On the Meaning of Life by Will Durant - Book Review

As with all reviews on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete overview of the book; rather, it is to examine how the book relates to the meaning of life.

On the Meaning of Life was first published in 1932, by Will Durant, and the current version of the book runs 116 pages in length, including a short introduction by John Little, creator of www.will-durant.com. In the summer of 1931, Durant sent this letter to famous contemporaries of his time, teasing them to tackle the greatest question of human history—what makes life worth living, or rather, what is the meaning of life. The letter was developed after Durant was confronted by what he perceived as a suicide epidemic, and individuals personally seeking him out needing help.

Responses from these individuals can be found in the book: Theodore Dreiser, H.L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, John Erskine, Charles A. Beard, John Cowper, Edwin Arlington Robinson, André Maurois, Will Rogers, Dr. Charles H. Mayo, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Havelock Ellis, Carl Laemmle, Ernest M. Hopkins, Adolph S. Ochs, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohandas K. Gandhi, John Haynes Holmes, Ernest Dimnet, Mary E. Woolley, Gina Lombroso, Helen Wills Moody, Owen C. Middleton, Bertrand Russell, Count Hermann Keyserling, and George Bernard Shaw.

Durant categorizes the responses into the following: authors, a miscellaneous type (including entertainers, artists, scientists, etc.), religious, women, thoughts from prison, and skeptics.

Although most of the responses were decent, what will not only send chills up your spine, but also send your soul into hypothermic shock are Durant's philosophical musings of despair at the beginning, and his confessions at the end. It was clear from his initial letter to his contemporaries, and his confessions at the end, much growth and reflection had taken place. Durant often launches into beautifully poetic reveries, or rather reflections on life. These may not reach the epic levels of Tolstoy, but they are honest, sincere, and well-developed.

With that said, let's take a look at excerpts from some of the more interesting answers to Durant's letter, and then circle back to his confessions at the end. Some of the responses were dull, some were decent at best, some were laconic or dismissive, and some were surprisingly inspirational like that if Owen C. Middleton—a convict recently sentenced to life in prison.

H.K. Mencken

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.

John Erskine

I believe the divine element in man is whatever it is which makes us wish to lead a life worth remembering, harmless to others, helpful to them, and increasing our own store of wisdom and peace.

Ossip Gabrilowitsch

I have always believed, (and I still do) that a man's philosophy of life should be founded not on individual experience but on wide and unbiased observation.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

If no one has found a meaning of life, neither has anyone demonstrated that life has no meaning. What probably is meaningless is the question as to whether life has a meaning.

Carl Laemmle

You ask me 'what keeps me going?'--My answer is the answer which all smart alecks laugh at—it is work.

Mary E. Woolley

Life grows in meaning as I go on. It has not only more significance but, also, more happiness, fewer moods of depression than when I was a girl.

Gina Lombroso

The sincere answers I succeeded in giving to myself is that the real reason of being is love.

Owen C. Middleton

That life was accidental is a theory I am willing to accept, but it doesn't follow that it need be meaningless. Any man who has thought deeply enough to arrive at the conclusion that life is without meaning must surely be an intelligent man. Intelligent persons do not do meaningless things, yet these exponents of this doctrine continue to live... Each time I pick up a newspaper and read of some man committing suicide, I say, 'There was a man who truly believed that life was without meaning.'

(one really has to read the full response to appreciate Middleton's philosophy, despite a bleak future involving life in prison)

G. Bernard Shaw

How the devil do I know? Has the question itself any meaning?

Some other responses such as that of Jawaharlal Nehru were also good. Nehru in his reply he expounds on the idea that meaning and purpose are found via work. But of course, not just any particular work, but work of some significance, of making positive changes. Mohandas Gandhi briefly touched upon his idea that life is a spark of the Divine and also on what keeps him going (striving for full realization), but does not address the topic of meaning. Overall, these responses are a collection of big names attempting to wrestle with an even bigger question.

Moving back to Durant, it is evident in his initial letter and his confessions that he struggles greatly with the question of meaning. Like most atheist converts, the apprehension that one day all will be gone—the Earth, all its history, and all people, and the self... really squeezes the life out of ya. The rise of atheism left a hole in the soul, one that yearned to be replaced by something, anything—and yet, there was nothing. But, what we can conclude from Durant's confessions is that meaning consists of:

1) Relation - only in relation to the whole of humanity, of the universe, can meaning be found.

2) Independence - unlike many who look to mortality or immortality for meaning, Durant suggests that meaning can only be found in life, not in death. Some books like that of Peter Heinegg's Mortalism: Readings on the Meaning of Life take an opposite approach.

3) Joy - is the simplest meaning of life. No further explanation needed.

4) Meaninglessness - even if life turned out to be meaningless, this fact would not take away from us our moments of beauty. Or as Durant would state, Let death come; meanwhile I have seen the purple hills of South Dakota, and one point of a star taking its place quietly in the evening sky. Nature will destroy me, but she has a right to--she made me, and burned my senses with a thousand delights she gave me all that she will take away.

5) Magnitude - to give life meaning, one must have a purpose larger than oneself, and that purpose must lie within relation to the whole.

A few more of Durant's quotes can be found on our quote page. However, to really get the gist of it all, you have to read the book.

Overall - 7 (Durant's sections easily rate a 10, but some of the other responses bring down the overall rating)

Meaning of Life Relevance - 7

Uniqueness – 5

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