What is the meaning of life? It is difficult, in the wake of Douglas Adams and Monty Python, to ask this question with a straight face. 'Many readers of this book', Terry Eagleton observes, 'are likely to be as sceptical of the phrase "the meaning of life" as they are of Santa Claus'. Yet in a world in which more than ever we need to find common meanings, it is a question, he argues, that cannot be ignored.
Eagleton, professor of English at the University of Manchester (and previously at Oxford) has been described as Britain's answer to Jacques Derrida, the late enfant terrible of French deconstruction. The Meaning of Life is typical Eagleton: short but not always succinct, witty but often dense, erudite yet strangely lacking in depth.
Mindful, perhaps, of the scepticism that surrounds the very notion of the 'meaning of life', Eagleton spends much of the book discussing whether it is a useful question to ask if life has any meaning. He provides a breathless tour round Western philosophy and literature, from Aristotle to Baggini, via Shakespeare, Schopenhauer, Marx, Freud, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Beckett.
Premodern societies, Eagleton observes, gave little thought to the meaning of life because God provided a solid foundation to human existence. Postmodern cultures are equally dismissive of debates about the meaning of life because 'in the pragmatist, streetwise climate of advanced postmodern capitalism', people have become sceptical 'of big pictures and grand narratives' and prefer to 'think small rather than big'.
It was modernism that manufactured angst about the meaning of life. What marked out modernism was 'the belief that human existence is contingent - that it has no ground, ground, direction or necessity... that there is no unimpeachable foundation to what we are and what we do'. The result was a sense of 'dread, anxiety, nausea, absurdity, and the like as characteristic of the human condition'. It was also the loss of the belief in a common purpose to human life.
To restore a sense of purpose into our lives without denying its contingent nature, Eagleton argues, we need to view the meaning of life as embodied not in a state of mind but in social practice. What kind of social practice? The practice of being nice to each other that we call love. Love, Eagleton tells us, 'means creating for each other the space in which he might flourish, at the same time as he does this for you'. The 'key to the universe', Eagleton concludes, 'turns out not to be some shattering revelation, but something a lot of decent people do anyway, with scarcely a thought'. No kidding, Terry.
All you need is love. It is a telling comment on the state of cultural theory today that having begun our journey in the company of Aristotle, Schopenhauer, Marx and Wittgenstein we end up singing along with John, Paul, George and Ringo.
What is most surprising about The Meaning of Life is that Eagleton, a thinker steeped in both Marxism and cultural theory, largely ignores the political and historical context of the debate. He fails to see that angst about the meaning of life is characteristic, not so much of modernity, as of disenchantment with it. From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment there was widespread acceptance of the idea that humans, by being rational, conscious beings, possessed of will and agency, themselves gave meaning to life. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, however, a new sensibility emerged that not only questioned such optimism about human nature, but expressed disenchament with reason and disbelief in progress. The barbarous history of the twentieth century only strengthened such pessimism about the human condition.
There is little discussion here of these historical changes or of how to challenge such pessimism. Indeed, it is a pessmism to which Eagleton himself appears to have surrendered. What do humans have in common? The 'various threats to our existence that loom up on all sides'. According to Eagleton 'Nothing ought to unite the species as effectively as the possibility of its extinction. In death, at least we come together'. Not exactly a stirring evocation of the common meanings that might bind human lives together. At least Monty Python provided us with good punchlines.