Upon being confronted outside his house by a man who is contemplating suicide, Will Durant is challenged to proffer a valid reason that would dissuade the latter from going ahead with his deadly proposition. Of course Durant could not have waxed eloquent a la Edmund Burke or a Macaulay considering the gravity of the circumstance and paucity of time. But he more than makes up for lost time by sorting out man’s existential dilemma in this short but powerful book.
Durant lays down a few quintessential and primordial questions that confront us during the course of our ephemeral existence on Earth, such as what satisfaction one gets out of life?; what influence religion has had on the meaning of life?; has Science intruded upon our lives to such an extent that it has led to ‘the suicide of the intellect’ (in Durant’s words) etc. Durant poses these queries to more than 100 luminaries of his time and the responses received varies from the queer to the quaint. While the most trenchant of all American critics, the intimidating and indomitable H L Mencken dismisses the question of life by scathingly mentioning that he “goes on working, for the same reason that a hen goes on laying eggs”, the headstrong George Bernard Shaw’s chooses to respond in a biting fashion with just two lines:
“How the Devil do i know?
Has the question itself any meaning?”
Others such as Jawaharlal Nehuru and M K Gandhi pen contumacious replies that are convoluted and straying away from the issue requiring to be addressed. While all of these responses make for some interesting, witty and thought provoking reading, Durant himself provides his own version of the meaning of life in his concluding chapter. And this is where he has me in a bind. Even while posing the key questions, Durant exudes a sense of peculiar doom. His disappointment, dejection and despair seems to be aimed at the progress made by Science. He unwittingly confesses to being a follower of the rigid societal mores of his time when he says “The Industrial Revolution has destroyed the home, and the discovery of contraceptives is destroying the family, the old, morality and perhaps (through the sterility of the intelligent), the race”. He also takes potshots at astronomers, geologists, historians etc and rues their advances which have transformed man’s thinking from an idyllic vacuum to a teeming repository of knowledge (my inference). What puzzles me as a reader is that if we were to blindly accept the Geocentric theory and happily burn the likes of Giordano Bruno and his ilk at the stakes, ignore Gallileo and Copernicus and go on leading a medieval existence, would this lead to us cracking open the code of life?
Durant prefers to end his discourse in the manner of a Thoreau by conceding “In the end I know how vain and snobbish all advice is, and how hard it is for one human being to understand another, but come and spend an hour with me, and I will show you a path through the woods….” Not a convincing solution to prising out the meaning of life!
However I choose to rely on a gem in the form of a response from Vilhjalmur Stefansson to Durant’s queries:
“If no one has found a meaning for life, neither has anyone demonstrated that life has no meaning. What probably is meaningless is the question as to whether life has a meaning”. This will do just fine for me!