"What is a man
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unused." (Hamlet IV,iv,32)
Hamlet makes the same point as Socrates in greater detail: a human being who does no more than sleep and eat is nothing more than an animal. We have the gift of reason, and it is incumbent upon us to use it.
Socrates, according to the descriptions we have in the works of Plato and, to a lesser extent, Xenophon, seems to have spent a great deal of time pointing out to people who believed themselves successful and virtuous that they had not thought at all clearly about what constitutes success or virtue. If one has not examined these questions, how can he be confident that he is traveling in the right direction or that he is not doing far more harm than good?
What gives life meaning is ultimately a personal choice, so much so that the direct question "What is the meaning of life?" has come to be regarded by many philosophers since the Existentialists as itself entirely meaningless, a group of words that make grammatical sense but are really nonsensical, like "What is the color of algebra?" (since life is not the type of thing that can have a meaning, just as algebra is not the type of thing that can have a color). Each person decides what gives meaning to his or her life. Answers that many have found compelling include:
- Personal relationships, loving and helping others
- Art and aesthetics, creating and appreciating beauty
- Knowledge, finding out and disseminating the truth
- Justice, exposing wrongs and trying to right them