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Origin of the Phrase - Meaning of Life

Updated: Dec 23, 2023

In our quest to find the origin the phrase, 'meaning of life,' we've reference one academic authority and two AI chat bots. See the results below.

Asking ChatGPT the question, "When was the term 'meaning of life' first used," the answer the AI gave was as follows:

The term 'meaning of life' has been used for centuries, but its origins are difficult to trace. The concept of life having a meaning or purpose is a philosophical and religious idea that dates back to ancient civilizations. However, the specific term 'meaning of life' may have been popularized in the 19th century, particularly in the work of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. In his book 'The World as Will and Representation,' which was first published in 1818, Schopenhauer discusses the important of finding a meaningful purpose in life. The term has since become a common phrase used in discussions about philosophy, spirituality, and the human condition.

Asking ChatSonic, the answer given was:

The term "meaning of life" was first used in English in 1834 in Thomas Carlyle's book Sartor Resartus.

Do the AIs get the research correct? The answer, at least according to the book, The Meaning of Life and the Great Philosophers, is, no. According to the authors the term first originated in Germany, from the poet, Novalis, or from Friedrich Schlegel, in 1799. More specifically, from Novalis, Only an artist can divine the meaning of life. Or, from Friedrich Schlegel's Lucinde, Now the soul understands the lament of the nightingale and the smile of the newly born babe, understands the deep significance of the mysterious hieroglyphs on flowers and stars, understands the holy meaning of life as well as the beautiful language of nature. All things speak to the soul and everywhere the soul sees the loving spirit through the delicate veil.

The book does go on to clarify that the first English version of the phrase did appear in Thomas Carlyle's book, Sartor Resartus. Thus, ChatSonic got the answer at least partially correct. Overall, though we wrote to both of the main authors of The Meaning of Life and the Great Philosophers for a few clarifications and received no response, it is a great book for anyone studying the question, and we highly recommend you give it a read. The last chapter of the book dives further into the analysis of the origin of the phrase, "meaning of life." A summary of the book will be covered in a future post.

If you believe the phrase 'meaning of life' appeared earlier in history, let us know by commenting below.

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