“To Be or Not To Be “- Finding Meaning in your life

02 January 2019 by Joanne Reed

To be or not to be is one of the most famous line of Shakespeare’s [1] play Hamlet.  The main character, Hamlet, lives through a full-blown tragedy with no happy ending in sight; the play deals with questions about life and existence, sanity, love, death and betrayal.   Tragedies are part of our everyday life. The philosopher Henry David Thoreau [2] managed to encapsulate this concept in one sentence when he said: “The mass of men leads lives of quiet desperation”.  This feeling comes from the fact that for a lot of people they feel that they are stuck in the “rat race”  unable to make their own choices but forced instead to go through the motion of waking up every day, go to work to get a pay check which is necessary in order to afford all the necessities of life, pay all the bills, put some money aside (if possible) for a well-deserved vacation somewhere (to get away for just a little while) from the mundanity of everyday life and repeat the process year after year after year; but people are not born to just go to work, pay their bills and then die.  Surely, there is more to it than that.

  Living a life of quiet desperation can affect everyone, young, old, poor and also the rich & famous.   For the majority of people, the ultimate measure of success is to become rich and if you can achieve fame at the same time – all the better; but sometimes notoriety and money alone is not enough to save people from a life of quiet desperation.

The most fundamental question that each one of us should ask ourselves is: “What is the meaning of life?”  It is in essence a very philosophical question and as such we should seek the assistance of some of the most prestigious philosophers in order to help us gain some clarity on this subject; because philosophers are the ones who spend the majority of their time thinking about the most fundamental question i.e. how to live.  The art of living is at the center of what preoccupies most philosophers.

 Aristotle[3]spent a fair amount of time thinking about the concept of human well-being and what virtues are necessary to achieve a life well-lived; he wrote his findings and conclusions in “Ethics”. Aristotle reached the conclusion that what we need in order to live well, is a proper appreciation of the way in which friendship, pleasure, virtue, honor and wealth fit together as a whole.  The principle idea with which Aristotle begins is that there are differences of opinion about what is best for human beings.  Most people would agree that it is good to have friends, to experience pleasure, to be honored, and to have such virtues as courage, at least to some degree. The difficult and controversial question arise when we ask whether some of these are more desirable than others.

To answer this question Aristotle came up with two key principles to help us live a full and happy life, the first one is the use of reason and the second one is the use of virtue.  What separates humans from other species is our capacity to use reason.  In order to live well, we have to use reason well.  This means that when we face a choice between several options we have to choose the option that is most rational according to the current circumstance and the most virtuous

But not everyone has the capability or the willingness to travel through life exercising virtuous acts, now, then and always. So, if one is unable or unwilling to be virtuous, what does it make him or her? According to Aristotle, someone who is unable to resist pressure to go the opposite way of being virtuous can be describes as “incontinent.”  Someone who refuses to try to do what an ethically virtuous person would do, because he/she has been convinced that justice, temperance, generosity and the like are of little value, can be described as “evil.” Evil people are driven by the desire for domination and luxury.

And this is where the American Philosopher Richard Taylor [4] enters into the frame to add an additional layer to Aristotle’s concept by proposing to add another quality that is necessary in order to pursue virtuous acts; and that quality is creativity.  For him human excellence can be achieved through the fulfillment of our capacity for creativity.

Richard Taylor urges people to “Do something – Create something. To do otherwise is simply to waste your precious life, because if the only thing you do is eat, sleep, reproduce then die, for a person to do no better than that is in effect to lapse into a mere animal nature.”

 “What if I have no passion?”  This time round we will ask the renown philosopher Carl Jung [5] to help us answer this question. According to Carl Jung: “If you have nothing at all to create, then perhaps you create yourself. To give style to one’s character is a great and rare art”.

Furthermore, Richard Taylor tells us that: “Don’t suppose that a work of art must be something that all can behold – a poem, a painting, a book, a great building. Consider making of your own life a work of art.  You have yourself to begin with and a time of uncertain duration to work on it. You do not have to be what you are, and even though you may be quite content with who and what you are, it will not be hard for you to think of something greater that you might become. It need not be something spectacular, or even something that will attract any notice from others. What it will be is a kind of excellence that you project for yourself and then attain. Something you can then take a look at with honest self-appraisal and be proud of”.

The answer to the most fundamental question of all time (i.e. what is the meaning of life and by extension how to be happy) can be found in the following words: The Use of Reason, Virtuous Acts, and Creativity. That is all there is to it. To be or not to be that is the question?!… Over to you.


[1] William Shakespeare (26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616): English poet, playwright and actor. Best known for his plays; Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, Much Ado About Nothing to only name a few.

[2] Henri David Thoreau (12 July 1817 – 6 May 1862): American essayist, Poet, Philosopher, Abolitionist, Historian. Best known for his book Walden – a reflection upon simple living and his essay “Civil Disobedience.”

[3] Aristotle (384-322 BC): Greek Philosopher, Scientist and Student of Plato. Best known for his contribution to the field of science, psychology, politics, history and arts.

[4] Richard Taylor (5 November 1919 – 30 October 2003): American Philosophe. Best known for his work and papers on the meaning of life.

[5] Carl Jung (26 July 1875 – 6 June 1961): Swiss psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and prolific writer. Best known for creating some of the best known psychological concepts such as synchronicity, extraversion and introversion, the collective unconscious.

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