For incoming Princeton University freshmen, the first piece of required reading will come from the shelves here at Princeton University Press. As part of the university’s Pre-Read program, which was initiated last year by President Christopher L. Eisgruber, members of the class of 2018 will be reading Meaning in Life and Why It Matters by Susan Wolf.
So, what is the idea behind this book? When we pick up a friend from the airport, bake a chocolate cake, or visit a loved one in the hospital, we’re not doing it for our own self-interest or for the greater good. In fact, the reasons and things that make our lives worth living often have nothing to do with the egoistic or altruistic motives that most people, including philosophers, think drive people to act. According to Susan Wolf, meaningfulness—not happiness or morality—makes our lives worth living.
In Meaning in Life and Why It Matters, Wolf argues that meaning comes from loving objects worthy of love and engaging with them in a positive way. That is, we act out of love for objects that we rightly perceive as worthy of love—and it is these actions that give meaning to our lives. Wolf makes a compelling case that, along with happiness and morality, this kind of meaningfulness is an essential element of human well-being.
Princeton reports on the choice of Wolf’s book in a recent article, which includes the president’s thoughts on this year’s selection:
“It is a superb example of engaged, ethical writing, and I hope that it will introduce the freshmen to the kinds of scholarship they will encounter at Princeton,” President Eisgruber says. “The book also includes short critical comments by four distinguished scholars, along with reply from Wolf — as such, it models for students how one can disagree with a thesis in a way that is simultaneously rigorous, constructive and collegial. Finally, a key point in Wolf’s argument pertains to the objectivity of value and why it matters; that question is important, and it inspires lively argument among undergraduates.”
Looking to find out more about this year’s selection?
Read the introduction of Meaning in Life and Why It Matters for yourself here. You can also check out a review of the book on the New York Times‘ Opinionator blog.