What is the Purpose of Life?

[Rayner Unwin's daughter Camilla was told, as part of a school 'project', to write and ask: 'What is the purpose of life?']

20 May 1969 [19 Lakeside Road, Branksome Park, Poole]

Dear Miss Unwin,

I am sorry my reply has been delayed. I hope it will reach you in time. What a very large question! I do not think 'opinions', no matter whose, are of much use without some explanation of how they are arrived at; but on this question it is not easy to be brief.

What does the question really mean? Purpose and Life both need some definition. Is it a purely human and moral question; or does it refer to the Universe? It might mean: How ought I to try and use the life-span allowed to me? OR: What purpose/design do living things serve by being alive? The first question, however, will find an answer (if any) only after the second has been considered.

I think that questions about 'purpose' are only really useful when they refer to the conscious purposes or objects of human beings, or to the uses of things they design and make. As for 'other things' their value resides in themselves: they ARE, they would exist even if we did not. But since we do exist one of their functions is to be contemplated by us. If we go up the scale of being to 'other living things', such as, say, some small plant, it presents shape and organization: a 'pattern' recognizable (with variation) in its kin and offspring; and that is deeply interesting, because these things are 'other' and we did not make them, and they seem to proceed from a fountain of invention incalculably richer than our own.

Human curiosity soon asks the question HOW: in what way did this come to be? And since recognizable 'pattern' suggests design, may proceed to WHY? But WHY in this sense, implying reasons and motives, can only refer to a MIND. Only a Mind can have purposes in any way or degree akin to human purposes. So at once any question:

'Why did life, the community of living things, appear in the physical Universe?' introduces the Question: Is there a God, a Creator-Designer, a Mind to which our minds are akin (being derived from it) so that It is intelligible to us in part. With that we come to religion and the moral ideas that proceed from it. Of those things I will only say that 'morals' have two sides, derived from the fact that we are individuals (as in some degree are all living things) but do not, cannot, live in isolation, and have a bond with all other things, ever closer up to the absolute bond with our own human kind.

So morals should be a guide to our human purposes, the conduct of our lives: (a) the ways in which our individual talents can be developed without waste or misuse; and (b) without injuring our kindred or interfering with their development. (Beyond this and higher lies self-sacrifice for love.)

But these are only answers to the smaller question. To the larger there is no answer, because that requires a complete knowledge of God, which is unattainable. If we ask why God included us in his Design, we can really say no more than because He Did.

If you do not believe in a personal God the question: 'What is the purpose of life?' is unaskable and unanswerable. To whom or what would you address the question? But since in an odd corner (or odd corners) of the Universe things have developed with minds that ask questions and try to answer them, you might address one of these peculiar things. As one of them I should venture to say (speaking with absurd arrogance on behalf of the Universe): 'I am as I am. There is nothing you can do about it. You may go on trying to find out what I am, but you will never succeed. And why you want to know, I do not know. Perhaps the desire to know for the mere sake of knowledge is related to the prayers that some of you address to what you call God. At their highest these seem simply to praise Him for being, as He is, and for making what He has made, as He has made it.'

Those who believe in a personal God, Creator, do not think the Universe is in itself worshipful, though devoted study of it may be one of the ways of honouring Him. And while as living creatures we are (in part) within it and part of it, our ideas of God and ways of expressing them will be largely derived from contemplating the world about us. (Though there is also revelation both addressed to all men and to particular persons.)

So it may be said that the chief purpose of life, for any one of us, is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis: Laudamus te, benedicamus te, adoramus te, glorificamus te, gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam. We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendour.

And in moments of exaltation we may call on all created things to join in our chorus, speaking on their behalf, as is done in Psalm 148, and in The Song of the Three Children in Daniel II.  PRAISE THE LORD ... all mountains and hills, all orchards and forests, all things that creep and birds on the wing. This is much too long, and also much too short – on such a question.

With best wishes

J. R. R. Tolkien.
(Letter to Camilla Unwin)

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