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The good, the true, and the beautiful: toward a unified account of great meaning in life


Three of the great sources of meaning in life are the good, the true, and the beautiful, and I aim to make headway on the grand Enlightenment project of ascertaining what, if anything, they have in common. Concretely, if we take a (stereotypical) Mother Teresa, Mandela, Darwin, Einstein, Dostoyevsky, and Picasso, what might they share that makes it apt to deem their lives to have truly mattered? I provide reason to doubt two influential answers, noting a common flaw that supernaturalism and consequentialism share. I instead develop their most plausible rival, a naturalist and non-consequentialist account of what enables moral achievement, intellectual reflection, and aesthetic creation to confer great meaning on a person's life, namely, the idea that they do so insofar as a person transcends an aspect of herself in some substantial way. I criticize several self-transcendence theories that contemporary philosophers have advanced, before presenting a new self-transcendence view and defending it as the most promising.

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1. For a critical exploration of the definition of the phrase ‘meaningful life’, see Metz, Thaddeus‘The concept of a meaningful life’, American Philosophical Quarterly, 38 (2001), 137153.

2. A recent sophisticated proponent is John Cottingham The Spiritual Dimension (New York NY: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

3. E.g. Railton, Peter‘Alienation, consequentialism, and the demands of morality’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 13 (1984), 134171, 164–171; and Peter Singer How Are We to Live? (Amherst MA: Prometheus Books, 1995), chs 10–11.

4. For a more careful and elaborate articulation of this argument, see Thaddeus Metz ‘God, morality and the meaning of life’, in N. Athanassoulis and S. Vice (eds) The Moral Life (New York NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 201–227.

5. Moritz Schlick ‘On the meaning of life’, repr. in O. Hanfling (ed.) Life and Meaning (Cambridge MA: Basic Blackwell Inc., 1987), 65, 69–70. Sometimes Schlick discusses creative play as being central to meaning (64–65), but his motivation for focusing on creativity appears to be that it, at its best, involves play. For similar ideas, see Harry Frankfurt ‘The importance of what we care about’, repr. in idem The Importance of What We Care About (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 80–94, 89.

6. Iris Murdoch The Sovereignty of Good (London: ARK, 1970), 41, 65–66. See also Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (New York NY: Oxford University Press, 1959), 159–161.

7. Murdoch appears willing to bite the bullet here, when she discusses what is involved in looking at a blade of grass in The Sovereignty of Good, 70.

8. Robert Nozick Philosophical Explanations (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), ch. 6, and idem The Examined Life (New York NY: Simon & Schuster, 1989), chs 15–16.

9. Nozick Philosophical Explanations, 595, 610, 611.

10. Ibid., 417, 445, 460–469, 517–522, 594.

11. Ibid., 415–416.

12. Ibid., 417–418, 619–627.

13. Nozick ultimately broadened the range of things with which one could connect to obtain meaning, suggesting that connecting with things of worth confers meaning; Nozick The Examined Life, esp. 168. However, the category of worth is overly broad, denoting nearly anything desirable, and hence is lacking the specificity I am seeking.

14. Levy, Neil‘Downshifting and meaning in life’, Ratio, 18 (2005), 176189.

15. Ibid., 186.

16. Ibid., 182, 184.

17. Ibid., 185, 186.

18. Alan Gewirth Self-Fulfillment (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 177. A former self expressed a similar view in Metz, Thaddeus‘Utilitarianism and the meaning of life’, Utilitas, 15 (2003), 5070, 67.

19. Gewirth does provide resources for answering these questions, which I take up below but set aside for now, for the sake of ordering the logically distinct principles from the literature in a progressive way.

20. Richard Taylor Good and Evil (New York NY: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1970), ch. 18.

21. Idem The meaning of life’, Philosophy Now, 24 (1999), 1314, 14.

22. Gewirth Self-Fulfillment, 178. See also Stephen Darwall Impartial Reason (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1983), 130–167, 165.

23. For more on the notion of contouring, see Nozick Philosophical Explanations, 462–473.

24. Consider W. D. Ross's remark that ‘our states of knowledge and opinion seem to derive some of their value from the nature of the fact apprehended, or believed to exist. The only rule I have to suggest here is that the more general the principle – the more facts it is capable of explaining – the better the knowledge.’ See W. D. Ross The Right and the Good (repr. Indianapolis IN: Hackett, 1988), 147. See also Nozick Philosophical Explanations, 417–418, 625–626.

25. For some philosophers who appeal to universal interest or perennial theme as a way to distinguish literature from mere fiction, see Peter Lamarque & Stein Haugom Olsen Truth, Fiction, and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), ch. 17.

26. T. M. Scanlon What We Owe to Each Other (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 18–22.

27. Peter Kivy Music Alone (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), ch. 10.

28. E.g. White, David‘Toward a theory of profundity in music’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 50 (1992), 2334.

29. Levinson, Jerrold‘Musical profundity misplaced’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 50 (1992), 5860.

30. For helpful input on previous drafts, I am grateful for written comments from Lucy Allais, Larry James, Stephen Kershnar, Jimmy Lenman, Mark Leon, Frank Snyckers, Johan Snyman, and Frans Svensson. This work has also benefited as a result of comments received from audiences at: a workshop on meaning in life organized by Laurance Kuper, a University of Missouri-St Louis Philosophy Department seminar, a Rhodes University Philosophy Department seminar, and the Conference on Happiness and the Meaning of Life sponsored by the University of Birmingham Philosophy Department and by the Royal Institute of Philosophy.

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Religious Studies
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