Death and meaningfulness (I)

It is clear why thinking about death naturally leads to reflection on life: death is the termination of life. It is not, however, as easy to understand why thinking about death may lead to the conclusion that (one’s) life is meaningless or that (one’s) life is not meaningful enough because of death. No one has expressed more directly than Tolstoy did the thought that death threatens meaningfulness:

Today or tomorrow sickness and death will come (and they had already arrived) to those dear to me, and to myself, and nothing will remain other than the stench and the worms. Sooner or later my deeds, whatever they may have been, will be forgotten and will no longer exist. What is all the fuss about then? How can a person carry on living and fail to perceive this? That is what is so astonishing! It is only possible to go on living while you are intoxicated with life; once sober it is impossible not to see that it is all a mere trick, and a stupid trick! That is exactly what it is: there is nothing either witty or amusing, it is only cruel and stupid. (Tolstoy, A Confession and Other Religious Writings, translated by J. Kentish (London: Penguin Books, 1987), p.31)

And he asked, rhetorically, “[I]s there any meaning in my life that will not be annihilated by the inevitability of death which awaits me?” (p.35)  Since the inevitability of death awaits not only Tolstoy but all of us, what he said was supposed to apply to all human beings: death will annihilate any meaning in our lives. The implicit idea here is that if life really has meaning, it must consist in something that can defeat the threat of death to meaningfulness. In other words, life is meaningless unless we can find some kind of long-lasting and grand meaningfulness.

What reason did Tolstoy give for thinking that death implies meaninglessness? It seems to be simply this: whatever one has achieved “will be forgotten and will no longer exist”. Literally this is not true, at least not true of Tolstoy, for his writings still exist and we still read and appreciate them today. What Tolstoy had in mind might well be this: sooner or later, if not in ten thousand years, then in a million years, we will all be dead and nothing we have achieved will still exist. In a million years, there will not be any human beings; there probably will not be any intelligent beings on this planet to appreciate and value what some human beings have achieved or created; there will not be any traces of War and Peace or Anna Karenina. Tolstoy’s conclusion seems to be that because of this none of the things anyone of us has achieved matters at all.

Let us grant that none of the things anyone of us has achieved will matter in a million years, but this is different from saying that none of the things anyone of us has achieved matters. ‘X does not matter’ does not follow from ‘X does not matter in a million years’. Besides, as Thomas Nagel argues:

It is often remarked that nothing we do now will matter in a million years. But if that is true, then by the same token, nothing that will be the case in a million years matters now. In particular, it does not matter now that in a million years nothing we do now will matter. Moreover, even if what we did now were going to matter in a million years, how could that keep our present concerns from being absurd? If their mattering now is not enough to accomplish that, how would it help if they mattered a million years from now? (Nagel, ‘The Absurd’, in Mortal Questions, p.12)

In terms of meaningfulness rather than mattering, we can say that the fact that in a million years there will not be anyone to consider one’s life meaningful does not imply that one’s life should not be considered meaningful. If one’s life is meaningful now, it is still a meaningful life even if no one in the further future will remember one’s life.

It seems that most of us would agree that a meaningful life will not cease to be meaningful simply because something happens in the future after the person whose life it is dies. Indeed, most of us would agree that a life does not even have to be long to be meaningful. Obvious examples are Mozart and Anne Frank.  But then why do some of us think death implies meaninglessness? Why is it so natural for some of us to conclude that life is meaningless (or not meaningful enough) when thinking about death? It is as if before we think about death, we see our lives as meaningful, but the meaningfulness suddenly disappears once we think about death. Why?


  1. To me, one way to see it is more like the other way around. If one lived forever, _____. (I will leave it blank to whoever want to fill it in about meaningfulness of life. It's open.) --zpdrmn

  2. One possible answer:

    Some people equate meaningfulness with success or great accomplishment, so when they perceive that all their achievement or possession will be forgotten or lost some day, they have a feeling of meaninglessness.

    I don't think one's life needs to be very successful in order to be meaningful.