I'm teaching a high-school philosophy club at the school I work at, but the problem is that I haven't had any real formal education in philosophy and have only a novice knowledge of the subject, which comes from reading various philosophy books and watching youtube videos. Last meeting though, the students said that they want to talk about, "the meaning of life," for our next meeting, and I though that it would be an apt subject, but I don't know where to start.

My only problem is that I want to give them maybe 5-7 different sources, each from a different philosopher (however, not just western philosophy), that embodies how each philosopher views life, and I don't really know where to look. Not many philosophers seem to talk directly about the meaning of life nor how to live a successful one.

The only source that I've really found that I would want to put in is this quote by Nietzsche:

“The secret of realizing the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is: to live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius! Send your ships out into uncharted seas! Live in conflict with your equals and with yourselves! Be robbers and ravagers as soon as you can not be rulers and owners, you men of knowledge! The time will soon pass when you could be content to live concealed in the woods like timid deer!”

Anyhow, I'm looking for something short, (which I know may lead to their having a more shallow understanding, but I'd rather that than nothing at all), that I can just put in a document that I'd have them read before the next meeting.

If anyone has resources or books that would be good to look through, that would be great. Really, anything from just suggesting a book, to giving me quotes to work with would work.

  • 2
    Epicurus' maximising happiness (simplified), Stoicist's minimisation of suffering, Kant's realising one's full (rational) potential, Schopenhauer's Will to Live and its overcoming (being inspired by Hinduistic texts), Dewey's pragmatic take of bringing arbitrariness to a minimum, and Sartre's need for self-definition would be some very different, classical views. No time for looking up quotes/texts atm, though :/
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Jan 14, 2017 at 21:01
  • @Mr.Kennedy Sure, no problem. Commented Mar 11, 2017 at 21:19
  • Hope the attendance is strong in your philosophy club and the school administration takes positive notice!
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Mar 11, 2017 at 21:26

4 Answers 4


Soliciting and articulating viewpoints has not one iota of relevance to philosophy, i.e. love of wisdom (read: respect for obtaining knowledge).

I am not saying that reading intelligent literature about imponderables such as the meaning or purpose of life is not a worthwhile endeavor. Philosophy, however, is heuristic and does not issue imponderables. When analyzing imponderables, philosophizing is, in the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein, rejection of false arguments.

I would recommend that instead of focusing your philosophy club upon opinion, sentiment and weltanschauung - no matter how well reasoned, how sophisticated the rhetoric or convincing the argumentation - you instead focus your club on the fundamentals of philosophy: logic, reason and rhetoric such that your students may engage the domains of philosophy (epistemology and ontology) that their resulting studies bear the fruits of knowledge instead of opinion. Such then can knowledge based verstehen be utilized for verifiable and ponderable erklaren.

In addition to a curriculum based upon the Trivium, a foundation for the virtue of obtaining knowledge are the three classic "laws" (or principles) of thought:

  1. identity
  2. non-contradiction
  3. the excluded middle

Another basic distinction to impart upon your students is the distinction of what is true from what is opinion, sentiment, "a way of looking at things" (i.e. what is "true to you" - or me, us them...). This not only sets a foundation for the rational assessment of truth values (true or false - per non-contradiction and the excluded middle) it also raises the question of ambiguity of language as well the differences between language use and definition - but more importantly it offers the means to address the ambiguities and differences such that knowledge may be obtained. While coherence is an important aspect of rhetoric (especially for explanations of the physical, social or psychological), truth is merely a condition of statements which is satisfied when what is said (uttered) corresponds with (matches, fits) what is (the world, the case, states of affairs.)

Lastly, bear in mind that the history of philosophy is not philosophy.

That said, Bertrand Russell has some great quotes. In particular, his "message to the future" about love. Also, from "The History of Western Philosophy and its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day":

Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science. Like theology, it consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable ; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation. All definite knowledge so I should contend belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a No Man's Land, exposed to attack from both sides; this No Man's Land is philosophy. Almost all the questions of most interest to speculative minds are such as science cannot answer, and the confident answers of theologians no longer seem so convincing as they did in former centuries. (pg. 10) ...

... There is also, however, a more personal answer. Science tells us what we can know, but what we can know is little, and if we forget how much we cannot know we become insensitive to many things of very great importance. Theology, on the other hand, induces a dogmatic belief that we have knowledge where in fact we have ignorance, and by doing so generates a kind of impertinent insolence towards the universe. Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales. It is not good either to forget the questions that philosophy asks, or to persuade ourselves that we have found indubitable answers to them. To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it. (pg. 11)

You may also find some useful material in A.J. Ayer's "The Meaning of Life"

Evidently, there is no general answer to the question what constitutes a meaningful life. A life lived in one culture at a given social and economic level which satisfies one person might well fail to satisfy another who dwelt in a different or even in the same environment. Treating the question subjectively one can say, platitudinously, that it is a matter of the degree to which one achieves self fulfilment. Treating it objectively, it is a matter of one's standing in one's society and the historical influence, if any, that one exerts. We have seen that the results of these different viewpoints need not coincide either with each other or with what we humane and liberal persons would regard as morally commendable.

...or his other writings:

The ground for taking ignorance to be restrictive of freedom is that it causes people to make choices which they would not have made if they had seen what the realization of their choices involved.
"The Concept of Freedom"


Essentialism and existentialism, two opposed ways of understanding the meaning of things, can be extrapolated to answering the question at hand: "What is the meaning of life?"

On the one hand, essentialists such as Aristotle, Plató or Thomas Aquinas would argue that essence precedes existence and thus life has a meaning given by a higher entity.

On the other hand, existentialists defend the opposed idea arguing that life has no predefined meaning. In the existentialist plane, Sartre defends the idea that, through existence, we can give our lives a meaning. Camus takes it a bit further by saying that no meaning can be found, nevertheless we can find comfort in living a meaningless life. Finally, Nietzsche claims that life has absolutely no meaning.


From the perspective of Stoicism and Buddhism, search the writings of Epictetus and Siddhartha (The Buddha). That would provide a source from the West and East. If I were to summarize these two thinkers on their meaning of life it would be - very simply put - "to minimize suffering".

  • I add the Dao De Jing for the East part. It has a great explanation of how Nature works, and how we may reach enlightenment by following Nature (which they call "Dao").
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Mar 11, 2017 at 23:50

what is the purpose of life-- Osho and Alan Watts where able to give me some direction. “What is the Purpose of Life?” – OSHO

  • Alan Watts is a great writer, he's able to explain subtleties from the Daoist thinking in an accessible, concise and light-hearted way.
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Mar 11, 2017 at 23:51

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