Every person has questioned the meaning of life; It is an idea that can be traced through out the history of mankind. John Cottingham, author of “The Meaning of Life” is just one of the many who have tried to explain and simplify this complicated question. “The Meaning of Life” is a short but informative book that attempts to breakdown the meaning of life with as little religious intervention as possible, while at the same time, be able to “reveal how [religion] connects with values and commitments that we all share, and to find a way of accommodating it without the sacrifice of scientific or philosophical integrity.
” (ix). In “The Meaning of Life” Cottingham offers insight on individualistic ethical ideals and alternatives to individualism, which can often be contrasted with the beliefs of Jean-Paul Sartre, who is one of the best known philosophers of the twentieth century. Cottingham uses chapter one to argue that individualistic ethical ideals are “compartmentalized” and “self-defeating. ” He believes that having activities and achievements in ones life, like sports, are not enough to make ones life meaningful. Humans are complicated beings that require much more than a few simple success stories to be truly content with life.
As Cottingham states, people have “biological imperatives (for food, warmth, shelter, procreation), social imperatives (the need to cooperate, the drive to communicate), emotional imperatives (the need for such things as mutual recognition and affection), and lastly and just as importantly what might be called ‘rational imperatives’. ” (26) With out these four essentials, humans simply cannot be happy and live meaningful lives, though it may seem they do on the surface. One example Cottingham uses to display this belief is Gauguin the painter.
Though Gauguin was a very successful painter, which some may argue was meaningful, his choices and actions are those of one who could be considered to be living a meaningless life. Yes, Gauguin was a successful painter, but he also left his wife and children to pursue this “self indulgent” career. By pursuing the one thing that made Gauguin’s life meaningful to him, he himself ruined any chance he had at truly living a meaningful life. This is because he had to sacrifice his biological, social, and emotional imperatives when he left his family and friends.
While many philosophers strongly believe in individualism, Cottingham offers an alternative in his book. Theism is the belief in some type of deity. As Cottingham states “A worthwhile life will be one that posses genuine value – value linked to our human nature and the pursuit of what is objectively conducive to the flowering of that nature. ” (32) Theists ultimately have something to work towards throughout their lives. With out this metaphorical ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ people could quickly lose the desire to live meaningful lives.
Those without the belief that there is a purpose humans came to exist can be haunted by the thought that “ if ‘space’ is all the home we have, then our journey, a journey out of nothing and towards nothing, risks appearing futile, as void of significance as the ultimate void that spawned us and will eventually swallow us up. ” (34) With nothing to strive towards it is easy to live a compartmentalized, closed, and selfish life, abandoning the four imperatives mentioned previously and thus living a life with no meaning.
By being open and integrated, Theists can share their experiences on their quest towards living a meaningful life. One person that would strongly disagree with Cottingham’s belief in theism is Jean-Paul Sartre. One major reason Sartre is so opposed to theism is because of his concept of freedom. To Sartre, freedom is not possible when a person has a designed end or purpose. People must be able to decide their own purpose on this earth, and if they believe they were put here with a predetermined purpose by a “higher being” they will be unable to decide what their purpose is on their own.
In the case of Gauguin, Sartre would disagree with Cottingham in that he would see nothing wrong with Gauguin leaving his family to pursue his artistic talents. If Gauguin had not left to do what he wished with his life, Sartre would have argued his belief of “bad faith” which occurs when any person denies their human freedom because they want to avoid the dread of realizing that their existence means nothing if one does not create meaning for themselves.
Gauguin must leave his family to discover the meaning of his life in Sartre’s view, while Cottingham believes that by leaving his family he loses three of his imperatives and will be unhappy and live a meaningless life. While both Sartre and Cottingham make interesting and valid points on leading a meaningful life, I agree with neither. Sartre would have encouraged Gauguin to leave his family and search for his own meaning, which I believe would have been very selfish and would have lead to a miserable, meaningless life full of guilt and loneliness.
Even if Gauguin loved painting, spending a lifetime alone is undesirable for even the most introverted people. Though I disagree with Sartre’s reply, I also disagree with Cottingham’s belief that Gauguin should have stayed with his family in order to live a life with all of the four essentials mentioned previously. If Gauguin stayed with his family and stopped painting, he would live a life full of questions and regret that he didn’t take the opportunity to pursue his dream when he had the chance. Rather than having to pick one or the other (family or art) I believe Gauguin could have had the best of both worlds.
He could have saved enough money to move his family to Tahiti with him, or could have looked for the beauty in his own home and family to inspire him. The meaning of life is a frightening idea that all people have questioned at some point in their lives. While Cottingham’s book is very interesting, it is certainly not for everyone. Cottingham does a superb job in helping the reader to decide on their own what a meaningful life is made of by offering multiple philosophies and beliefs in one short, easy to read book.