“To be or not to be—that is the question” (Shakespeare III.1.64). Within this famous soliloquy from Hamlet, the eponymous protagonist raises perhaps the most important question of all time: what is the meaning of life, knowing the certainty of death? If all people will die, their accomplishments and any semblance of their existence will eventually amount to nothing more than a pile of bones. Then, why go through the difficult and arduous process of life? Thousands of people, from across the world and from different cultures, have tried to answer this overriding question. From literature to academia to Judaic knowledge, there are various answers to the question of life, but which answer is correct?
Throughout the play Hamlet, Shakespeare, through the voice of Hamlet, explores the meaning of life. Hamlet’s search for the ultimate answer of life and death is what drives him to accomplish his task of avenging his father’s death. At every opportunity, Hamlet pauses in his actions and contemplates on why he should “bear the whips and scorns of time…when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin?” (Shakespeare III.1.78, 83-84). Life has dealt Hamlet a horrible hand; his father has been murdered by Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, who has married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, and Hamlet’s love, Ophelia, ignores his letters and desires not to see him. He does not see why life should be desired above all else if it is only filled with pain and torment. Upon returning from England to complete a task for his uncle, Hamlet walks through a graveyard and happens upon gravediggers removing bones from their resting places. Hamlet picks up a skull, turns to his friend, Horatio, and says, “Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillities, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? Why does he suffer this made knave now to knock him about the sconce with a dirty shovel and will not tell him of his action of battery?” (Shakespeare V.1.100-105). Hamlet raises an important question: why should one live if one will only die and one’s accomplishments will be forgotten? To him, then, life is meaningless if there is no reward for the troubles put into it. But still, Hamlet does not kill himself because he is afraid of what may lay beyond the plane of existence. His quest to find meaning is what drives him and gives him courage in a world wrought with death. Upon being poisoned by Laertes and murdering Claudius, Hamlet lies dying on the floor of Elsinore. He draws Horatio close and whispers his final wish: “If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart…draw thy breath in pain to tell my story” (Shakespeare V.2.381, 383-384). Hamlet now comes upon his meaning of life, which is to tell his story. Hamlet will live on in the tale he has weaved and the experiences he has had living on through death. His life has amounted to something in the end, as his story will hopefully teach others how to live their own lives. Shakespeare has revealed that the meaning of life is to tell one’s story. The narrative of our lives can affect the world around us, even though we may not live to see it. Albert Camus, however, has a different perspective on this existential question.
Dr. Rieux, the hero of Albert Camus’s The Plague, has his own reason for living in a world of strife. In the novel, the Algerian town of Oran has had an outbreak of the bubonic plague and people are dying by the score. Rieux works with his friend, Tarrou, to try and quell the plague at every turn. When Tarrou asks why he does not believe in God, Rieux responds by telling him “that if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him” (Camus 127). Many of Rieux’s acquaintances, especially Father Paneloux, find solace in the notion of a supreme deity, finding it easier to believe He will protect His children, rather than doing something about it. However, Rieux is a man of action; he does not sit around and believe God will save Oran, but instead risks exposing himself to the plague by helping the citizens of the coastal hamlet. Tarrou begins to question why he does this and Rieux poses Tarrou a question: “since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence?” (Camus 128). It is here, through Rieux, that Camus begins to answer the question of life. Rieux believes that resisting against death whenever possible and fighting for life even though the fight will eventually be lost are the reasons for humanity’s existence. We fight because we live; the task is the purpose, the purpose is the task, a very Sisyphean outlook. Rieux’s motivation and his belief on how one should live is not answered until many months later, when the death toll has reached its peak and the quarantine seems like it will last forever. Tarrou proposes that he and Rieux take a short respite and enjoy each others’ company. Tarrou tells Rieux that he desires to be a saint and a hero who is venerated for his task. Rieux, on the other hand, responds by saying that “Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me…What interests me is being a man” (Camus 255). Rieux’s meaning of life is revealed within this quote. Coupled with his earlier statement on the struggle against death, Rieux believes that men should not strive to be heroes, but simply men; a man should help others if it is possible, without reciprocity. A man, according to Rieux, does all that he can to help others in the fight against death simply because he is alive and fighting, too. Camus’ novel ends with the plague being defeated and Rieux continuing his humble task of taking care of the people of Oran. He does not seek glory for his task, but does it because he is compelled to. This idea of interacting with other people whenever possible relates closely to the Jewish perspective on death.
Tsafreer Lev has had to answer the question of life on numerous occasions. As a rabbi and teacher at New Community Jewish High School, he not only helps those affected by death through the grieving process, but teaches congregants and students about this subject. When asked what the meaning of life is, he says that “The purpose of life is to bring godliness into world by interacting with those made in the image of God” (Lev). Like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi Lev believes that people should use holiness to conquer absurdity. According to this, all ethical behavior stems from the notion of inter-personal relationships; every person has the spark of the divine within himself or herself and by interacting with different people, one has the ability to experience new forms of godliness. To do this, he says, one must carry out “kodesh moments…[because] That’s our way of bringing other-worldly divinity to us” (Lev). That means people must maintain relationships with one another if one and do good deeds for one another is to achieve infinite understanding of God. Though not completely possibly, one must try to interact with every type of person to come close to understanding every facet of life. Just as a diamond has many faces to its surface, the experiential perception of God has many different perspectives that must be approached from all angles. This becomes more vital when death occurs, according to the rabbi. He believes that “Death…gives meaning. It makes life scarce and precious” (Lev). Because there is a finite time on this world, every action people take is important. There might not be another chance to accomplish what one desires, so one must do whatever is possible to experience life to its fullest. Rabbi Lev says that our interactions with the rest of humanity give people the chance to experience God in the real world. The necessity of human interactions is also the main truth about life Viktor Frankl discovers in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning. While working in Auschwitz, Frankl often thought about his wife, until he realized “that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire” (Frankl 57). Even with very little reason to continue living, especially within the bleak conditions of the death camp, Frankl finds meaning in life because of the love he has for his wife. He still finds positive thought through a period of his life filled with despairThe fact that humans are mortal and have a limited time to live relates closely to Professor Shelly Kagan’s philosophy.
Shelly Kagan, the professor of philosophy at Yale University, teaches the course “Death,” throughout which he discusses what death is, if immortality is possible, and, most importantly, how death affects how one lives life. In his lecture “How to Live Given the Certainty of Death,” Kagan tells his class that “We should be careful…The fact that we’re going to die intuitively seems to require a particular kind of care because, as we might put it, ‘You only go around once’” (Academic Earth 2011). This means that one can live one’s life incorrectly, ruining the only chance one has. This puts into perspective how important one’s goals and actions are. Mortality demands that one must carefully act if one is to make the most of the limited time one has. An analogy that he brings up is that of “a musician who…has a month in the recording studio[;]…it’s less pressing to make clear what are the songs that [he] should record. But instead of having a month in the recording studio, you’ve got only a week…time is much more precious” (Academic Earth 2011). Because there is an inadequate amount of time, the decisions that a person makes are all the more important. People are forced to make the best choices and to not be careless or sloppy in how the choices are approached. After discussing the importance of what one does in life, the quality of enjoyment received, and the quantity of things to do with one’s life, Kagan ends the lecture by saying, “To have done something significant that abides, that seems to me, to add to the value and significance of my life” (Academic Earth 2011). This is his approach on what the meaning of life is. Just as Shakespeare subtly interweaves his belief of the meaning of life through Hamlet’s last words, Kagan reveals his belief within the final lines of his lecture. Kagan tells his class that doing something which fulfills the self is what makes life important. Life is fleeting and the actions one makes must be carefully decided. However, to do that which adds meaning to oneself makes life worth living. There are a number of possibilities that one can and should do, but, if Kagan is correct, the action of ultimate importance is to bring significance into one’s own life.
Throughout time, the question on the meaning of life has never been definitively answered. There has never been one single interpretation that is perceived as correct. Many different sources, from different periods of time and geographic locations, have varying answers. Shakespeare, through Hamlet, says that the meaning of life that history provides meaning. Camus, in The Plague, explains that the meaning of life is to resist death and help others. Rabbi Lev, theologian and teacher, states that the meaning of life is to make as many relationships as possible, in order to achieve an understanding of God. This notion is also asserted by Viktor Frankl, who believes that the primary purpose of life is to love. Kagan, in his philosophical lecture, teaches that the meaning of life is to carefully make decisions that add importance to our own lives. But who is correct? Maybe it is safe to say that all of these answers to the question of life are right, and, yet, none of them are. There is no one answer because there is no one perspective on the matter. There are billions of diverse lives and points-of-view. The answer to the question of the meaning of life depends on the person asking it and the answer will never be the same. The variety of answers shows that each answer can be correct in its own terms. There is no great answer to the question. One must make of life what one will. Each person makes his or her own answer to the meaning of life and he or she must make the most of it while he or she can. Much like Viktor Frankl, who, after his experience in the concentration camps, determined that the meaning of his “life was to help others to find meaning in their own lives,” the hope one can obtain from the information presented above is that everyone has his or her own meaning in life (Park 2011). All that is left is to go out and find it.
Camus, Albert. The Plague. First Vintage International ed. New York: Vintage, 1991. Print.
Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy New York: Washington. Square/Pocket, 1985.
How to Live Given the Certainty of Death. Perf. Professor Shelly Kagan. Yale University, 2011. Academic Earth. Online
Lev, Tsafreer. “The Meaning of Life from the Jewish Perspective.” Personal interview. 14 Feb. 2012.
Park, James L. “Meaning in Life Bibliography.” Meaning in Life Bibliography. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, 2011.
Web. 12 Mar. 2012.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New Folger ed. New York: Washington Square, 1992. Print.