The Meaning of Life
According to Seven Philosophers, Psychologists and Theologians
An independent study project in psychology of religion, by Tracy Marks,
Tufts University, spring 1972
copyright 1972 by Tracy Marks
from the Conclusion
Here we have seven different but related interpretations of
the problem of meaning in life and how it is attained.
For Erich Fromm, man makes his life meaningful by living productively, and by
using his powers of love and reason to their fullest capacity.
For Abraham Maslow, meaning is experienced by the self-actualized,
growth-motivated person who delights in using his creative powers for their own sake, and
who can affirm himself and simultaneously transcend himself through peak experiences.
For Rollo May, meaning is experienced by a person centered in himself, who is
able to live by his highest values, who knows his own intentionality, feels the power of
his will to choose, and is able to love.
For Krishnamurti, the world is experienced as most
meaningful when through the knowledge of self gained through self-observation, man frees
himself of the self and attains the state of passive awareness and self-forgetfulness
which is love.
For Paul Tillich, man can choose to make his life meaningful by surrendering
in faith and love to Jesus. By opening to Jesus and experiencing His acceptance
and forgiveness, one experiences the joy and freedom of "new being" and the
courage to be oneself.
For Abraham Heschel, man experiences his life as a meaningful when he lives in
God's presence - not simply by encountering God in the world, but primarily by serving God
in everyday life, infusing every moment with the spirit of God, and by dedicating
himself to ends outside himself.
Finally, for Viktor Frankl, meaning is experiencing by responding to the demands of
the situation at hand, discovering and committing oneself to one's own unique task in
life, and by allowing oneself to experience or trust in an ultimate meaning - which one
may or may not call God.
Self-Actualization and Self-Transcendence
Having explored the philosophies of these seven theologians
and psychologists, let us return to the questions asked earlier:
What is self-actualization?
What is self-transcendence?
Is meaning found in self-actualization or self-transcendence?
Or are they mutually exclusive?
And finally, what concepts about the meaning of life, particularly in regard to
self-actualization and selftranscendence, can we derive from comparing and synthesizing
the philosophies of these seven life philosophers?
Erich Fromm and Abraham Maslow are self-actualization psychologists, both explicitly
concerned with the actualization of one's potentialities, with development of one's
own powers. As Charlotte Buhler points out in her book, Values in Psychotherapy,
both Fromm and Maslow emphasize DISCOVERING one's needs and powers and
developing oneself, in contrast to the existential thinkers who emphasize
CHOOSING actions in the world and COMMITTING oneself to the task at hand.
Frankl and Heschel do not focus upon actualizing oneself, but upon choosing to
dedicate oneself to an end outside the self. Their primary concern
is involvement in and contribution TO THE WORLD. In Man's
Search for Meaning, Frankl wrote, "Life ultimately means
taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the
tasks which it constantly sets for each individual." (p.122)
Comparing these two approaches, we might ask: Is there a contradiction here between
self- actualization and self-transcendence? Does a contradiction exist when one of a
person's potentials conflicts with another - when, for example, one has to
choose at a given time between committing to one's own intellectual or
creative development OR responding to the needs of another person? And in
such circumstances, how does one resolve the conflict?
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copyright 1972 by Tracy Marks
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