Review: The Labyrinth: God, Darwin and the Meaning of Life

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

Philip Appleman decrees: Let there be Enlightenment. And it is good.

Phil, a talented and compassionate poet who turned 89 in February, has had an amazing literary outpouring in his eighties. Recent books include Karma, Dharma Pudding & Pie (2009) and Perfidious Proverbs & Other Poems: A Satirical Look at the Bible. A poet and a scholar, he is editor of the Norton Critical Edition, Darwin, and the Norton Critical Edition, Malthus, as well as of the classic New and Selected Poems, 1956–1996 (1996) and Let There Be Light (1991).

The Labyrinth (Quantuck Lane Press, 2014), his newest work, is an elegant and wise 69-page monograph on God, Darwin and life, as its subtitle promises. Every page is rife with insights into the meaning of life and the reckoning with death.

“The large brain is the ultimate weapon, and sometimes it is aimed at us,” he muses. “We are capable of abstractions, capable of imagining things; that is part of the problem. We imagine all sorts of useful and pleasant things: wheels, shoes, poems. But the imagination refuses to stop before it is too late and proceeds to invent sinister hells, and sumptuous heavens, and miscellaneous hypotheses, such as ‘God.’ “

Phil fearlessly wrestles with religion in The Labyrinth, and reality wins: “People in general have never exhibited much passion for the disciplined pursuit of knowledge, but they are always tempted by easy answers. God is an easy answer.” He writes that “God” may “soothe some minds temporarily, as an empty bottle may soothe a crying baby; the nourishment from each is the same.”

It’s a beautiful little hardback with a dust jacket that’s also beautifully written, reasoned and true. Every paragraph is studded with secular epiphany. Each page, for me, elicited a frisson of appreciation.

As Phil untangles the knotty riddles of existence, volition, human neurosis and religion, his searing logic is tempered, always, by empathy. What we have is “the joy of human life here and now, unblemished by the dark shadow of whimsical forces in the sky. Charles Darwin’s example, both in his work and in his life, helps us to understand that that is the only ‘heaven’ we will ever know. And it is the only one we need.”
Philip Appleman, the person, the freethinker, the poet and the friend, has added immeasurable joy to my life, and that of his countless readers, who include Bill Moyers, who interviewed him recently for his show.

Moyers writes: “I came across Philip Appleman’s essay The Labyrinth at a difficult moment in my life and work, when I seemed to be groping from one maze to another only to find that each led to a minotaur of complexity and conflict. . . . I had been looking for the meaning of these things — of complexity, conflict, and life itself — in the wrong places. If you’re in doubt about where to find such meaning, take up the thread and come along. It leads to a most surprising place.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation