What is the meaning of life?
Everyone asks this question and seldom, if ever, is anyone really satisfied with the answers. Why? It is perhaps the oldest of philosophical questions; you would think after 2600 years, someone would have—should have—found a final answer. Maybe someone has, but we don’t recognize the answer; or, maybe, something of the answer resides in asking the question. And maybe part of the question’s difficulty resides in learning to ask the question in the right way.
That is, questions about the meaning of life are not questions in the same way that math problems are. There are no blank lines into which someone can write a solution which solves the problem once and for all, for all time, whenever it is asked. Life—human life—is much too complex for that: our difficulties are not the same from one day to the next, let alone across years, decades, and generations.
Which isn’t to deny the wisdom of eras past; to the contrary, we are fools to ignore the great thinkers of those 2600 years who spent their lives struggling with the same questions we find ourselves facing today. Questions of meaning—life, purpose, truth, goodness, justice—are pursued in countless reams of philosophical texts, from the dialogues of Plato to the disputed questions of the scholastics, from Descartes’ Meditations to Nietzsche’s polemics.
But navigating the halls of philosophical thought is no easy, straightforward, or simple task. Where should one begin? With Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics? Descartes, Locke, the moderns? Can someone pick up Martin Heidegger without having first wrestled with Kant? Can critical theory be grasped without a phenomenological strength?