Selected readings from “On the Meaning of Life” by Will Durant.

Will Durant, Passages from On The Meaning Of Life:

“Dear ________:

Will you interrupt your work for a moment and play the game of philosophy with me?

“I am attempting to face a question which our generation, perhaps more than any, seems always ready to ask and never able to answer — What is the meaning or worth of human life? Heretofore this question has been dealt with chiefly by theorists, from Ikhnaton and Lao-tse to Bergson and Spengler. The result has been a kind of intellectual suicide: thought, by its very development, seems to have destroyed the value and significance of life. The growth and spread of knowledge, for which so many idealists and reformers prayed, has resulted in a disillusionment which has almost broken the spirit of our race.

“Astronomers have told us that human affairs constitute but a moment in the trajectory of a star; geologists have told us that civilization is but a precarious interlude between ice ages; biologists have told us that all life is war, a struggle for existence among individuals, groups, nations, alliances, and species; historians have told us that ‘progress’ is a delusion, whose glory ends in inevitable decay; psychologists have told us that the will and the self are the helpless instruments of heredity and environment, and that the once incorruptible soul is but a transient incandescence of the brain. The Industrial Revolution has destroyed the home, and the discovery of contraceptives is destroying the family, the old morality, and perhaps (through the sterility of the intelligent) the race. Love is analyzed into a physical congestion, and marriage becomes a temporary physiological convenience slightly superior to promiscuity. Democracy has degenerated into such corruption as only Milo’s Rome knew; and our youthful dreams of a socialist Utopia disappear as we see, day after day, the inexhaustible acquisitiveness of men. Every invention strengthens the strong and weakens the weak; every new mechanism displaces men, and multiplies the horror of war. God, who was once the consolation of our brief life, and our refuge in bereavement and suffering, has apparently vanished from the scene; no telescope, no microscope discovers him. Life has become, in that total perspective which is philosophy, a fitful pullulation of human insects on the earth, a planetary eczema that may soon be cured; nothing is certain in it except defeat and death — a sleep from which, it seems, there is no awakening.

“We are driven to conclude that the greatest mistake in human history was the discovery of ‘truth.’ It has not made us free, except from delusions that comforted us and restraints that preserved us. It has not made us happy, for truth is not beautiful, and did not deserve to be so passionately chased. As we look on it now we wonder why we hurried so to find it. For it has taken from us every reason for existence except the moment’s pleasure and tomorrow’s trivial hope.

“This is the pass to which science and philosophy have brought us. I, who have loved philosophy for many years, now turn back to life itself, and ask you, as one who has lived as well as thought, to help me understand. Perhaps the verdict of those who have lived is different from that of those who have merely thought. Spare me a moment to tell me what meaning life has for you, what keeps you going, what help — if any — religion gives you, what are the sources of your inspiration and your energy, what is the goal or motive-force of your toil, where you find your consolations and your happiness, where, in the last resort, your treasure lies. Write briefly if you must; write at length and at leisure if you possibly can; for every word from you will be precious to me.

Sincerely yours,

Will Durant

Excerpts From Durant’s Introduction of On the Meaning of Life:

“It is not merely the War of 1914 that has plunged us into pessimism, much less the economic depression of these recent years; we have to do here with something far deeper than a temporary diminution of our wealth, or even the death of 26,000,000 men; it is not our homes and our treasuries that are empty, it is our ‘hearts.’ It seems impossible any longer to believe in the permanent greatness of man, or to give life a meaning that cannot be annulled by death. We move into an age of spiritual exhaustion and despondency like that which hungered for the birth of Christ. . .

“All the hopes of the Enlightenment were realized: science was free, and was remaking the world. But while the technicians were using science to transform the earth, philosophers were using it to transform the universe. Slowly, as one science after another reported its findings, a picture was unfolded of universal struggle and death; and decade by decade the optimism of the nineteenth century yielded to the pessimism of today…

“Our schools are like our inventions — they offer us new ideas, new means of doing old things; they elevate us from petty larceny to bank wreckages and Teapot Domes. They stake all on intellect, only to find that character wins in the end. We taught people how to read, and they enrich the ‘tabloids’ and the ‘talkies’; we invented the radio, and they pour out, a hundred times more abundantly than before, the music of savages and the prejudices of mobs. We gave them, through technology and engineering, unprecedented wealth — miraculous automobiles, luxurious travel, and spacious homes; only to find that peace departs as riches come, that automobiles over-ride morality and connive at crime, that quarrels grow bitterer as the spoils increase, and that the largest houses are the bloodiest battlegrounds of the ancient war between woman and man. We discovered birth-control, and now it sterilizes the intelligent, multiplies the ignorant, debases love with promiscuity, frustrates the educator, empowers the demagogue, and deteriorates the race. We enfranchised all men, and find them supporting and preserving, in nearly every city, a nefarious ‘machine’ that blocks the road between ability and office; we enfranchised all women, and discovered that nothing is changed except clerical expense. We dreamed of socialism, and find our own souls too greedy to make it possible; in our hearts we too are capitalists, and have no serious objection to becoming rich. . .

“The greatest question of our time is not communism vs. individualism, not Europe vs. America, not even the East vs. the West; it is whether men can bear to live without God.”


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