The American Scholar

“Is Life Worth Living?”

MY PURPOSE IS CHIEFLY to describe what is bothering a good many people today, rather than to go deeply into the causes of disquiet and unrest in the Western world, much less to offer remedies or advocate revolution. I take it for granted that we all know what we mean by “quality,” but the term “life” is not exactly a clear and distinct idea. It can stand for a number of things, and people in fact take it very differently. Some stress the value of life from the point of view of society—the need for talent, the opportunity for service. Others find the existence of another person satisfying—wife, child, lover, friend, and so on.

I think we have to start a little further back if we are to understand the feeling behind the question “Is life worth living?” Its root meaning, surely, is personal, subjective, solitary. There is a sense in which life is experienced, has always been experienced, and will continue to be experienced, by only one person: the living person. We have, to be sure, a vicarious, sociable knowledge that other people are alive, and that knowledge is both delightful and important. But only one person—yourself, myself—knows at first hand what life is.

Therefore, the question “Is life worth living?”—which has been asked through the ages—is a question that begins with the feeling attached to living by a person who is at the moment thinking about living, who knows what life is as no other person can know it and who knows whether he thinks it good. We have evidence right now on all our campuses, in all our periodicals, in all the great events characteristic of our time, that many people are saying, “My life is not of the right quality”; some say, “My life is not worth living. I want to remove myself from this society. I want nothing to do with its business and its institutions. I want to start life again on a new basis.” That is the meaning of being a hippie, of being a rebel, of being a certain kind of university student, of being a religious or philosophical critic.

A student of history such as I am might be tempted to call this feeling local and temporary and youthful, if it were not clear that the mood exists in many places throughout the world and that people who are no longer young support the views of the young, echo in their own hearts the objections, the complaints, and the rejection of life as we know it. So we

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