Answering Durant’s Question

In 1931, the prolific and controversial historian/philosopher Will Durant rifled out a letter to his many intellectual colleagues across the land, asking, in brief, the following question:

“Spare me a moment to tell me what meaning life has for you, what keeps you going, what help – if any – religion gives you, what are the sources of your inspiration and your energy, what is the goal or motive-force of your toil, where you find your consolations and your happiness, where, in the last resort, your treasure lies.”

This question along with the answers Durant received from a good number of luminaries in the early part of the third decade of the 20th century were compiled in a book titled On the Meaning of Life, published in 2005 by Promethean Press.

Durant also offered his personal, mostly pessimistic, answer to this enduring question under “An Anthology of Doubt,” divided into seven parts in Chapter One, along with his “Personal Confession” near the end of the book. Durant’s reference line for his full answer focused on how mankind’s quest for knowledge somehow got lost.  He wrote that “the growth and spread of knowledge, for which many idealists and reformers prayed, has resulted in a disillusionment which has almost broken the spirit of our race.”

Where Does this Brokenness Reside?
In religion, where faith has taken a back seat to biological science that reduces men to heartless skeptics who point toward our trivial deaths and lack of lessons learned over time.  In science, where humans are condensed to glands and a kind of “passing experiment,” in which we are “trivial fragments, flying off at a tangent towards destruction.” In history, where progress is seen as delusional, where “Sisyphus man repeatedly pushes invention and labor up the high hill of civilization and culture, only to have the precarious structure again and again topple back into barbarism…” In our notions of Utopia, where spoils increase while “peace departs,” where we find our souls unable to share in the end. In the suicide of intellect, where thought undermines morality, where astronomy, geology, biology and history reveals us as “an insignificant fragment in space and a flickering moment in time.” Durant then concludes “those of us who wish to live consciously, to know the works and praise the best, must meet these doubts if we are to maintain any longer our pretense to a life of reason.”

Some of the additional cogent responses he received among many included a relatively lengthy and optimistic response from French biographer, novelist, and essayist Andre Maurois, who addressed the aforenoted doubts with this statement: “Sophists teach you today that life is only a brief moment in the trajectory of a star; they tell you that nothing is certain except defeat and death. As for me, I tell you that nothing exists except victory and life. What shall we know of our death? Either the soul is immortal and we shall not die, or it perishes with the flesh and we shall not know that we are dead. Live, then, as if you were eternal, and do not believe that your life is changed merely because it seems proved that the Earth is empty. You do not live in the Earth, you live in yourself.”

My Response
My own answer to Durant’s letter starts at its ending about treasure. My immediate inclination is to say there is no treasure; there is no answer to this question because the treasure is eternal – our inquisitiveness to find it never ends, never comes to a final and glorious conclusion. However, to make matters confounding, our treasure hunting may exist only as long as we are physically alive and then kaput, as Maurois points out as one of two options, we are nothing, no more. That thought disturbs me greatly, and I cannot deny its truth nor falsehood.

It is a much more pleasant to believe in a more refined and interesting treasure that relies on a life-beyond-death scenario; that there is a special realm where our souls dwell in happiness and love, far away from the travails of everyday life here on Earth. However, for those who say they definitely know of such a realm, I am skeptical and hopeful simultaneously. Many times I feel its existence and say, yes, I believe the hereafter is indeed true. But I am not one to proclaim its existence in earnestness, and anyone who does say absolutely – that there is a great life after death or that there is nothing – is not dealing in an out-and-out truth. Both sides are wrong and right.

All of our effort and consternation toward an eternal existence of constant growth and understanding of all of mankind throughout history and across the entire universe – where our souls dwell in some kind of oneness and harmony – this place that we are not privy to until death – seems like a waste of energy to even contemplate because it is unseen. Why not just live and observe and simply just go with the flow of life without this constant struggle to know and follow some hopeful bliss? That seems like a viable path to take, but I must admit I find it almost impossible to follow. So I continue to search, and the search keeps me going.

Having Hopeful Faith and Living in Myself
Some time ago I made the following proclamation-like statement about the afterlife:

“I have a personal view of life beyond physical death as a place where the essence of our being, which is unique to each and every one of us, creates our own distinctive version of heaven. So, there are countless heavens, and where my soul resides is different from where your soul resides, but we do meet each other’s souls and happily coexist with each other’s souls in the afterlife because our deep and enduring love for each other demands it.” Therein lies our treasure and we can only hope it truly exists.

To think there is nothing after death means that our lives are mere blips easily forgotten unless we leave some historic legacy that lasts for centuries, like Jesus and Buddha did.

Going on to the rest of Durant’s question, in particular – the “motive-force of your toil” – I would answer with a constant curiosity to know more than what I believe I know now and have an open mind that allows me to change according to what my critical thinking skills tell me is true. But more so I toil for my family as a loving father and husband.

Regarding Durant’s questions about religion and inspiration, I take the following faith-based stance:

In the end, we are made aware of what exists in the universe and we choose whatever time and space our soul might desire to experience at any given moment. We can also reincarnate based on what level of self-fulfillment our soul desires to reach. Overall, for every soul, the goal is to achieve oneness with the universe and to endlessly create what is good, righteous and beautiful for the betterment of all souls.

Our Magnificence
I also “feel,” but do not know, that there is a heaven where all the creativity of human effort coalesces into something magnificent beyond anything we could imagine. In the meantime, just thinking about the enormous amount of mankind’s creativity and invention throughout time – all the music, art, literature, film, scientific discovery, accomplishment over adversity, etc. – is a good meditation to practice. If you are a believer, it will bring you closer to the idea of God – at least it has for me. Just keeping your eyes and mind open and practicing meditation on a regular basis is enough to bolster a belief in some kind of benevolent afterlife – that has been my experience.

Another good meditative practice entails making a strong effort toward being more cognizant of all the immense suffering that our fellow human beings must endure on a daily basis. I believe that understanding human suffering is a key ingredient toward becoming a better overall human being, more tolerant and compassionate. Tuning out all the bad stuff and living blind to all that is going on in the world is a selfish and unhealthy way to live.

Of course, the answer to Durant’s question can easily be a book.

Finally, this relatively brief article is a call for anyone who reads it to provide your personal answer to Durant’s question in the comments section below. It would be great and wonderful to see what others have to say.



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