Life, meaning of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L044-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 03, 2024, from

2. The relevance of death

The sense that there is a problem about the meaning of life is frequently brought on by the contemplation of death (see Death §8). Indeed, it is often thought, as it was by Schopenhauer (1851) and by Tolstoi (1886), that the question arises precisely because our lives will end in death (see Schopenhauer, A. §6). However, as some philosophers have noticed, the connection between our finitude and life’s meaning is puzzling. If the assumption that we will all die makes life seem meaningless, how would the opposite assumption – that we will live forever – make the situation any better?

A possible explanation for the connection between the thought of death and the fear that life is meaningless is that facing up to one’s own mortality destroys one’s prospects for happiness. If ultimate happiness were likely or even possible, we might not feel the need for meaning – one does not need a reason to live as long as living is fun, and the aim of achieving ultimate happiness, were it attainable, might be purpose enough. For some, however, the knowledge that they will die makes happiness impossible. Somewhat differently, recognition of the inevitability of the death of one’s culture and one’s species as well as of oneself may make the interests and goals one formerly had appear worthless or silly.

Again, belief in a God can provide relief from these concerns. The promise of an afterlife, in which at least some achieve eternal bliss, renews the possibility of working towards ultimate happiness. Independently, the existence of an eternal and superior being who cares about us and about what we make of our lives relieves the worry that our goals and our conduct are insignificant.

Citing this article:
Wolf, Susan. The relevance of death. Life, meaning of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L044-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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