If you listen carefully to today’s political debates you will inevitably hear references to our “rights.” The framing of our political discourse around individual rights is a phenomenon that has its pedigree in an intellectual movement commonly referred to as “modernity” or “The Enlightenment,” which occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries. This development not only has ramifications on the world of politics but also is relevant to our discussion of the meaning of life.

The old tradition mandated that we frame our life’s meaning around the King and/or God. People for centuries were instructed to never question the mandates of either. With the emergence of science and a concurrent skepticism of the value of tradition, people began to see their lives through the lens of individualism and free thinking. Galileo led the way to be followed by a triumvirate of great thinkers—David Hume, Immanuel Kant and John Mill, who each in their own way solidified the notion that secular and religious considerations did not belong together.

David Hume (1711-1776) is recognized to be perhaps the greatest philosopher to ever write in the English language as well as being a giant of The Enlightenment. He is credited to reviving a classical skepticism to the issues of his time. As a true member of a new breed of rationalists who dominated his era, he asserted that if we really want to know what human life is all about we need to adopt the methods of science. At the same time he felt that there are real limits to what we can know by reason alone. He is credited with the timeless line, “Reason is the slave of the passions.”

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Hume is also famous for his straightforward refutation of the deists’ claim that the complex design of the universe was proof of the existence of God. Among his many cogent arguments is his point that the notion that the world was designed by an intelligent being makes no sense since if that were the case he would not have done a good job. There are so many things wrong with nature—floods, earthquakes, diseases, etc.—that to posit an infinite designer is ridiculous.

As for our issue, the meaning of life, in his book, “A Treatise on Human Nature,” this great philosopher says that our social relations and our social context are the keys to true happiness. He suggests that our deepest values and most important traits are social in nature. According to Hume, everything that gives our life meaning is social or socially constructed. What’s important here is an emphasis on an individualistic perspective even if in a social context.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who many believe to be the greatest philosopher to ever live, thought that the only path to a meaningful live is one grounded in rational discourse in the public sphere. Sapere audi, dare to know, is his prescription for a happy life.

Kant asserted that the European Enlightenment’s emphasis on reasoning was the line of demarcation for mankind between childhood and adulthood. In childhood, our actions and beliefs are determined by others. To be an adult is to be autonomous and reason for ourselves. No authority, religious or secular, should be able to dictate our beliefs or reasoning. Yet that is only half the battle. It is up to us, says Kant, to use our newfound liberty to assert our own freedom of thought and speech. Concurrent with this obligation is our duty to participate in the public sphere. 

Kant connects human nature and the good life to intellectual, moral and political progress but only if dictated by the free use of reason. He is a true advocate for an active and freewheeling democratic debate to resolve public issues. For Kant to refuse to think freely while adhering to prescribed doctrine violates the human rights of all of us, because it deprives us of hearing and considering your ideas. The meaning of life rests in our ability to extend, deepen, and correct what we know. In so doing, we are taking the foundations left us by prior generations and trying to build on them. To abrogate this responsibility is not only the path to a meaningless life but also is a rejection of a genuine human life.

The evolution of European Enlightenment’s embrace of an individualistic view of life’s meaning was extended dramatically by the works of John Stewart Mill (1806-1873). Recognized as brilliant at age 3, a logician by 12 and an expert economist at 16, John Stewart was the product of an intense regimen of education and discipline by his father, John Mill. The result was the emergence of a brilliant but emotionally damaged philosopher who took Kant’s public/private distinctions to their logical conclusion. In his principle work, “On Liberty,” he asserts his now famous libertarian mantra of “the harm principle;” the only permissible interference with individual liberties by another or by society is for self protection. For Mill, the individual is sovereign over his own body and mind. He goes beyond Kant in advocating for the protection of an individual’s sphere of privacy. What is private? Private means anything that doesn’t affect the welfare of others.

Mill is a strong advocate of absolute freedom of thought and speech. Counterintuitively, however, he does not favor a passive government. He calls instead for a government that prevents the “monopoly of the public space by social tyrannies and the majority.” His ideas on free speech and the protection of our liberties had direct influences on the works of philosopher and educator John Dewey. In turn, Dewey’s famous brand of American pragmatism forms the underpinnings of our entire educational philosophy still operative in our school system today. For Mill, the meaning of life could only be realized when we become free, self expressive individuals and not as a result of any social context.

Taking into account the influences of Hume, Kant and Mill, it is clear that the flowering of modernity led to the advancement of notions of individuality and libertarianism that are still mirrored in today’s society. From these three giants we can trace the evolution of three developments: 1) a profound secularism, 2) a commitment to individualism and 3) a strong private/public distinction.

The European Enlightenment contributed significantly to the advancement of ideas that we today find commonplace. However, as we shall see, their success led to a huge backlash which is still reverberating today in the form of Existentialism.