Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Irving Singer

Professor of Philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Author

"A significant life - one that is more than just happy or meaningful - requires dedication to ends that we choose because they exceed the goal of personal well-being. We attain and feel our significance in the world when we create, and act for, ideals that may originate in self-interest, but ultimately benefit others."

"A life of mere self-preservation, for which we may well have instincts, would be for most of us a life without meaning. We want something beyond the routine of a boring and aimless existence. We want to satisfy standards of value to which we consciously adhere."

"Any way of life can be meaningful to some extent if it has indeed been chosen as one's own."

"Even the dead hand of the past, as in outmoded customs or bureaucracies, retains its power over the present only by a constantly renewed acquiescence among those who submit to it."

"Every moment of fulfillment or consummation symbolically defeats the idea of death. It is as if our experience proclaimed to the world: "Though I will die, at least I have achieved this much." Through deeds that are humane, artistic, or merely nurturing, the imagination propels us into a time when we will no longer be, but whatever we care about will survive and possibly prevail. We know we will die, but we deploy our energies toward possible occurrences that project themselves through life as if it continues in the future."

"If humanity, or life in general, was created to serve a particular purpose beyond itself, our being would be analogous to a manufactured artifact. There seems to be little in this state of affairs to justify the exultation that religious people sometimes feel in thinking that God's plan reveals the purpose and the meaning of all reality."

"Love is emotion that issues into action and often employs the greatest powers of creativity."

"Human beings seek a prior meaning in everything as a defense against doubts about the importance of anything, including man's existence ... To affirm that there is a supreme meaning of life is to give the intellect an opportunity to escape the disquieting conclusion that nothing people do can possibly have more than slight importance."

"Our contemporary concern about meaning is peculiar to the modern world. It arises from our relative wealth and freedom in the context of malaise, even despair, about man's ability to achieve lasting and genuine happiness."

"Meaning in life is the creating of values in accordance with the needs and inclinations that belong to one's natural condition."

"We often use the word "meaning" in relation to personal feelings and emotional significance. It then reveals and sometimes declares our highest values. It manifests ideals that we cherish and pursue."

"Whatever our life in the present may be, and however long it may last, we are still bound by the constraints of our existence in time."

"Philosophy may help to cleanse our thinking, but only in experience itself, in stumbling through life and reflecting about our moments of joy and despair, can we learn how to live."

"Our species is unique in its great creativity with respect to meaningfulness. Our systems of meaning vary tremendously from moment to moment, from one individual to another, and from society to society."

"Problems of life and death cannot be resolved by any feeling, however rapturous."

"Rather than asking for the meaning of life as though it were a single or comprehensive pattern that permeates all existence a priori, we do better to investigate how it is that life acquires or may be given a meaning."

"Significance does not depend on fame, power, wealth, or social standing. It depends on the value one provides - directly or indirectly - to those persons who can thereby make their lives happier or more meaningful or even more significant."

"The acceptance of our nature - which does not mean compliant acquiescence in faults that we can remedy - is essential for living a meaningful life, and therefore one that is significant as well."

"We are by nature thinking beings, and if we cannot escape anxiety about the inherent structure of our thought processes, how can we hope to creative purposive ideals that are congruent with reality instead of deflecting us from it?"

"While they stand to lose more by dying, men and women who are happy or have meaningful lives tend to fear death less than others do."