By Chet Yarbrough
Written for: The Great Course: Intellectual History
Narration by: Professor Jay L. Garfield
Jay Garfield dares to know “The Meaning of Life” in a review and analysis of thoughts and writings recorded in ancient and modern texts. In 36 lectures, ranging from the Vedas (Sanskrit scriptures of Hinduism) to “Discernment and Happiness” (Dalai Lama XIV’s teachings as noted in the Pali Canon of the earliest records of Gautama Buddha), Garfield offers over 3,700 years of philosophical belief. He offers a qualified answer to “The Meaning of Life” in his last lecture.
A listener’s journey from first lecture to last is enlightening but troubling. Philosophy offers many ways for one to be happy, content, and fulfilled but each seems a matter of personal choice, rather than universal truth. Garfield summarizes Buddhism, secularism, Hebraic religion, Hinduism, Daoism, Zen, and Native American belief about “The Meaning of Life. Garfield distills common characteristics of philosopher’s understanding of “The Meaning of Life”.
Garfield’s presentation of “The Meaning of Life” is troubling because philosopher’ definitions are dependent on the machinations of human beings living in the same Socratic’ cave.
What troubles listeners are speculations about “The Meaning of Life” that are jumbled by conflicting philosophical details.
Garfield’s approach is to identify similarities of philosopher’s views about “The Meaning of Life”; e.g. the acceptance of life’s temporality, life’s social context, and life’s desire for freedom. As Garfield notes, the Stoics explain death is inevitable. Death should not be feared but celebrated. Every person dies alone; i.e. with their own thoughts, their own fears, misunderstandings, and revelations. No one escapes death’s reality; no one takes a dying person’s place; i.e. death is a stage in life’s journey. Death is an end to life well-lived, or a release from burden. It can be either one or both, but the inference is that it should be a celebration; not an event to be feared or reviled.
Every life lives within a social context. Happiness grows or diminishes based on involvement or isolation from society. Empathy for others enhances the meaning of life. Self-absorption diminishes the meaning of life. Knowing one is a part of something greater than oneself, a part of an eternal and infinite universe, gives meaning to life. Like a grain of sand is an elemental part of a mirror or a beach, humans are an elemental part of the cosmos. Without sand there is no mirror; without sand, there is no beach; without humans, there is no cosmos. (It is anthropocentric to say there is no cosmos without humans, but without humans, who is left to care?)
One is inclined to disagree with parts of Hume’s, Kant’s, Mill’s, Tolstoy’s, Nietzsche’s, Gandhi’s, and Lame Deer’s philosophies because details of their philosophies deny truths of history. Garfield shows that Hume represents a turning point in pursuit of “The Meaning of Life”. Hume insists that knowledge of anything is limited to the senses of the individual; i.e. without the human senses, Hume suggests there is nothing. Before Hume, the search for life’s meaning revolves around societal norms like duty, obedience to authority, and social relevance; after Hume, the five senses of the individual are added.
Hume’s focus is relevant but seems too narrow to encompass the great arc of history. Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” emphasizes the spirit of the Russian army as the primary determinant in Napoleon’s defeat at Borodino and his eventual retreat from Russia. Tolstoy clearly means spirit in a societal; not individual sense.
Kant’s belief in human’ rationality is too idealistic.
Mills belief in liberty ignores the nature of man as both good and evil; driven by emotion as well as logic.
Tolstoy idealizes peasantry and ignores the consequence of poor education.
Nietzsche’s criticism of conformity is overblown. As flawed as democracy and capitalism are as forms of government and economy, they afford meaning to life because they are vehicles for the health, education, and welfare of society. With societal’ health, education, and welfare, there is potential for genuine human freedom; i.e. freedom to live in the truth of the sun’s light. Garfield notes that philosophers like Nietzsche believe freedom is a myth in modern society because governments and economies chain people in a Socratic cave; i.e. they base their lives on shadows of the true meaning of life.
Gandhi’s advocacy of peaceful resistance is counter productive in the face of Hitlerism or Stalinist totalitarianism. Peaceful resistance has value only in the context of a nation or society of laws that endorse human rights, liberty, and equality of opportunity.
Lame Deer’s symbolic view of life infers meaning is based on communal comity rather than confrontation and resolution. Lame Deer’s concept of circles versus squares ignores the value of sharp edges that clarify differences. In clarification, there is the potential for cooperation that builds more socially accommodating structures.
Garfield infers Dalai Lama XIV is the bridge between ancient and modern belief in “The Meaning of Life”. The Dalai Lama believes that when religion and science are in conflict that science is the path to follow. How interesting that thought is in light of the latest Cyclical from the Pope about earth’s environment.
There is a great deal of wisdom in Garfield’s lectures on “Perspectives from the World’s Great Intellectual Traditions”. No single philosopher convinces a listener, but Garfield’s analysis of many philosophers gives one a useful guide for pursuit of “The Meaning of Life”.