The Meaning of Life, by Terry Eagleton

Eagleton Meaning of LifeReaders of this blog know life is about a dog, and that it’s important to leave room for the Holy Spirit and avoid making Movie-Indians. But since this blog has not exactly entered the mainstream of popular culture yet, other people are still busy writing books about The Meaning of Life, and I reviewed one in today’s Washington Times.

It’s by Terry Eagleton, the Oxbridge literary critic who is currently Professor of Cultural Theory and John Rylands Fellow at the University of Manchester. He ultimately advises us to love each other, and find contentment in each other’s love. But that advice is more the by-product of Eagleton’s book than the object. Most of the book explores not what the meaning of life is, but what the question itself means. There are many possibilities: It may not be a real question at all, but only a “pseudo-question” that is “really just a ponderous Teutonic way of saying ‘Wow!’” It may be a real question but with no answer. It may be a question that has an answer we cannot know. It may even be that our not knowing is itself part of the meaning of life.

Click here to read the rest of this review in the Times. Click here to buy it on


5 Responses to “The Meaning of Life, by Terry Eagleton”

  1. Timothy Peach Says:

    How long is the book, Granulous? I would want to make sure that I was investing only a modest amount of time to arrive at a conclusion that vapid. I thought you stretched the boundaries of hermeneutical generosity by restricting your flippancy to Aristotelian jazz appreciation. What passes for wisdom in these wafer-thin days…

    Where are the modern-day Kierkegaards when we need them most? Do we really need people to help us reduce grand equations to quadratics? Who trusts solutions that feel so effortless?

    Life is a warm summer breeze, and we really need to enjoy it, because it feels good, and we can’t separate ourselves from that good feeling. So let it make you happy, and be excellent to each other. Party on dude!

    I much prefer the following from Bloom on his contempt for our modern bastardization of the concept of “the sacred”:

    “Our old atheism had a better grasp of religion than does this new respect for the sacred. Atheists took religion seriously and recognized that it is a real force, costs something and requires difficult choices. These sociologists who talk so facilely about the sacred are like a man who keeps a toothless old circus lion around the house in order to experience the thrills of the jungle.”

    I know the topic of the book isn’t centrally religious, but my point is that I’ll never trust any diagnosis of the human “ask” that doesn’t really cost us anything. Christ didn’t get flayed raw and nailed to a cross dying for our sins only to have us believing that we could capture the essence of our purpose here by watching Care Bears movies (and believe me, I’ve watched a buttload of them, and they’re AWFUL, although one of them was actually kind of scary — it involved this Dark Heart guy who was a shape shifter and was trying to entrap the Care Bears for eternity… it turned out OK but my 2-year-old daughter was freaked out by it, and didn’t nap properly for days. The older boy, 4-year-old, liked it a lot, which is even worse, because he’s also infatuated with Darth Vader… he’s convinced that Darth Vader is good now, and he’s invited him to his next birthday party, at which he’s threatened to give him a hug and a kiss. But I digress.)

    I guess I’m just old school regarding life and meaning. I expect to struggle haplessly and stumble along a rocky path to a higher state of mind. I expect to pay a heavy toll for salvation. I don’t believe God cares if I’m happy in any way that makes sense to me in my imperfect state. I also don’t like questions for their own sake, any more than I like being given puzzles with no solution, or reading books with the last chapter torn out.

    Ou sont les neiges d’antan? Where are the heros of antiquity? Where is Leonidas, ready to die for Sparta? Where are you, Granulous, ready to pound the stuffing out of me and perhaps some sense into me? Where is the pain and glory of a real sense of purpose?

    I find it incomprehensible that someone could be a lifelong student of literature and philosophy, and fail to come up with anything more insightful that the lyrics of Bobby McFarin.

  2. Mark Grannis Says:

    Tim, first, thanks for reminding me that I should also tag this review under “hermeneutical generosity.” I think any author as accomplished as Professor Eagleton is certainly entitled to a generous helping, particularly from a reviewer like me. I’m glad my efforts in that regard did not obscure your view of the limitations of Professor Eagleton’s project. I think the key point is that this is not a book about the meaning of life; it is a book about the meaning of widespread doubt about the meaning of life. Or so it seemed to me.

  3. Timothy Peach Says:

    That doubt has not found its way to the part of the country that contributes relatively little to these kinds of blogs. We could argue endlessly whether that’s a bad thing. I’d be on the “absolutely not” side of that.

  4. Mark Grannis Says:

    If anyone is interested in reading a reflection on “the meaning of life” that is oriented a bit less toward analyzing the question and a bit more toward answering it, I found “The Meanings of Life” by Professor David Schmidtz quite interesting. (Thanks for the reference, Jacinda.) Professor Schmidtz does not produce a tidy answer like “42,” but he nonetheless manages to say interesting things about what really makes life worth living. And significantly, he seems to conclude that the reason one cannot adequately answer the question is not just that the question means different things to different people, nor that there are a multiplicity of plausible answers, but also that the joy and meaning in a life well lived is largely ineffable.

  5. David Fitzgerald Says:

    Because Grannis’ review is quite good, I feel confident that I can speak intelligently about the Meaning of Life, even without reading it (much like everyone who ever appeared on an American newscast to discuss a book).

    It is always interesting to me how painfully slowly the intelligentsia is returning to the notion that “existentials” , for want of a better word, are essential to understanding a life well lived. The major failing of the Enlightenment was its belief that a universal moral code could be derived through reason alone, without any reference to particular traditions of thought in which each subject found himself. This of course led to the wholesale abandonment of any notion of “duty” (we’ve discussed this before) to God, country, family, spouse, community, as if each was a free agent, capable of constructing his “own life” in his “own way.” It is heartening to hear that people like Professor Eagleton are coming back to the notion that wisdom comes through human relatedness and the institutions (like Church, state, family, marriage, school, community) that mediate that relatedness and not from prescinding oneself from those relationships.

    As an aside, this type of project is an essential first step if “the West” is going to have any success in the current intellectual challenge from Islamist and other authoritarian schools of thought. To bridge that gap, we must show how those traditions fall apart on their own terms, as opposed to arguing from “universal” principles of justice or morality. The goal is to show that the Taliban is not even right when judged by the standards of its own moral/intellectual/religious tradition. That is a winning strategy and avoids the hazards of cultural/imperialist condescension.

    Tim, as to your comment, we are back to our old discussion I think, about the nature of grace. I think your post illuminates two apparently contradictory sayings of Christ, “If you will be my disciple you must take up your cross and follow me” versus “Come to me all who labor and are heavy burdened, take up my yoke, for my yoke is easy and my burden light.” How can these two notions be reconciled? I think the second is a promise and the first is the condition necessary for accepting the promise.

    Christ’s promise is a promise to alleviate anxiety and fear. That is the heart of the Resurrection, “Oh death, where is thy power, where is thy sting?” And the beauty of it is that the “toll”, as you put it, for this salvation has already been fully paid. We come to a battle already won, the drinks have been poured and its time to celebrate the victory.

    What then of the first saying? What “cross” are we being asked to “take up?” I think, as I’ve said before, it is the cross of humility and obedience. We must put to death our own positive self image, our own sense that we are doing well in the struggle and that, although not perfect, our love is “good enough” because we are, of course, “trying as hard as we can.” The danger is that if we maintain that positive self image, we quickly move to saying, “Gee, I’m basically a good person, certainly not like those [fill in the blank].” That leads of course to this type of prayer, “Dear God, thank you for not making me like [fill in the blank].” Once we utter that prayer, as Scripture tells us, salvation is no longer available to us. The promise of an easy yoke is gone and we are back to a brooding anxiety about our own “goodness” on God’s scorecard.

    Although Tim we agree on at least one point, Care Bears is awful. My six year old is through it (friends shamed him out of it) and my 3 year old has to watch what my six year old wants (disadvantage of being the second kid).

    Just for laughs…last Saturday we toured Arundel Castle which was (and still is) the ancestral home of the Duke of Norfolk. The Duke of Norfolk is the highest ranking non-royal peer and, surprisingly, the family remained Roman Catholic and is so to this day. Let me say, after touring their home, it’s good to be the Duke, too. However, my three year old, good Irishman that he is, did throw up on their lawn right before we left the grounds. No respect for the aristocracy. I like to think that John Adams would be proud.

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