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Main page » Non-Fiction » The Meaning of Life: Perspectives from the Worlds Great Intellectual Traditions

The Meaning of Life: Perspectives from the Worlds Great Intellectual Traditions


What is the meaning of life? It's a question every thoughtful person has pondered at one time or another. Indeed, it may be the biggest question of all.

Most of us have asked ourselves this question at some time, or posed it to somebody we respect. It is at once a profound and abstract question, and a deeply personal one. We want to understand the world in which we live, but we also want to understand how to make our own lives as meaningful as possible; to know not only why we're living, but that we're doing it with intention, purpose, and ethical commitment.

But how, exactly, do we find that meaning, and develop that commitment? How can we grasp why we are here? Or how we should proceed? And to whom, exactly, are we supposed to listen as we shape the path we will walk?

The Meaning of Life: Perspectives from the World's Great Intellectual Traditions is an invigorating way to begin or to continue your pursuit of these questions, with no previous background in philosophical or religious thought required. Its 36 lectures offer a rigorous and wide-ranging exploration of what various spiritual, religious, and philosophical traditions from both the East and the West have contributed to this profound line of questioning.

Guided by Professor Jay L. Garfield of Smith College—as well as of the University of Massachusetts, Melbourne University in Australia, and the Central University of Tibetan Studies in India—you'll gain insights from a broad array of sources, including these:

* Ancient Indian texts, including the Bhagavad-Gita
* Foundational Chinese texts such as the Daodejing and the Chuang Tzu
* Classical Western texts such as Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics and Marcus Aurelius's Meditations
* Modern philosophers such as David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Leo Tolstoy
* The unique perspectives offered by Native Americans; in this case, the Lakota Sioux medicine man and writer, John Lame Deer
* More recent and contemporary philosophers, such as Mohandas Gandhi and the Dalai Lama

Enjoy a Journey Rich in Knowledge and Perspective

The ability to ponder your own relationship with the universe and with others is perhaps one of the greatest benefits of being human. Even if you do not find a final answer to the question this course poses, each answer you consider cannot help but add depth and nuance to your own contemplation of how to live.

In considering the range of approaches to this question developed over the course of human intellectual history, you'll increase your own storehouse of wisdom, enabling you to shape a life that is as meaningful and satisfying as possible, heightening your appreciation of every moment.

The Meaning of Life is a course rich in wisdom, including the realization that although a single answer to the question may forever elude you, that elusiveness is no great tragedy. More important is the search itself, and the insights you'll gain as you realize that just as different traditions provide a vast diversity of answers, so, too, do they consistently return to recurring themes:

* One's relationship to a larger context
* The boundaries created by temporality and impermanence
* The pursuit of a larger purpose, or even the goal of perfection
* The value of spontaneity, even though the ideal of that characteristic differs from one tradition to another
* The importance of freedom, whether from social norms and standards; religious, social, or political authority; external constraints; consumerism; or even philosophical ideas themselves
* The commitment to live authentically

Find Common Ground with History's Most Profound Thinkers

For anyone who has spent time grappling with these ideas themselves, it is a comfort to see that even some of history's most profound thinkers have wrestled with these problems, engaging in a conversation thousands of years in length and rich in insight.

For example, while many of them agree on the importance of authenticity, their agreement marks not the end of the conversation, but its beginning.

* Should that authenticity, as Kant and Mill believed, be epistemic, found in the hard work of serious reasoning over political, moral, and scientific issues so that we can propagate the answers we discover?
* Should it be what we might call an aesthetic authenticity—a life lived truly in harmony with a beautifully visualized fundamental reality? Such a view attracted figures as varied as Nietzsche, the Zen writer Dogen, and Laozi, the possibly mythical figure credited with authorship of the Daodejing.
* Or should it be instead a natural authenticity, so that you live your life as Lame Deer advocated, striving for harmony with the natural world in the face of a modern civilization whose every construct seems designed to make that impossible?

One of The Meaning of Life's great virtues is the ease with which Professor Garfield organizes and makes cohesive the vast range of perspectives. At every stage of the course, the relationship of each writer or tradition to all of the others is clear and logical, no matter how intricate or demanding a line of argument might be.

Dr. Garfield—teaching his material with extraordinary passion and thoroughness—shows great skill in unpacking the substance of each source, presenting it clearly and positioning it in its proper place within a philosophical conversation that has been going on for millennia.

And when an idea might otherwise present vexing complexities, he unveils an additional—and superbly useful—teaching skill. For Professor Garfield has the gift of analogy, enabling him to relate even the most ancient or subtle texts to your own life in ways that show their relevance to how you live today.

With The Meaning of Life, Professor Garfield has put together an intellectually gripping course that is every bit the equal of the monumental subject it sets out to explore.

About Your Professor

Dr. Jay L. Garfield (Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh) is Doris Silbert Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Philosophy, and director of both the Logic Program and of the Five College Tibetan Studies in India Program at Smith College. A specialist in the philosophy of mind, foundations of cognitive science, logic, philosophy of language, Buddhist philosophy, cross-cultural hermeneutics, theoretical and applied ethics, and epistemology, he has been widely honored by fellow scholars.


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Tags: question, understand, living, doing, intention, Meaning, Intellectual, Traditions