the purpose of human existence

The fool’s life is empty of gratitude and full of fears; its course lies wholly toward the future.
Epicurus, 341-270 b.C., Greek philosopher, Letter to Menouceus

ANCIENT ORIENT: life as suffering

In Taoism, Buddhism and in some religious Hindu texts, there is a strong defensive view of life as suffering; the only way to give a meaning to human existence, or rather, to eliminate pain, is through some sort of vacuum of ideas and feelings. The quotes below are an illustration of this way of thought.

The wise man should avoid wrath, pride, deceit, greed, love, hate, delusion, conception, birth, death, hell, animal existence, and pain.
Acaranba Sutra, religious Hindu texts from the VI Century b. C.

The person who is searching for his own happiness should pull out the dart that he has stuck in himself, the arrow-head of grieving, of desiring, of despair.
Pali Tripitaka, Buddhist collection of sacred texts, Sutta-Nipata

Do not interrogate silence because silence is mute; do not expect anything from the gods, nor should you try to bribe them with gifts, because it is in ourselves that we must look for liberation.
Buddha, V century b. C., in E. Morin O Homem e a Morte

The greatest of victories is the victory over oneself.
Pali Tripitaka, Buddhist collection of sacred texts, Dhammapada   

The mind of the perfect man is like a mirror. It does not lean forward or backward in its response to these things. It responds to them but conceals nothing of its own. So, it is able to deal with things without injury himself. 
Tchuang-Tsu, Taoist Chinese philosopher, II or III Century b.C., Book of Tchuang-Tzu

Do not try to be famous. Do not be a storehouse of schemes. Do not take over the function of things. Do not try to be the master of a manipulative knowledge. 
Tchuang-Tsu, Taoist Chinese philosopher, II or III Century b.C., Book of Tchuang-Tzu

Try the highest degree, travelling in the realm where there is no sign. Exercise fully what you have received from Nature, without any subjective viewpoint. In one word: be absolutely vacuous. 
Tchuang-Tsu, Taoist Chinese philosopher, II or III Century b.C., Book of Tchuang-Tzu

The body is yours - but is not you. The body is a garment that you are wearing, a machine that you are using, a vehicle that you are driving. The body is your possession. Just as a person does not identify himself as being the shirt he is wearing, he should also not identify himself with the body that he is wearing. 


Existential thoughts are varied and profound in the Greek and Roman worlds, and in Middle Eastern civilizations. 

Despite an Oriental orientation, Mediterranean civilizations did not advocate the vacuum of thoughts and feelings. On the contrary, ancient Middle Eastern, Greek and Roman authors tend to see in our reason and in our thoughts the light of our dignity.

There is very often a pessimistic view of the human existence due to pain and the knowledge that our lives have a short duration.

The quotes below are an illustration of this way of thinking.

Every instant of time is a pinprick of eternity. All things are insignificant, easily changed, vanishing away.
Marcus Aurelius, 121-180, roman emperor and philosopher

Time is a violent torrent; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by, and another takes its place, before this too will be swept away.
Marcus Aurelius, 121-180, roman emperor and philosopher

Life is a campaign, a brief staying in a strange region.
Marcus Aurelius, 121-180, roman emperor and philosopher

Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.
Heraclites, 540-480 b. C., Greek philosopher, On Nature

Life is a child moving counters in a game.
Heraclites, 540-480 b. C., Greek philosopher, On Nature

We don’t live as we wish, but as we can.
Terence, 190-159 a.C., Roman poet, The Lady of Andros 

Having glimpsed a small part of life, men rise up and disappear as smoke, knowing only what each one has learned.
Empedocles, 483-430 b. C., Greek Philosopher, in On Nature, of Sextus Empiricus.

Life’s short span forbids us to enter on far reaching hopes.
Horace, 65-8 b. C., roman poet, Odes

An unexamined life is not worth living.
Socrates, 470-399 a. C., Greek philosopher, in  Apology

We must remember that the future is neither wholly ours nor wholly not ours, so that neither must we count upon it as quite certain to come, nor despair of it as quite certain not to come.
Epicurus, 341-270 b.C., Greek philosopher, Letter to Menouceus

The fool’s life is empty of gratitude and full of fears; its course lies wholly toward the future.
Epicurus, 341-270 b.C., Greek philosopher, Letter to Menouceus     

He who does not think that what he has is more than ample is an unhappy man, even if he is the master of the whole Word.
Epicurus,  4 b. C. - 65 a. C., Greek philosopher, in Seneca Letters to Lucilius

The success of our plans and the advantage to be derived from them do not often agree; the gods claim to themselves the right to decide the final result of them.
Marcellinus Ammianus, 330-395, Roman historian, Annales

Live joyfully with the woman whom you love the days which God has given you under the sun, for that is your portion in life.
Bible, Ecclesiastes

All life is a struggle in the dark. (…) After a while the life of a fool is hell on earth.
Lucrecius, 98-55 b.C, Roman poet and philosopher, On the Nature of Things: De rerum natura


The renaissance retakes ancient Greek and roman thinking about the meaning of life and our existence. Side by side with hope, represented by intellectuals such as Pico della Mirandola, there is also despair and pessimistic disenchantment.

What is life? An illusion, a dream, a fiction, and the biggest well is small, because all life is a dream, and the dreams, themselves are only dreams.
Calderon de la Barca, 1600-1681, Spanish writer, Life is a Dream

Life is half spent before we know what it is. 
George Herbert, 1593-1633, Scottish poet, Jacula Prudentum

The shortness of life, our obtuseness, our careless indifference, and our sterile activities permit us to know but little; and even this little is straightway driven from our minds by forgetfulness, that betrayer of knowledge, that ever hostile and faithless counterpart of memory.
John of Salisbury, 1115-1180, English religious, Prologue to the Policraticus

To man, and just to man, God bestowed seeds pregnant with all possibilities, the germs of every form of life.
Pico della Mirandola, 1463-1491, Italian Humanist, Oration On The Dignity Of Man

We insist on believing we are free, even if between two opposite wishes we disclose the best and choose the worst.
Spinoza, 1632-1677, Dutch philosopher, Letter to G. H. Shuller.

The only fence against the world is a thorough knowledge of it.
John Lock, English philosopher, Some Thoughts Concerning Education.


Science introduces new explanations about the nature of human existence. But the vision given by science on what we are and our existences – that we are descendants of apes and, in fact, from bacteria, that the Universe is monstrously big, incomprehensible and populated by matter, without any sign of life or any beauty or meaning – is not exactly agreeable to human eyes.

Man is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes; the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him, in an impenetrable secret.
B. Pascal, 1623-1662, French philosopher, physic and mathematician

The direct ancestor of man is very probably a «hairy quadruped, furnished with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in its habits». 
Carles Darwin, 1809-1882, English naturalist, The Descent of Man 

The genes are the master programmers, and they are programming for their lives. They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rational for our existence. (…) We are their survival machines.
Richard Dawkins, English biologist, The Selfish Gene

Life is solar: all its ingredients were forged in a sun, and then merged into a planet, through components that were spat out by an explosive solar agony. 
E. Morin, French philosopher and sociologist, Method V

To see more:
Science and meaning of life
Man and the Universe


The absurd of life is born of the confrontation between the human call and the unreasonable silence of the Universe.
Albert Camus, 1913-1960, French writer, The Myth of Sisyphus

Reality is cruel for human beings, scattered upon the Earth, ignoring their destiny, submitted to death, incapable of escaping from fatal mourning, or the vicissitudes of luck, suffering, servitude and evil.
E. Morin, French philosopher and sociologist, Method V

Life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament. 
Attributed to George Santayana, 1863-1952, American philosopher              

Life is a long lesson in humility. 
J M Barrie 1860-1937, Scottish writer, The Little Minister 

The man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea.
Joseph Conrad, 1857-1924, Anglo-polish writer, Lord Jim 

Life is not an exact science, it is an art.
Samuel Butler, 1835-1902, English writer, Notebook

To live is like to love – all reason is against it, and all healthy instinct for it.
Samuel Butler, 1835-1902, English writer, Notebook


Contemporary reflexions on our existential situation are deeply influenced by science and ancient traditions. But there is another new element – the sarcastic and witty element, free of censorship, yet sometimes touching on the banal or bad taste.

All animals, except man, know that the principal business of life is to enjoy it.
Samuel Butler, 1835-1902, English writer, The Way of All Flesh.

Whoever has lived long enough to find out what life is, knows how deep a debt of gratitude we owe to Adam, the first great benefactor of our race. He brought death into the world.
Mark Twain, 1835-1910, American writer, The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson and the Comedy of the Extraordinary Twins

To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence.
Mark Twain, 1835-1910, American writer, Letter to Mrs. Foote, 2/12/1887 

Life is like a beautiful melody, only the lyrics are messed up. 
Hans Andersen, 1805-1875, Danish writer, Preface to Works 

Life is one damn thing after another.
Erbert Hubbard, 1856-1915, American writer, in Philistine 

There are two tragedies in life: one is not to get your heart's desire, the other is to get.
Bernard Shaw, 1856-1960, Irish writer, Man and Superman 

Life is a cabaret, old chum. Welcome to the cabaret
Fred Ebb, American author, in Cabaret, 1965   

Do what you will, this world's a fiction and is made up of contradiction. 
William Blake, 1757-1827, English poet, Gnomic Verses

Take care to get what you like in life, or you will be forced to like what you get.
Bernard Shaw, 1856-1950, English writer, Man and Superman 

Patterning your life around other's opinions is nothing more than slavery.
Lawana Blackwell, American writer, The Dowry of Miss Lydia Clark

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle
Attributed to Albert Einstein, 1879-1955, German Physicist

Life is sowed by these miracles that only people who love can wait for.
Marcel Proust, 1871-1922, French writer, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower


To Western philosophy the dignity of the human beings existence and life is in our thought. But this isn't the position of Buddhism and Oriental philosophy. 

And modern thinking also equates the question of our existence and life in a rather different way, stressing the contradictions present in our lives.

Oriental Philosophy

The wise man, to most oriental philosophy, is the one who is able to pull the feelings out of himself. He is the one who deserts society, who locks himself in his own I -  living a life which in western culture might be classified as vegetative.

Greek And Roman

In the Roman empire the stoic philosophers Seneca, Cicero...) also defended the mastery of our negative passions, feelings and thoughts, and the surpassing of the I as a pathway to overcome and to avoid unhappiness. But they never proposed – as in the Orient - the vacuum of ideas and feelings.

There is, in the west, a powerful tradition of questioning thought, which superimposes itself in the idea that interrogating the future and life can be a source of unhappiness. Socrates proclaimed it emphatically: “An unexamined life is not worth living“. 

The Dignity Of Life And Human Existence Is In Our Thought And Questioning

Our dignity, to western philosophy, is in our thought. «Even if the mind is a disease, even if  humanity is a misfortune, this illness and this misfortune are ours – for they are us, and we exist only through them» (Andre Comte-Sponville).

And exactly because western thought opted on questioning, the views and reflexions about our existence and the meaning of life are much more varied and rich than those produced in the Orient. 

After the long mediaeval interregnum, after the Renaissance, when western thinking began to loose its religious accent, existential thinking experienced a renewal of strength, all the more since modern science was introducing new elements about our position in the Cosmos. 

Thoughts such as those of Pascal in the eighteenth century about the nature of our lives, and our position in the Universe, are particularly contemporary, and undoubtedly influenced by scientific revelations. «There is no reason why I am here rather than there, or why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allotted to me?»

Pessimistic Thoughts On Human Life And Existence

Though the Renaissance produced optimistic views about life, certain existential pessimism, familiar to ancient thought, persists. And we can easily understand why. The vision of life that science gives is far from reassuring. The Cosmos revealed by science is too big, and man just an insignificant thing in it.

This disenchanted and pessimistic vision grew with Charles Darwin’s conceptions, revealing that after all man hasn’t a special place in the net of living beings; that we are not the exceptional, supernatural, or rational beings, in the shade of God, we thought we were.

Hence, the proliferation of negative thoughts about our insignificance and the nothingness of our existence, retaking new foundations and thoughts already expressed in ancient literature, philosophy, the Bible and other religious texts.

Contemporary Thoughts On Human Existence: Humour Concerning Human beings

Where contemporary thought is rather different from the ancient, is in a certain mordance and humour concerning our lives and the contradictions we introduce in them. Contemporary thought points out a theatrical element, associated with the way we live. Writers such as Shakespeare had already introduced these elements… but they are now carried out to new extremes, reflecting present features…

«Life is a cabaret, old chum… Welcome to the cabaret». «Life is just one damn thing after another». «There are two tragedies in life: one is not to get your heart's desire, the other is to get it».

These are typical contemporary existential thoughts, connected to the awareness of the contradictions present in our souls, to the contradictions that exist between our immortal dreams and our mortal condition; to the dichotomy detectable between real life and the dreamed one – realities already sensed in the past but only expressed in a radical way and without auto-censorship in the present.

To see more:
Philosophies of life
Life is a dream
Humour about life