On the Meaning of Life by Will Durant is a collection of essays solicited from prominent public figures of 1930 by the then famous historian Will Durant. His letter began, “Will you interrupt your work for a moment and play the game of philosophy with me? I am attempting to face a question which our generation, perhaps more than any, seems always ready to ask and never able to answer—What is the meaning or worth of life? After a bit, he lists the many ways that modern thought and science has destroyed the previous belief that people held that made their lives meaningful.
The astronomers placed us on a tiny planet orbiting an insignificant star. The biologists tell us that humans were simply a single species in a struggle with millions of other species. Historians write that people and civilizations end in inevitable decay and that every invention strengthens the strong and weakens the weak. “Nothing is certain except defeat and death—a sleep from which, it seems, there is no awakening.” He then concludes his letter with,”Spare me a moment to tell me what meaning life has for you, what keeps you going … where, in the last resort, your treasure lies.”
The letter was sent to over a hundred prominent luminaries. H. L. Mencken writes several pages on his motivations beginning with, “I write like a hen lays eggs – simply because that is what I do” and “Life demands to be lived. Inaction, save as a measure of recuperation between bursts of activity, is painful and dangerous to the healthy organism—in fact, it is almost impossible. Only the dying can be really idle.”
John Erskine’s response concluded, “The only choice is in the kind of life one would care to spend one’s efforts on. I believe the divine element in man is whatever it is which makes us wish to lead a life worth remembering, harmless to others, helpful to them, and increasing our own store of wisdom and peace.”
Jawaharlal Nehru writes, “But in spite of all this I have a feeling that the future is full of hope for humanity and for my country and the fight for freedom that we are waging in India is bringing us nearer the realization of this hope. Do not ask me to justify this feeling that I have for I can give you no sufficient reasons. I can only tell you that I have found mental equilibrium and strength and inspiration in the thought that I am doing my bit for a mighty cause and that my labor cannot be in vain. I work for results of course. I want to go rapidly towards my objective, but fundamentally even the results of action do not worry me so much. Action itself, so long as I am convinced that it is right action, gives me satisfaction.”
The final essay is written by Convict #79206 in Sing Sing prison, condemned to life behind bars. The essay quotes Durant, “We are driven to conclude that the greatest mistake in human history was the discovery of truth. It has not made us happy, for truth is not beautiful. It has not made us free, except from delusions that comforted us and restraints that preserved us. It has taken from us every reason for existence except the moment’s pleasure and tomorrow’s trivial hope.” The prisoner, Owen C. Middleton, answers “Truth is not beautiful, neither is it ugly. Why should it be either? Truth is truth…” and that “life is worth just what I am willing to strive to make it worth.”
This is a book of 144 pages that gives the motivations of some of the famous people of the 1920s. It is easy reading and seems to say that even our greatest people are like journeymen workers, just doing the jobs they are destined to do by their choice of life goals for themselves and humanity.