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

  • by The Great Courses
  • Narrated by Professor Jay L. Garfield
  • Series: The Great Courses: Intellectual History
  • 18 hrs and 41 mins
  • Lecture

Publisher's Summary

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 - at once profound and universal, but also deeply personal.
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, we should listen as we shape the path we will walk? This comprehensive 36-lecture series from a much-honored scholar is an invigorating way to begin or continue your pursuit of these questions, and it requires no previous background in philosophical or religious thought.
It offers a rigorous and wide-ranging exploration of what various spiritual, religious, and philosophical traditions from both the East and West have contributed to this profound line of questioning, sharing insights from sources that include ancient Indian texts, such as:

The Bhagavad-Gita
Foundational Chinese texts like the Daodejing and the Chuang Tzu
Classical Western texts, such as Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics and Marcus Aurelius's Meditations
Modern philosophers and writers like 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


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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

hard to rate fair: Light and Shadow, but good ...

Would you be willing to try another book from The Great Courses? Why or why not?

I am torn ... I fully agree with those critics that value Mr. Garfield's respect towards various religious ideas. Yet, I feel like most of the times this respect keeps him from the necessary (read: scientific) "critical approach" to ideas. He does get into some very careful, "soft" critics at times when he puts various ideas next to each other, trying some superficial comparison. But ... every single lecture made me scream out: He, that's a claim you can't proof, if you (believers in a certain religion or philosophy) base your perspective on the world on THAT assumption, we are having a communication problem! Unfortunately I cannot DISCUSS what Mr. Garfield reports as the respective beliefs, so I am left frustrated. And this is exactly my problem with most of the "Great" Courses: Anyone even slightly interested in the respective topic will always have questions, different points of views or, sometimes (not necessarily in this course, but still) more up-to-date information than the lecturer. With the lectures usually being very, very "light", only barely scratching surfaces, you usually just shrug and go home. That's unfortunate - because: THE MEANING OF LIFE sounds like an important topic. This course hasn't answered the question about it, though.

Have you listened to any of Professor Jay L. Garfield’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

Mr. Garfield speaks very slowly, at times almost "sad". His pronunciation is easy to understand, although at times a bit distracting. I listened at 1.5 speed and found it more comfortable than default speed.

If you could give The Meaning of Life: Perspectives from the World's Great Intellectual Traditions a new subtitle, what would it be?

How to replace the title with something completely different :-). The problem is: Mr. Garfield starts the course by almost immediately replacing the question "what is the meaning of life" with the question "how do you lead a meaningful life". Obviously the two phrases do NOT address the same topic at all, with the one being somewhat universal, the other being completely individually weighted. With the "answers" given by most of the religions and philosophies discussed in this course being debatable (to say the least) and in no way "universal" or "timeless", this makes the course somewhat meaningless (pun intended). If all the "meaning of life" is about is to "lead a meaningful life", you can just define your personal meaning of life and by aligning your life to that - personal - meaning, you fulfilled your goal: Living a "meaningful" life. That definitely is not enough to answer the original question.

Any additional comments?

On the topic of "His Holyness": While I do agree on Mr. Garfield paying respect to the beliefs he discusses, I felt like laughing when the last few chapters insisted in calling someone "his Holyness". Don't get me wrong: Everyone can call herself "holy", I don't mind at all! But either something IS holy, then you don't need to ADDRESS it that way (because how you address it doesn't change the fact that it is holy) or it is NOT. Then, if it is not holy, addressing it as holy does not MAKE it holy. To me this "game" of calling something or someone "holy" (not for you, personally, where it is absolutely fine, but as a "generally acclaimed FACT") is childish in the worst meaning of the word. This painted the respect Mr. Garfield showed somewhat shallow for me. On the topic of "debatable": I said above that every lecture left me crying for a discussion. Obviously this is not the place to start such discussions, but let me give some examples: If one religion/belief claims that "what makes a wheel work is not the hub in its center, but the HOLE in the hub - it's the ABSENCE of something that makes the something work!", then every CHILD has to ask: But how could the hole be there if it wasn't for the hub in the first place? What is a hole without its rim (read K. Tucholsky on that one)? If the hole by itself could make the wheel work, why do you NEED a wheel, obviously the hole alone would do. As it seems, it is the BALANCE, the existence of BOTH - hub AND HOLE - that makes the wheel work. Neglecting the need for SOMETHING in order to make the NOTHINGNESS meaningful seems rather stupid. NOTE: I do not SAY it is stupid! I say it SOUNDS stupid - so I really would need some discussion on that! If most religions/philosophies - according to Mr. Garfield - claim that "if you don't understand this, then you are stupid" (which seems to be the case according to this course), I feel like it doesn't MATTER what they think the meaning of life is. Because if I cannot UNDERSTAND the meaning of life, that meaning has no MEANING to me - logically. So their answer is completely irrelevant to me. That is a very sad outcome of centuries of philosophical debate, I would say! What I MISSED in the course was an attempt to answer the question "IS there a meaning of life?" Or: "Does life REQUIRE a meaning?" Or "Why do we look for meaning when just LIVING would do perfectly fine, as every cat can tell?" No, this is not ironic. I missed the fundamental question - and its answer.

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- Marc


What a (mostly) comprehensive examination of many of the great thinkers and traditions of faith and philosophy, explained in an engaging way that makes complex ideas clear without underestimating his listeners. I truly enjoyed and learned from this, and would love to have given this 5 stars across the board, but for two items. First, this exploration is really more accurately an exploration of "How to live a meaningful life", not "What is the meaning of life" - those two concepts intertwine but are not identical, and most of this series explores the former more than the latter. And second, I am surprised that he included no Christian thinker or philosophy. He looks at Job from the Old Testament, but to leave out Jesus (and the radical philosophy he brought to the time), seems to be a significant omission. I would have liked to hear Garfield speak on that, and to set that thought tradition alongside that of Buddha, the Bhagavad-Gita, Gandhi, Tolstoy, Kant, and others.
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- Jeanette

Book Details

  • Release Date: 07-08-2013
  • Publisher: The Great Courses