The Meaning of Life
According to Seven Philosophers, Psychologists and Theologians
An independent study project in psychology of religion, by Tracy Marks,
Tufts University, spring 1972
copyright 1972 by Tracy Marks

from the Conclusion

Here we have seven different but related interpretations of the problem of meaning in life and how it is attained.

For Erich Fromm, man makes his life meaningful by living productively, and by using his powers of love and reason to their fullest capacity.

For Abraham Maslow, meaning is experienced by the self-actualized, growth-motivated person who delights in using his creative powers for their own sake, and who can affirm himself and simultaneously transcend himself through peak experiences.

For Rollo May, meaning is experienced by a person centered in himself, who is able to live by his highest values, who knows his own intentionality, feels the power of his will to choose, and is able to love.

For Krishnamurti, the world is experienced as most meaningful when through the knowledge of self gained through self-observation, man frees himself of the self and attains the state of passive awareness and self-forgetfulness which is love.

For Paul Tillich, man can choose to make his life meaningful by surrendering in faith and love to Jesus. By opening to Jesus and experiencing His acceptance and forgiveness, one experiences the joy and freedom of "new being" and the courage to be oneself.

For Abraham Heschel, man experiences his life as a meaningful when he lives in God's presence - not simply by encountering God in the world, but primarily by serving God in everyday life, infusing every moment with the spirit of God, and by dedicating himself to ends outside himself.

Finally, for Viktor Frankl, meaning is experiencing by responding to the demands of the situation at hand, discovering and committing oneself to one's own unique task in life, and by allowing oneself to experience or trust in an ultimate meaning - which one may or may not call God.

Self-Actualization and Self-Transcendence
Having explored the philosophies of these seven theologians and psychologists, let us return to the questions asked earlier:
What is self-actualization?
What is self-transcendence?
Is meaning found in self-actualization or self-transcendence?
Or are they mutually exclusive?
And finally, what concepts about the meaning of life, particularly in regard to self-actualization and selftranscendence, can we derive from comparing and synthesizing the philosophies of these seven life philosophers?

Erich Fromm and Abraham Maslow are self-actualization psychologists, both explicitly concerned with the actualization of one's potentialities, with development of one's own powers. As Charlotte Buhler points out in her book, Values in Psychotherapy, both Fromm and Maslow emphasize DISCOVERING one's needs and powers and developing oneself, in contrast to the existential thinkers who emphasize CHOOSING actions in the world and COMMITTING oneself to the task at hand.

Frankl and Heschel do not focus upon actualizing oneself, but upon choosing to dedicate oneself to an end outside the self. Their primary concern is involvement in and contribution TO THE WORLD.  In Man's Search for Meaning, Frankl wrote,  "Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual." (p.122)

Comparing these two approaches, we might ask: Is there a contradiction here between self- actualization and self-transcendence? Does a contradiction exist when one of a person's potentials conflicts with another - when, for example, one has to choose  at a given time between committing to one's own  intellectual or creative development OR responding to the needs of another person? And in such circumstances, how does one resolve the conflict?


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copyright 1972 by Tracy Marks
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