Adler on the Purpose of Life

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

Let us begin by asking the purpose of the question about the purpose of life. What do men have in mind when they ask this question? Asking it is a peculiarly human phenomenon. Other creatures just exist and go on unquestioningly to pursue their natural ends — to be a tree or a bird. It is man’s peculiar misery or glory that he perennially poses the question of the purpose of his own existence.

What, then, are men who ask this question trying to discover? Are they asking about the destiny appointed by God for man to achieve through his earthly existence? Does man have an ultimate goal beyond the sphere of his temporal experience? And if so, what must he do to attain it? The Christian doctrine of the Kingdom of God as man’s ultimate destiny is one of the answers to the question.

Or are men asking whether human life can be made significant on earth by achieving all the perfections of which it is capable? In the philosophy of Aristotle, each kind of creature tends toward the perfection of its own nature. Thus, for man, the goal — the purpose — of life is to achieve the virtues that constitute happiness.

As against these theological and philosophical ideas of human destiny, our question may arise from a conviction of the purposelessness of the physical universe as a whole. We look out on the world around us and see nothing but a whirl of atoms in a meaningless void. Whether we see the physical world as chaotic and “chancy” or as an orderly cosmos, human life may still seem meaningless and valueless. The pattern of material events is no answer to the questing human heart and mind. All of science remains silent when man asks, “What am I doing here? Where did I come from? Where am I going? What is the purpose of my life?”

Many modern thinkers, faced with these urgent and disturbing questions, reject the traditional theological and philosophical views of the purpose and meaning of human life. They assert that men can and must set their own goals, and find meaning in the creation and transformation of their own nature. In their view, a man who is truly human must live for some transcendent goal that he sets himself. If he does not do this, he must be engulfed in overwhelming despair at the meaninglessness of life.

I think we will all agree that the question is urgent and that it demands an answer and a life which is in accord with the answer. On the other hand, to answer the question requires us to take a comprehensive view of God, the universe, and man. An understanding of man and his nature is necessary, but it is not enough for a solution to the problem of the meaning of human existence. We must also understand the place of man in the universe and in relation to all the beings that there are. And we must see him in relation to the ultimate power that governs the universe and all that is in it. Man is not alone in the universe, and we cannot understand him apart from the rest of things.

This sounds like a long-term program and it is — as long as life itself. It requires the study of theology and metaphysics, as well as of psychology and ethics. It requires the experience and wisdom which can be acquired only after much living and much effort.

This is what is so disturbing about the question. It is urgent, it calls for an immediate answer, and yet it demands the patient and careful reflection of a lifetime. But “that’s life,” as the popular saying has it. It has never been easy to be a human being.

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