The Meaning of Life: Will Durant

Thought, by its very development, seems to have destroyed the value and significance of life. The growth and spread of knowledge, for which so many idealists and reformers prayed, has resulted in a disillusionment which has almost broken the spirit of our race.

Astronomers have told us that human affairs constitute but a moment in the trajectory of a star; geologists have told us that civilization is but a precarious interlude between ice ages; biologists have told us that all life is war, a struggle for existence among individuals, groups, nations, alliances, and species; historians have told us that “progress” is a delusion, whose glory ends in inevitable decay; psychologists have told us that the will and the self are the helpless instruments of heredity and environment, and that the once incorruptible soul is but a transient incandescence of the brain. The Industrial Revolution has destroyed the home, and the discovery of contraceptives is destroying the family, the old, morality, and perhaps (through the sterility of the intelligent) the race. Love is analyzed into a physical congestion, and marriage becomes a temporary physiological convenience slightly superior to promiscuity. Democracy has degenerated into such corruption as only Milo’s Rome knew; and our youthful dreams of a socialist Utopia disappear as we see, day after day, the inexhaustible acquisitiveness of men. Every invention strengthens the strong and weakens the weak; every new mechanism displaces men, and multiplies the horrors of war. God, who was once the consolation of our brief life, and our refuge in bereavement and suffering, has apparently vanished from the scene; no telescope, no microscope discovers him. Life has become, in that total perspective which is philosophy, a fitful pullulation of human insects on the earth, a planetary eczema that may soon be cured; nothing is certain in it except defeat and death – a sleep from which, it seems, there is no awakening.

We are driven to conclude that the greatest mistake in human history was the discovery of “truth”. It has not made us free, except from delusions that comforted us and restraints that preserved us. It has not made us happy, for truth is not beautiful, and did not deserve to be so passionately chased. As we look on it now we wonder why we hurried so to find it. For it has taken from us every reason for existence except the moment’s pleasure and tomorrow’s trivial hope.
Will Durant (1885-1981), “An Anthology of Doubt”, “I. The Problem”, On the Meaning of Life, 1932

Wow, apparently spending four decades writing a multi-volume history of civilization makes one quite the downer. Maybe it’s because historical tales are only interesting if they focus on violence, bloodshed, deceit, and war rather than on good works, compassion, and millions of little acts of kindness. Durant wrote to every celebrity he could think of and created On the Meaning of Life, a compilation of (one would assume) the pithiest responses. Only one celebrity was noted to complain that Durant was making money from his contributors’ writing. To be fair, Durant wrote about half the book himself.

It seems that no one can have a perfectly pleasant discussion about the meaning of life without dragging religion into it. So let’s get it over with…

The natural condition of humanity, and even of philosophers, is hope. Great religions arise and flourish out of the need men feel to believe in their worth and destiny; and great civilizations have normally rested upon these inspiriting religions. Where such a faith, after supporting men for centuries, begins to weaken, life narrows down from a spiritual drama to a biological episode; it sacrifices the dignity conferred by a destiny endless in time, and shrinks to a strange interlude between a ridiculous birth and an annihilating death. Reduced to a microscopic triviality by the perspective of science, the informed individual loses belief in himself and his race, and enterprises of great pith and moment, which once aroused his effort and admiration, awaken in him only skepticism and scorn. Faith and hope disappear; doubt and despair are the order of the day.

This is the essential diagnosis of our time. It is not merely great wars that have plunged us into pessimism, much less the economic depression of these recent years; we have to do here with something far deeper than a temporary diminution of our wealth, or even the death of millions of men; it is not our homes and our treasuries that are empty, it is our “hearts”. It seems impossible any longer to believe in the permanent greatness of man, or to give life a meaning that cannot be annulled by death. We move into an age of spiritual exhaustion and despondency like that which hungered for the birth of Christ.
Will Durant (1885-1981) , “An Anthology of Doubt”, “II. Religion”, On the Meaning of Life, 1932

Depression is not an argument for religion. Hope is not an argument against atheism. Atheism does not provide the meaning of life, but neither does religion. Perhaps a simple bit of jingoistic advice might suffice here: Get a life! But Mencken always states it with style:

The act of worship, as carried on by Christians, seems to me to be debasing rather than ennobling. It involves grovelling before a Being who, if He really exists, deserves to be denounced instead of respected. I see little evidence in this world of the so-called goodness of God. On the contrary, it seems to me that, on the strength of His daily acts, He must be set down a most cruel, stupid and villainous fellow. I can say this with a clear conscience, for He has treated me very well – in fact, with vast politeness. But I can’t help thinking of his barbaric torture of most of the rest of humanity. I simply can’t imagine revering the God of war and politics, theology and cancer.
H.L. Mencken (1880-1956), letter, On the Meaning of Life, Will Durant, 1932

I love that guy. I can’t wait to meet him in heaven! And speaking of heaven…

If you think about it, I mean really think about it, you’ll find that immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be:

I do not believe in immortality, and have no desire for it. The belief in it issues from the puerile egos of inferior men. In its Christian form it is little more than a device for getting revenge upon those who are having a better time on this earth. What the meaning of human life may be I don’t know: I incline to suspect that it has none. All I know about it is that, to me at least, it is very amusing while it lasts. Even its troubles, indeed, can be amusing. Moreover, they tend to foster the human qualities that I admire most – courage and its analogues. The noblest man, I think, is that one who fights God, and triumphs over Him. I have had little of this to do. When I die I shall be content to vanish into nothingness. No show, however good, could conceivably be good for ever.
H.L. Mencken (1880-1956), letter, On the Meaning of Life, Will Durant, 1932

There is something selfish in the desire for personal immortality, and a heaven crowded to suffocation with interminable egos would be an insufferable place.
Will Durant (1885-1981), “Letters to a Suicide”, On the Meaning of Life, 1932

What shall we know of our death? Either the soul is immortal and we shall not die, or it perishes with the flesh and we shall not know that we are dead. Live, then, as if you were eternal, and do not believe that your life has changed merely because it seems proved that the Earth is empty. You do not live in the Earth, you live in yourself.
André Maurois (1885-1967), essay, On the Meaning of Life, Will Durant, 1932

Speaking of mortality, quite a moving letter came from a lifer, proving once again that such a punishment can destroy hope, but also sometimes clarify the mind:

I, a man serving a life term behind prison walls, answer that that the meaning of life has for me depends upon, and is only limited by, my ability to recognize its great truths and to learn and profit by the lessons they teach me. In short, life is worth just what I am willing to strive to make it worth…

I do not know to what great end Destiny leads us, nor do I care very much. Long before that end, I shall have played my part, spoken my lines, and passed on. How I play that part is all that concerns me.

In the knowledge that I am an inalienable part of this great, wonderful, upward movement called life, and that nothing, neither pestilence, nor physical affliction, nor depression, nor prison, can take away from me my part, lies my conclusion, my inspiration, and my treasure.
Owen C. Middleton, convict 79206, Sing Sing Prison, letter, On the Meaning of Life, Will Durant, 1932

I wonder whatever happened to that guy?

Durant also lets some bad advice be proffered by someone who sometimes had more wit than sense:

Live your life so that whenever you lose, you are ahead.
Will Rogers (1879-1935), letter, On the Meaning of Life, Will Durant, 1932

Not the wisest advice ever. It’s a dull life without risk. You have to risk it all to gain it all. No risk, no reward. No gain, no pain. Just do it! Sorry, I’ve succumbed to jingoism once again… Actually, the wisest advice from Will Rogers was this:

Always drink upstream from the herd.
Will Rogers (1879-1935), “The Manly Wisdom of Will Rogers”, ‪The Friars Club Bible of Jokes, Pokes, Roasts, and Toasts, edited by Nina Colman, 2001

I like to think of that quote as another way of saying: Forget what everyone else is doing and be true to yourself. Or maybe it was meant to be literal, in which case it’s good advice for your physical health.

Durant really tripped himself up when he discussed the deteriorating morality of society – although it may not have been obvious to many of his contemporary readers:

The most depressing sight in our civilization is not poverty – for even the poverty of a Louisiana darky can have a certain dignity and content – but the apparent deterioration in the moral fiber of the race. It is hard to judge of these things, partly because one’s experience is so brief, partly because we judge the morals of today with the standards of yesterday.
Will Durant (1885-1981), On the Meaning of Life, 1932

This quote has a double impact to the modern reader: it is deeply ironic and it now disproves its own point. Far too many judge the morals of today with the religions of yesterday, where yesterday is hundreds of years ago. The above quote shows just how wrong this approach can be.

So did Durant figure out the meaning of life for himself after all this? You’ll have to decide that for yourself:

The meaning of life, then, must lie within itself; … it must be sought in life’s own instinctive cravings and natural fulfillments…

The simplest meaning of life, the, is joy – the exhilaration of experience itself, of physical well-being; sheer satisfaction of muscle and sense, of palate and ear and eye… Even if life had no meaning except for its moments of beauty (and we are not sure that it has more), that would be enough; this plodding through the rain, or fighting the wind, or tramping the snow under the sun, or watching the twilight turn into night, is reason a-plenty for loving life…

If … a thing has significance only through its relation as part to a larger whole, then, though we cannot give a metaphysical and universal meaning to all life in general, we can say of any life in particular that its meaning lies in its relation to something larger than itself. Hence the greater fulness of the married and parental, as compared with the celibate and sterile, life; a man feels significant in proportion as he contributes, physically or mentally, to the entity of which he acknowledges himself a part. We who are too superior to belong to groups, who are too wise to marry or too clever to have children, find life empty and vain, and wonder has it any meaning. But ask the father of sons and daughters “What is the meaning of life?” and he will answer you very simply: “Feeding your family.” …

As for myself … the meaning of life lies perhaps too narrowly in my family and my work… Where, in the last resort, does my treasure lie? – in everything. A man should have many irons in the fire; he should not let his happiness be bound up entirely with his children, or his fame, or his prosperity, or even his health; but he should be able to find nourishment for his content in any one of these, even if all the rest are taken away. My last resort, I think, would be Nature herself; shorn of all other gifts and goods, I should find, I hope, sufficient courage for existence in any mood of field and sky, or, shorn of sight, in some concourse of sweet sounds, or some poet’s memory of a day that smiled. All in all, experience is a marvelously rich panorama, from which any sense should be able to draw sustenance for living…

What immortality means to me now is that we are all parts of a whole, cells in the body of life; that the death of the part is the life of the whole; and that though as individuals we pass away, yet the whole is made forever different by what we have done and been.
Will Durant (1885-1981), “Letters to a Suicide”, On the Meaning of Life, 1932


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