Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It


Philosopher and novelist Daniel Klein is the bestselling author of Travels with Epicurus and Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar. Klein attended Harvard College where he received a B.A. in philosophy. After his academic years he spent some time writing comedy for television, then moved to writing books of fiction. He collected short quotes in a notebook during his twenties and thirties and reflects on these “pithies”, as he labeled them, in his most recent book Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It.

On why he started saving quotes in a notebook Daniel writes:

The reason for that decision—and for this notebook—was that I had hoped to find some guidance from the great philosophers on how best to live my life.

I jot down quotes that speak to me as well, so I was intrigued by this little red book with the dog on the cover. Reading the above excerpt on the first page had me hooked. Isn’t that exactly why we, surely I, read the works of the philosophers and scribble thoughts and aphorisms, or in our current technological age cut and paste them into an Evernote’book. Isn’t that why I’m still pondering and reading, and morphing this site into a repository of thoughts, ideas, stories, and advice on living — better.

Well, yes. Yes it is.

So with vigor and grand expectations I turned to the second page where Daniel admits to giving up on the aphorisms notebook in his midthirties. The responsibilities of living took precedence; searching for the meaning of life seemed naive. His notebook was boxed up and forgotten.

Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans. — John Lennon

Oh no, I thought. If a Harvard graduate with a degree in philosophy is discouraged by the study of thought and compare, what hope is there for I? Well, fear not, the book doesn’t end on page two. Forty years later Daniel stumbled upon his notebook and admits, regrettably, to wishing he had continued his collection. He realized he was still drawn to the ideas of the aged thinkers whom continually contemplated the question of how-to-live. However, as many of us find when immersed in the act of modern day survival, the direction we want to go isn’t necessarily the direction we’re being pushed. Philosophy, he felt, had become a questioning of the questions (what does “meaning” mean?) (how do we know what is real and true?). The meaning of life, and the investigation of better living, had become the responsibility of motivational speakers and daytime television shows. The deep introspection that should be induced was lost. Today we might find this to be the role of a mass number of the shirtless and back-side selfie social media accounts trying to gain followers in the form of photography turned memes and quotes turned platitudes. I don’t “follow” quotes but I appreciate when a genuine person inserts a quote that helps convey their current mindset; often someone else has more eliquently stated what we are feeling. In that respect quotes are beautiful, they motivate, inspire, and inform, but they’ve been hijacked and morphed into an easy and oft mindless task of content creation. I’ll stop there before I digress into a diatribe on social media, which I’ll be using to share this post.

On finding the notebook forty years later Daniel writes:

After initially scoffing at my youthful naivete, I now realize that those how-to-live questions were still very much alive in my mind. Sure, time had crept on and my life, with its ups and downs, had simply happened, as lives tend to do, but my appetite for philosophical ideasabout life had not diminished in the least. In fact, as I look at life from the vantage point of my eighth decade, my hankering for such has only increased. Late in the game as it may be, I still want to live my final years the best way I can. But more compellingly, I find myself at the stage of life when I want to give my personal history one last look-through, and I am curious to see how it measures up to fully considered ideas of a good life.

The rediscovery prompted Daniel to resume the collection of quotes and write down his thoughts on them. The exercise became this book; concise philosophical tenets about how to live along with his personal commentary. Below are a few of the aphorisms that resonated with me which Daniel examines, dissects, and elaborates upon in detail. Reading these, accompanied with the stories and thoughts of a philosopher in his own right, is illuminating. Daniel intertwines the theories and schools of thought of other philosophers and writers and links the wisdom of the sages that span centuries.

Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for. — Epicurus


Life oscillates like a pendulum, back and forth between pain and boredom. — Arthur Schopenhauer


Existence precedes essence. — Jean-Paul Sartre

Of Albert Camus and Sartre work Klein comments:

When all is said and done, this Existentialist precept resonates with me more than any other philosophy of life I know. The idea that life’s meaning is not something to look for but something to create myself feels right to me.


The secret to the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is: to live dangerously! — Friedrich Nietzsche


Nature, with her customary beneficence, has ordained that man shall not learn how to live until the reasons for living are stolen from him, that he shall find no enjoyment until he has become incapable of vivid pleasure. — Giacomo Leopardi

Daniel expounds:

To put it another way, the pursuit of happiness is a guaranteed dead end, but if you give up on that pursuit, you just might have some wild and crazy times out there.

The goods of the mind are at least as important as the goods of the body. — Bertrand Russell

On Russell’s quote, Daniel interprets as:

Russell is not just saying that thinking is a prerequisite for leading a gratifying life as Socrates meant when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Rather, Russell believes that examining life is one of the essential treats that make life worth living.


Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone. It has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone. — Paul Tillich


Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in the way in which our visual field has no limits. — Ludwig Wittgenstein

The book is so full of rich insight I’ve already read it twice. There are more aphorisms, and Daniel’s thoughts on them, that I’d like to include, but it’s better to just recommend the book.In closing Daniel makes the observation that many of the philosophers speak to living in the present and that the meaning of life is the meaning we give it.

I am more convinced than ever that each individual has the capacity to consciously choose his own reason for living, whether that means becoming a committed Episcopalian, a Freedom Fighter, or a beach bum—or possibly all three. I also believe that deliberately choosing that meaning and then owning it makes our lives richer—more “authentic,” as Sartre would say—than if we simply let our lives happen.

Perhaps someday in the distant future I’ll pick through my notes and collected aphorisms and write a book that includes the wisdom of Daniel Klein.

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