DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N011-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 12, 2021, from

8. Death and the meaning of life

A number of thinkers have suggested that there is some important connection between death and ‘the meaning of life’. A person who thinks that death is not followed by any sort of afterlife may think that death makes life meaningless. Schopenhauer sometimes seems to have expressed this view (see Schopenhauer, A. §6). Others who believe in God and immortality may see it this way: God placed us here on earth in order that we may either sin or achieve our salvation. If we sin, we are punished with eternal damnation. If we achieve salvation, we are rewarded with eternal bliss. A person who accepts this picture might say that if there were no God and no afterlife in which to receive reward or punishment, then life would be (to quote Shakespeare) ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’. In other words, if there were no God and no afterlife, our lives would not be components of a larger and purposeful scheme – we would live for a while and then simply die. For many, if it were like this, life would be meaningless. Those who believe in an afterlife may take comfort in thoughts of this afterlife, and think that its existence serves to make ordinary life here on earth meaningful.

Yet it appears that sense can be made of the idea that life is meaningful even if it ends in death. If people have worthwhile goals and exert themselves to achieve these goals, taking some pleasure in both the exertion and the achievement, then their lives may be said to be meaningful – at least in what Paul Edwards calls ‘the terrestrial sense’. Death, of course, may bring an end to such meaningfulness, but the fact that they will someday die seems not to be able to rob people’s lives of this sort of meaningfulness while they are alive.

According to an even more extreme view, life is made more meaningful by the recognition that it will end with death. According to this view, we gain a deeper appreciation for the common satisfactions of our everyday experience when we fully realize that someday we will die, and will then have nothing at all.

Citing this article:
Feldman, Fred. Death and the meaning of life. Death, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N011-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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