What is the meaning of life? This is a big question that can take a lifetime to explore and answer. It’s an esoteric issue that’s much more complex than a crossword puzzle or basic math. The purpose of life has much to do with whether one believes in a religion’s deity and the afterlife—and if so which one. We’ll be discussing some popular theories and portrayals from ancient times to the present one.
This religion was developed around 1500 BC. It’s different from various other religions since there wasn’t just one founder. Hinduism actually refers to several related religious traditions that originated in India. The history overlaps with the development of other religions of the sub-continent since the Iron Age.
It’s interesting that according to Hinduism there are actually four goals: reach Dharma, Artha, The Kama, and Moksha.
Dharma is the first goal and refers to acting righteously/virtuously. This involves acting morally/ethically during one’s life.
Dharma also has a secondary meaning that’s about repaying one’s debt to the Gods. This includes different kinds of debts including ones related to:
This refers to pursuing wealth/prosperity in a person’s life. A person must stay within dharma’s bounds when trying to obtain wealth and prosperity according to Hinduism. In particular, a person shouldn’t do anything unethical or immoral to make money.
This concept is based on the assumption that humans need material well-being when a person is a householder (2nd of 4 different life stages). The exception of this rule is some people who can go directly to the final goal of moksha.
Artha is linked closely to statecraft activities. This sustains general social order and keeps anarchy from happening. Dharma (righteousness) must always regulate Artha. That’s because a high pursuit of material would result in unwanted, dangerous excesses.
This is the process of enjoying life. More specifically it’s a symbol of desire and frequently has a sexual connotation. However, the broader concept is related to any enjoyment in life that involves:
The deity Kama-deva represents the Kama. It’s the god of erotic love/pleasure and is like the Greek deity Eros. It’s important to be aware of Kama as part of living a balanced life.
The Kama is described as happiness that involves the mind. It’s also defined in Hindu writings as pleasure the senses experience while they’re in harmony with the human mind/soul.
This is enlightenment and the most difficult goal to achieve. According to Hinduism, it could take an entire life to achieve Moksha or even multiple lives. It’s still classified as the most critical meaning of life and provides various rewards like self-realization, freedom from reincarnation, unity with God, or enlightenment.
Confucius lived from 551 to 470 BC and was one of many intellectuals who began questioning the meaning of life and the function of gods/spirits. He developed a system of ethics/politics during the Warring States Period. It stressed five virtues:
Confucius’ followers recorded his teachings in a book titled Analects. They also formed Confucianism. This code of ethics has been the foundation of Chinese philosophy for several centuries and affected many Asian countries including China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
In terms of life’s meaning, Confucius’s central belief was a philosophy called Tien Ming, which is the influence of fate and mission. This philosophy argues that everything is controlled by heaven that includes life/death, wealth/poverty, and health/illness.
Confucius believed that Tien Ming was his lifetime mission. He also encouraged people to accept any situations that happened during their lifetime including death.
The Chinese philosopher argued that people must know about life to know about death. In other words, they must know how to live so they can also know about death / dying.
An irony is Confucius was criticized about not talking about death. He didn’t talk in detail about death / ghosts / gods / afterlife. He also didn’t encourage his followers to try and find eternal life.
The reason is Confucius argued those issues were very complex / abstract, so it was better to solve life’s problems instead of focusing on death/afterlife. His goal was to show it was important to value life and live a moral life based on a heaven-sent mission people received.
Based on Confucianism righteousness was critical for people to live good lives on Earth. It was so important he argued virtue was more important than life itself. He also encouraged people to maintain virtue and care for others during their entire lives.
In Confucianism, followers are encouraged to be loyal/dutiful toward their family, friends, and neighbors. They should also show respect to their elders and superiors. It’s also important to respect parents / ancestors. When people remember family/clan that have passed away, they continue to have remembrance / affection.
As a result, serious followers of Confucius might be willing to sacrifice their lives to promote justice/goodness for their nation. They’d be quickly willing to accept death for the sake of protecting the virtue of their family / society. Confucius didn’t explicitly explain this concept. However, it’s an example of a justified death that benefits others.
The philosopher in Ancient Greece founded the West’s first institute of higher learning known as the Academy in the city of Athens. His teacher Socrates was featured in the film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989):
The Greek philosopher Plato founded his school in 387 BC and operated it until he died four decades later. Fun Fact: An olive tree grove that existed where the Academy was built was considered sacred and thus not attacked by the Spartans.
Plato once defined humans in an objective way. He described them as being an animal, biped (2-footed) and featherless. This is certainly an accurate description in terms of human physiology.
However, Plato also defined humans as “A being in search of meaning.” The philosopher’s students including Aristotle learned from their teacher how he defined the meaning of life. His Platonic school of philosophy argued that humans could find meaning by looking for and obtaining the highest types of knowledge.
This was related to Plato’s Theory of Forms that included his “Idea of the Good.” He argued that the highest kind of knowledge humans seek naturally in life is the ultimate reality. Plato believed that reality was a perfect version of abstract objects. The philosophizer believed they existed in a third realm that was different from the external world and the internal world (human consciousness).
Plato like his instructor Socrates and student Aristotle believed that God existed in this third realm. It’s theorized this alluded to the spiritual world of meaning that only the human soul can access.
Hedonism is a philosophy that also promotes certain goals in life. The founder of the school of hedonism was founded by the Greek philosopher Aristippus. He was born in 435 BC in Libya. The founder of the ethics of pleasure was a student of Socrates.
Aristippus believed that the highest human value was a pleasure and the lowest one was a pain. He also argued that pain was the one that should be avoided as much as possible. The Greek philosopher warned his students about not only suffering pain but also inflicting it on others.
Aristippus was like Socrates in that he was interested in pursuing practical ethics. The philosopher believed people should dedicate their lives to enjoying pleasure. However, he also believed self-control, and good judgment should be used to keep human desires in check. The motto of Aristippus was “I possess, I am not possessed.”
Concerning life’s meaning the two main types of hedonism are psychological and ethical. What’s the difference? Psychological hedonism is the concept that humans have a psychological make-up that causes them only to want pleasure.
Meanwhile, ethical hedonism is the concept that human’s main moral obligation is to maximize pleasure/happiness. The Greek philosopher Epicurus is closely linked to ethical hedonism. He also taught that the goal of life should be to maximize pleasure and minimize pleasure.
Epicurus wrote that pleasure is the first good innate in people. He argued that pleasure is the beginning of all choice/avoidance. He continued that people return to pleasure and use the feeling like the “standard” to judge all good things.
It’s not surprising most Christian philosophers during the Middle Ages criticized Epicurean hedonism. They argued it opposed Christianity’s focus on the religion’s priorities like doing God’s will, avoiding sin, and Christian values of hope, faith, and charity.
Then philosophers like Erasmus revived hedonism during the Renaissance. They argued that focusing on pleasure worked with God’s wish for people to be happy.
Another supporter of hedonism was British philosopher Thomas More. He wrote in Utopia (1516) that pleasure is the main part of a human’s happiness. More actually used religion to support hedonism and argued that God designed humans to be happy and that desire motivates them to act morally.
The ancient Greek philosopher was Plato’s student. He combined different philosophies of philosophers before him like his teacher Plato and Plato’s teacher Socrates. As a result, Aristotle has had a major influence on Western philosophy and knowledge.
Aristotle wrote that “Happiness depends on ourselves.” Regarding the point of life, he believed that that happiness should not only be a goal but be the purpose of living. Aristotle focused more on the issue of happiness than all Western philosophers before him.
The Greek philosopher argued that happiness resulted in cultivating virtue. It’s worth noting that these virtues were more individualistic than Confucius’ social virtues. That said, Aristotle focused on happiness being related to different aspects of people’s being including their physical and mental states.
Aristotle taught that people could achieve virtue by maintaining something called the Mean. This is the balance between two extremes. This is similar to Buddha’s concept of the Middle Path.
However, there are some key differences. Aristotle believed the Mean was a way to achieve virtue, while Buddha wrote the Middle Path was a peaceful lifestyle that balanced asceticism (strict life with no physical pleasures) and sensual pleasures. The main difference is the Middle Path was a requirement for meditation instead of virtue’s source.
Aristotle explained human happiness based on his perspective of nature based on studies. He observed there are four kinds of objects in the physical world and each have a different purpose:
Minerals: (rocks, metals). They have no soul, and their goal is to rest.
Vegetative (plants and trees). They have souls since they seek nourishment/growth. They’re satisfied by achieving those goals.
Animal: This is a higher life since animals seek pleasure/reproduction. For example, a dog can be happy or sad based on their health/life.
Human: Aristotle argued reason is what makes humans different from other members of the animal kingdom. Only humans can act based on principles and thus take responsibilities for the choices they make. For example, a human can be blamed for stealing but an animal can’t.
Aristotle focused on the development of character and developing virtues like courage, kindness, and prudence. This is known as the “Golden Mean” that exists between the extremes of deficiency and excess.
For instance, courage is a mean about the feeling of fear. It exists between the deficiency (rashness) and excess (cowardice). There are also means like justice, benevolence, etc.
Christianity is the world’s largest religion and makes up one-third of the population. So, the meaning of life according to the teachings of Jesus is noteworthy.
What did Jesus have to say about life’s meanings? It’s often argued that he taught his followers about how to be happy. However, that’s based on the filter of modern culture that often focuses on achieving personal happiness through bling and other ways.
A more accurate description of Jesus’ teaching about the subject is that the goal of life should be to find meaning. More specifically this isn’t really about people’s personal meaning but instead God’s goal for the world including redeeming sinners and healing the world.
This concept is based on Jesus’ own life having the single purpose of the Kingdom of God. He believed he was on Earth to establish God’s kingdom regardless of the costs. That included his own death. Jesus said his mission was to accomplish God’s work. He claimed he was sent to Earth to share the good news of God’s kingdom. Jesus also said to “Seek first the Kingdom.”
So, it could be argued Jesus’ only task was to offer the world God’s forgiveness. His disciples helped to share his mission. That was to spread the Good News, heal hurting people, and so on. It’s interesting to note that Jesus’ first disciplines didn’t follow Jesus to find happiness per se. They instead followed him to bring God’s redemption to the world.
Another important life goal of Christians based on the Bible is to be a good steward of the world. In the Book of Genesis, humans are given the task of ruling over the fish, birds, cattle, and other living things on Earth. They’re also told to “fill” and “subdue” the Earth.
In Christianity stewardship could also involve serving others as a way of finding fulfillment in life. That involves giving what someone has. That could be in the form of wealth, talents, wisdom, etc. The Bible encourages people to share their talents and spiritual gifts with others. It’s believed that’s the way to find true meaning in people’s lives.
Other important goals of Christians involve the Ten Commandments of the Bible’s Old Testament and Jesus’ Greatest Commandment of the New Testament. There was the original version of the Ten Commandments found in the book of Exodus. Then the prophets updated/refined their understanding of the commandments.
Later Jesus provided a new understanding of God’s commandments. Two principles he shared were loving God and loving others. These were the two Greatest Commandments Jesus shared. In fact, he said that all of the past commandments were based on these two “new” commandments.
It’s also worth noting that the Greek word Jesus used was “agape,” which is related to a high esteem of others’ ware. It’s an unselfish love instead of an emotional love. In Christianity, it’s believed one can only be truly fulfilled if they trust God and serve others.
Self-fulfillment is frowned upon as a way of achieving happiness. Christians believe that people will be unsatisfied if they crave things like wealth, pleasure, power, status, and so on. These are seen as vain attempts at finding fulfillment and security in one’s life.
Such things can have value to Christians in that they live in the physical world. The Bible talks about using time, wealth, and talents effectively. However, it argues such things should be given less priority vs. heavenly things.
Islam is the second most popular religion in the world after Christianity, and its members include about one-quarter of the world’s population. The religion was founded about six centuries after Christianity. Today Islam is the world’s fastest-growing religion and has 1+ billion followers around the world. It’s projected Islam could become the world’s largest religion in the 21st century.
The prophet Muhammad founded Islam and is considered the religion’s messenger. He was one of the religion’s series of prophets, which also include some from the Christian Bible. Muslims also respect several Christian figures.
According to Islam God created man to serve Him. It’s believed that people should believe in God and do good deeds. This is the religion’s main objective for human life. It’s believed that humans were created to serve God.
Muslims believe their religion is a response to people’s search for meaning in life. Their holy book the Qur’an teaches that each person is born with an awareness that God exists. It’s believed Adam was created for a particular reason and God made a covenant with him. Then God made covenants with Adam’s descendants for several generations.
Islam states that God has shared a message with all prophets. That’s from Adam to the last prophet Muhammad. The message is related to life’s meaning according to religion. That’s to worship God while also avoiding any false gods.
One can better understand life’s objective according to Islam based on the meaning of “Islam,” which is “submission.” This involves submission to God’s will. This is done by following God’s physical laws. The belief is that people aren’t rewarded/punished for submission. God’s “will” is defined by what he wants people to do.
Islam believes that humans can only live lives with peace/harmony if they submit to God’s religious law to submit to him. This is done by submitting to God’s physical laws. It’s believed that without the hope of going to heaven there would be no value in living a virtuous lifestyle.
While the “origin” of the belief in no gods is difficult to trace the English version of the term itself dates back to at least the 1500s. Throughout history, atheists have supported their belief “without gods” through various concepts including philosophical, ideological, and scientific.
Meanwhile, the concept has been used in the East dating back to the 6th century BC. That was through the increasing popularity of religions like different Hindu sects in India like Buddhism and Jainism, and Taoism in China.
One criticism of religions by atheists is that their beliefs about life’s meaning have nothing to do with life per se. It instead is about preparing for the purported after-life. The question mark among atheists is whether or not it’s worth preparing one’s entire life for an after-life in case it doesn’t exist.
In other words, the argument is there’s no real “meaning” in spending one’s life fearing a deity. However, atheists argue that causing people to feel guilty about enjoyable experiences in life can prohibit people from being happy and mentally healthy.
Some recent studies also show that religion isn’t the key to people’s happiness. The happiest people tend to be in Western Europe. The positive emotion seems to be linked to things like health, income, freedom, socialization, etc.
The studies also show that the world’s most religious countries in the Middle East and Africa are the unhappiest. Meanwhile, the most atheistic nations in Europe, Canada, and Australia are the happiest. While the US is the most religious developed country is ranked #18 in the 2018 UN World Happiness Report.
So, it’s clear from the UN report that people aren’t happy because of religion. Instead, it’s related to their material needs being met. The study also found that immigrants quickly achieve their new country’s happiness while keeping their religion. So religion seems to be a belief people have when they lack well-being.
Bahá'í is a Middle Eastern-based religion that teaches that all religions have value. It was founded in 1863 and originated in the Middle East. The followers of this religion have up to 7 million followers known as Bahá'ís that are found in most of the countries in the world.
Bahá'í is based on the Bábí religion. The founder Bahá'u' lláh taught that a prophet like Muhammad and Jesus would be sent by God. Then in 1963, he announced he was that prophet. This resulted in him being exiled from Iran and spending more than a decade in a Palestine prison.
Followers of Bahá'í use the analogy of a baby in his/her mother’s womb. During this time the fetus is in a “world” that’s dark, warm, and comfy. Here things like eyes, ears, arms, and legs are developed, but those things won’t be needed outside at birth.
However, when the baby in the womb is born, they enter a big new world. They can finally learn why they needed to develop those physical items while they were in the womb. Bahá'í explains that just as people need to develop in the womb people should develop their spiritual selves for the next world.
In the Foundations of World, Unity Abdul-Baha writes that people must obtain what they need for the Kingdom while they’re on Earth. Just as people prepared for the real world while in the world of the “matrix” it’s believed people must also acquire the forces of the divine existence while on Earth.
Bahá'í teachers reveal that all humans have a lower nature and higher nature. The lower nature is controlled by people’s egos while, the higher nature is controlled by one’s spirituality.
Abdul-Baha writes in Paris Talks in the lower nature people live for the world but in, the higher nature, they approach God. He writes that humans have both natures. The lower nature shows “untruth, cruelty, and injustice.” Meanwhile, the higher nature shows things like love, kindness, mercy, truth, and justice.
Bahá'í teachings show that all humans were created to resemble God. Thus, they can show his qualities/virtues. So, in theory, perfection is possible based on this religion. However, it’s considered a process that involves practice and mistakes.
So according to Bahá'í, the goal of life is to work towards perfection and the next world. It takes time and practices like learning how to crawl, walk, and run. A lot of practice and dedication are required, but humans will eventually get to the finish line.
Existentialism is a philosophy about human existence related to pursuing life’s meaning. The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel first coined the phrase. Then the book was later popularized by the French philosopher Paul Sartre.
The term existentialism is based on the philosophy’s focus on human existence. The popularity of existentialism sky-rocketed after World War 2. Before this philosophy existed related issues like the meaning of life had been studied.
However, philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche wanted to study whether or not human existence was as meaningless as it seemed to them. They also studied other issues like people defining their values and a person’s individual freedom.
This is one of the main issues related to existentialism. It’s common for people to think about life’s purpose. In terms of existentialism, the focus is on dying rather than living. It’s not easy for people to think that every step we take is closer to our death. However, it’s something that’s often on our minds.
Søren Kierkegaard is often referred to as the “father of Existentialism even though he never technically used the term. The Danish philosopher says that everyone is responsible for providing purpose/meaning to their lives. They are also responsible for living it sincerely/truthfully. He wrote that we humans are so smart we “realize that we exist.”
Kierkegaard explains that we know of our existence at around age 4 or 5. We realize we can make choices about actions, morality, etc. The philosopher explains in his book The Concept of Anxiety knowing about these choices causes dread in people. That, in turn, causes results including self-awareness and personal responsibility.
This can cause dread because we also realize that we’ll die one day. This causes anxiety in the brain that must be removed/minimized. In the past, this resulted in people creating cultures and having religious faith to support the idea life has meaning.
That’s because it allows people to live past dying. It produces a “meaning” universe instead of one that’s cold/empty. Nietzsche and other existentialists defined these structures like culture and religion as ones that prevent us from living a full life.
It’s resulted in people seeing life has something they should resent/disdain. That’s caused people to believe in a myth/invention instead of life itself, which isn’t the real world.
Existentialism helps to cause people to look more closely at their reasons for existence. The problem is it doesn’t produce any way to exist.
This has resulted in the works of Dr. Ernest Becker. The Cultural Anthropologist's book Denial of Death has won the Pulitzer Prize. He writes that for people to “stand up” in the morning a person needs to believe that there’s meaning in life. It’s also important for everyone to believe they’re contributing to the “culturally constructed drama.”
In other words, culture makes it possible for people to feel that they’re valuable. This is through social roles with the related standard of behavior. This provides a sense that a person is valuable in the world.
Monty Python was a UK surreal comedy group whose comedy show titled Monty Python’s Flying Circus aired in 1969 on the BBC. The TV show aired 45 episodes and later expanded to books, stage shows, musicals, and films.
This film released in the early 1980s has received an 85% rating at Rotten Tomatoes based on 30+ reviews by film critics. The film deals with a wide range of philosophical issues including religion, existentialism, and ethics.
In the movie, the Monty Python comedy troupe explores various aspects of life meaning. Some of the different skits include:
At the conclusion of the film, the characters from each of the film’s segments join together in a Monty Python-like heaven and become the audience of a Las Vegas-like song-and-dance number.
Here are some of the life/philosophical issues addressed in the movie:
In the Zulu War scene, the officer class is praised for its “calm leadership.” It’s noted that even the infantrymen value the officers more than themselves. However, the officers show that they’re not concerned about the regular soldiers or even an officer who was injured in combat. This raises the ethical issue about whether or not the officers would be more effective if they showed empathy regarding the fate of soldiers and officers.
One issue in the movie is related to the issue of birth control and over-population. A father must deal with whether he and his wife should use birth control. If he uses it, then he can help to prevent his family from experiencing poverty. On the other hand, it could result in disapproval from the Catholic Church or even God.
In one scene Death visits a British couple and their US guests. The deceased people take a while to realize they are dead even though it’s clear to the audience. However, even when they realize they are indeed deceased, they’re hesitant to believe it’s happened. They then ask Death to explain how they passed away at the same time. This scene deals with the issue of people accepting their mortality.
Here’s the theatrical trailer for Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life:
Dead Poet’s Society is a 1989 film starring the actor/comedian Robin Williams. The movie is set nearly six decades ago in 1959 at a fictitious Vermont boarding school. The film focuses on the story of John Keating, who is an English teacher played by Williams who uses poetry instruction to inspire his students at the school.
The film earned box office receipts of about $236 million. Dead Poet’s Society also received an Academy Award and had received an 80%+ average of positive film reviews at the aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes.
Keating graduated from the Welton Academy himself and was a member of the unofficial Dead Poets Society. A student named Neil reboots the club that gives students a chance to read and write poetry.
Keating encourages his students to live the life they want, which is an antithetic approach to life the students learn about the conservative boarding school. Keaton encourages his English students to make their lives “extraordinary.”
Keating also shows pictures of the school’s alumni and reminds the students the boys in the photos are all dead. He then teaches his students the Latin phrase “carpe diem,” which means “seize the day.”
The phrase carpe diem originates from the Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus who lived during the reign of Augustus. The phrase is from his lyric “Seize the day, put very little trust in tomorrow.” The reason is we don’t know what the future holds and shouldn’t leave things to chance. Instead, we should do everything we can today to improve our future.
Horace had a background in Epicurean hedonism. He wasn’t encouraging people not to think about the future. Instead, he was saying things will work out if we plan for the future today.
This concept is also found in Dale Carnegie’s book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (1948). The book recommends the opposite of worrying is to do the best we can each day. Then we should get a good night’s sleep and start the process over the next day.
Like Horace, Carnegie isn’t encouraging people to live an irresponsible lifestyle. However, he’s arguing that life’s meaning is to take life one day at a time. The opposite of worrying about the future is taking action.
Carnegie offers other helpful advice to avoid worrying. They include imagining a current situation 100 years from now and accepting a worst-case scenario. Seeing the big picture can help to deal with problems that seem unsolvable.
Here’s the Carpe Diem scene from Dead Poet’s Society:
We’ve just reviewed what people of different religions and philosophies believe life’s meaning is. Some people think it’s enjoying life on Earth while others believe it should be about preparing for an after-life. So we’ll raise the original question we asked at the get-go: What is the meaning of life? It depends who you ask.