Updated: Feb 18, 2021
As with all reviews on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete overview of the book, but rather to examine how the book relates to the meaning of life. In this review, we'll briefly examine the Myth of Sisyphus, Edges of Mental Capacity, Happiness, and The Hive.
About the book: Meaning in Life and Why It Matters by Susan Wolf was first published in 2010. The author takes an academic approach on the subject which at times can become quite a bit tedious in nature. However, with that said, the approach weeds out many more simplistic answers to the question "What is the meaning of life?", e.g. happiness, whatever you want it to be, etc. That said, Susan makes a number of great arguments throughout the book, some of which will be examined in this review.
Myth of Sisyphus: For those that believe that the meaning of life is anything you may want it to be, consider the myth of Sisyphus. In a nutshell, Sisyphus is condemned by Zeus to continually roll a rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down and have to repeat the same repetitive task day in and day out (much like many of us do in our day jobs--the sun rises, falls, and we repeat the same routines). Most of us would agree that Zeus' punishment of Sisyphus, rolling a rock up and down a hill for all eternity would be rather horrific and most importantly, meaningless.
However, Susan points out a thought experiment by Richard Taylor where Sisyphus comes to terms with his punishment and actually begins to enjoy the task. In fact, in this thought experiment, he loves the task so much that it becomes his passion and it is all he wants to do. However, is rolling rocks really a meaningful task or is the Sisyphus in this experiment really just delusional? We all probably have friends or family who find passion in oddities e.g. the cat lady, the bizarre collector, etc. As such, it is an interesting question. If a task is meaningful only to a single individual, does it have any real value?
Susan analytically discusses various views on the subject before reasoning that the Fitting Fulfillment View would be the best choice to resolve this issue. In this view, "a life is meaningful insofar as its subjective attractions are to things or goals that are objectively worthwhile. That is, one’s life is meaningful insofar as one finds oneself loving things worthy of love and able to do something positive about it. A life is meaningful, as I also put it, insofar as it is actively and lovingly engaged in projects of worth."
If one accepts this view, Sisyphus is merely delusional to think that his life is meaningful because although rock rolling may have a subjective attraction, the act of rock rolling is not objectively worthwhile. The book goes on to debate the topic and never fully resolves the issue of who can determine what is "objectively worthwhile."
Happiness, Morality, and the Meaning of Life: The author also does a great job at separating meaning from both happiness and morality. That is, an individual can have a very meaningful life, but not actually enjoy it. In addition, it is plausible for an individual to fail, and still live a meaningful life. Robert M. Adams references the example of Claus von Stauffenberg in the commentary section of the book. Claus von Stauffenberg unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Hitler but was caught and executed. Thus failing and ending life unhappily--yet, with great meaning.
Edges of Mental Capacity: One of the more interesting examples provided in the commentary section came from Nomy Arpaly. She discussed the example of an individual with a mental handicap raising a goldfish. For most people, unless mentally ill or delusional, caring for a goldfish will not bring significant value or meaning to life. However, for an individual with a mental handicap, this may push the edges of mental capacity, creating a case where the individual becomes more social, giving some meaning to the individual's life.
As a result, one would naturally wonder what are the edges of mental capacity? Would another advanced race of beings view us working on relativity and quantum mechanics similar to that of raising a goldfish? In any case, the Fitting Fulfillment View would cover any being capable of subjective reflection. However, a simple thought experiment where an individual has anterograde amnesia, one would have to wonder, is there simply no hope for people with this disorder? An individual with this disorder, or a similar disorder, would have no ability for self-reflection or subjectivity.
The Hive: One additional idea that was brought up in the commentary section included the concept of hives in relation to obtaining meaning by getting involved in “something larger than oneself.” This was brought up by Jonathan Haidt. On the topic he writes, "From the perspective of hive psychology, size matters a great deal. From the perspective of hive psychology, modern humans are essentially bees who busted out of the hive during the Enlightenment, and who burned down the last honeycombs during the twentieth century. We now fly around free and unencumbered, calling ourselves atheists, reading Waiting for Godot, and wondering, what does it all mean? Where can I find meaning? A good hive must be larger than one’s self."
This is rather thought-provoking. That is, should we really be so focused on meaning for ourselves, or somewhere along the line did we miss the point? Is the individual the social unit, or is the hive? Perhaps what we do collectively, more or less, defines the meaning of life rather than what we do individually.
Overall, the book has some great examples and really delves academically deep into the subject of meaning. However, if you are looking for a book which you can sip margaritas or coconut juice on a sunny beach and feel inspired, this is not the book for you. Although the book title "Meaning in Life" and "Why It Matters," from the book alone, I couldn't figure out why meaning really matters. In addition, the book appeared to overuse the word "one." Nevertheless, reading the book is a worthy endeavor if you are looking for an academic approach to the subject.
What often happens in many articles, books, videos, etc., a major point is missed. It is often assumed that a life is either meaningful or not meaningful. Almost as if there was nothing in between. In addition, many fail to point out that it is the combination of many small acts, day in and day out that contribute to worth, rather than one single large action for which people are remembered. In short, if you are looking for an academic book on the subject, the meaning of life, this will be a good, but tedious read. We rate the book the following:
Overall - 6
Meaning of Life Relevance - 10
Uniqueness – 6
What did we miss? What do you think about the idea "Perhaps what we do collectively, more or less, defines the meaning of life rather than what we do individually."?