A significant life – Todd May

This is philosophy as it should be. An imaginative, well written philosophical response for all those people who lie awake wondering whether the life they are living is meaningful.

As May says, in more religious times meaning in life was handed down from on high, but now there is no externally given meaning, there is just what Camus called a ‘silent universe.’ So May sets out to explain what, despite this, it means to live a meaningful life.

May distinguishes between a ‘good’ or moral life, a happy life and a meaningful life. He argues that a meaningful life is one grounded in what he calls ‘narrative values’.

His point is that lives have a narrative arc, and that a meaningful life is one lived in line with a or a number of values that might hold over a life – being steadfast or creative for example. It’s not what a person does that makes it meaningful so much as how that person does them. You can be a runner or a writer or a farmer, or all three, so long as you do those things in line with a value or values that are of importance to you, like being steadfast in your commitment to them.

Where does a narrative value come from? Two sources. On the one hand, from our own subjective view of what we value as a person. On the other hand, from the range of things that are valued in the community in which we live. It needs this mix of subjective and what May calls ‘ objective’ to be a narrative value than can allow us to live a meaningful life.

Intuitively this makes good sense, but I think the question this raises for me is, ok, so I now know that doing activities in a steadfast way or a creative way or in a way that fits in with what I value in life is a good thing, but what activities are or aren’t meaningful? Can watching football give meaning to my life if I do it in a steadfast way?

May says that it’s to do with engagement. For example, it’s meaningful, he says, to be steadfast in your commitment to playing football, but not to watching it, and the reason for this is that you are actively engaged in playing football, but you’re not engaged in it when you’re watching others play.

I’m not sure about this. Being engaged feels like a pretty fuzzy criteria to distinguish between activities are meaningful and what aren’t. It fits with contemporary thinking about being ‘in the flow’ as an indication of something being worth doing. But you could be a seriously engaged sports fan who travels to matches, has friendships built around the sport, and so on, and in this case, you are steadfast and engaged in watching football.

So my feeling is that Todd May’s excellent book answers to many key points – why a meaningful life is different from a moral life, how the arc of one’s life is given meaning by living in line with a set of values, and how those values stem from your own subjective views and what is valued in your wider community. But it doesn’t fully answer the question of what activities give meaning to a life, because May’s approach says the meaning comes from how you pursue an activity rather than what that activity is.

In other words, if I spent my life a steadfast watcher of football, or player of tiddlywinks, or pacing up and down the same road for hours on end, then if you admit that you can be engaged in them even if they might appear ultimately pointless, then would they be just as meaningful as steadfastly playing football, engaging in politics, or looking after your kids? I’m not entirely sure this seriously thought-provoking book adequately answers this.

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