Read Richard Taylor: "The Meaning of Life" text version

"The Meaning of Life"

Richard Taylor

MEANINGLESS EXISTENCE [167] Sisyphus is the archetype of meaningless existence. Not because of the hard work ­ it's just as meaningless with a small stone being moved around, or with small holes being dug and filled "It is not that his great struggle comes to nothing, but that his existence is without meaning." [168] but (confusingly) Taylor then says: "it is not the fact that the labors of Sisyphus continue forever that deprive them of meaning. It is rather, the implication of this: that they come to nothing." [169] What he means is that it's neither the fact that it's a great struggle nor the fact that it's eternal, but rather that it achieves nothing. BECAUSE: if he was building a temple, "his labors would then have a point... one could not say that the life of Sisyphus was devoid of meaning altogether". Change the picture a little: Sisyphus does exactly the same thing, but the gods take pity on him and implant in him a compulsive desire to roll stones. Does this give his life meaning? No:

It has not lost that meaningless, it has now gained not the least shred of meaningfulness... The only thing that has happened is this: Sisyphus has been reconciled to it. [170]

Sisyphus's life now still has no objective meaning, but it has meaning for him. THE MEANINGLESSNESS OF LIFE [170]

Meaninglessness is essentially endless pointlessness, and meaningfulness is therefore the opposite. Activity, and even long, drawn out and repetitive activity, has a meaning if it has some significant culmination, some more or less lasting end that can be considered to have been the direction and purpose of the activity.

Does life have this feature? Not for the cannibalistic glow worms of New Zealand [170] Nor for the cicada (buried for 17 years) Nor for the migratory birds And not for us: "Look at a busy street any day, and observe the throng going hither and thither. To what?" [171] What about when Sisyphus builds a temple? "for this to make any difference it had to be a temple that would at least endure, adding beauty to the world for the remainder of time" [172] But nothing we do does endure, so:

The two pictures--of Sisyphus and of our own lives, if we look at them from a distance--are in outline the same and convey to the mind the same image. It is not surprising, then, that men invent ways of denying it, their religions proclaiming a heaven that does not crumble, their hymnals and prayer books declaring a significance to life of which our eyes provide no hint whatever. [172]


Actually meaning-for-us is "incomparably better" than objective meaning: compare two versions of Sisyphus, the temple version (objective meaning) and the happy drug version (meaning-for-him). The temple version leads to BOREDOM: "Where before we were presented with the nightmare of eternal and pointless activity, we are now confronted with the hell of its eternal absence" [173] [QUESTION: would heaven be boring?] Contrast p. 174's description of the collapsed houses (emphasizing the meaning they had for the inhabitants at the time with the bleak view of p. 172 (stresses the absence of objective meaning). Conclusion: the correct way to look at life is to stress the role of our own attitudes: "it is the doing that counts" even for the glow worms. "The point of [a human being's] living is simply to be living" [174]

The meaning of life is from within us, it is not bestowed from without, and it far exceeds in both its beauty and permanence any heaven of which men have ever dreamed or yearned for. [175]


Richard Taylor: "The Meaning of Life"

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Richard Taylor: "The Meaning of Life"