Book Review: The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction by Terry Eagleton

I picked this up on the off chance, as I was browsing through the philosophy section of bookshop near my office one lunchtime. It’s not one that had been on my reading list, it was just a chance encounter. I have, however, been intending to catch up with some of Terry Eagleton’s writings, in particular his Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God debate which I have heard positive mumblings about.

Anyway, the title intrigued me, and having rather enjoyed E.P. Sanders’ Paul: A Very Short Introduction, I had a fair idea what kind of book I was getting. Indeed, my reading list is now getting rather full of the Very Short Introduction (VSI) series and have already bought about a further half a dozen which await me. From the outset, Eagleton acknowledges the potential difficulties in dealing with such a large subject; he also points out that he might not be the best placed person to answer it, given how he is not a professor of philosophy. However, this does not mean that he is poorly read or ignorant of a great many points of view, as any readers of this work will quickly come to realise.

Instead of trying to go through every major thinker over the last umpteen-thousand years and attempt to distil what they thought, what they got right or what they got wrong, Eagleton states that he is happy to take us on his journey with a light, sometimes frivolous touch. For a VSI, I think this was a very good approach to take, since to attempt to deal in total po-faced seriousness and with all due rigour necessary for a serious academic study would leave any author in great difficulty when trying to squeeze their summary down to 100 or so pages.

Light, though some of the tone may be, Eagleton doesn’t veer away from the darker thinkers, with his summary of the thought of Schopenhauer having the deepest impression on this particular reader. Covering, as he does, an approximate timeline from Aristotle to Julian Baggini, Eagleton does a remarkably good job. That said, those who are wanting to get a list of viewpoints will be a bit frustrated as Eagleton’s take is a bit more sophisticated than that. As a professor of English, his primary concern seems to be semantics. So most of the book is ostensibly a discussion of the word “meaning” and what they may or may not denote. It is within this discussion that he touches upon a variety of viewpoints, religious, non-religious and anti-religious.

This may frustrate some readers, particularly if you are looking for a thorough exposition of a wide variety of viewpoints; there just isn’t enough room for such a study. Rather, take it for what the series is: a very short introduction. There is a reasonable ‘further reading’ list at the back of the book, so you can explore some viewpoints in greater depth.

Eagleton presents things from his own point of view, at times, probably due to brevity, over-simplifying. For example, I noted that he speaks of ‘religion’ but he doesn’t express a particularly nuanced view, to the extent that some generalisations are a little misleading. In terms of what he set out to do, however, he has done an admirable job and I’d happily recommend this to someone who is gently looking at the question of the meaning of life, perhaps to take with them on holiday, to read whilst at the top of the mountain. On second thoughts, given some of the nihilism present therein, maybe taking it to such a peak may not be advised. Maybe read it somewhere where any temptation to follow through with the occasional bleak outlook will be lessened.

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