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The Art of Living a Meaningless Existence: Ideas from Philosophy That Change the Way You Think

Robert Pantano

Personal Thoughts

Summary Notes

Nothing about this life is simple or clear, and from the perspective of the stars, nothing down here on earth—including us—matters all that much to anything beyond itself.


“Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough,” said renowned theoretical physicist Richard Feynman.

  • At the base of almost everything, the resulting truth is this: we don’t know. When we disregard this unknowingness, we can easily become disinterested, uninspired, and worn out of this life.
  • We can put great stress on things that perhaps don’t matter all that much and neglect experiences and things that do. We can feel the pressure and anxiety of chasing perfection and certainty, which do not exist.
  • The philosophy of Stoicism suggests that the universe is indifferent to what we want from it. Buddhism says that life is suffering.
  • Existentialism and Absurdism say that we are stricken by our need for meaning in a life that is inherently meaningless. Christianity proclaims that the condition of humankind is inflicted with temptation and imperfection.

“Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself. Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence,”

  • To give up on life entirely would be like refusing to play a game because we lose sometimes, as if the game would even be worth playing if we knew we were going to win every time we played.
  • There is courage in facing the realities of pessimism and there is strength to be formed in its name. We must be pessimistic about life’s conditions in order to face their realities, but we must also be optimistic about our ability to face their realities and form strength, meaning, and experience through them.
  • Socrates has this to say about his interaction with one particular wise man: . . . conversing with him, this man seemed to me to seem to be wise to many other people and especially to himself, but not to be so; and then I tried to show him that he thought he was wise, but was not. As a result, I became hateful to him and to many of those present; and so, as I went away, I thought to myself, “I am wiser than this man; for neither of us really knows anything fine and good, but this man thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas I, as I do not know anything, do not think I do either. I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either.”
  • Perhaps there are no ultimate answers in philosophy, perhaps there never will be, but there are no ultimate answers in music, in art, in a beautiful landscape, or in a conversation with a friend, and yet, I know of no one who does not find value, insight, love, and solace in all of these things.
  • Perhaps what we should and only can do is to try to enjoy the process of playing with the blocks of philosophy like children playing with toy blocks for no reason other than the curiosity and fun of it; not because in the end the blocks will provide something that stays up forever, but because we inevitably will take the blocks down, put them away for a little while, and then play with them again on another day, in a different way.


  • Central to Taoism is the idea that everything is in a continual state of flux, ceaselessly changing and adapting. Thus, no single idea or thing is to be attached to. Nothing is to be forced in or out of place. All is to be permitted to run its natural course, subject to the one, constant, unchanging truth: everything changes.
  • Essential to Taoism is living according to the Tao. Put more simply, it is living in accordance with nature. Lao Tzu suggests that one can accomplish this by accepting the fluctuation of everything and giving up rigid judgments, attachments, expectations, and our efforts to control our lives.
  • ...engaging in tasks with a deep focus and presence, surrendering to more spontaneous instincts. In the same way that a bowl’s emptiness allows for it to be filled and made useful, for Lao Tzu, emptying or stilling the mind allows actions to unfold more effectively. In many respects, this idea of Wu Wei parallels modern-day positive psychology’s notion of the flow state.
  • In the same way that a bowl’s emptiness allows for it to be filled and made useful, for Lao Tzu, emptying or stilling the mind allows actions to unfold more effectively. In many respects, this idea of Wu Wei parallels modern-day positive psychology’s notion of the flow state.
  • Somewhere between the sixth and fourth centuries BC, in what is now Southern Nepal, a boy named Siddhartha Gautama was born. He was born to an aristocratic family, his father, Śuddhodana, being the king of a growing state on the Indian subcontinent. When Siddhartha was born, a holy messenger prophesied that he would become one of two things: a great king or a great religious leader.


  • The First Noble Truth is that life is fundamentally suffering. No matter who or what they are, all living things are bound and connected by this intrinsic existential quality of suffering, in its broadest sense.
  • The Second Noble Truth argues that this suffering is a consequence of our desires and attachments.
  • The third truth, in a revolutionary way of thinking for its time, goes on to claim that since suffering is a product of attachment and desire, one can personally overcome and end suffering by eliminating or recalibrating one’s desires and attachments.
  • The fourth and final Noble Truth contains the steps Buddha believed were necessary to do so.


  • In general, life is uncertain, confusing, and paradoxical. As hard as we work against this, it mostly remains so. No matter our efforts, every time we believe we have some understanding or control over life, like water in the palm of the hand, the tighter we squeeze, the more it eludes our grip.
  • Sciences, religions, and philosophies make sense of the world through various methods (some more successfully than others), but nonetheless, all of them face inevitable limits: the human mind and the time in which they are devised.
  • Stoicism claims that there are two domains of life: the external—the things outside of our mind, which we cannot control—and the internal—our mental reactions and interpretations of the external, which we can control.
  • A key principle of Stoicism is understanding that if the only thing we can completely control in life is our internal domain, and we cannot truly control anything external, then one should try to maintain an awareness that the things we are concerned about could and very likely might happen, that life will contain moments of tragedy and sharp turns, and that we should be prepared for these moments both mentally and practically in any way we can.
  • Seneca wrote, “We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.” Epictetus similarly wrote, “Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems.”
  • To paraphrase the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero, while one still breathes, one still has hope. At least, in some form.
  • The French Renaissance philosopher and writer Michel de Montaigne wrote, “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.”
  • We are merely born into a crazy, sad, violent reality with a mind and body that are often all in a conspiracy against us.
  • For Nietzsche, this process, which he would term self-overcoming, is fundamental to answering and resolving the problem of meaning and value in life.
  • Kafka wrote: I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy . . . Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books.
  • If, like Sartre suggests, we see ourselves by being seen by others, or as Charles Cooley put it, “I am not who you think I am; I am not who I think I am; I am who I think you think I am,” then perhaps we must see how other people see as carefully and as generously as we can.
  • For Emerson, great artists, thinkers, and writers aren’t necessarily great merely because they have access to any higher, exclusive source of information or being, but because they are willing to address and express candidly what they feel in any given moment of life, despite how it might compare to the apparent norm.

The Art of Living a Meaningless Existence: Ideas from Philosophy That Change the Way You Think

Robert Pantano
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