Matt D’Antuono is a physics teacher in New Jersey, where he lives with his wife and seven children. He holds bachelor’s degrees in physics and philosophy, a master’s degree in special education, and is working on a master’s degree in philosophy at Holy Apostles in Cromwell, Connecticut. He returned to the Catholic Church in 2008. He is the author of A Fool’s Errand: A Brief, Informal Introduction to Philosophy for Young Catholics, The Wiseguy and the Fool and Philosophy Fridays. On YouTube you can find him at DonecRequiescat and his family at MisterD418.
The following is a summary of the epilogue in my book, The Wise Guy and the Fool.
What is the meaning of life? People love this question, and they love to ask it of me when they find out that I am a student of philosophy. Of course, as a student of philosophy, I can never just give a straight answer. I have to do what my training in philosophy has taught me to do: ask obnoxious questions to the point where the asker gives up in frustration. But if anyone had the stamina to stick with the analysis of this question, he might find a treasure.
First of all, one of the most important parts of any discussion is the definition of terms. What do the words mean? When we say “meaning” in the question at hand, what does that word mean? We can’t avoid using it, and we see that “meaning” points to some content, some idea or reality. The meaning of the word “dog” is either the idea of dog that I can think in my mind or else a real dog in the world.
So, to what reality does life point? The fact of life, and in particular the fact of my life, has something important to tell me. What is it?
Well, here is the shocking fact: I don’t have to exist. I did not create myself, and I do not sustain my own existence. Nothing that has been created can create itself or keep itself existing. There was a time when I did not exist. The rock bottom foundation of my life is the fact that I exist, and that is not something that I actively maintain in myself. The meaning of my life is whatever causes my existence.
As St. Thomas Aquinas has so logically shown, all existence leads us back to nothing less than God Himself, He who is not just something else that exists, but He who is the very act of existence itself. It is impossible for us to conceptualize God, let alone imagine exactly what it means for God to be Necessary Being, but it is enough for us to know that, in the end, God is the root cause of our existence and our life. The lover’s declaration, “I am nothing without you,” is literally true only when we say it to God.
Since God is wholly free, He does not have to create. You and I do not have to be, yet God wills our existence. And since my existence is the fundamental good upon which all other goods depend, God’s willing of my existence is love. The existence of anything is good for it. Love is the willing of the good. If something exists, God loves it. The meaning of the fact that I have life and exist is that God loves me. The meaning of life is God’s love. Just as the word “dog” is a sign of the idea in my mind, my life is a sure sign of God’s love for me.
I realize that most people probably don’t have this kind of idea in mind when they ask about the meaning of life. I imagine that most people don’t really have much of an idea of anything when they ask the question. They just like asking it and don’t really expect to get an answer. They just want to be like, “What’s the meaning of life? Whoa, man. That’s deep.” But, as always, when definitions are given and careful rational thought is applied, sense can be made.
If people have anything in mind, they usually mean something a little more like, “What is my purpose in life? What am I here for?” This is a different question, but the foregoing analysis is still helpful here.
When I reflect on my existence, I realize that I do not exist as fully as I can. I am not really fully alive. I have not reached my full potential. Jesus loves me, this I know, and he wants what is good for me. I want what is good for me. What is good? Wholeness of being.
What grabs my attention at this point is the fact that both good philosophy and Catholic teaching converge on this point when looked at from a certain angle. Our purpose is to become most fully ourselves, to reach our full potential, or to thrive. Those are all ways of saying the same thing. In the context of Catholicism, we can phrase it this way: to love and to be loved, or to be a saint. The meaning of life is love, from God and through us. It is the fundamental human vocation, “for man is created in the image and likeness of God who is himself love” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1604).