The Meaning of (Terry Eagleton’s) Life

‘The Meaning of Life’ by Terry Eagleton; Oxford University Press, 2007. 128pp

Reviewed by Dennis Hayes | 8 May 2008

We discover at the end of this short book that the ‘meaning of life’, for Eagleton, can be expressed in the metaphor of a jamming jazz band. This form of ‘collectivity’ is both a replacement for lost forms of radical social and political tradition and an offer of something seemingly positive in our atomised and individualised society; a metaphor that has an ironic echo of Marx’s vision of a future communist society as ‘an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’. (1) Just like a jamming jazz band. When there is no collective political action it is still possible for individuals to make music together. There is something charming in this metaphor of working creatively with others especially as it is something done entirely for its own sake. But it is our own inability to envision more than this spontaneous self-expression that explains its appeal. The metaphor acutely points to the fact that Eagleton has lost his political way.

A prolific author, Eagleton has written original and seminal works on literature, ideology, and postmodernism. He even wrote a lively and entertaining autobiography, The Gatekeeper.(2) His great strength was his ability to see in the academic and intellectual world the hidden hand of politics.

When you have been such a wide-ranging writer and have, at the end of your formal academic career, written a particular account of the story and meaning of a life, your own, perhaps there is nothing is left to produce except a more abstract study of the meaning of all lives.

That said, it is hard not to see this book as a sophistical device to do the opposite of what we normally expect from Eagleton, namely, to provide a vehicle for the intrusion of a political perspective into a seemingly philosophical enquiry.

Raising questions about ‘The Meaning of Life’ outside of metaphysics is usually an expression of that moment when an individual finds their life so messed up they wonder if it has any meaning. In these cases ‘What is the meaning of it all?’ is not a question but a cry of despair from those who feel washed up personally, socially, historically or politically.

Despite Eagleton’s metaphysical pretensions and meanderings, which constitute the greater part of his book,

those who know his work must, like me, think it is more ordinary despair than metaphysics although cleverly articulated by an academic mind.

To substantiate this claim it is necessary to put Eagleton’s latest book in the social and political context he once set for others by looking at just two of his earlier works.

Once upon a time there was politics

In 1990 Eagleton wrote a brilliant, comic satire for the Socialist Register, applying the philosophical ideas of Richard Rorty – plurality, open-endedness and heterogeneity – to political conflicts and in particular to

‘…. the current political struggles in Northern Ireland. The trouble with Sinn Fein is its disastrous abandonment of indeterminacy, even if it has the cheek to dub itself ‘Provisional’. It actually seems to believe that it is an unquestionably bad thing that British soldiers kill indiscriminately on the streets of West Belfast; that it is “true” (things go from bad to worse) that no lasting solution to the Irish question can be achieved without the withdrawal of these troops; and that in this process the “closure” or unified, determinate political goals on its own part may prove productive. Whether or not Sinn Fein ever achieves those goals, it can certainly kiss goodbye to Diacritics. Far better, surely, to breed a republican movement with stimulating internal divisions, so they could wrangle all day among themselves while men of the second paratroop regiment smashed up their furniture while pretending to look for arms. Such a transformed republicanism would find itself exhilaratingly unsure of exactly what it was doing when it found itself up against British guns; and though this exhilaration would only have a brief time-span, it would surely provide a more theoretically sophisticated way to die for a number of Irishmen and women currently trapped in the metaphysical delusion that the foreign occupation of their soil is unequivocally to be denounced.’ (3)

Philosophy of the relativistic and postmodern sort is simply shown to be silliness it is in the context of a real political situation. It is only with the demise of real politics that such nonsense begins to be taken seriously outside of the academy.

Then it was gone…after politics

With the collapse of communism in 1989, the politics that had been the frame of reference for two hundred years since the French revolution of 1789 simply vanished. Triumphal capitalists and liberals heralded a final victory over socialist alternatives. Eagleton was one of a few writers who saw the profundity of what this collapse meant, not simply for Eastern Europe and Stalinists around the world, but for all radicals and progressives:

‘Imagine a radical movement which had suffered an emphatic defeat. So emphatic, in fact, that it seemed unlikely to resurface for the length of a lifetime, if even then. The defeat I have in mind in not just the kind of rebuff with which the political left is depressingly familiar, but a repulse so definitive that it seemed to discredit the very paradigms with which such politics had traditionally worked. It would now be less a matter of hotly contesting those notions than of contemplating them with something of the mild antiquarian interest with which one might regard Ptolemaic cosmology or the scholasticism of Duns Scotus. They, and the language of conventional society, would now seem less ferociously at odds than simply incommensurable – the discourses of different planets rather than of adjacent nations. What if the left were suddenly to find itself less overwhelmed or out-manoeuvred than simply washed up, speaking a discourse so quaintly out of tune with the modern era that, as with the language of Gnosticism or courtly love, nobody even bothered any longer to enquire into its truth value? What if the vanguard were to become the remnant, its arguments still dimly intelligible but spinning off rapidly into some metaphysical outer space where they became nothing but a muffled cry?

What would be the likely reaction of the political left to such a defeat?’ (4)

The reactions of the left were to move to the right, to continue as if nothing had changed with eyes tight shut, or to be seduced into academic silliness and childishness by playing at being postmodern. When your political project has been defeated, adopting a purely subjective form of subversion is a powerful pull for the academic left. They can tease their students and colleagues with poor logic, eristic argument, emotive rhetoric, and get paid, in the tradition of the Greek sophists.

After ‘after politics’

Eagleton’s new book, written over a decade after his critique of the illusions of postmodernism, is best seen in the light of that earlier critique. His work is both an expression of intellectualised despair about politics and an attempt to offer a ray of hope in the form of his individualised version of Marx’s vision of post-capitalism for a post-political or pre-political period. The jamming jazz band is all there is now.

That ideas such of this come out of despair is a theme in many discussion of metaphysics of which Eagleton only appears familiar with a few. John Wisdom, writing in the nineteen sixties about what discussions of ‘the meaning of life’ mean, commented that the question is usually asked in despair when …we are ‘trying to find order in the pattern of time’. Wisdom adds that such musings are not pointless as long as we do not think they can have an answer in the way that normal questions, such as ‘What are your friends’ names?’ clearly have:

‘We must remember that what one calls answering such a question is not giving an answer. I mean we cannot answer such a question in the form: ‘The meaning is this’.

Such an idea about what form answering a question must take may lead us to a new despair in which we feel we cannot do anything in the way of answering such a question as ‘What is the meaning of it all?’ merely because we are not able to sum our results in a phrase or formula.’ (5)

So reflecting on the meaning of life is not a meaningless or pointless activity as long as we don’t think the answer can be given in a list, or for that matter, a metaphor.

But good stuff comes by the way, which is why the book is entertaining in parts. One thing that comes out that is useful is the distinction he makes between Julian Baginni and Aristotle’s notions of happiness.

Often when talking about happiness, many people, Anthony Seldon being an example, equivocate between the two. Baggini’s idea of happiness is of a temporary state and Aristotle’s notion of happiness is of achieving aspects, if not the whole, of your humanity. Baggini’s view is clearly the modern usage. But importing Aristotle allows people to shift between happiness as an objective, the achievement of which is happiness, and working to achieve happiness per se. As far as Eagleton favours Aristotle he implicitly fosters confusion. More importantly Baggini at least sees the contemporary problem in the happiness debate and the search for happiness as a state. In seeking happiness as an end in itself the goal slips away.

Aristotle, for all his greatness, tells us nothing about today’s notions of happiness or today’s politics. His contemporary popularity is easily explained because his individualised view of the world seduces us into reading history backwards and seeing Greek society in the present. Eagleton’s progress towards a meaningful life is the opposite of Marx’s.

In taking us back at the end of his book to Aristotle’s notions of ‘love’ he forgets the quote he selected for emphasis in his snapshot of Marx for the ‘Great Philosophers’ series: ‘The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.’ (6) On that point he was right.


(1) Marx, K. and Engels, F. ([1848/1888] 1996) The Communist Manifesto, with an Introduction by Mick Hume, London & Chicago: Pluto Press: p35.

(2) Eagleton, T. (2001) The Gatekeeper, London: Penguin.

(3)Eagleton, T. (1990) ‘Defending the Free World’ in Miliband, R. and Panitch, L. (eds)The Retreat of the Intellectuals: Socialist Register 1990: London: The Merlin Press: pp87-88.

(4) Eagleton, T. (1996) The Illusions of Postmodernism: Oxford: Blackwell, 1996: p1.

(5) Wisdom, J. (1965) ‘The Meanings of the Questions of Life’, in Paradox and Discovery, Oxford: Blackwell: p41.

(6) Eagleton, T. (1997) Marx, London: Phoenix.


Buy Terry Eagleton’s The Meaning of Life here


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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