The Meaning of Life – Peter Gay

atkins-bookshelf-quotationsI cannot resist in answering this unanswerable question with a memorable statement by William James. Posing the conundrum, “Is life worth living? he replied: “That depends on the liver.” This, I submit, is a profound pun. One’s sense of the worthwhileness of life — and, with that, its meaning owes much to one’s health, physical and mental…  And the meaning of life, James suggests further, is a matter for individual decision; all attempts at general statements (including this one) are at best irrelevant and at worst sheer nonsense. [For centuries] humans have frantically — or pathetically– tried to establish such universally applicable answers to questions about the meaning of life — and death. That effort is called religion, and while, no doubt, religious communities have supplied their votaries with a soothing or bracing sense of belonging, and meted out comfort in times of trouble, no adult can long rest content with scriptural or theological or pseudo-historical fairy tales. They are of the same order as other anodynes like drink, drugs, or seductive entertainment. Individuals must discover the meaning of life themselves. Those whose lives are most meaningful are those who don’t need to ask, “Why are we here?” Of course, a stiff drink once in a while is not to be despised.

Peter Gay, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University and author of the definitive biography Freud: A Life for Our Time, as quoted in The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here, edited by David Friend, Little Brown (1991)

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