The Meaning Crisis
On a fall day in 1930, the historian and philosopher Will Durant was raking leaves in the yard of his home in Lake Hill, New York, when a well-dressed man walked up to him. The man told Durant that he was planning to commit suicide unless the popular philosopher could give him “one good reason” to live.
Shocked, Durant attempted to respond in a way that would bring the man comfort—but his response was uninspired: “I bade him get a job—but he had one; to eat a good meal—but he was not hungry; he left visibly unmoved by my arguments.”
Durant, a writer and intellectual who died in 1981 at the age of 96, is best known for his books that brought philosophy and history to the public. The Story of Philosophy, published in 1926, became a bestseller, and his multivolume work The Story of Civilization, cowritten with his wife, Ariel Durant, over the course of forty years, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for its tenth volume, Rousseau and Revolution. During his life, Durant was known as a thinker with far-ranging interests. He wrote fluently about literature, religion, and politics, and in 1977, he received one of the highest honors bestowed by the U.S. government on a civilian, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Durant was raised Catholic, attended a Jesuit academy, and planned to join the priesthood. But in college, he became an atheist after he read the works of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, whose ideas “melted” his “inherited theology.” For many years following his loss of religious faith, he “brooded” over the question of meaning, but never found a satisfactory answer to it. An agnostic and empirically minded philosopher, Durant later came to see that he was unsure of what gives people a reason to go on living even when they despair. This wise man of his time could not offer a compelling answer to the suicidal man who came to him in 1930—the year after the stock market crash that inaugurated the Great Depression.
So Durant decided to write to the great literary, philosophical, and scientific luminaries of his day, from Mohandas Gandhi and Mary E. Woolley to H. L. Mencken and Edwin Arlington Robinson, to ask them how they found significance and fulfillment in their own lives during that tumultuous period of history. “Will you interrupt your work for a moment,” Durant begins his letter, “and play the game of philosophy with me? I am attempting to face a question which our generation, perhaps more than any, seems always ready to ask and never able to answer—What is the meaning or worth of human life?” He compiled their answers into a book, On the Meaning of Life, which was published in 1932.
Durant’s letter explores why many people of his time felt like they were living in an existential vacuum. For thousands of years, after all, human beings have believed in the existence of a transcendent and supernatural realm, populated by gods and spirits, that lies beyond the sensory world of everyday experiences. They regularly felt the presence of this spiritual realm, which infused the ordinary world with meaning. But, Durant argued, modern philosophy and science have shown that the belief in such a world—a world that cannot be seen or touched—is naïve at best and superstitious at worst. In doing so, they have led to widespread disenchantment.
In his letter, he explains why the loss of those traditional sources of meaning is so tragic. “Astronomers have told us that human affairs constitute but a moment in the trajectory of a star,” Durant writes; “geologists have told us that civilization is but a precarious interlude between ice ages; biologists have told us that all life is war, a struggle for existence among individuals, groups, nations, alliances, and species; historians have told us that ‘progress’ is delusion, whose glory ends in inevitable decay; psychologists have told us that the will and the self are the helpless instruments of heredity and environment, and that the once incorruptible soul is but a transient incandescence of the brain.” Philosophers, meanwhile, with their emphasis on reasoning their way to the truth, have reasoned their way to the truth that life is meaningless: “Life has become, in that total perspective which is philosophy, a fitful pullulation of human insects on the earth, a planetary eczema that may soon be cured.”
In his book, Durant relates the old story of a police officer who attempted to stop a suicidal man from jumping off a bridge. The two talked. Then they both jumped off the ledge. “This is the pass to which science and philosophy have brought us,” Durant says. Writing to these great minds, he sought a response to the nihilism of his time—a response to the despondent stranger who had left him speechless. Durant begged them for an answer to what makes life worth living—what drives them forward, what gives them inspiration and energy, hope and consolation.
Durant’s questions matter today more than ever. Hopelessness and misery are not simply on the rise; they have become epidemic. In the United States, the rate of people suffering from depression has risen dramatically since 1960, and between 1988 and 2008 the use of antidepressants rose 400 percent. These figures can’t just be attributed to the increasing availability of mental health care. According to the World Health Organization, global suicide rates have spiked 60 percent since World War II. Some populations have been particularly vulnerable. In the United States, the incidence of suicide among 15- to 24-year-olds tripled in the last half of the twentieth century. In 2016, the suicide rate reached its highest point in nearly thirty years in the general population, and for middle-aged adults, it has increased by over 40 percent since 1999. Each year, forty thousand Americans take their lives, and worldwide that number is closer to a million.
What is going on?
A 2014 study by Shigehiro Oishi of the University of Virginia and Ed Diener of Gallup offers an answer to this question. Though the study was enormous, involving nearly 140,000 people across 132 countries, it was also straightforward. A few years earlier, researchers from Gallup had asked respondents whether they were satisfied with their lives, and whether they felt their lives had an important purpose or meaning. Oishi and Diener analyzed that data by country, correlating the levels of happiness and meaning with variables like wealth and rates of suicides and other social factors.
Their findings were surprising. People in wealthier regions, like Scandinavia, reported being happier than those in poorer ones, like sub-Saharan Africa. But when it came to meaning, it was a different story. Wealthy places like France and Hong Kong had some of the lowest levels of meaning, while the poor nations of Togo and Niger had among the highest, even though people living there were some of the unhappiest in the study. One of the most disturbing findings involved suicide rates. Wealthier nations, it turns out, had significantly higher suicide rates than poorer ones. For example, the suicide rate of Japan, where per-capita GDP was $34,000, was more than twice as high as that of Sierra Leone, where per-capita GDP was $400. This trend, on its face, didn’t seem to make sense. People in wealthier countries tend to be happier, and their living conditions are practically heavenly compared with places like Sierra Leone, which is racked by endemic disease, dire poverty, and the legacy of a devastating civil war. So what reason would they have to kill themselves?
The strange relationship between happiness and suicide has been confirmed in other research, too. Happy countries like Denmark and Finland also have some high rates of suicide. Some social scientists believe that this is because it is particularly distressing to be unhappy in a country where so many others are happy—while others suggest that the happiness levels of these countries are being inflated because the unhappiest people are taking themselves out of the population.
But Oishi and Diener’s study suggests another explanation. When they crunched the numbers, they discovered a striking trend: happiness and unhappiness did not predict suicide. The variable that did, they found, was meaning—or, more precisely, the lack of it. The countries with the lowest rates of meaning, like Japan, also had some of the highest suicide rates.
The problem many of these people face is the same one the suicidal man struggled with over eighty years ago when he asked Durant for a reason to go on. Though the conditions of his life were generally good, he nonetheless believed life was not worth living. Today, there are millions of people who join him in that belief. Four in ten Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose. And nearly a quarter of Americans—about one hundred million people—do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful.
The solution to this problem, obviously, is not for the United States to become more like Sierra Leone. Modernity, though it can sap life of meaning, has its benefits. But how can people living in modern societies find fulfillment? If we do not bridge the chasm between living a meaningful life and living a modern life, our drift will continue to come at a major cost. “Everyone at times,” wrote the religious scholar Huston Smith, “finds himself or herself asking whether life is worthwhile, which amounts to asking whether, when the going gets rough, it makes sense to continue to live. Those who conclude that it does not make sense give up, if not once and for all by suicide, then piecemeal, by surrendering daily to the encroaching desolation of the years”—by surrendering, in other words, to depression, weariness, and despair.
Such was the case with the famed Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. In the 1870s, around the time he turned fifty, Tolstoy fell into an existential depression so severe and debilitating that he was seized by the constant desire to kill himself. His life, he had concluded, was utterly meaningless, and this thought filled him with horror.
To an outsider, the novelist’s depression might have seemed peculiar. Tolstoy, an aristocrat, had everything: he was wealthy; he was famous; he was married with several children; and his two masterpieces, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, had been published to great acclaim in 1869 and 1878, respectively. Internationally recognized as one of the greatest novelists of his time, Tolstoy had little doubt that his works would be canonized as classics of world literature.
Most people would settle for far less. But at the height of his fame, Tolstoy concluded that these accomplishments were merely the trappings of a meaningless life—which is to say that they were nothing at all to him.
In 1879, a despairing Tolstoy started writing A Confession, an autobiographical account of his spiritual crisis. He begins A Confession by chronicling how, as a university student and later a soldier, he had lived a debauched life. “Lying, stealing, promiscuity of every kind, drunkenness, violence, murder—there was not a crime I did not commit,” he writes, perhaps with some exaggeration, “yet in spite of it all I was praised, and my colleagues considered me and still do consider me a relatively moral man.” It was during this period of his life that Tolstoy began writing, motivated, he claims, by “vanity, self-interest, and pride”—the desire to acquire fame and money.
He soon fell in with the literary and intellectual circles of Russia and Europe, which had built a secular church around the idea of progress. Tolstoy became one of its adherents. But then two dramatic experiences revealed to him the hollowness of believing in the perfectibility of man and society. The first was witnessing the execution by guillotine of a man in Paris in 1857. “When I saw how the head was severed from the body and heard the thud of each part as it fell into the box,” he writes, “I understood, not with my intellect but with my whole being, that no theories of rationality of existence or of progress could justify such an act.” The second was the senseless death of his favorite brother, Nikolai, from tuberculosis. “He suffered for over a year,” Tolstoy writes, “and died an agonizing death without ever understanding why he lived and understanding even less why he was dying.”
These events shook Tolstoy, but they did not shatter him. In 1862, he got married, and family life distracted him from his doubts. So did writing War and Peace, which he started working on soon after his wedding.
Tolstoy had always been interested in the question of what gives life meaning, a theme that runs through his writings. Levin, who is widely considered an autobiographical representation of Tolstoy, famously wrestles with the problem throughout Anna Karenina. He eventually concludes that his life is not pointless: “my life, my whole life, independently of anything that may happen to me, is every moment of it no longer meaningless as it was before, but has an unquestionable meaning of goodness with which I have the power to invest it.”
But soon after he completed Anna Karenina in 1877, Tolstoy took a bleaker view. The question of meaning cast a shadow over everything he did. A voice inside his head started asking—Why? Why am I here? What is the purpose of all that I do? Why do I exist? And, as the years went on, that voice grew louder and more insistent: “Before I could be occupied with my Samara estate, with the education of my son, or with the writing of books,” he writes in A Confession, “I had to know why I was doing these things.” Elsewhere in A Confession he puts the question in other ways: “What will come of what I do today and tomorrow? What will come of my entire life . . . Why should I live? Why should I wish for anything or do anything? Or to put it still differently: Is there any meaning in my life that will not be destroyed by my inevitably approaching death?” Because he could not answer the “why” of his existence, he concluded that his life was meaningless.
“Very well,” he writes, “you will be more famous than Gogol, Pushkin, Shakespeare, Molière, more famous than all the writers in the world—so what?” Tolstoy felt like the prophet of Ecclesiastes, who wrote, “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity! What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.” The only truth we can absolutely know, Tolstoy believed, is that life ends with death and is punctuated by suffering and sorrow. We and all that we hold dear—our loved ones, our accomplishments, our identities—will eventually perish.
Copyright © 2017 by Emily Esfahani Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.