• Introduction

    Can the meaning of life be told in a word? Maybe it is naïve, but there is nothing wrong with wanting a simple answer to an apparently simple question: “why live?” Here we visualized the most prominent philosophies that tackled this question over the past 5000 years for Human life.

    All philosophies on the meaning of life seem to fall into one of the four groups:

    1. life has an objective meaning;
    2. life has a subjective meaning;
    3. life has no meaning;
    4. life has a supernatural/unexplainable meaning.

    The philosophies of the East and West also follow a pattern: Easterners think in terms of “we,” the community, while Westerners think in terms of “I,” the individual.

    Then there is a question of what is a philosophy. Ideologies and religions are often mistaken for philosophies and vice versa. Take Daoism, for example, Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines it as a philosophy. But the Cambridge Dictionary defines it as a religion. All belief systems that are definitely religions fall under “theism” in this infographic.

    We follow the history of philosophy chronologically. Roughly, all philosophies follow this pattern: first, people appeal to God and supernatural forces, then they look for meaning within the community, later they look at the individual person, and finally, they look at humanity as a whole. We start with Natural Pantheism, humanity’s first attempt to explain its existence.

    Natural Pantheism

    Dates back to prehistoric times
    Pantheism is the belief that God is in everything, that all things together comprise an all-encompassing god. The meaning of life is in living in harmony with all that there is.
    Pantheism is an ancient idea that was formalized as a separate philosophy in 📚Ethics by the Dutch philosopher 🖋Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) in 1675.

    Theism

    Dates back to prehistoric times
    Theism is the proposition that God or a Supreme Being exists. The meaning of life is then prescribed by the God that one believes in.
    Theism dates back to the dawn of humanity where it was practiced in its various forms depending on what a group of humans believed their god to be like.

    Daoism

    Circa 5th Century BC
    Daoism offers people a painless way of finding life’s meaning through Wu Wei (無爲) “action without intention” or “naturalness”. Such action leads to finding the Dao, which is “the way”. And yet, “the way” cannot be understood through any explanation or action. The Dao reveals itself only when a person simply is.
    The 📚Dao De Jing (aka Tao Te Ching) by Chinese philosopher 🖋Lao Zi (lived c. 6th – 4th century BC) is the primary source on Daoism.

    Determinism

    Circa 6th Century BC
    Determinism is the idea that all events happen as a result of previously existing causes. Since nothing can be changed in a pre-determined world, a person cannot have free will. The meaning of life, is there is one, is also pre-determined, and we cannot do anything to understand it.
    The idea of determinism is ancient, reviving in the mathematics of the 18th. One of its well-known representatives is the French philosopher and mathematician 🖋Rene Descartes (1596-1650).

    Confucianism

    Circa 5th Century BC
    Chinese philosopher 🖋Confucius (551-479 BC) tells us to cultivate virtue called Ren (仁) which is an altruistic sort of feeling one experiences when taking care of one’s children and parents. One of many ways Confucius explained virtue is this:

    Analects 6:30

    Now the man of perfect virtue, wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others. To be able to judge of others by what is nigh in ourselves – this may be called the art of virtue.

    The primary source on Confucianism is 📚The Analects of Confucius.

    Mohism

    Appeared around 5th Century BC
    The Mohists propose the concept of “inclusive love” jian ai, a kind of impartial care for fellow human beings that includes everyone in society. The meaning of life is in following the model called Fa (法) in which one’s psychological state of care and the beneficial behavior that results from it are two sides of the same coin.
    The source of Mohism is 📚Mozi, a compilation of 71 books written by the Chinese philosopher 🖋Mozi (c. 470 – 391 BC).

    Solipsism

    Appeared around 5th Century BC
    Solipsism is a theory that one can only be certain about one thing: one’s mind to exist. Solipsism was first recorded by the Greek sophist, 🖋Gorgias (483-375) who is reported to have said:

    Gorgias

    1. Nothing exists.
    2. Even if something exists, nothing can be known about it.
    3. Even if something could be known about it, knowledge about it can’t be communicated to others.

    The meaning of life according to solipsism can only be known by one’s mind and not in relation to other beings.
    Some psychologists believe newborns to be initially solipsistic. Infants cry in the absence of parents nearby because they believe that when not visible, the parents stop existing. Eventually, children learn from observing others to reject solipsism.

    Cynicism

    Appeared around 4th Century BC
    The Cynics attempt to offer people the possibility of happiness and freedom from suffering in the age of uncertainty. The meaning of life is mental lucidity and self-sufficiency (eudaimonia). To achieve self-sufficiency, a person must become free from external influences – such as wealth, fame, and power.
    There is no central authority on Cynicism or any official doctrine. Yet, it was an influential tradition in Ancient Greece.

    Hedonism

    Appeared around 4th Century BC
    Hedonism offers us a life based on seeking pleasure and avoiding suffering. Simple pleasures like eating, dancing, and playing music are meaningful in themselves.
    Hedonism is an ancient idea that was later formulated by the Greek philosopher 🖋Democritus (c. 460 – 370 B.C.).

    Platonism

    Appeared around 4th Century BC
    For the Greek philosopher 🖋Plato (c. 428 – c. 347 BC), the meaning of life is the pursuit of knowledge. In his book Apology, Plato quotes his teacher 🖋Socrates (c. 470 – 399 BC) saying that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. In a nutshell, Platonism is the idea that there exist such things as “pure forms” which are abstractions. An abstration is something that neither exists in space nor time. It is completely non-physical and yet it is knowable. Knowledge of “pure forms” is the meaning of life. Daunting as it sounds, there is a shortcut of sorts. According to Plato, we are all born with all knowledge inside us but we have to recall it or rediscover it, which is a concept called anamnesis.
    Plato’s most influential work is 📔The Republic published around 375 BC.

    Legalism (Chinese)

    Appeared around 4th Century BC
    The Legalists believed that humans are inherently selfish and cannot be trusted to behave morally. A strong government system can steer humans to continue behaving in their selfish ways while the system as a whole benefits from their work. The meaning of life is then in the acquisition of skills that make a person’s work valuable to the state which in turn benefits society.
    The earliest Legalist text is 📚The Book of Lord Shang (商君書) written by the politician who raised Qin dynasty to its leading position in Asia.

    Epicureanism

    Appeared around 4th Century BC
    The Greek philosopher 🖋Epicurus (341-270 BC) was a materialist ancient Greek philosopher who offered that the meaning of life was in achieving sustainable pleasure which leads to a state of tranquility and freedom from fear (ataraxia).
    What sort of pleasures are meaningful? Mental, not physical, because mental pleasures exist in the past, the present, and the future, while physical pleasures are fleeting.
    The poem 📔On the Nature of Things (De rerum nature) compiles the core arguments and theories of Epicureanism.

    Quietism

    Appeared around 3rd Century BC
    Quietists believe that philosophy as such has no answers to offer. Instead, its role is in pointing out linguistic confusions in the questions presented to philosophers. Thus, the question of the meaning of life assumes that we understand the meaning of the words “meaning” and “life”. Any attempt to pin down the meaning of either word reveals the meaninglessness of the question and thus the meaning of life cannot be understood by asking such a question.
    Elements of Quietism are found in both Eastern and Western philosophies with Daoism known for its reluctance to use language and Greek Pyrrhonism embracing non-verbal “suspension of judgment” (epoché).

    Aristotelianism

    Circa 3rd Century BC
    The Greek philosopher 🖋Aristotle (385-322 BC) reminds us that no one lives a good life in order to achieve some other goal. Being a good person in itself is sufficient. Virtue is the goal. There is no list of virtues because we all know what they are. For example, it is a virtue to have friends. We do not need to be taught that. Virtue and the rules of ethics are not a theoretical concept according to Aristotle. A human being knows what is good.
    Aristotle’s 📔Nicomachean Ethics is the best known work on his thinking.

    Stoicism

    Circa 3rd Century BC
    👥The Stoics (c. 334 – c. 262 BC) want you to be free from desire for pleasure or fear of pain. Eschew emotion. How does one become dispassionate? Only through wisdom can one be free to act justly. A wise person becomes a sage through rational action that does not violate the laws of nature.
    Hellenistic philosopher 🖋Zeno of Citium (c. 334 – 264 BC) founded the Stoic school of philosophy in Athens about 300 BC. The only complete Stoic works we have are by 🖋Seneca, 🖋Epictetus, and the Roman Emperor 🖋Marcus Aurelius (121–180), whose diary 📔Meditations records his progress on self-transformation toward becoming a sage.

    Modern Humanism

    Circa the late 1300s
    Humanism points out that humans themselves are responsible for the fate of humans in this world. Thus, promoting and helping other humans is the meaning of life.

    Subjectivism

    Circa the early 1600s
    According to Subjectivists, the meaning of life varies by individual, depending on one’s mental state. The more a person achieves their own goals that are set by themselves, the more meaningful their life is. Subjectivists reject that there may be objective values in life that one should achieve despite subjective goals.
    Subjectivism is attributed to 🖋Rene Descartes and his thought experiment “I think, therefore, I exist.”

    Liberalism

    Appeared in 1689
    The Liberalists trust that a person is naturally free to choose what to do without permission from any other person. Anyone attempting to limit freedoms must first prove that it is necessary. The meaning of life is then in protecting individual liberties against the political coercion that may or may not be justified.
    English philosopher and physician 🖋John Locke’s (1632-1704) work 📚Two Treatises of Government is the foundational text of liberal ideology.

    Kantianism

    Appeared in 1785
    Kantianism proposes that every human action should be judged according to a universal maxim, or principle. If an action violates a principle then a person failed their duty toward humans. For example, if people followed the maxim kill anyone you dislike, when applied universally, it would lead to the end of humanity. So, the meaning of life is in fulfilling your duty to follow universal principles.
    The origin of Kantianism is German philosopher 🖋Emmanuel Kant’s(1724-1804) book 📚The Critique of Pure Reason.

    Nihilism

    Appeared in 1862
    Nihilism, also called Pessimism, is the belief that nothing can make life meaningful. The Nihilists see something inherent about humans that prevents us from finding meaning in life. It can be the human tendency for being dissatisfied or always seeking something or being bored once it is found.
    The origin of Nihilism is ancient but among philosophers, German philosopher 🖋Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) concept “Will to Power” is most often associated with it.

    Pragmatism

    Circa the 1870s
    Unlike many other schools of philosophy, the Pragmatists have no official creed. In general, their views suggest that rather than truth about life, we should seek a useful understanding of life.
    The American philosopher and psychologist 🖋William James (1842-1910), one of pragmatism’s main figures argued that truth could be made but not sought. Is life worth living? James answered, “Maybe.” The answer depends on what you do with your life. The meaning of life is then doing the thing that most contributes to the most human good over the longest course – that is bringing maximum value to humanity.
    There is hardly a main source of the Pragmatism doctrine, but William James is one of its most prolific authors. His book 📚William James on Habit, Will, Truth, and the Meaning of Life covers the subject.

    Logical Empiricism

    Circa the 1920s
    Also called logical positivism, the idea of logical positivism is that anything that the only type of knowledge available to us is facts – scientifically verifiable and observable. Anything else is meaningless. The meaning of life can then only be derived from one’s actual experience. We cannot know if life has a meaning beyond what we can see.
    Although the logical positivists did not have a leader, 👥The Vienna Circle is the movement’s most influential group.

    Existentialism

    Circa the 1940s
    The existentialists think that we all begin life with “existential angst”, a feeling of anxiety about the apparent meaningless of our lives. To find meaning in life, a person has to decide on their own values and then take action to live according to them.
    The first existentialist text is German philosopher 🖋Martin Heidegger’s(1889-1976) work 📚Being and Time (1927), which is an exploration of the “being that we ourselves are”.

    Absurdism

    Appeared in 1942
    Absurdists ask, “Why would you even ask such a useless question?” The question destined to fail because of the conflict between the human mind that desperately seeks meaning and a world where everything falls short of having a finite, immutable meaning. Looking for meaning in life is a Sysipean task – the more you search for one, the less you understand it. Sysiphus became a symbol of life’s meaninglessness because in Greek mythology he was punished for his misdeeds by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to tumble back every time he neared the summit. This went on for eternity.
    The absurdist French philosopher 🖋Albert Camus (1913-1960) proposed that people should embrace the absurdity of our existence and then proceed to wilfully live their lives.
    The defining work on absurdism is Albert Camus’s work 📚The Myth of Sisyphus.

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