Eagleton’s The Meaning of Life

In The Guardian, Simon Jenkins reviews Terry Eagleton’s The Meaning of Life.

The search [for the meaning of life] soon moves into the author’s favourite territory of modernism. He points to the damage that science has done to religion’s answer to his question, so that for most people the answer is personal rather than collective. Until recently, “the idea that there could be meaning to your life which was peculiar to you, quite different from the meaning of other people’s lives, would not have mustered many votes”. Nowadays we feel the need to “own” the question. Life is our question and our answer. That is the gulf that divides Odysseus from Hamlet. Since the great soliloquy, to be or not to be has become my business, not yours.

At this point Eagleton’s argument lurches briefly towards silliness. Ask most people what life means to them, or perhaps what “gives it meaning”, and the answer will be a melange of family, love, home, sport, nationalism and, again, religion. Those who once saw their purpose on Earth as fixed by the sages and myths of tribe and community are today adrift on a sea of modernist diversity. “A great many educated people,” writes Eagleton, “believe that life is an accidental evolutionary phenomenon that has no more intrinsic meaning than a fluctuation in the breeze or a rumble in the gut … If our lives have meaning it is something with which we manage to invest them, not something with which they come ready equipped.”