Meaning of Life: Perspectives from the World's Great Intellectual Traditions

Course No. 4320
Professor Jay L. Garfield, Ph.D.
Smith College
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Course No. 4320
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Course Overview

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.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    The Meaning of the Meaning of Life
    Establish the solid ground from which your journey will begin. You'll learn the meanings that the word "meaning," itself, may embody and preview the approaches you will take to the question that gives the course its name. x
  • 2
    The Bhagavad-Gita—Choice and Daily Life
    One of the core texts of the Mahabharata—a major moral and religious text for most Hindus—introduces you to the critically important skill of truly reading a text, deeply and with comprehension. It also begins your consideration of the concept of human choice. x
  • 3
    The Bhagavad-Gita—Discipline and Duty
    Plunge more deeply into the Bhagavad-Gita's wisdom by grasping the three kinds of yogas, or disciplines, embedded in its metaphors. See why these disciplines of action, knowledge, and devotion are all required if life is to be coherent, integrated, and rational. x
  • 4
    The Bhagavad-Gita—Union and Purpose
    Conclude your reading of the Bhagavad-Gita with an appreciation of the theophany—Krishna's revelation of the nature of divinity. True freedom, says the Gita's final message, comes from disinterested action, reflective knowledge, and a finding of value at the cosmic level of a universe divine in its own right. x
  • 5
    Aristotle on Life—The Big Picture
    Shift your perspective from India to the roots of Western thought about life's meaning by beginning your study of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics. This introductory lecture sets out the framework of Aristotle's view, as set forth in the lecture notes kept by his son and pupil, Nichomacheus. x
  • 6
    Aristotle—The Highest Good
    Explore Aristotle's search for the "highest good." It is a search that takes you through his famous "function argument" and offers an explanation of the comprehensive state of being known as eudaimonea, the fully flourishing life that may well elude evaluation until long after death. x
  • 7
    Aristotle—The Happy Life
    Your examination of Aristotle's ethical teachings concludes with his explanation of virtue, its key dimensions, and its necessary coupling with action. Special attention is also paid to the importance of friendship. x
  • 8
    Job's Predicament—Life Is So Unfair
    As you move to the Hebraic tradition, you grasp how the core question has shifted. Instead of seeking our answer in our relationship to the cosmos, as in the Indian tradition, or to society, as in that of the Greeks, the focus is now on our relationship to a personal God. x
  • 9
    Job's Challenge—Who Are We?
    The book of Job brings an encounter with a troubling conclusion. Although life may indeed have meaning, it is a meaning shrouded by a mysterious divine, and we may need to live in ignorance of what that meaning may be. x
  • 10
    Stoicism—Rationality and Acceptance
    Your focus moves to the beginnings of Stoic moral theory in the writings of Seneca and Epictetus. Their accounts of a good life describe one that is moderate, reasonable, and controlled, living in harmony with the universe and society, and accepting of the inevitability of death. x
  • 11
    Human Finitude—The Epicurean Synthesis
    A brief introduction to Lucretius, the foremost Epicurean philosopher, serves as a gateway to the thought of Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius's Meditations synthesizes Stoic ideas about rational order and the importance of emotional control with Epicurean ideas about finitude and impermanence. x
  • 12
    Confucius—Order in the Cosmos and in Life
    Your focus shifts to China and the ideas attributed to the man known to the West as Confucius. Hear what his teachings have to say about concepts like warm-heartedness, propriety, virtue, filial piety, the nature of the universe, and the achievement of an effortless excellence of character. x
  • 13
    Daodejing—The Dao of Life and Spontaneity
    An exploration of a very different Chinese approach to understanding than that set forth in Confucianism begins with a cautionary demonstration of the startling differences in interpretation that will always be present among various translations of a text. x
  • 14
    Daodejing—The Best Life Is a Simple Life
    Some beautiful readings from the Daodejing bring out the profound differences in outlook that set it apart from Confucianism. Grasp how it turns away from social structures and the "cultivation" of individual excellence in favor of a simple, natural life. x
  • 15
    Daodejing—Subtlety and Paradox
    Conclude your immersion in the Daodejing with this examination of some of its most important aspects. Take in its perspectives on the nature of the universe, the subtlety and suppleness of virtue, the value of "negativity," and the delicacy of life. x
  • 16
    Zhuangzi on Daoism—Impermanence and Harmony
    Your exploration of Daoism ends with its longest classical text, the Zhuangzi. You find not only the themes of spontaneity and the suspicion of logic, but also ridicule of the Confucian emphasis on ritual, propriety, and rigid relationships. x
  • 17
    The Teachings of the Buddha
    This lecture begins with the search for enlightenment by a young Indian prince and concludes with an introduction to what he found—the so-called Four Noble Truths, including the eightfold path to sharing that enlightenment. x
  • 18
    Santideva—Mahayana Buddhism
    Here you begin your study of one of the major evolutions in Buddhist thought, the Mahayana, and one of its major texts—Santideva's Bodhicaryavatara—a "how-to" manual for leading an enlightened life. x
  • 19
    Santideva—Transforming the Mind
    Enhance your grasp of Mahayana Buddhism and Santideva's description of the meaningful life, achieved only through the "six perfections"—the pursuit of generosity, propriety, patience, effort, meditation, and wisdom. x
  • 20
    Zen—The Moon in a Dewdrop and Impermanence
    Expand your understanding of Buddhism with an introduction to Zen. This path to Buddhahood is aimed at direct transformation. Knowledge is handed directly from mind to mind, with great emphasis placed on a teacher-disciple lineage that each Zen master can trace directly to Zen's originating moment. x
  • 21
    Zen—Being-Time and Primordial Awakening
    This lecture takes you through Zen concepts like duality and non-duality, perception and conception, Dogen's presentation of time as the very nature of our world, and what is required to reawaken our primordial Buddha-nature. x
  • 22
    Taking Stock of the Classical World
    A look back at the classical traditions studied thus far reveals that although there is no unanimity, there are common dimensions, as well as a consensus about the value of a virtuoso life attained through contemplation and practice. x
  • 23
    Hume's Skepticism and the Place of God
    European modernity brings the first challenges of science and reason to the primacy of theology. David Hume argues that, although theism may well be reasonable, it cannot be rational, establishing the foundation for separate public and private spheres. x
  • 24
    Hume's Careless and Compassionate Vision
    You explore Hume's distinctions between Nature and Second Nature, the importance of our social lives to our cognitive lives, and the key roles our passions and imagination play in our beliefs and actions. x
  • 25
    Kant—Immaturity and the Challenge to Know
    The work of Immanuel Kant is considered the demarcation line for modern academic philosophy. Here you take up Kant's view of the Enlightenment as a call for people to emerge from their self-imposed immaturity and realize their nature as fully formed human beings. x
  • 26
    Mill's Call to Individuality and to Liberty
    Readings from John Stuart Mill's On Liberty reveal the first purely individualistic doctrine of the meaning of life encountered in the course. Mill presents the strongest possible defense of the connection between a meaningful life and a liberal social order. x
  • 27
    Tolstoy—Is Everyday Life the Real Thing?
    A novella by Tolstoy presents a very different and critical view of modernity, suggesting that its values of secularization and mass society invariably lead us, in fact, to a life that is meaningless. x
  • 28
    Nietzsche—Twilight of the Idols
    Nietzsche initiates postmodernism in philosophy—its first sustained attack on modernity. Through readings from his Twilight of the Idols, you grasp Nietzsche's dismissal of modernity's core values, including philosophical progress, reason, systematicity, god, and transcendent value. x
  • 29
    Nietzsche—Achieving Authenticity
    Nietzsche's repudiation of modernity's concept of a meaningful life does not mean he lacks his own. This lecture presents his vision of life as a successful creative act on a grand scale, with oneself as the hero of a great autobiography. x
  • 30
    Gandhi—Satyagraha and Holding Fast to Truth
    Your introduction to the thought of Gandhi reveals him as even more radical than Nietzsche. Although a realization of Gandhi's views would admittedly sacrifice many of modernity's benefits, including much of technology, medicine, and law, it is a price he says we must be willing to pay. x
  • 31
    Gandhi—The Call to a Supernormal Life
    Gandhi's own life serves as an example of the supernormal life he advocates. See how his argument for what he believes to be the only meaningful life includes echoes from almost every text we've examined. x
  • 32
    Lame Deer—Life Enfolded in Symbols
    Readings from Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions offer a different vantage point for seeking meaning: a symbolic view of life. It is not that modernity lacks its own symbolism or is without meaning, says this Lakota Sioux holy man, but that it means the wrong things. x
  • 33
    Lame Deer—Our Place in a Symbolic World
    Go deeper into Lame Deer's critique of modernity, examining his ideas about the impact of money and our fetishism about it, the alienation from nature it brings about, and modernity's simultaneous denial and spreading of death. x
  • 34
    HH Dalai Lama XIV—A Modern Buddhist View
    You are introduced to the Dalai Lama's Buddhist-inflected but very modern, secular vision about the universal human goal of happiness. You learn its components and the relationship between their pursuit and the interconnectedness of human life. x
  • 35
    HH Dalai Lama XIV—Discernment and Happiness
    A vigorous discussion of how to achieve happiness reveals how the Dalai Lama's views of a meaningful life, modern as they are, also contain a deep traditionalist thread. We must still commit to the bodhisattva path, the altruistic aspiration to attain awakening for the benefit of all. x
  • 36
    So, What Is the Meaning of Life?
    Tempting as it may be to form a single answer agreed on by all, there is none to be found. What is clear is that there are recurrent themes, with the answer that works for you likely to be found among them. x

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Your professor

Jay L. Garfield

About Your Professor

Jay L. Garfield, Ph.D.
Smith College
Dr. Jay L. Garfield 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. The holder of a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh, Professor Garfield also serves on the faculties of the University of Massachusetts, Melbourne University in Australia, and the Central University of...
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Meaning of Life: Perspectives from the World's Great Intellectual Traditions is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 119.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Sincere perspective about a meaningful life Prof Garfield did an exceptional job explaining the various Asian schools of thought and religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, etc.). He shared source documents and helped interpret them in light of what is meaningful (to him). Rather than treat old source documents as only a matter of historic importance, he was able to find and share their deeper meaning, still fully relevant to life in the 21st century. As a former philosophy and religion major in college, one of my primary objections to these areas of focus was the objective manner in which studies are currently performed, as if the objects of study are sterile entities which no longer have a real meaning for us now. Prof Garfield does not fall prey to this orientation of being merely a distant, objective observer. Instead, he successfully conveys his interpretation of the current value and meaning of many great works from the past. In his last lecture, Prof Garfield purports to objectively identify “recurrent themes” common to most or all of the various perspectives covered in the course; the implication is that these common themes help us identify what is really meaningful in life, not specific to a particular school of thought. However, of necessity, when he assembled content for this course, Prof Garfield already was highly selective of the material based upon his own perspective. He then draws conclusions about this material, though the “conclusions” were already baked into the selection process. This is understandable and does not negate the value of this course. However, it’s important to note that even the conclusions in the last lecture are specific to Prof Garfield’s concept of a meaningful life. As mentioned in other course reviews, I found his constant hand gestures distracting.
Date published: 2019-04-21
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointing The lecturer sometimes does not speak clearly. His explications did not get through to me anyway. I personally think that gospel-based religion with the philosophy: 'earn all you can; save all you can; give all you can' and with a good welfare system is all that humanity can aspire to, to give life meaning and purpose. If Ghandi's philosophy about how live an ethical life is the epitome then in my humble opinion he should have got out more.
Date published: 2019-04-11
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointing, biased, mis-titled I didn't purchase this course to hear someone trying to sell me on a mystical Eastern religion and Yoga! But Dr. Garfield starts by relating Indian fairy tales, via the Bhagavad-Gita ~ "Discipline as the key to freedom." Obviously Dr. Garfield LOVES the Bhagavad-Gita. This professor is biased, continually seeking ways to support HIS views, presenting leading figures who support to his own commitment beliefs. This is VERY far from a balanced course. The question he tries to answer is "How can a finite life be meaningful in an infinite universe?" Moving on to Aristotle (Lecture 5), the professor reminds us we are still seeking an answer to the question "What is the meaning of life?" and remarks that there are many voices, from many different cultures. Yes, indeed. I think he was plainly wrong to start with Indian philosophy, so remote and alien to the huge majority of us in the West. I could not finish this course. For one thing, the professor does not in fact address the TITLE of the course ~ that is enough for me to drop out. An extremely disappointing course which I cannot recommend.
Date published: 2019-02-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Of 65 TGC courses -- the most useful information Probably needs a subtitle "a guide to life & living" as opposed to a tombstone epitaph. An excellent secular dissertation by numerous wise & renowned sages with varying & contrasting opposing perspectives. Since the question VARIES with the individual & culture - it appears NOBODY [really] knows "the meaning of life". Take your pick. The course was quite thorough. I took 31 pages of notes. The title term "meaning" can also be interpreted as "purpose". It is common sense to assess the "purpose" of something by asking the MANUFACTURER - not the manufactured. That would be equivalent of a Chevy explaining its meaning & purpose to a Ford. However, since it is not "politically correct" to mention god in the matter - I will use absurdity to illustrate absurdity: may the dignified intellectuals ask what our meaning & purpose is -- from the monkeys. Course was great & interesting - very satisfied.
Date published: 2019-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fabulous class! I thoroughly enjoyed this class! The professor was engaging and knowledgeable. This is a class I wish I had taken in my twenties. The section on Aristotle was especially good as well as the Taoist and Buddhist lectures. I ordered the class on The Nicomachean Ethics because I found the Aristotle classes so fascinating.
Date published: 2018-12-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I’m glad that I bought this class. The best is the first 4 chapters, although the others are also well presented. I’d love to see a future class devoted solely on Nietzsche
Date published: 2018-09-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The world of Meanings I loved the historical background on each subject and the review of the prior lectures at the beginning of each new lecture. Loved the presentation of professor Jay L. Garfield, his passion for Philosophy, his dedication to learn all this, his knowledge, and humbling presentation. Inspired me to learn more about it.
Date published: 2018-08-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Just what I wanted. Excellent presenter.Opened my mind.
Date published: 2018-08-20
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