The Emergence of the Modern Notion of the Meaning of Life in the Early Nineteenth Century

“‘Futile! Futile!’ laments the Teacher. ‘Absolutely futile! Everything is futile!”

“I reflected on everything that is accomplished by man on earth, and I concluded: Everything he has accomplished is futile – like chasing the wind!”

We come from the dust, and to dust we return. The Book of Ecclesiastes is a powerful manifesto of the futility of all human strivings – even though the book eventually comes to emphasize that everything is in the hands of God and we should not doubt his plan. Written somewhere around the 3rd century BCE, I have yet to see other examples from the same era where the vanity of existence in the face of death is so clearly articulated.

However, through Enlightenment and the rise of the scientific worldview, a new way to understand the human condition started to slowly emerge, culminating, around the turn of the nineteenth century, with the invention of a new phrase: the meaning of life.

Read more about the history and emergence of the modern notion of meaning of life in my new blog post for Journal of History of Ideas


  1. Tim Bryant

    Hi Frank –

    That’s a big jump from Ecclesiastes to Carlyle, but that’s cool. Such questions about the meaning of life pop up and reoccur everywhere and at all times in history. Lately I have been contemplating another part of Ecclesiastes – 3: 1–18, the Turn Turn Turn part. “A time to kill, a time to heal.” It sounds great and it rhymes well, but sadly it goes against the message of Christ, who signifies forgiveness for all crimes and banishes hate and fear with love. Still, as a local minister told me, we can interpret the stuff about killing and hate metaphorically and greet each day as another chance to fight injustice and turn away hate with the power of love.

    I do like and appreciate your rap on the onslaught or mechanization in the industrial revolution in Europe and the subsequent struggles with faith by intellectuals of all sorts. There was a lag between the UK and European industrial revolution and the industrial revolution in the United States, but the underlying issues were the same and we ended up with some really neat expositions of that struggle in the Romantic authors: Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, and Thoreau.

    Thus, my morning reading is an essay/story of Hawthorne’s, “Egotism, or The Bosom-Serpent,” something I remember really grabbed me back in the day, but which probably is still appropriate today – the dangers of self-absorption versus opening one’s heart to others, for the remedy for self-absorption is serving God by serving your fellow human. Or, as my deceased brother always said, “Pull your head out of your ass and take a look around!” There’s your answer to the question of meaning: Give love and receive love without out any complication.

    Thanks for another good read!

    • Frank Martela

      Thanks Tim for your words. Yes, the historical jump from the Book of Ecclesiastes to Thomas Carlyle is enormous. I originally wrote a bit about the period in between but had to cut that to fit the text into the length requirement. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to write a more history at some point. And Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, and Thoreau indeed represent many of the same thoughts and struggles that Carlyle was expressing. Emerson actually wrote the preface to the US edition of Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, and Melville was also much inspired by him when writing Moby Dick. So there is a strong connection there.

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