Why are we here?
What is the meaning of life?
Do we serve a greater purpose than our own pleasure or satisfaction?
Is the meaning of life to be found inside us or are we meant to explore the world to find the answer?
These big questions have been asked by most people at some point in their lives.
They are significant questions that have led to the formation of thousands of different religions and philosophies over the years.
One of the best ways to think about these issues in greater depth is to read the opinions of philosophers and religious scholars.
Their writings are a source of knowledge and wisdom that may help you find answers you are satisfied with.
This article will focus on five famous philosophers and their answers to these big questions.
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
Søren Kierkegaard is a Danish existential philosopher, poet and theologian.
Existentialist philosophers believe that every person is a free agent who determines their own future with acts of free will.
Kierkegaard believed that life is nothing but a series of choices that we make for ourselves.
Each person is responsible for finding self and the meaning of life through free will, choice, and personal responsibility.
Existentialists like Kierkegaard believed that we should make choices free of tradition, religion, ethical rules, and the rule of law.
These structures are only restricting a person’s free will and ability to make their own decisions.
While Kierkegaard believed individuals should have complete free will — he said no one is free from the repercussions of the choices they make.
Personal responsibility, discipline and informed decision making are important concepts for existentialists.
Existentialist philosophers do not believe that money, fame, or pleasure are important to the individual.
An individual should accept what is and get on with their life.
The existentialist is the protagonist who must decide their own future.
Zeno of Citium (333 – 264 BC)
Zeno of Citium is a very famous Greek philosopher who founded the stoic school of philosophy.
Stoics believe that virtue (based on wisdom) is the highest good and will lead to happiness.
They suggested that the wise live in harmony because they are rational and reasonable.
Once a person is virtuous, they no longer care about the vicissitudes of fortune or pleasure and pain.
Stoicism was a relatively simple philosophy with a few central themes.
Stoics believed that the world is an unpredictable place.
To live a good life in this unpredictable place, people should be strong, steadfast and in full control of themselves.
They also believed that dissatisfaction with life is a result of using reflexive senses and emotion instead of logic.
Stoicism was practiced by many famous historical figures including Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius.
Marcus Aurelius, the most powerful man in the world during the time of the Roman Empire, used stoicism to be humble, compassionate, and restrained in his actions.
Susan Wolf (1952 —)
Susan Wolf is an American philosopher who is currently teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
She has written extensively on the meaning of life in her essays and books.
Dr. Wolf often writes about the relationship between meaningfulness, morality, happiness, and freedom.
She has written that a meaningful life consists of one’s active engagement with objectively worthwhile things.
Essentially, the meaning of life is one’s ability to find something they love to do which is worthwhile.
That might be creating art, writing a book, helping other people and so on.
Dr. Wolf also says that meaningfulness is only achieved when there is some success associated with their project.
The definition of success is up to the individual working on the project.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803—1882)
Ralph Waldo Emerson is an American poet, writer, and philosopher who led the transcendentalist movement in the 19th-Century.
Emerson believed that god was in everyone and everything.
He also believed anyone could express their divinity by finding out who they are, being true to themselves and living as an individual.
Transcendentalism places a strong emphasis on the rights of the individual, self-reliance, and independence.
This philosophy also suggests that individuals should be wary of social pressures to conform or assimilate.
For Emerson, simple things could be divine.
The act of patting a dog or working on a project that you enjoy was a godly act because god is in everything.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
Nietzsche remains one of the world’s most popular and influential philosophers.
He wrote about many topics during his life including morality, religion, psychology, epistemology, and ontology.
He created many important philosophical principles including the will to power, thought of eternal recurrence, the Übermensch, and transvaluation of all values.
Nietzsche rejected the view that life was suffering or punishment for one’s sins as was put forward by contemporary philosophers like Schopenhauer.
Instead, Nietzsche declared that a life has meaning when a person is working on a significant projective with a long-term objective or goal.
He also believed that individuals were eventually capable of becoming the Übermensch (a superman like figure) who is capable of inventing their own meaning to life and taking responsibility for it.
Nietzsche cited some individuals who had come close to becoming an Übermensch, including Buddha, Julius Caesar, and Goethe.
If becoming an Übermensch seems a little ambitious, you could also follow Nietzsche’s decree to love your life no matter what it has in it.
That means taking on board the many good, bad, disastrous, depressing, and hilarious things that occur to you each day.
Nietzsche believed that embracing one part of life required a person to embrace all parts of life (including the bad parts) — a philosophy which has some similarities with Buddhist teachings.
Finding your own path
Finding your personal meaning of life is a journey that takes most people many years.
By continually reading and learning, you will eventually forge a philosophical framework that encompasses all of your beliefs.
Hopefully, the philosophical concepts listed here will be of use during that journey.