Meaning, existence, fulfillment, passion, and insight are values and virtues that cohere in some way. They are all relevant to existentialism, a philosophical doctrine that examines man’s existence, state, and nature. Mostly it’s not cheery stuff, but truth and reality often are not. In this blog, I share many of the quotes about meaning that I particularly like, as well as existentialism, living well, freedom, and choice. As you can tell by this first quotation by 19th-century German existentialist Arthur Schopenhauer, this is not a simple or reassuring topic:
“…the greatest wisdom consists in enjoying the present and making this enjoyment the goal of life, because the present is all that is real and everything else merely imaginary. But you could just as well call this mode of life the greatest folly; for that which in a moment ceases to exist, which vanishes completely as a dream, cannot be worth any serious effort.”
Plato and Aristotle represented the notion that human beings have essence; what one is is sort of predecided, or at least, in general terms, is constrained. It’s rather automatic. Your essence gives your life meaning and purpose. Birds fly and makes nests and feed their young, and humans do that which humans have as their essence (being a political animal, or competing, or being friends, or becoming a philosopher (maybe a soldier). This is termed essentialism.
An alternative point of view that started in the 1800s (especially with Nietzsche) and got some steam going with thinkers/writers such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre is called existentialism. In a nutshell, it is a way of thinking about and organizing one’s life that does not rely on a conventional and fairly involuntary essence, but rather, existence. As professor Ruth Tallman writes, “In the late 1800s, some thinkers started to challenge the idea that we are imbued with any essence or purpose.”
That is, we are relatively rootless and free and responsible for making such determinations for ourselves. Libertarians, let’s hear you applaud! Actually, it can be intimidating or even frightening; Nietzsche, for example, railed against conventional morality, the religious/Christian belief system, and even declared that God is dead. He was nihilistic – the state of believing that life is meaningless.
As Tallman put it: “Jean-Paul Sartre asked: What if we exist first? What if we’re born without any hard-wired purpose? And then it’s up to us to figure out our own essences?” Existence precedes essence. “We have to write our own essence through the way in which we choose to live.” That sounds more optimistic! She also noted that “[i]t was hard to express how radical that idea was at the time,” because one did not have the freedom or the responsibility to find what one truly valued and who one really was, because “God did it for you.”
Tallman goes on to emphasize that atheism is not synonymous with existentialism. In fact, Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard was an early and influential theistic existentialist. That is, he believed that God may exist, but God doesn’t map it all out for you, tell you what to think or believe, or punish and reward proper behavior. It’s really up to us. There is no captain on this ship.
The fact that humans are born into this world (thrown, as it were) and there is no inherent purpose or teleology (Greek for the ideal and predecided end; the purpose) can be very unsettling. It’s far and away different from what Christians believe. It is known as absurdity. It’s not being silly or crazy; as Ruth Tallman defines it, “For existentialists, it’s how they describe the search for answers in an answerless world.” She further notes: “We are creatures who need meaning, but we are abandoned in a universe full of meaninglessness, so we cry into the wilderness and we get no response – but we keep crying anyway.” Yes, that nihilism and injustice and
Yes, that nihilism and injustice and freedom is unsettling. Indeed, existentialism sped up a bit after World War II. “When Nazism became possible, meaning became a lot harder to find,” Tallman writes. It’s as though we are free in a way that a person who is stranded on a tropical island is; sure there is a certain kind of freedom, but it can be very frightening and lonely. “It is the eternal silence of the infinite that scares me,” Blaise Pascal wrote. Indeed, more than one horror story has been concocted where a person is alone for some reason, and is unable to escape or find belonging, and they are immortal. Their plight will never end. The modern Netflix production Black Mirror specializes in that kind of horror. French writer Jean-Paul Sartre referred to it as terrifying, or nauseating. I think many Christians’ heads would explode to come to believe that when they pray, no one is listening, or that when someone does evil to a loved one, there is no eternal punishment by a father-like God. If there is no God-given morality, then what limits are there, really?
“The best thing you can do, Sartre declared, is to live authentically. Sartre used this term to mean that you have to accept the full weight of your freedom in light of the absurd. You have to recognize that any meaning your life has, is given to it by you,” professor Ruth Tallman indicates. If one just does what one’s pastor, teacher, or parents suggest, require, and demand of you, it is bad faith, according to Sartre. Values of the Wise is distinctly in favor of one knowing what one values – knows why they live, and what gives life meaning – so that one can live authentically and with greater verve and confidence.
It’s a terrible shame to live one’s life because someone else wants us to. Evangelical Christianity specializes in providing dogma to its adherents, and therefore, meaning. Yes, punishments such as ostracism and rewards such as power, can accompany said “faith.” It’s basically bad faith to just do what others have decided you should. Answers are hard to develop, but rarely can one just “plug and play” predetermined and externally-provided answers about the “big questions” of life. They just simply do not know, and for them to pretend to is arrogant. Moral theories may be of some help, but still, it’s just a vehicle; one has to do the driving.
Do you know which moral theory you favor? There are many, and you probably didn’t learn about them in school. Take the free inventory on this website and find out!
“Albert Camus said that the literal meaning of life is: whatever prevents you from killing yourself,” Tallman points out. That is not as uncouth as it sounds; really, the reason you go on living what is probably a challenging life (sometimes downright depressing) is a good reason not to commit suicide. It’s your raison d’être, your reason for living/being. Kids, honor, love, duty, power, and God are common reasons for being. We all need reasons to get up in the morning…
The famous agnostic attorney Clarence Darrow declared: “I do not pretend to know what so many ignorant men are sure of – that is all agnosticism means.” That is really one of my favorite quotes. I can thank many people for helping me to see the bracing wisdom and truth of that quote, and my mom and Denis Hickey, my first philosophy teacher, are first among them.
Let me lead off the quotations with this most optimistic (even exhilarating) of the quotes about meaning, also from professor Ruth Tallman: “If the world is going to have any of the things most of us value – like justice and order – we’re going to have to put it there ourselves because otherwise, those things wouldn’t exist.”
“On this view of human freedom, our place in the universe is quite distinctive. We can, in fact, initiate wholly new chains of causal action. We can launch new things into the world. We can change things and really make a difference by our creative action. We are not puppets of fate, or of logic, or of science. We can choose our own destinies.”
“Self-awareness is a supreme gift, a treasure as precious as life. This is what makes us human. But it comes with a costly price: the wound of mortality. Our existence is forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom, and, inevitably, diminish and die.” ~ Irvin D. Yalom
“From perplexity grows insight.” ~ Karl Jaspers
“Science can investigate nature and inquire into the empirical world, but it cannot answer moral questions or disprove free will. That is because morality and freedom are not empirical concepts. We can’t prove that they exist, but neither can we make sense of our moral lives without presupposing them.”
“A living man can be enslaved and reduced to the historic condition of an object. But if he dies in refusing to be enslaved, he reaffirms the existence of another kind of human nature which refuses to be classified as an object.”
“The standard arguments for absurdity appear to fail as arguments. Yet I believe they attempt to express something that is difficult to state, but fundamentally correct. In ordinary life, a situation is absurd when it includes a conspicuous discrepancy between pretension or aspiration and reality: someone gives a complicated speech in favor of a motion that has already been passed; a notorious criminal is made president of a major philanthropic organization; you declare your love over the telephone to a recorded announcement; as you are being knighted, your pants fall down.” ~ Thomas Nagel
“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”
“The small are always dependent on the great; they are ‘small’ precisely because they think they are independent. The great thinker is one who can hear what is greatest in the work of other ‘greats’ and who can transform it in an original manner.” ~ Martin Heidegger
“Inherent in our existence as human beings are such questions as: What kind of entity should I seek to become? By what principles should I guide my life? What values are worthy of pursuit?”
“One is healthy when one can laugh at the earnestness and zeal with which one has been hypnotized by any single detail of one’s life.”
“What gives God’s life meaning? If the only correct answer to that kind of question was an external answer, then God would need something to give his life meaning; he would need his own god. …I think you can see that there’s a question about that second god – what gives his life meaning? That clearly leads to an infinite regress. It can’t be that for any being you can consider, his life has meaning if and only if there is another being, distinct from him, who gives it meaning.” ~ Colin McGinn
“Human nature as a rational nature cannot be adequately understood in terms of causation in the scientific sense, but only through the rational apparatus of the introspecting, thoughtful being who discovers at once that he is a morally free being.”
“Religion is the natural reaction of the imagination when confronted by the difficulties in a truculent world.”
“A curious thought experiment…. Nietzsche’s message to us was to live life in such a way that we would be willing to repeat the same life eternally.”
“For all this time, through all the different roles I have occupied in my career, my deepest belief has remained unchanged: that a college or university is not just a place for the transmission of knowledge but a forum for the exploration of life’s mystery and meaning through the careful but critical reading of the great works of literary and philosophical imagination that we have inherited from the past.”
“Socrates does not hand down wisdom but makes the other find it. The other thinks he knows, but Socrates makes him aware of this ignorance, so leading him to find authentic knowledge in himself. From miraculous depths this man raises up what he already knew, but without knowing that he knew it. This means that each man must find knowledge in himself; it is not a commodity that can be passed from hand to hand, but can only be awakened. When it comes to light, it is like a recollection of something known long ago.” ~ Karl Jaspers
“To affirm that there is a supreme meaning of life is to give the intellect an opportunity to escape the disquieting conclusion that nothing people do can possibly have more than slight importance.”
“I realize that if I were stable, prudent and static, I’d live in death. Therefore, I accept confusion, uncertainty, fear and emotional ups and downs; because that’s the price I’m willing to pay for a fluid, perplexed and exciting life.” ~ Carl Rogers
“As long as we have hope, we have direction, the energy to move, and the map to move by. We have a hundred alternatives, a thousand paths, and an infinity of dreams. Hopeful, we are halfway to where we want to go; hopeless, we are lost forever.”
“As long as anyone believes that his ideal and purpose is outside him, that it is above the clouds, in the past or in the future, he will go outside himself and seek fulfillment where it cannot be found. He will look for solutions and answers at every point except where they can be found – in himself.” ~ Erich Fromm
“Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.” ~ James Maxwell
“If we could somehow manage to understand at age twenty-three or forty-three— rather than ninety-three— that our body is absolutely guaranteed to stop functioning all too soon, our remaining years would be better for it. Each of us lives under a death sentence. And for most of us it is only when we deeply realize this we begin to see each day as precious and begin to live our remaining time with intensity and a sense of purpose.”
“Religion is a search, not an answer.”
“True, we men are assailed by grief in our lives, and we lament. But in the end lamentation must cease, giving way to peace and acceptance of our lot. Socrates sets the great example: where consuming sorrow seems in place, there springs the great, loving peace which opens the soul. Death has lost its meaning. It is not veiled over, but the authentic life is not a life toward death; it is a life toward the good.” ~ Karl Jaspers
“The artist takes in the world, but instead of being oppressed by it, he reworks it in his own personality and recreates it in the work of art.” ~ Ernest Becker
“College students today search for morality and the meaning of life in different ways than in prior ages, as with any new generation, especially in times of tremendous change. They are more incremental and practical. They seek truth, but perhaps through quieter avenues than the heroic ones of the past. They try to combine their great urges with a good life.”
“Life without challenges, without ups and downs, with everyone happy, in my opinion would soon pale. Hardships, setbacks, and disappointments are a necessary part of a rich life. It is true that sometimes they are not necessarily evenly distributed, and some crack under the strain, but a large number, perhaps most, overcome the obstacles and begin to thrive. I believe that life without unevenness would be like living exclusively on dessert.”
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.” ~ Reinhold Niebuhr
“In speculation, meditation, and ethos alike, it is the human will that sets the goal and attains it. Each man has his own power of action and conduct, meditation and thought. He works, he struggles, he is like a mountain climber. That is why Buddha is forever calling for an effort of the will.” ~ Karl Jaspers
“Time cannot be broken; that is our greatest burden. And our greatest challenge is to live in spite of that burden.” ~ Irvin D. Yalom
“The meaning of life lies in the chance it gives us to produce, or to contribute to something greater than ourselves.”
“Growth occurs when individuals confront problems, struggle to master them, and through that struggle develop new aspects of their skills, capacities, views about life.” ~ Carl Rogers
“Mankind surely does not represent an evolution toward a better or stronger or higher level, as progress is now understood.”
“We are all afraid – for our confidence, for the future, for the world… Yet every man, every civilization, has gone forward because of its engagement with what it has set itself to do.”
“Men believe themselves to be free, simply because they are conscious of their actions, and unconscious of the causes whereby those actions are determined.”
“I have seen many people die because life for them was not worth living. From this I conclude that the question of life’s meaning is the most urgent question of all.”
“We cannot live human lives without energy and attention, nor without making choices…. Yet we always have available a point of view outside the particular form of our lives, from which the seriousness appears gratuitous. These two inescapable viewpoints collide in us, and this is what makes life absurd. It is absurd because we ignore the doubts we know cannot be settled, continuing to live with nearly undiminished seriousness in spite of them.” ~ Thomas Nagel
“The character of human life, like the character of the human condition, like the character of all life, is “ambiguity”: the inseparable mixture of good and evil, the true and false, the creative and destructive forces-both individual and social.” ~ Paul Tillich
“The purpose for which a man lives is the improvement of the man himself, so that he may go out of this world having, in his great sphere or his small one, done some little good for his fellow creatures and labored a little to diminish the sin and sorrow that are in the world.”
“Man’s main task in life is to give birth to himself, to become what he potentially is.” ~ Erich Fromm
“Man’s fundamental problem is to achieve true “existence” instead of letting his life be no more than just another accident.”
“Whether I will live a long time or a short time, I’m alive now, at this moment. What I want is to know that there are other things to hope for besides length of life. What I want to know is that it isn’t necessary to turn away from thoughts of suffering or death but neither is it necessary to give these thoughts too much time and space. What I want is to be intimate with the knowledge that life is temporary. And then, in the light (or shadow) of that knowledge, to know how to live.” ~ Irvin D. Yalom
“Man is not made to understand life, but to live it.”
There are over 1,000 quotes about meaning, existentialism, existence, living, free will, determinism, fulfillment, and insight right here, for free, in The Wisdom Archive. Let your mind run free!
If you would like to see many unique meaning quotations about quotes about existence by one of my favorite philosophers (a psychiatrist from Stanford who wrote in the 1960s-1970s, actually), Irvin D. Yalom, try GoodReads.
Here is a cool podcast by philosopher Massimo Pigliucci