The Meaning of Life – Richard Taylor

Taylor begins by observing that it is partially due to the fact that it is difficult in the first place to even understand what it means to question whether life has meaning that the question is so difficult to answer. He proposes, then, to come at the question by a more circuitous route. His strategy is to describe what it would be like for life to be meaningless, and then compare that picture of meaninglessness to the actual state of affairs. In the end, Taylor argues that there is a strong sense in which all life is precisely like the paradigmatic meaningless life that he envisions. However, there is another sense, indeed a more worthwhile sense of meaning which Taylor argues our lives are infused with.

Taylor asks us to recall the famous myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was condemned to roll a large boulder up a hill, only to have that boulder roll back down the hill, forcing Sisyphus to repeat the task without end. Despite all his toiling, his existence amounted to nothing more than endlessly repeating the same task which itself contributed to no greater goal or purpose. This, Taylor suggests, is the very image of meaninglessness. Taylor is careful to identify exactly which features of Sisyphus’ plight account for the lack of meaning, and which are irrelevant. Importantly, Taylor argues that the facts that Sisyphus’ task is both difficult and endless are irrelevant to its meaninglessness. Even if the stone that Sisyphus brought to the top of the hill were very light, and the hill not very tall or steep, Taylor maintains that this would not detract from the lack of meaning. What explains the meaninglessness of Sisyphus’ life is that all of his work amounts to nothing at all; and this will be so whether it is easy, and whether it at some time came to an end. One way that Sisyphus’ life could have meaning, Taylor suggests, is if something came of his struggles; if, for example, the stones that he rolled were used to create something. A separate way in which meaning might be made manifest in his life is if Sisyphus enjoyed rolling the stone up the hill, and not only enjoyed it, but could imagine nothing else more enjoyable. What Taylor points out, though, is that even given this last modification, Sisyphus’ life has not thereby acquired meaning of the first kind; there is still no point to his rolling the stones, still nothing gained – he simply enjoys doing it.

Taylor argues that all life as we know it is importantly like Sisyphus’ life. Whether viewed from a very wide scope, or at the level of a single individual, life is nothing but the succession of struggles and attempts that ultimately culminate in nothing; the only thing that endures is the repetition of the cycle. There is no “end point” toward which the struggles are directed that could confer meaning. In this way, Taylor thinks, our lives our meaningless. However, he suggests that this is not even the most important way in which our lives could have meaning. Like the imagined Sisyphus who enjoys rolling stones, we are able to project meaning onto our own lives through embracing our struggles, even if they accomplish nothing lasting and fulfilling.