Synopses & Reviews
Consolations for Unpopularity
A few years ago, during a bitter New York winter, with an afternoon to spare before catching a flight to London, I found myself in a deserted gallery on the upper level of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was brightly lit, and aside from the soothing hum of an under-floor heating system, entirely silent. Having reached a surfeit of paintings in the Impressionist galleries, I was looking for a sign for the cafeteria -- where I hoped to buy a glass of a certain variety of American chocolate milk of which I was at that time extremely fond -- when my eye was caught by a canvas which a caption explained had been painted in Paris in the autumn of 1786 by the thirty-eight-year-old Jacques-Louis David.
Socrates, condemned to death by the people of Athens, prepares to drink a cup of hemlock, surrounded by woebegone friends. In the spring of 399 BC, three Athenian citizens had brought legal proceedings against the philosopher. They had accused him of failing to worship the city's gods, of introducing religious novelties and of corrupting the young men of Athens -- and such was the severity of their charges, they had called for the death penalty.
Socrates had responded with legendary equanimity. Though afforded an opportunity to renounce his philosophy in court, he had sided with what he believed to be true rather than what he knew would be popular. In Plato's account he had defiantly told the jury:
So long as I draw breath and have my faculties, I shall never stop practising philosophy and exhorting you and elucidating the truth for everyone that I meet . . . And so gentlemen . . . whether you acquit me or not, you know that I am not going to alter my conduct, not even if I have to die a hundred deaths. And so he had been led to meet his end in an Athenian jail, his death marking a defining moment in the history of philosophy.
An indication of its significance may be the frequency with which it has been painted. In 1650 the French painter Charles-Alphonse Dufresnoy produced a Death of Socrates, now hanging in the Galleria Palatina in Florence (which has no cafeteria).
The eighteenth century witnessed the zenith of interest in Socrates' death, particularly after Diderot drew attention to its painterly potential in a passage in his Treatise on Dramatic Poetry.
Jacques-Louis David received his commission in the spring of 1786 from Charles-Michel Trudaine de la Sablière, a wealthy member of the Parlement and a gifted Greek scholar. The terms were generous, 6,000 livres upfront, with a further 3,000 on delivery (Louis XVI had paid only 6,000 livres for the larger Oath of the Horatii). When the picture was exhibited at the Salon of 1787, it was at once judged the finest of the Socratic ends. Sir Joshua Reynolds thought it 'the most exquisite and admirable effort of art which has appeared since the Cappella Sistina, and the Stanze of Raphael. The picture would have done honour to Athens in the age of Pericles.'
I bought five postcard Davids in the museum gift-shop and later, flying over the ice fields of Newfoundland (turned a luminous green by a full moon and a cloudless sky), examined one while picking at a pale evening meal left on the table in front of me by a stewardess during a misjudged snooze.
Plato sits at the foot of the bed, a pen and a scroll beside him, silent witness to the injustice of the state. He had been twenty-nine at the time of Socrates' death, but David turned him into an old man, grey-haired and grave. Through the passageway, Socrates' wife, Xanthippe, is escorted from the prison cell by warders. Seven friends are in various stages of lamentation. Socrates' closest companion Crito, seated beside him, gazes at the master with devotion and concern. But the philosopher, bolt upright, with an athlete's torso and biceps, shows neither apprehension nor regret. That a large number of Athenians have denounced him as foolish has not shaken him in his convictions. David had planned to paint Socrates in the act of swallowing poison, but the poet André Chenier suggested that there would be greater dramatic tension if he was shown finishing a philosophical point while at the same time reaching serenely for the hemlock that would end his life, symbolizing both obedience to the laws of Athens and allegiance to his calling. We are witnessing the last edifying moments of a transcendent being.
If the postcard struck me so forcefully, it was perhaps because the behaviour it depicted contrasted so sharply with my own. In conversations, my priority was to be liked, rather than to speak the truth. A desire to please led me to laugh at modest jokes like a parent on the opening night of a school play. With strangers, I adopted the servile manner of a concierge greeting wealthy clients in a hotel -- salival enthusiasm born of a morbid, indiscriminate desire for affection. I did not publicly doubt ideas to which the majority was committed. I sought the approval of figures of authority and after encounters with them, worried at length whether they had thought me acceptable. When passing through customs or driving alongside police cars, I harboured a confused wish for the uniformed offcials to think well of me.
But the philosopher had not buckled before unpopularity and the condemnation of the state. He had not retracted his thoughts because others had complained. Moreover, his confidence had sprung from a more profound source than hot-headedness or bull-like courage. It had been grounded in philosophy. Philosophy had supplied Socrates with convictions in which he had been able to have rational, as opposed to hysterical, confidence when faced with disapproval.
That night, above the ice lands, such independence of mind was a revelation and an incitement. It promised a counterweight to a supine tendency to follow socially sanctioned practices and ideas. In Socrates' life and death lay an invitation to intelligent scepticism.
And more generally, the subject of which the Greek philosopher was the supreme symbol seemed to offer an invitation to take on a task at once profound and laughable: to become wise through philosophy. In spite of the vast differences between the many thinkers described as philosophers across time (people in actuality so diverse that had they been gathered together at a giant cocktail party, they would not only have had nothing to say to one another, but would most probably have come to blows after a few drinks), it seemed possible to discern a small group of men, separated by centuries, sharing a loose allegiance to a vision of philosophy suggested by the Greek etymology of the word -- philo, love; sophia, wisdom -- a group bound by a common interest in saying a few consoling and practical things about the causes of our greatest griefs. It was to these men I would turn.
“Todd May is something of a legend, known for his lively, conversational style of discourse, and this book—on no less than the meaning of life—showcases all of his best features. It is engaging and clear, with vivid examples from literature and May’s own life. It addresses a topic of very broad interest, yet it does so in a philosophically sophisticated way. Despite Pierre Hadot’s claim that all ancient philosophy was about the meaning of life, there is surprisingly little engagement of the question by contemporary philosophers. May’s book fills this void marvelously.”
“In A Significant Life, May has produced a tour de force. It is a thoughtful, subtle, beautifully written discussion of what it takes to live a meaningful life. A careful study of this book will tell you what it takes to make life worth living. It is refreshing to encounter someone worrying about such a big question in the small-minded times we live in, and an absolute joy to discover that he may actually have provided an answer.”
“In this eloquent and inspiring book, May argues that meaning in life is not given to us by God or the universe; nor is it, as the existentialists claimed, something we invent for ourselves. It is found instead in living in accordance with what he calls ‘narrative values,’ which inform and structure our lives as wholes. May’s arguments are often illustrated with examples drawn from literature and his writing is frequently lyrical, though always accessible. The book does not claim to reveal the meaning of life. May is a seeker rather than a proselytizer. Indeed, it is in part because he is not content with simplistic certainties that he is able to offer such wise guidance in our efforts to understand how and why our lives matter.”
“This is an engaging, beautifully written book that grabs the reader from the first page—something one cannot often say about a philosophy book. More important, May has given us a wise, humane reflection on one of the central questions of philosophy—what makes for a meaningful life? While accessible to a broad audience, A Significant Life also makes a significant contribution to the scholarly literature. I highly recommend it.”
“May’s book is a thoughtful, widely accessible, and comprehensive account of meaning in life. . . . As someone well acquainted with work on life’s meaning composed by professional philosophers, I have profited from reading May’s book, especially his discussion of what can confer (substantial) meaning on a person’s life. I especially recommend his work in virtue of it being a ‘good read’, avoiding technicalities and reflecting on everyday examples with insight. It would be ideal to assign for an upper-level undergraduate course or to share as a gift with reflective friends and family outside the academy.”
Philosopher Todd Mays latest book helps readers to find meaning in their lives, especially those readers who, like Camus, do not look to God. As Camus says of daily life, But then one day the why arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.” To move beyond that weariness tinged with amazement, we must look, May argues, toward a realm of values that inheres in our practices but that we rarely reflect on systematically: narrative values. Narrative values offer thematic meaning and a sense of worth to the trajectory of our lives.
The book proceeds in five stages. In the first chapter, May raises the question of meaningfulness, and then rejects the answers he thinks are too easyGod and the universe. The second chapter considers and rejects the possibility that happiness is good enough. For a life to be meaningful in the sense many of us seek, it cannot only feel good to us: it must also meet certain, more objective criteria of meaningfulness. In the third chapter, the heart of the book, May proposes narrative values as offering those criteria or standards of meaning, values such as steadfastness, adventurousness, or gracefulness. In chapter four, May contrasts narrative values with both moral values and aesthetic ones, and in chapter five May defends the idea that we can have standards or criteria of meaning that are objectivenot simply a matter of personal opinioneven in the absence of God or some foundation upon which to rest our beliefs. May reflects on what it is to have a meaningful life, and how much or how little comfort we can take from the meaning our lives might express. Narrative values do not offer us an assurance that our lives have a cosmic significance, and they do not redeem all humankind. Instead, they give us a framework for reflecting on ourselves that allow us to make sense of and give value to the particular bent of the arc of our lives.
What makes for a good life, or a beautiful one, or, perhaps most important, a meaningful one? Throughout history most of us have looked to our faith, our relationships, or our deeds for the answer. But in A Significant Life, philosopher Todd May offers an exhilarating new way of thinking about these questions, one deeply attuned to life as it actually is: a work in progress, a journey—and often a narrative. Offering moving accounts of his own life and memories alongside rich engagements with philosophers from Aristotle to Heidegger, he shows us where to find the significance of our lives: in the way we live them.
May starts by looking at the fundamental fact that life unfolds over time, and as it does so, it begins to develop certain qualities, certain themes. Our lives can be marked by intensity, curiosity, perseverance, or many other qualities that become guiding narrative values. These values lend meanings to our lives that are distinct from—but also interact with—the universal values we are taught to cultivate, such as goodness or happiness. Offering a fascinating examination of a broad range of figures—from music icon Jimi Hendrix to civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, from cyclist Lance Armstrong to The Portrait of a Lady’s Ralph Touchett to Claus von Stauffenberg, a German officer who tried to assassinate Hitler—May shows that narrative values offer a rich variety of criteria by which to assess a life, specific to each of us and yet widely available. They offer us a way of reading ourselves, who we are, and who we might like to be.
Clearly and eloquently written, A Significant Life is a recognition and a comfort, a celebration of the deeply human narrative impulse by which we make—even if we don’t realize it—meaning for ourselves. It offers a refreshing way to think of an age-old question, of quite simply, what makes a life worth living.
About the Author
Todd May is Class of 1941 Memorial Professor of the Humanities at Clemson University. He is the author of many books, including Friendship in an Age of Economics, Contemporary Movements and the Thought of Jacques Rancière, and Death.
Table of Contents
Chapter One: A Meaningful Life?
Chapter Two: Is Happiness Enough?
Chapter Three: Narrative Values
Chapter Four: Meaningful Lives, Good Lives, Beautiful Lives
Chapter Five: Justifying Ourselves to Ourselves
Conclusion: Not Everything, But Something
Suggestions for Further Reading
Read an exclusive essay by Alain de Botton