VI. One Thing Every Meaningful Life Has

Searching for meaning

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share three emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

🏛️ Theory

What is the significance of our lives?

Aristotle said that we cannot say that someone is happy until they die. A life’s meaning isn’t certain till the end.

A life of cowardice and laziness can be saved by an act of great heroism. A successful and generous life can be squandered through hubris. When we see the full story of a life we can better understand its meaning.

So one way to answer the question, is to propose another one: “what will my life mean in the end, when I have lived it out?”

The American philosopher, Robert Nozick argued that the answer must involve transcendence:

Attempts to find meaning in life seek to transcend the limits of an individual life…For a life to have meaning, it must connect with other things, with some things or values beyond itself.

Robert Nozick, Philosophical Examinations

Why? Everything that causes us to find our lives meaningful takes us beyond our narrow limits and connects us to something else.

Children, relationships with other persons, helping others, advancing justice, continuing and transmitting a tradition, pursuing truth, beauty, world betterment—these and the rest link you to something wider than yourself.

Robert Nozick, Philosophical Examinations

Each of these pushes us outside of ourselves and towards others. In the language of the Stoics, they are ways to express our rational and social nature. The world is a single organic whole. Any part which remains preoccupied with itself isn’t fulfilling its nature. It is, in a real sense, not as significant or meaningful. What makes life meaningful? Transcendence.

This thought extends Monday’s letter on stress. Meaning makes hardships tolerable. As the psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl wrote:

There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one's life.

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

The ancient Stoics found significance by living in accordance with nature. A full life of courage, discipline, justice, and wisdom, is a meaningful one. By focusing on these transcendent goals, instead of insignificant ones, we set ourselves up for a happy life.

What are those goals for you?

🎯 Action

Contemplate what goals you have that connect you to something greater than yourself.

🔗 Links

📖 Philosophical Explanations by Robert Nozick is a wide-ranging book of philosophy. Nozick is a skilled and perceptive thinker. It’s enjoyable – as one reviewer noted he “gives every indication of having lots of fun.” The section on the meaning of life is clear and clarifying. If you want to go deeper, find a PDF of that chapter here.

📖 Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning chronicles his experience in a Nazi concentration camp and the development of logotherapy. Crucial to logotherapy is the insight that life must be value driven. A man who has a why can bear any how.

📓 Stoicism is not a philosophy – this article is technically not correct, Stoicism is a philosophy, but I admire its focus on the practical:

To truly understand Stoicism you have to practice it every day.

Max Tabarrok

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