Tagged: Thomas Carlyle

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