There’s two big dimensions that we need to consider when we pose the big question of the meaning of life…one I’m going to call the personal dimension, and one I’m going to call the collective or the relation dimension.
When we ask the question in the personal dimension, we’re asking the question: If I simply think of myself, as an individual, worrying about my own life, in what does the meaning of my life consist? We might have a number of different kinds of answers to that.
We might say, a meaningful life for me is a life of reason. That is it’s a life led reflectively, thoughtfully, where I make my choices in an informed way, where I’ve got good reasons for the things that I do, where I can look back at my life and I can say, “Yes, I did the right things, and I did them for the right reasons.”
Works if you are someone who can form excellent ex post rationalizations to your hasty decisions. If your consciousness is a good lawyer on your behalf.
On the other hand, it might be that I say, for me, a meaningful life is a life of faith, where I find faith in some higher value, some spiritual value, and am able to accommodate myself and my concerns to what I see as my dictates of the higher spiritual value. That’s possible.
Not sure what to say here...
On the other hand, I might say, that what makes my life meaningful is that I’m able to lead it naturally, in harmony with my own nature, in harmony with the nature that I find around me, where I think of myself fundamentally as an organism and I try to shed social excretions, get back to my natural way of being, and live that way…
If I don't want to have to rationalize my hasty decisions, and would rather not think about my decisions.
I might say, for instance if I’m a Confucian or an Aristotelian, that what gives my life meaning, is that it’s a social life. That I’m a member of a culture, a member of a society, a member of a family.
If the people in my social life revere me, and thus I revere them.
Or perhaps I could say with Nietzsche…that what makes my life meaningful as an individual is that I live an independent life. That I’m the author of my own life. I create it as a piece of art, and I don’t worry the demands of others, the demands of society around me, or external values: I make my own values, and I make myself, and that kind of autonomy and individuality is what gives my life meaning….
If society rejects you and you are unable to correct what society dislikes (good for rejected novelists who don't know how to write any differently)
But beyond this individual dimension there’s a second, social dimension…the dimension of connectedness. And in that dimension we need an account of what our relationships are to each other, to the broader world, to the universe, to our society, in order to answer the question: what is the meaning of life?
If you love to gossip and pander.
On this dimension we might ask the question: are we primarily independent agents in voluntary association with one another…when we think about society, is it a group of individuals and get together and say, let’s form a society and make some agreements, as we might see in the social contract dimension, where we see government and social institutions as constituted and legitimated by the wills of individuals.
If an "every man for himself" policy works best for you economically.
Or it might be that we are essentially social beings, and that is what our fundamental nature is. And when we think about ourselves as individuals, that’s no more appropriate than to think of my hand as an individual instead of as a part of my body…Do we choose our roles in society, or does society give us our roles?
Again, if we love to gossip and pander.
Or, is our context not primarily social but natural? Are we fundamentally animals living within an ecosystem, and what gives our lives meaning is our connection to other animals and plants in that broader ecosystems.
If you want to rationalize your actions as being good for a inanimate ruck of mass.
Or, as the Stoics might have it, are we simply tiny parts of a very vast cosmos, and we need to think of ourselves relationally, and in relation to the whole.
If you see the world as it is, and it doesn't depress you.
—Jay Garfield. The Meaning of Life: Perspectives from the World’s Great Intellectual Traditions. 2011. Lecture 1: The Meaning of the Meaning of Life. The Teaching Company.
Commentary by a dramatic stoic.