The Meaning Of Life

Ruaírí Ó Domhnaill reviews The Meaning of Life by Terry Eagleton published Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-921070-1, £10.99 hbk

Meaning of Life

IN HIS latest work Terry Eagleton, polymath and professor of English at Manchester University, ventures again into philosophy.

Notwithstanding the allusions to Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and to Monty Python's Meaning of Life, this is not a satire and the answer to the "ultimate question", is not "42"! If the Meaning of Life does not pose the ultimate question, it comes close and the author manfully addresses it.

The work is clearly well-researched and the arguments are presented logically and with eloquence. In addition, there are insights which have a distinct ring of truth, in particular, the account of the Irish predisposition to put strangers at ease.

The work is based on the contention that previously the meaning of life was satisfied by religion. The author argues that "post-modern" cultures exist in "pragmatist, streetwise climate of advanced … capitalism", where people have become sceptical of "grand narratives".

To illustrate his point, he chooses the conflict between Western capitalism and radical Islam. But most of the protagonists there claim to act in God's name. (Commonly, advocates of capitalism claim to believe in the literal truth of the Old Testament. Genesis [1:28] authorises - some argue that it demands - the exploitation of the earth's resources, presumably wherever those resources are.]

Professor Eagleton draws - perhaps a little heavily - on philosophers, who, with very few exceptions, tend to be like the leading the citizens of Boston: - Where the Lowells talk only to the Cabots, And the Cabots talk only to God.

For example Schopenhauer's concept of the Will, is declared "so unremittingly gloomy", that it "quite unintentionally represents one of the great comic masterpieces of Western thought". The author asserts that Schopenhauer saw the world as a "Darwinian amphitheatre in which life-forms seek to crush the breath out of each other". This interpretation may seem closer to Malthus and Spencer than to Darwin.

The work concludes that there are two constituents in the meaning of life: happiness and social support to achieve it. The right to the "pursuit of Happiness" was famously recognised on 4th July 1776 and "scientifically" upheld in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. In both instances the social support needed by all seeking happiness, apart from hermits, was neglected. The genius of this work is not only in its conclusions, but in the process by which the author reaches them.

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