As an increasing number of people struggle with a spiritual crisis, the man who invented the question of meaning of life in 1834 can offer a surprisingly solid answer.
Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), the Scottish author celebrating his 225th birthday today on 4th of December, was a towering figure in 19th century literature, praised by everyone from Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Stuart Mill to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Charles Dickens dedicated his Hard Times to Carlyle, a portrait of Carlyle hung over Emily Dickinson’s writing desk, and James Hutchison Stirling noted that in the 1840s Carlyle “was every literary young man’s idol, almost the God he prayed to.”
What he usually doesn’t get credit for is that he was the man who coined the phrase “meaning of life” in English language.
In Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, published in 1833-34, the protagonist loses his faith in God, plunging into an existential crisis that Carlyle called the Centre of Indifference, where nothing really mattered. From a stellar point of view, “What is this paltry little Dog-cage of an Earth; what art thou that sittest whining there? … thou art wholly as a dissevered limb.”
In what Carlyle described as an atheistic century, where the Torch of Science burns so fiercely that “not the smallest cranny or dog-hole in Nature or Art can remain unilluminated,” the comforting religious worldview is “parched away, under the Droughts of practical and spiritual Unbelief.” Repeated disappointment gave rise to doubt, “and Doubt gradually settled into Denial!”
In the midst of this crisis, where “to die or to live is alike to me,” we hear for the first time the modern cry for meaningfulness: “yet is the meaning of Life itself no other than Freedom, than Voluntary Force.”
Carlyle, like many of us today, felt that he lived in an era during which the voice of God had been silenced, suffocated by the triumph of the scientific worldview. This is the context where the phrase ‘meaning of life’ was first needed. In using the phrase, Carlyle was directly inspired by German Romantics Novalis and Friedrich Schlegel using the German equivalent to the phrase, der Sinn des Lebens, a few decades earlier in their similar revolt against the rational and mechanistic modern worldview.
“Meaning of life” thus emerged to describe something that no longer could be taken for granted. It became the symbol of a riddle at the heart of our existence: If human life is arbitrary and impermanent occurrence leaving no trace on a cosmic scale, then what could make this life worth living?
Carlyle, fortunately, had an answer. His protagonist emerged from The Centre of Indifference with a new foundation for meaning. This is what electrified the young generation in the 19th century. As historian R.L. Brett notes: “It was Carlyle who held out the promise of a vitalistic philosophy which could replace the materialist and mechanistic thought of the preceding century.”
The Ideal is in thyself” Carlyle proclaimed, “the thing thou seekest is already with thee.” Whether or not there is God out there, there is something God-like within us: Our freedom to not succumb to our animal desires but instead be guided by the better angels of our nature. Carlyle’s days of indifference were over when he realized that there is a mandate which “lies mysteriously written, in Promethean, Prophetic Characters, in our hearts; and leaves us no rest, night or day, till it be deciphered and obeyed; till it burn forth, in our conduct, a visible, acted Gospel of Freedom.”
What we find in our heart, according to Carlyle, is a call of duty to work. “Work thou in Welldoing” is our mandate. By engaging in purposeful work, we fulfill our role, and make our existence meaningful.
What you ought to do in life is not found in some abstract ideal but by carefully examining the situation you are currently in: “In this poor, miserable, hampered, despicable Actual, wherein thou even now standest, here or nowhere is thy Ideal.”
Carlyle’s recipe for a meaningful existence is thus simple. Assess your current situation: What are your capabilities and resources? What could be better in your life and in the lives of those around you? What could you realistically do to make these good things happen? By this kind of realistic assessment of your current situation, you already know what ought to be done:
“To each is given a certain inward Talent, a certain outward Environment of Fortune; to each, by wisest combination of these two, a certain maximum Capability. But the hardest problem were ever this first: To find by study of yourself, and of the ground you stand on, what your combined inward and outward Capability specially is.”
If you have much capacity, do much. Tackle some grand challenge of our time like malaria, climate change, or poverty. If you have little capacity, do what little you can in your immediate social surroundings. Don’t wait for some commands carved in stone to drop from sky to provide absolute clarity and direction. Instead, start from where you are right now. Examine your current situation, your interests, your capabilities, and the ailments around you that you could realistically address. Then go out and ”Do the Duty which lies nearest thee.” Meaningful existence is that simple. It is a call to action, using what is within you to bring forth a slightly better world. And you’d better start today. For as Carlyle notes:
“’Tis the utmost thou hast in thee; out with it then. Up, up! Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called To-day, for the Night cometh wherein no man can work.”
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“‘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…
My book, A Wonderful Life – Insights on Finding a Meaningful Existence – came out today to quite a different world than where it was written. Right now, I was supposed to be in New York, starting my book tour that would take me to Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Washington D.C. and so forth. Instead, I am at home, all events cancelled, my three kids home from school and daycare, and my workplace, the university, shut down. The next weeks will reveal how big is the death toll and turmoil in my city and yours.
Instead of celebration and sparkling wine, I am asking myself: Is now the appropriate time to publish a book entitled A Wonderful Life?
Last summer, when the name was decided during a warm and sunny weekend – I remember staring at a lake, contemplating the proposal –, it seemed like the perfect title to capture the spirit of the book. Right now, talking about a wonderful life sounds banal. When people’s lives and livelihoods are threatened, it’s a matter of preserving and saving lives, wonderful or not.
This crisis has put things in perspective. The many petty strivings and complains we’ve occupied us were revealed to be trivial. Did your local barista serve your flat white with the wrong label of oat milk? Well, now the whole place has closed down, the baristas lost their income, and the owner is fighting to avoid filing bankruptcy in the next coming weeks.
The life-as-it-used-to-be was taken away from us, making us aware of how many comforts of the everyday life we took for granted: being able to hang out with our friends, visit our grandparents, kids having a school and us having a workplace to go to.
Even more seriously, we’ve become aware of the fragility of life. How everything we have, anybody close to us – and even our own lives – can be taken away from us at any moment. As Paulo Coelho put it: “Anyone who has lost something they thought was theirs forever finally comes to realize that nothing really belongs to them.”
And this is where my book fits in. Behind the uplifting title, it aims to confront our existence bare and naked. It aims to stare at the void of meaninglessness and even death straight in the eyes and boldly state: I am aware of you. I know you. But I refuse to be dragged down by you. I am still alive, the music is still playing for me. Whether or not I have years, weeks, or days more to live, I will make the best out of them. The meaningfulness of my days are decided here and now, by the everyday choices I make. And as long as I am still alive, I aim to make the best out of this unique opportunity called life.
The book thus aims to be a manifesto for how life can be meaningful, even when facing our own mortality. In fact, it aims to show how becoming aware of the fragility of our existence can help us to appreciate even more the unique life that we are given to live. Adversity wakes you up to take charge of your own life. And meaningfulness can exist alongside adversity. When trying to cope with a crisis, having a strong sense of meaningfulness can be your key ally.
How then to approach life to make it more meaningful, especially today?
There is much that is beyond our control in this situation, and occasionally it can feel overwhelming and scary. To remain sane and functional, it is crucial to focus on those areas of life that are within your own control. Instead of ruminating over what you can’t influence, identify what you are still capable of doing to improve your own situation and the situation of those around you. Concentrating on that is enough to make your life meaningful. Washing your hands have never been as meaningful and as valuable act as it is today. By doing that regularly you participate in an activity that literally saves human lives.
My key message in the book is that meaningfulness is not something grand and given to you from above. It is something happening within your life, and typically what makes your life meaningful are very mundane things like spending time with the family or having fun with your friends. While the present situation makes some of these things tricky – instead of beer in a bar, you’ll have to have a beer over a video call with your friends – most of the elements of meaningfulness are still up for grabs even today.
Most importantly, both research and our everyday experience confirm that a key pathway to more meaningfulness is helping others – friends, neighbors, local community, the society. The present crisis offers abundant opportunities to help others. Many vulnerable citizens should avoid all public places and need help in getting food from the grocery store. Shop for them. Many artists, restaurant owners, and other small businesses face bankruptcy as they’ve lost all customers for the coming months. Support them.
Now is not the time for despair. Now is the time for action. Rarely have you had the change to help so many with so little. Just by staying home and avoiding social contact you are doing a tremendous service to the society. Sitting in your sofa has never been more meaningful than today.
Even though the present crisis might involve despair and suffering, it can simultaneously offer you a change to live your life more meaningfully. Through helping others today, by doing your own part in stopping the spreading of the virus, you are not only making the world a better place, you are also making your own life more meaningful.
Read more in the book:
Life is short. As Samuel Beckett wrote in Waiting for Godot: “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” The best remedy is to resolve to make life choices that ensure that while the light still gleams, your remaining days, weeks, and years are worth it.
The above words are from my book, A Wonderful Life – Insights on Finding a Meaningful Existence, which comes out this week to a world quite different from the one in which it was written months ago. When writing it, gloomy thoughts about sickness, tragedy, and death seemed remote – something one had to remind oneself about. Memento mori – remember, you will die – has been the slogan of various ascetic and spiritual traditions throughout Western history.
I wrote how death, instead of being the ultimate meaning-nullifier, can actually imbue our lives with meaning. This is because we too easily let our lives happen to us. We dedicate more time in one evening to deliberate what film to watch than we do in a whole year to deliberating what would make our lives more meaningful, as philosopher Iddo Landau has pointedly noted. We do what others want us to do, we react to whatever requires our attention right now. Days, months, years pass by, without us ever stopping to think whether this is actually how I want to live my life. Life slides by while we do what is convenient, easy, and expected of us.
Death awakens us to the briefness and uniqueness of our existence. Given that I only have this one life to live, given that it can be taken from me any moment, why not live life fully. Why not make the best out of the limited time I’ve got? Why not choose to live according to my own terms, instead of letting someone else decide what I ought to do in life?
That’s why there are so many stories of people going through a tragedy – a life-threatening illness or losing a loved one – and emerging on the other side with a new-found clarity about what is truly important in life and what they want to do for the rest of their lives.
Right now, we don’t need to be reminded about the limitedness of our existence. The spreading epidemic has made everyone all too aware of how fragile the ordinary life can be. This is a tragedy on a global level, and the coming months will reveal how serious the consequences are and how will people and societies cope with this unprecedented situation.
While I don’t have anything unique to say about how to stay alive and safe during this crisis – wash your hands, engage in social distancing – I can help to make these days feel more meaningful. The recipe for meaningful existence, namely, is the same, whether you have days, months, or years to live.
Meaningfulness happens during living, not after it. Living takes place in the present, the present moment is all we have – and all we will have. Past is simply a compilation of memories we experience in the present. The future is the projection of hopes and predictions we make in the present. As philosopher Gregory Pappas puts it, “foresight, hindsight, and present observation are all done in the present for the present.” Here he follows America’s most important public intellectual from hundred years ago, philosopher John Dewey, who summarizes his recipe for meaningfulness as follows: “So act as to increase the meaning of present experience.”
Life is composed of temporal moments, some of which are more meaningful than others. And them not lasting forever doesn’t detract from their meaningfulness as already Aristotle pointed out: “Moreover, the good will not be good to a greater degree by being eternal either, if in fact whiteness that lasts a long time will not be whiter than that which lasts only a day.”
No matter what your situation is or how much longer you have to live, what you can do is to make the present moment more meaningful. When your focus is on making this moment and this day more meaningful, instead of longing for some metaphysical truths to drop from the sky, you’ll soon realize that the most meaningful moments typically consist of a few simple ingredients.
One is connection with others. Being together is one of the most meaningful things for us – this is confirmed both by research and our everyday experience. The crisis offers us a chance to evaluate who are the truly meaningful people in our lives. If I have to be isolated from the rest of the human kind, with whom do I want to be isolated? Now is the time to connect with those people – if not physically, then through phone calls, video calls, and other modern means that keep us physically distant but emotionally close.
Second is contributing. When I am making meaningful contribution to the lives of others, this makes my own life feel more meaningful to me. Backed up by several research studies I and other researchers have conducted, we know that a great way to experience meaning is to help others – friends, neighbors, local community, the society. The present crisis offers abundant changes to help others. Many vulnerable citizens should avoid all public places and need help in getting food from the grocery store. Shop for them. Many artists, restaurant owners, and other small businesses face bankruptcy as they’ve lost all customers for the coming months. Support them.
Connecting with others is thus crucial for meaning. But it is as important to connect with yourself. This is done by seeking activities that you find personally interesting, valuable, and fulfilling. What makes you tick? What do you enjoy doing when nobody is judging? Use the quarantine to engage in those activities. Put the music on in the living room and dance like no one’s watching. Similarly, we experience meaning when we master something – when we get to put our unique mix of skills and abilities to full use. Now is the time to learn something you’ve always wanted to master, be it a musical instrument or a certain software. Being able to express oneself is part of a fully lived life, and such self-actualization can make our lives feel truly worth living.
Meaningfulness isn’t something remote or rare. It’s an experience that exists in many of our everyday moments in stronger or weaker form. As workers, as parents, as friends, as neighbors, as ourselves – we have the chance to experience tiny moments of meaning every single day if we just pay heed.
Life may end one day. Every other day it doesn’t. During all those every other days we have opportunities to appreciate beauty and cultivate meaning. Meaningfulness resides in the small wonders of our everyday life. The famous Zen teacher Alan W. Watts compares life to music. He notes that in music one doesn’t make the end of the composition the point of the composition. In playing a song, the one who plays it fastest doesn’t win. What is meaningful in music is not getting to the end but what happens during the moments when the music is played. Too often we approach life as a kind of project with a serious purpose at the end. We focus so much to getting to that end, be it success or whatever, that we miss the whole point along the way. ”It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing or dance while the music was being played.”
One day the music will stop. What happens afterward no one knows. But there’s no point in waiting for the silence. If you’re reading this, then the music is still playing for you. So go out and dance – alone or with friends through a video call.