Book Review - On the Meaning of Life by Will Durant

Would you know what to say to a total stranger who asked you to convince him not to commit suicide?

In 1930, that is the very situation that prompted historian Will Durant to ponder and write about the most profound question of all: what is the meaning of life? After ad libbing his own answer to a desperate soul whom he never saw again, he penned a letter to the foremost minds of his time, inquiring: “…what are the sources of your inspiration and your energy, what is the goal or motive-force of your toil, where you find your consolations and your happiness, where, in the last resort, your treasure lies?” Some responded, and in 1931 Durant compiled their letters in a short book, On the Meaning of Life.

Among his respondents were Mohandas Gandhi, H. L. Menken, Sinclair Lewis, Dr. Charles Mayo, George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, and others. Many replies contained contributory responses; some were terse and dismissing, but Durant reported each in good spirits and with the dignity to laugh at those who considered it beneath their time to be thorough with him.

Durant spends the first six chapters discussing why modern man is increasingly inclined to hopelessness and despair, leading to an annual increase in suicides. The old ways, the old sources of meaning – religion and tradition – had been relegated to myth and legend by scientists and historians. All the while man’s view of himself became more mechanistic, more deterministic, and the gains in knowledge, though dispelling false beliefs of the past, offered up no unifying system of hope and significance for newly untethered minds. The world seemed hopeless, Durant concluded, but there were many – he among them – who believed that lost hope is not necessarily a hopeless loss.

The replies are grouped into chapters based on the the overall characteristics that categorize the respondents:

  • the men of letters
  • entertainers, artists, scientists, and educators
  • the religionists
  • the women1
  • a prison convict serving a life sentence
  • the skeptics

Without spoiling the joy of reading each reply for yourself, I want to call your attention to several ideas that I think form the meat of the most articulate replies.

Some respondents found purpose in their work, but not just because they felt productive. They felt they were uniquely suited, by their own personalities and dispositions, to perform the tasks that ultimately fulfilled them. Meaning, for them, came from the knowledge that their best parts were being utilized in the best possible ways.

Another respondent pointed out that, regardless of how much we claim to know now, we hardly know everything. To conclude definitively that life is meaningless based on so little information is premature at best.

In the perspective of another, the desire for immortality is tied to our desire for meaning. We want to be part of something lasting. If immortality is real, and there is a life after this one, we will have the opportunity to experience this. But if not, even though we won’t live forever, we will never be conscious of not living. In our own minds, we will be, then we will be not; in either case, we should live as if immortal because practically, we are.

Finally, the longest and most touching reply came from a convict serving a life sentence in Sing Sing prison. I take the liberty of quoting a bit from it here:

“Truth is not beautiful, neither is it ugly. Why should it be either? Truth is truth, just as figures are figures. When a man wishes to learn the exact condition of his business affairs, he employs figures and, if these figures reveal a sad state of his affairs, he doesn’t condemn them and say that they are unlovely and accuse them of having disillusioned him. Why, then, condemn truth, when it only serves him in this enterprise of life as figures server him in his commercial enterprises? That idol-worshipping strain in our natures has visioned a figure of Truth draped in royal raiment and, when truth in its humble form, sans drapery, appears to us, we cry, ‘Disillusionment.’

Custom and tradition have caused us to confuse truth with our beliefs. Custom, tradition and our mode of living have led us to believe we cannot be happy, save under certain physical conditions possessed of certain material comforts. This is not truth, it is belief. Truth tells us that happiness is a state of mental contentment. Contentment can be found on a desert island, in a little town, or the tenements of a large city. It can be found in the palaces of the rich or the hovels of the poor.

Confinement in prison doesn’t cause unhappiness, else all those who are free would be happy. Poverty doesn’t cause it, else the rich all would be happy. Those who live and die in one small town are often as happy, or happier than many who spend their entire lives in travel… Happiness is neither racial, nor financial, nor social, neither is it geographical…

Reason tells us that it is a form of mental contentment and – if this be true – its logical abode must be within the mind.

The final chapter in his book contains Durant’s answers to his own questions, formulated in the same year after receiving “several letters [from others] announcing suicide”. His reply is titled “Letters to a Suicide” and is a beautiful call to find meaning within the very improbability of life itself; that we have it, and that it offers us actual joy and happiness is meaningful.

“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. How shall I ever thank her sufficiently for these five senses of mine – these fingers and lips, these eyes and ears, this restless tongue and this gigantic nose?”

Overall I give the book 4/5 stars. Durant’s prose is, as ever, mind candy. The variety of responses in content, length, and depth – and their sources and historical context – give the reader much to think about and, surprisingly, don’t attempt to over-simplify or trivialize Durant’s questions. My only (minor) complaint regards the book’s length. It seems too short for such a complex subject, and I would have enjoyed, very much, additional material collected over a longer period of time. I cannot fault Durant though. Faced with the despair of suicidal strangers, I believe he pushed to collect the best answers in the most condensed form possible. The result is rich, and worth reading.

1 Recall that the year was 1931, and the role of woman was undergoing metamorphosis. That Durant devoted a chapter to women he greatly respected is notable. Durant was very eager to see women contribute to the “great conversation” of history. His wife Ariel, a co-author on many of Durant’s own works, shared this passion.