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Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It by Daniel Klein

July 7, 2020

Chapter 1: “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” – Epicurus 

  • Epicurus is making two related points: first, desiring what we do not have now diminishes or even cancels out our appreciation of what we do have now; And second, when we take a moment to consider the outcome of actually getting that something else that we now desire, we will realize that it is just going to put us back at square one – desiring yet another something else.
  • Epicurus: “The major drawback of the striving life is that there is always more to desire after a person acquires whatever it is, he only recently yearned for, so he ends up with endlessly unsatisfied desire.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson: “We are always getting ready to live but never living.”
  • Spending time regretting anything is another sure way of missing what is right in front of me.


Chapter 2: ‘The art of life is taking pleasures as they pass, and the keenest pleasures are not intellectual, nor are they always moral.” – Aristippus

  • I am simply not comfortable seeing myself as an animal with only animal appetites…my human consciousness just cannot be denied.


Chapter 3: “Genetic engineering and nanotechnology will abolish suffering in all sentient life.  This project is ambitious but technically feasible.  It is also instrumentally rational and ethically mandatory.” – David Pearce

  • From Epicurus comes the tenet that the happiest life is one of ataraxia– freedom from fear- and aponia– the absence of pain. And from Jeremy Bentham comes the utilitarian idea that “all actions should be guided by the principle of providing the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.”
  • The feeling of being high is in contrast to everyday consciousness; The only way we can feel high is for there to be something to feel higher than.
  • The critical point is knowing we can always get higher can be a real downer. It informs us that we’re never going to reach the ultimate point of happiness because there is no ultimate point of happiness. There is always a higher mountain thataway. For someone seeking ultimate bliss, this is a sobering thought. It all starts to feel futile. But not to worry: soon enough the mountain on which we are currently sitting becomes our new normal consciousness and our level of happiness feels more or less the way it always has.
  • Perhaps we need to endure some pain in order to become fully human- like the pain that comes from the consciousness of our mortality, consciousness of our inevitable limitations and failures, and consciousness of all that is mysterious about existence itself. Without this consciousness, we might be nothing more than cheery animals. Our life should be existentially shallow.


Chapter 4: “Life Oscillates like a pendulum, back and forth between pain and boredom.” – Arthur Schopenhauer 

  • The safest way of not being very miserable is not to expect to be very happy.
  • The Upanishads suggest that through detachment and resignation a person may be able to experience a peaceful acceptance of life…


Chapter 5: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.  Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.  All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards.” – Albert Camus

  • The meaning of life is not something we look for; it is something we create.


Chapter 6: “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” – William James

  • …there is no objective and scientific way to prove the existence of free will.  You can’t see one, even with an x-ray machine.  Therefore, accepting its existence is akin to an act of faith; it is something we choose to believe in…Choosing to believe in anything is an act of will; without a will, no choice exists.


Chapter 7: “Existence precedes essence.” – Jean-Paul Sartre

  • If there was a contest for the shortest statement that sums up an entire philosophical position Jean-Paul Sartre‘s, “existence precedes essence,” would win – or at least tie with Berkeley’s, “to be is to be perceived.”
  • First, we exist, and next, we create ourselves.
  • The main reason we keep ducking the responsibility of self-creation is that it is super scary. if I am the master of my fate and my fate does not turn out so well. I have no one to blame but myself.
  • The idea that life’s meaning is not something to look for but something you create myself feels right to me.


Chapter 8: “The secret of the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is: to live dangerously.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

  • To think for yourself you must question authority and learn how to put yourself in a state of vulnerable open-mindedness, chaotic, confused vulnerability to inform yourself.
  • The desire for self-fulfillment is the desire to become more and more of what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.


Chapter 9: “Nature, with her customary beneficence, has ordained that man shall not learn how to live until the reasons for living are stolen from him, that he shall find no enjoyment until he has become incapable of vivid pleasure.” – Giacomo Leopardi 

  • Once we fully acknowledge that life is doomed to perpetual disappointment, we can have a good laugh about it, and that turns out to be liberating.
  • If all you seek from something is pleasure, you’ll never find it. All you will feel is noia (existential boredom), often disgust. to feel pleasure in any act or activity, you have to pursue some end other than pleasure.


Chapter 10: “The goods of the mind are at least as important as the goods of the body.” – Bertrand Russell

  • Russell is not just saying that thinking is a prerequisite for leading a gratifying life as Socrates meant…Rather he believes that examining life is one of the essential treats that make life worth living
  • Bertrand Russell: “those questions which are already capable of definite answers are placed in the sciences, while those only to which, at present, no definite answer can be given, remain to form the residue which is called philosophy


Chapter 11: “It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson


Chapter 12: “Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone.  It has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone.  And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone.” – Paul Tillich

  • Albert Einstein: “I live in that solitude which is painful in youth, but delicious in the years of maturity.”


Chapter 13: “Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.” – Aristotle

  • For the long haul, it is a damn good idea to find a relationship in which you just naturally want to be good to each other- in fact, a relationship in which you can be good to one another simply by being yourself.
  • Aristotle: “Complete friendship is that of good people, those who are alike in their virtue: they each alike wish good things to each other in so far as they are good.”
  • …suitable partners feel drawn to each other’s fundamental character.


Chapter 14: ‘Nothing happens while you live.  The scenery changes, people come in and go out, that’s all.  There are no beginnings. Days are tacked on to days without rhyme or reason, an interminable, monotonous addition.” – Jean-Paul Sartre

  • “I, too, needed to work my way through my existential despair to get a grip on my life…”


Chapter 15: “The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.” – David Hume

  • The world is often a den of thieves, and night is falling. Evil breaks its chains and runs the world like a mad dog. The poison affects us all. No one escapes. Therefore, let us be happy while we are happy. Let us be kind, generous, affectionate, and good. It is necessary and not all shameful to take pleasure in the little world.


Chapter 16: “First and foremost, nothing exists; second, even if it exists, it is inapprehensible to man; third, even if it is apprehensible, still it is without doubt incapable of being expressed or explained to the next man.” – Gorgias of Leontini

  • Psychologists believe that humor is a creative defense mechanism for distancing ourselves from anxious- making thoughts and feelings.


Chapter 17: Estragon: “We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?” Vladimir: “Yes, we’re magicians.” – Samuel Beckett

  • Albert Camus: (The Myth of Sisyphus): “absurdism emanates from the distance between man’s natural desire to find the meaning in his life and the impossibility of finding that meaning in any rational way. The absurdity does not lie in a logical contradiction, but in an existential contradiction; Is a primary puzzle of human existence. We long for meaning but we can’t get it. “


Chapter 18: “The philosopher who finds no meaning for this world is not concerned with the problem of pure metaphysics; he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to…For myself…the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political.” – Aldous Huxley

  • Meaninglessness in philosophical nihilism covers a wide spectrum, ranging from metaphysical nihilism, a negation of all existence, to moral and political nihilism, a negation of society’s values and laws in a world that we acknowledge exists that has the potential to be better.


Chapter 19: “There’s a great difficulty in making choices if you have any imagination at all.  Faced with such a multitude of desirable choices, no one choice seems satisfactory for very long by comparison with the aggregate desirability of all the rest, though compared to any ‘one’ of the others it would not be found inferior.” – John Barth

  • Dumb or not, we want all the possibilities that there are, and it is a real downer that we only get to choose one – or at least just one at a time.
  • “Everydayness” is a key concept in existentialism. It describes the way we get so immersed in the routines and roles of our daily lives that we never experience full consciousness of who we are and what choices are available to us.


Chapter 20: “In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. ‘To do as you would be done by,’ and ‘to love your neighbor as yourself,’ constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.” – John Stuart Mill

  • “The Golden rule is a utilitarian concept. It is in my own best interest to follow the Golden rule because by following it I will promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people, and that, most of the time, is good for me.” So, what we have here is virtuous behavior as in enlightened self-interest.


Chapter 21: “I don’t think there is much point in bemoaning the state of the world unless there is some way you can think to improve it.  Otherwise, don’t bother writing a book; go and find a tropical island and lie in the sun.” – Peter Singer


Chapter 22: “A man who strives after goodness in all his acts is sure to come to ruin since there are so many men who are not good.” – Niccolò Machiavelli

  • The Prince’s underlying principle is that “might makes right.” What we ought to do is get the job done; so what we should do is whatever it takes to get the job done, even if that involves deceit and fraud.
  • Maurice Maeterlinck: “An act of goodness is of itself an act of happiness. No reward coming after the event can compare with the sweet reward that went with it.”


Chapter 23: “Our moral heart strings…were designed to be tugged, but not from very far away.  But it’s not because it’s morally good for us to be that way.  It’s because caring about ourselves and our small little tribal group helped us survive, and caring about other groups – the competition – didn’t help us survive.  If anything, we should have negative attitudes towards them.  We’re competing with them for resources.” – Joshua Greene

  • “The major problem of moral philosophy is to figure out how to bridge the gap between our tribal instincts and this multitribal world we live in.”
  • We have two fundamentally different ways of making moral decisions: by way of fast, instinctive thought and by way of slow, deliberative thought. The former tends to be more emotional and the latter more rational…But most of the time there is a tension between these two modes of decision making that parallels the tension between our evolved tribal instincts and this multi-travel world we live in.
  • The rational principles of our contemplative mode may never feel comfortable with our instinctive selves, but what we do have going for us is that “everyone feels the pull of impartiality as a moral ideal.


Chapter 24: “People deserve much less punishment, or even perhaps no punishment, for what they did many years ago as compared to what they did very recently.” – Derek Parfit

  • It is an illusion to think of identity as a static, absolute phenomenon as we usually do because ultimately identity is a matter of degree – it’s all relative.


Chapter 25: “There is no God and Mary is his mother.” – George Santayana

  • In paradoxes, we get to have things both ways: we can be both a believer and a non-believer in one breath. Of course, we also get to be neither, because the two prongs of the paradox cancel each other out.


Chapter 26: “The soul dwells in the house of mourning, but the soul of fools dwells in the house of pleasure.” – Ecclesiastes

  • …everything in life is transient and loss is inevitable; that is just the way it is.
  • Life’s losses are awful, yet somehow, I can accept them and carry on.


Chapter 27: “Religion is the one endeavor in which us/them thinking achieves a transcendent significance.  If you really believe that by calling God by the right name can spell the difference between eternal happiness and eternal suffering, then it becomes quite reasonable to treat heretics and unbelievers rather badly.  The stakes of our religious differences are immeasurably higher than those born of mere tribalism, racism, or politics.” – Sam Harris

  • Mysticism wonders not “how” the world is but “that” the world is.


Chapter 28: “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds to religion.” – Francis Bacon

  • Admitting to ourselves how little we know and, more significantly, how little is even knowable, can be a real eye-opener. There is an awful lot of unknowable stuff out there, but somehow that does not keep us from wanting to know more about it or, at least, to keep wondering about it, and wondering about the unknowable certainly inclineth of mind toward the spiritual.
  • Ultimately, we take our beliefs in good and evil on faith, pretty much the same way some people take their belief in God. So, the question is: are we willing to throw out our faith morality along with our faith in God? After all, one is as irrational as the other. And if not- if we are willing to make an exception to our faith scuttling in the case of moral principles- why exactly don’t we also make an exception in the case of the existence of God?


Chapter 29: “I saw a Divine Being. I’m afraid I’m going to have to revise all my various books and opinions.” – A.J. Ayer


Chapter 30: “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” – Thomas Nagel

  • ‘The fear or religion may extend far beyond the existence of a personal god to include any cosmic order of which the mind is irreducible and non-accidental part.”
  • If we know for certain that there is some kind of cosmic order out there – some kind of guiding principle or design – but we also know that our minds cannot possibly grasp what it is, we will be overwhelmed with frustration.


Chapter 31: Isiah, 25:6-8 Old Testament


Chapter 32: “When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then.  Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allocated to me.” – Blaise Pascal


Chapter 33: “You are made of stuff that is as old as the planet, one third as old as the universe, though this is the first time those atoms have been gathered together such that they think they are you.” – Frank Close


Chapter 34: “Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.  Our life has to end in the way in which our visual field has no limits.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

  • A number of philosophers have plausibly argued that ultimately the past exists only in a mental construct we call memory. The future exists only as a mental construct, too; It is something we imagine or project based on our experience that because things kept going on and on in the past- one thing after another- they will keep going on that way in the future. In both cases, these mental activities are happening in the present. So, all we can have is the present- the here and now.


Chapter 35: “Live as if you were living a second time, and as though you had acted wrongly for the first time.” – Viktor Frankl

  • “When a man is stripped of everything- his health, safety, his dignity, his hope for rescue – he is still left with the capacity to fulfill his yearning for meaning, indeed, he can still affirm his life, say “Yes” to it. “


Chapter 36: “The unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unlived life worth examining.” – Adam Phillips

  • “Modern man is so preoccupied with the life he is not having that he misses out on appreciating the one life he actually has…We think we know more about the experiences we don’t have than the experiences we have.” This “unlived life” of our imaginations becomes more vivid and significant in the life we are living. “And what was not possible becomes the story of our lives… Our lives become a protracted mourning for, and in this drama about, the life we were unable to live.”
  • Playing the “What Ifs?” is not a gratifying way to live. And it is definitely not a way in which to have a positive attitude toward the life we have now and have lived. It is the exact opposite of a life of gratitude for simply being alive.
  • “I don’t want to say self-knowledge is useless. But we need to know when self-knowledge is generally useful and when it isn’t. There are some situations where the struggle to ‘know’ about an experience is a distraction from the experience itself.”
  • Being resentful of our upbringings often has the effect of replacing our malaise with anger, not altogether an improvement.


Chapter 37: “If you believe that feeling bad or worrying long enough will change the past or future event, then you are resigning on another planet with a different reality system.” – Willam James

  • … recently I’ve had to own up to the fact that I actually do have more direct control over my moods and my worrying than I used to believe I had, and not just for chemical assistance.  For a long time, I have been caught up in the psychoanalytic idea that we are slaves to our feelings, and only by digging long and deep into our psyches can we gain any control over them. … But lately, that way of thinking strikes me as a bit of a cop-out, a way of not taking responsibility for how I feel. It is the contemporary variation on the old alibi, “the devil made me do it”- my conscious made me feel it.


Chapter 38: “Do every act of your life as though it were the very last act of your life.” – Marcus Aurelius

  • Henry David Thoreau: “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in every moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; There is no other life but this.”
  • The drifting away from the present comes along with the human capacities for imagination and extended memory. We can always imagine our lives as different from what they actually are; we can always see alternatives. Apparently, that is a temptation that is hard for most of us to resist. Likewise, we can remember the way life was in the past, and chewing that over also seems irresistible.
  • Most of us have experienced highly charged moments of bliss occasioned by simple events – a sudden appearance of a flock of doves overhead; An astonishing performance of a passage of music; an enchanting smile on the face of the passing stranger. These moments are fleeting. That is an essential part of their intensity.  But these fleeting moments leave us with a bittersweet awareness that everything ends.  And with that awareness comes the inescapable knowledge of our personal finitude. We are fully cognizant of the fact that the sum of our here-and-now moments will reach their end and then we will be no more.


Chapter 39: “Every time I find the meaning of life, they change it.” – Reinhold Niebuhr

  • Reinhold Niebuhr: “Even as man contemplates the divine, he remains stuck with a finite mind that can never get a comprehensive bead on transcendent values.” A perfect understanding of sin is ultimately beyond us. We cannot climb out of this existential duality; We possess the ability to ponder our mortality; good and evil, and the “meaning of life,” but we are unable to ever really see the Big Picture. “
  • Existentialist thinkers believe that squarely facing our mortality is the only sure way to become fully alive in the present…