Yet another non-fiction attempt at explaining the intricacies of life as we know it is in the offing, and the uninformed would most likely lump this particular one with the rest of mediocrity’s spawns. However, the less ignorant would recognize the prestige that is synonymous with the author’s name, which echoes loudly of literary theory and Marxism, in the most acceptable and understandable terms.
Terry Eagleton’s discourse on one of the most profound yet unanswerable questions ever to be posed in actual form could have gone two disparate ways: the academic, which would call on the powers of scholarly influence and intervention; and the sardonic, which would debunk all trite and contrived notions about the subject and introduce a new concept that may border between reality and fantasy—or at least within the contexts of Eagleton’s philosophy.
But the great theorist, without presenting his work as the millennium’s definitive answer to life and all its meanings, does what he is good at—analysis, study, and intellectualism. The big question in focus is quite applicable, as Eagleton begins, to the different persuasions available, from language to philosophy to civilization. Here is where the Eagleton style of in-depth probing takes place, and readers new and old will always find the author’s signature wit and humour refreshing against the backdrop of the subject’s utter seriousness and complexity.
Eagleton builds his argument by citing some of the differences among people, based on their particular eras. He discussed how the issues thrown against faith and organized religion figured prominently in the late nineteenth century, and this brought on the question about life’s meaning in bigger, more insistent ways. Then we see how the great mind forms his own theory, but only after seeing how he provides a comparison between his thinking and those that came before him.
The first, most obvious and easiest target would be Christianity and its various interpretations, that declares God as the all-powerful, all-knowing source of the world’s meaning and its corresponding effect on life itself, and the tenet that deems the world chaotic and meaningless without God. Eagleton quickly forges to disprove this established belief, by invoking the theories and discoveries alluded to by science, and how, even without the concept of God, the universe would continue to be an entity independent of anything, with a symmetry and logic that defies any claim on source and end.
Eagleton did not agree with the free-flowing, opinion-respecting parameters of post-modernism, either. He found the standard allusions to individualism and realms and contexts of varying interpretations as contrary to the search for meaning; because meaning can only be discovered through dialogue with the world, and any pre-tense of an individual of finding the same unto himself or herself does not operate logically within Eagleton’s study.
One must validate his or her particular life meanings with what the world has already set, out of respect and value for a construct that is no longer such, but is really a defined and proven reality that can mix both beauty and logic on the same level. Upon presenting his own personal cause towards providing an answer to the stated question, Eagleton now invokes Aristotelian philosophy to concretise an aspect of the meaning. According to Aristotle, human life’s significance lies within happiness—yet not just mere pleasure.
Eagleton agress with this idea, and confirms the classic philosopher’s opinion that happiness may only be received through virtue, wherein virtue is, more than anything, a social practice and not a way of thinking. Therefore, happiness, which is the purpose of life, is also its practical and realisable version. However, all is not completely nice and happy in the Eagleton-Aristotle team-up—the author, after the initial meeting of great minds regarding the ideal integration of politics, ethics and happiness in one ideal society, admonishes the classicist’s expressed elements of a society necessary to attain happiness.
That Aristotle defined this as one complete with women and slaves earmarked to carry out any dirty work while man goes forth to traverse the levels of happiness, is an ideal best left in history books and pageant presentations. Eagleton, being the trouper he is, tries to make up for Aristotle’s slip by taking the latter’s happiness concept and raising it one—to centre on the ultimate idea of love. Not erotic love, no, but that among fellow men, and even enemies. As with Aristotle’s original happiness idea, Eagleton’s love construct is a lifestyle, a practical way of giving meaning to life.
He goes further by adding the presence of another individual in the equation, with whom love may be realized through mutual support. This refers to space for growth, a means to being one’s best. And, being one of Marx’s greatest disciples, Eagleton qualifies this concept by requiring the individuals be equals for real reciprocity, for the absence of such will render this adjudged purpose and meaning of life futile. The book ends with Eagleton’s inspired way of comparing life with jazz music, where improvisation is key, yet function as a whole.
Thus, the author promises the answers to be found in this precise situation—happiness being individual and collective, which can only be realised through love. If any other writer tried to use the same words and the same concepts to give his or her own interpretation, everything would sound fake, and probably even absurd. But Terry Eagleton’s lucid writing and light touch prove that these often-lambasted elements may actually still be understood for what they are, and that love and life are indeed connected—all to provide the meaning we have long wanted to find.