMPTING TO ANSWER the question “What is the meaning of life?” over the space of a short essay might be considered an enterprise worth avoiding. The chances of falling flat on your face or coming up empty-handed, of not having anything either interesting or persuasive to say, must be high. This is what Terry Eagleton has undertaken, however, and he has done a pretty good job. He succeeds in his stated aim of handling the question both “lightly and lucidly,” the range of philosophical and literary reference he draws on sustains the reader’s interest, and the answer he comes around to offering, though put forward only in the modest terms that “one could do worse” than to propose it as the meaning of life, strikes this reviewer as having a lot going for it.
I will summarize how Eagleton gets to this answer, before saying what I think is right, but also what I think is wrong, with it. Persuasive in itself, it is vitiated by Eagleton’s attempt to derive more from his premises than they will yield.
The Meaning of Life begins with some preliminary philosophical spadework. Is “What is the meaning of life?” a genuine question? If so, is it a question whose answer we can know? For there are utterances that have the linguistic form of questions but are really pseudo-questions, since it isn’t clear what would meaningfully count as an answer to them. And there are also questions for which, even if we do know what would count as an answer, we have no means of discovering what that answer is—like the question, “How many children had Lady Macbeth?” We do well, in any case, to consider the nature of the questions that are posed to us, in order to get an idea of what sort of thing might count as a sensible answer.
Eagleton also spends time trying to situate the meaning-of-life question in historical terms. He sees it as a distinctively modern question: occurring to a consciousness which no longer takes the existence of God—that great, lost source of meaning—for granted; a consciousness aware of the mere contingency of our presence in the universe, of the lack of any destiny or purpose ordaining this; a consciousness, as well, of change and disorder in the world and of a great plurality of cultural meanings. If the premodern mind had a source of overarching meaning, and the modern mind has been thrown into doubt and therefore lured to ask what the meaning of life might be, for the postmodern mind this is a question of no interest. “Life” is a discredited totality, like many another, and hidden essences or meanings are not to be troubled over, because there aren’t any.
Whether or not the question of life’s meaning is especially apt to modernity, what matters is its intelligibility as a question, and so Eagleton moves on from reflecting on the n...
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