Rebirth of Reason

The Free Radical
The Good Life

The Meaning Of Life
by Joseph Rowlands

(This speech was given at SOLOC1 in 2002)

What is life? What do we mean when we say the word? Since the word stands at the center of Objectivist ethics, the answer to this question has wide-reaching implications. We say that life is our standard of evaluation when judging morality. It seems like it'd be a good idea to take a closer look at the term. This lecture is intended to determine what exactly is the meaning of the word life. I'll discuss different possible meanings, and the implications of both.

So to start, I'm making the claim that there are two very different, competing ideas for the meaning of life. I call these the static and the dynamic view of life. I believe the static view of life is the more predominant view. I also believe it to be the incorrect view, which I'll attempt to show throughout this lecture.. The dynamic view of life is far less common, but appears to be more precise and useful. I'll start with an explanation of the two competing views of life, before comparing and contrasting them. I'll begin with the static view of life.

Static View of Life:

The static view of life holds that life is a state. It's like a position you get to. An end point you secure or maintain. An analogy is being satiated after a nice meal. You've arrived at the state, or secured it. Over time, you start to lose the position, though. You automatically move farther away from it. You can then act again in order to re-secure the position. Without action, you'll eventually stop being satisfied, and become hungry.

In this view, life is the opposite of death. Death is the state at which your mind and body stop functioning. It's a point that when you reach it, it fundamentally changes what you are. You go from being a living breathing entity, to a corpse. In this sense, death is very clear-cut. We can take a similar view of life. Life, then, is the state in which your mind and body still function. It's the condition before death.

With this view of life in mind, let's look at some implications to this view of life. To start, since life is our standard of morality, what implications would that have on our ethics. What kind of actions would we take, and how will we evaluate those actions according to this view.

If you think of life as the state of not being dead, there's a lot of things you can do to prevent death. You can put a large zone of comfort between you and death. The easiest example is having lots of money. Money can buy medical treatment, food, clothing, shelter, self-defense...the list goes on and on. So to ensure your life, you could seek to gain large sums of money.

Next, your health is an important indication of how far away you are from death. You can even say it's the direct measure. Money is an abstract measurement of how far you are from death. It adds long term security, and protection against surprises. Health, though, is right there. If you fail in any of your needs in life, you can see your health deteriorate. Everything is geared towards increasing your health, and decreasing illness.

Then there's risk. If life is a state, then you have to avoid actions that might lead to death. Risk-minimization is important. In modern days, where medical science is pretty useful, and food is abundant, non-natural death is relatively very dangerous. Sudden accidents can kill you even if you're very healthy, and have lots of money. So reducing risks is one of the ways of promoting life.

You can continue this method of looking at life, and determining values. Some are more abstract. Capitalism, for instance, reduces threats of war, violence from your own government, makes food more plentiful, encourages medical science to progress, etc. You can look at all of these ends which helps buffer your from death.

I said earlier that the static view of life was predominant. Now that we have a better idea of what it is, we can point to instances of this view. There's a number of them, so I'll concentrate on some of the bigger ones.

First, there's the idea of 'success'. People strive for it, and others are jealous of it. So what is it? Well, many people would say that 'success' is having accomplished great things, or acquiring large amounts of wealth. Success usually involves having a nice paying job, a comfortable house, sporty cars, beautiful wife and kids, and a dog or cat. It can include having made a scientific breakthrough, or becoming President of the United States, or starting a successful business. This view of success is very much based on a view that life is a state. It points to a pretty picture, showing all of the things you have or have done.

A second instance of the static view of life is the goal of retirement. Many people yearn for the day they'll be able to quite their job because they've got enough money. They have this idea that maybe they'll take it easy, hang out with friends or loved ones, and stop wasting so much of their lives. They can travel the world, meet interesting people, and not have a worry in the world. I say this is the static view of life because it seeks a point in life where you are finished. You have everything you need to live. There's no point continuing to struggle because you've secured, as well as you can, the bulk of your contest against death.

A third, and similar instance of this view of life is marriage. A lot of young people view marriage as a position to reach in life. It's supposed to bring happiness. I've seen people who think that once they get married, many of their troubles will go away. They'll have secured companionship, and they'll be able to focus on other things. In this sense, marriage is seen as an end-product. A value that's achieved.

So to review, the static view of life holds that life is a state. Actions should be taken to preserve or strengthen this state. Since it's a state, you can measure it at any particular time. You can point to the money, marriage, house, or well-paying job as proof of your successful living. The focus is very much on the values you accomplish. I'll now turn to the dynamic view of life.

Dynamic View of Life:

The dynamic view of life holds that life is a process, not a state. Ayn Rand said "Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action." Notice the term 'process'. It's a "process of self-sustaining and self-generated action".

In this view, life is not a state, but a series of actions. Life isn't a place you reach, but the process of reaching it. Life is action. It's the things you do. It's the process of accomplishing goals, not just the end results of the goals. Life is action. Life is the things you do and accomplish.

In the analogy I gave earlier, I compared the static view of life to being satiated. In the dynamic view of life, being satiated may be the end target, but it's the process of producing food, cooking, eating, and digesting that we would call life. This is not to say being satiated is not the goal. That is still the ends being pursued. But life is not simply the ends. It's the entire process, from start to finish.

So life isn't just the things you accomplish. It's not having a lot of goods, or having accomplished a lot. It very much depends on how you gained those goods, and how you achieved it. It's not the money in your wallet, but how you got the money. Did you earn it? Did you steal it? Or did you find it in an old pair of pants?

In this view of life, values are still important, but for a different reason. They're not there to simply stave off death. They're there to improve your ability to live. Ever heard the phrase "it takes money to make money"? The point is that to accomplish bigger things, in shorter periods of time, you are benefited from wealth that you've already achieved.

You can think of values as stepping-stones that further your life. They increase your ability to act in your own self-interest. Each value accomplished allows you to increase your range of possible movements. Values such as money, education, skills, friendships, and yes, philosophy, all widen your scope of actions. It increases both the kinds of things you can do, and the amount of them.

If a soda and a candy bar each cost a dollar, and you've got one dollar, you have to choose. If you have two dollars, you can have both. So you can choose more combinations. But you may also find that two dollars can buy you a hamburger. So you have even more possible actions to take. This is true of all values. Having more knowledge allows you to learn even more. Having combinations such as education and money can allow for unique opportunities, such as an entrepreneurial venture or impressing a woman.

The dynamic view of life does not mean action for the sake of action. Remember, it's a process of "self-sustaining and self-generated action". The end to which the actions are aimed is furthering your ability to live. Or in other words, furthering your life. The goal of your life is to continue your life. Which means the goals of your actions should be to continue acting.

Let's get a little more specific. We're trying to improve our ability to live. So let's go over a few examples of what that means. I've already provided some values, such as money and health, that help ensure that you don't die. And not dying is a good thing if you want to keep acting.

But there's other things you need. Education is a big one, and one that's widely recognized. But it's only part of the picture. You also need the ability to think logically. You need the ability to learn, and the habits of pursuing new knowledge. You need to make judgments about what knowledge will be useful in the future, and what is the best method of acquiring and maintaining that knowledge.

You not only need relationships with people, at both the friendship level and the romantic level, but you need the ability to maintain them. You need the wisdom to pick the right friends and lovers. You need the patience to deal with any little problems that happen, and the perspective in order to judge how things are going.

Having a nice paying job is great, but you need the skills to do the job. You need the ability and the habit of seeing new opportunities. You need to have the initiative to take on new roles within the company. You need to be responsible with your authority, and dependable as an employee. You need to accomplish your tasks on time, and contribute positively. Even more important, you need to have alternatives if your particular company goes under. You need a broad enough skill set to get jobs elsewhere. You need to retain your ability to work hard and learn new jobs.

Another part of the dynamic view is the "self-generated" aspect. Gaining values is unimportant if you're not the one doing it. Life is self-generated action. Others can't live for you. They can make it easier or harder for you to live, but ultimately you are the one that lives your life.

You can contrast this with the static view of life. With it, you're goal is to stave off death. This means that others could provide you with the tools you need to stave off death, assuming that they are reliable. If you have very rich parents, they can give you all the money you need. You never need to work for it. With the static view of life, this would be okay.

The dynamic view of life rejects this, though. Life isn't just about having values, but seeking and acquiring them. If your parents gave you everything you ever desired, you wouldn't be living. You might be alive, as in your body and mind might still function, but you wouldn't be living.

Let's go further. Imagine a world where every desire is provided by another. Hungry? Someone feeds you. Want the lawn mowed? They'll do it for you. Want the kitchen cleaned? They'll wash it. You wouldn't be able to acquire any skills, because others would always be there to satisfy them. Need to read something? Someone will read it to you. Need to count to ten or do simple math? Someone's there to do it for you. Every possible need would be taken care of by another.

It's not just that you'd be completely dependent on these people. It's that your life would be empty. There'd be nothing to do, nothing to achieve, no way to improve yourself. It would be you just waiting to die. There would be no actions necessary, which means there would be no values necessary. It would be a truly pointless life.

It's not just that it's boring, either. It's that you wouldn't really be living. Think about the phrase "get a life". It means get out there and do something. Pursue values. Accomplish them.

Life is a process. It's the things you do. It's not only action, but purposeful action. And the purposes have to be yours. You have to choose them. You have to pursue them. You have to accomplish them. And when you're done, you have to choose new values. No one else can do it for you. Just as no one else can breathe for you, or think for you. Your life is your responsibility. If you default on the responsibility, the consequences are yours.

Purposeful Living:

Life is self-generated, self-sustaining action. Life is purposeful action. It is the process of setting goals, and achieving them. The ultimate purpose is to continue acting. Your actions should be aimed at not only sustaining your current ability to live, but increasing it.

Man's potential for living is an upward slope. He's born stupid, poor, and funny looking. He's got nowhere to go but up from there. In the process of living, he should gain knowledge, skills, wealth, and values. In almost every category, he has the ability to continually improve his condition.

If you're successful at living, your situation should always be improving. Your goal is to be better off every day then you were the day before. Whether it's through developing your mind or body, gaining wealth, or meeting interesting people, you are improving your life. This is the "self-sustaining" part of the action.

As your effectiveness at living increases, you can choose larger and more ambitious tasks to pursue. Starting your own company can be an impossible task for someone without relevant knowledge, money, contacts, and skills. As you acquire them, the task becomes easier. In this way, life always progresses. Your range of action increases, and goals that used to be difficult become easier. Tasks that were out of your range move into your sphere of action. Your actions become more advanced as you take advantage of more of your past achievements.

Life requires purposeful action. But we need to take a dynamic view here as well. Just because your actions are immediately aimed at some value does not make them purposeful in the fullest sense of term. Instead, your actions over time need to be integrated towards a common goal. Each successful action should move you farther along your path.

This brings up the idea of stagnation. Under the static view of life, stagnation is fine. It doesn't matter that you're not doing anything with your life, as long as you are able to stay alive. The dynamic view, though, rejects stagnation. Performing the same actions over time, with no change to your situation, is not living. It's merely waiting to die.

Action is goal directed. You act in order to achieve values. If over time you act without any positive results, it's as if you didn't act. You've gained nothing from your effort, except staving off death for a little longer. Your actions lose any purpose.

Of course, in the short term they still appear goal-directed. You may farm your land to provide enough food to survive, and continue every year. Every action you take is aimed at some goal. But when seen from a larger perspective, you realize that nothing is being accomplished. What little life you have is fading away slowly, with nothing gained. Every year you accomplish nothing is a year wasted.

Now that the dynamic view of life is clearer, we can reevaluate a few points. Earlier I discussed the word 'success' from the point of view of life as a state. We can see how the dynamic view of life is much different. In the static view, it was all about what you possess, and what goals you have accomplished. The dynamic view also includes these, but only as part of the complete picture. Success in this sense means successful at living. It includes your past accomplishment since they pertain to your current and future ability to live. But it also includes much more, like pride, confidence, skills, knowledge, adaptability, courage, etc.

A man who is successful at living is someone who seeks proper values, and achieves them. It's a man who can face change or adversity, and who deals with it. It's a man who's comfortable with himself and his life. Who likes where he is, and where he's going. It's the independent man, who controls his own destiny. It's the man who deals effectively with the world, and deals fairly with himself. It's the man who has the courage to act, the strength of will to pursue that which he knows is right. In short, it's the man who knows how to live, and acts accordingly.

Contrast this with the static view. One has wealth, the other has the ability to produce wealth. One has a relationship, the other has the values desirable in a relationship. One has a college degree, the other has the appropriate knowledge, and the ability and will to learn new subjects. One has gotten somewhere, the other is always going somewhere.

I also mentioned that in the static view of life, risk is to be avoided. If avoiding death is the goal, then you have to be very careful. Never rock the boat. Never take a chance that might leave you in a bad situation.

The dynamic view of life is far different. Risk is a part of life. It makes sense to reduce your chances of failure or worse, but living is the real purpose. If you have to choose between risk and not acting, you would take the risk. If you get to a point in your life where the best opportunities are fairly risky, you take them. In this view, it's far better to live and fail, then to sit idle waiting for death. This is the idea behind the phrase "It's better to have loved and lost, then never to have loved at all". Just substitute 'lived' for 'loved'.

I also mentioned Capitalism as a good in the static view of life. How does the dynamic view look at it? Well, instead of saying that Capitalism is good because it enhances your chance of survival by reducing war, crime, and poverty, the dynamic view of life would say that Capitalism is good because it is the only system that really allows you to live. Freedom is a prerequisite for any action, and since your life is the actions you take, Capitalism is the only system truly compatible with life. That the results are great is nice as well, of course. But it's secondary to the freedom. Ask yourself if you'd give up some of your wealth in order to ensure you were left free. Fortunately, there's no trade-off between wealth and freedom.

Aren't they just the same?

This finishes up my initial discussion of the static vs. dynamic views of life. I now want to show how they compare in practice. Before I do, though, there's one last topic to discuss. Since most people use a combination of the two views in everyday thinking and conversation, we should ask one more question. Aren't these views really just the same? Or maybe just different aspects of the same thing?

What might lead someone to this question? Well, the static view of life could be "expanded" to include a lot of the elements of the dynamic view. For instance, you might say that having skills and abilities help ensure that you stay alive. The ability to learn, for instance, would be a good hedge against any future changes in your occupation, or other situations that require a lot of new ideas.

With this in mind, you could then claim that the static view of life is also concerned not just with whether you're alive, but in how you stay alive. Certain methods are more conducive to staying alive, and they'll allow you to stay alive in the future. Working hard and understanding your job can be seen as directly promoting the static view of life as well.

So are they the same? There's certainly a lot of overlap. I think there's a number of big differences, though.

The first is the goal. In the static view of life, you aim to avoid death. It upholds a negative as your source of values. It's all a struggle against death, which you'll eventually lose. When many people think this through, they ask questions like "what's the point of it all? I'm going to die anyway, aren't I?"

In the dynamic view of life you aim to live your life and enjoy the process of living it. Your goal isn't to prevent death, except in that death prevents you from continuing to live. You aim at the positive. The static view just can't be made to match the dynamic view. Even if you try to include elements of the dynamic view, such as your ability to grow as a person, or your mental habits you've developed, the ends are just too different. If given an opportunity to abandon all action for certain security, the static view would take it, and the dynamic view wouldn't. An example is a technological marvel that puts you on a respirator, feeds your body all the nutrients it wants, but doesn't allow you to physically act. Yes, your body would still live on. But that's not life!

A second difference is a matter of focus. What aspect of life do you focus on. In the static view, you focus on the state. Even if you claim that a correct process works towards a better state, you still have a predisposition towards looking at what you have, and not how you got it. The view that life is a process, though, keeps you focused on the fact that you are an acting human being. You look at what you're doing, and not what you've done.

Hopefully this should clear up any lingering questions about the differences between the two. I'll now turn to some applications of the two views.


The concept of happiness is also at the center of Objectivist ethics. It's something we all strive for. But what is it? I claim that there are two fundamentally different ideas of what happiness is, depending on which meaning of life you accept.

In the static view of life, happiness is a point you reach. It can include a number of things, like a wife, kids, a nice house, the gold watch you always wanted, and money in the bank. When people ask "What would make you happy", it's the static view of life. It's the claim that happiness is something you achieve, and then it's yours. "If I just had my own house, I'd be happy." "If only I could marry this girl, I'd be happy".

In this view of happiness, it's the things you have, or the things you've accomplished that makes you happy. With this in mind, other people could make you happy. If they gave you money, love, a sense of accomplishment. And even those who claim you can't buy happiness often think in terms of life as a state. They think money won't do it, but love will. Meeting the person of your dreams is all you need to do. In any case, the static view always points to something as the source of your happiness.

The dynamic view of life rejects this. Life is a process. Happiness is the enjoyment of the process of living. It's not about what you have, but how you live your life. Do you enjoy your job. Are you excited about your future. Are you comfortable with your accomplishments. Do you like the people with which you associate. Are you proud of who you are, and what you've done?

Happiness isn't the temporary feeling of joy that occurs when you get something you always wanted, or you succeed in a great accomplishment. Those are good too. But happiness is more than that. It's an emotional response to a proper evaluation of your own life. The evaluation integrates all of your actions, your values pursued, and every other part of your life. It's the judgment of how well you are living your life.


Another area where a static view of life differs from a dynamic view is in the realm of relationships. From the static view, a relationship is something to acquire, and maybe maintain. You get married to someone, and that's a value gain. You have friends that share values with you. You succeed in creating relationship with people, and maintaining them. You're happy with the fact that you're together with someone great.

The dynamic view has a different focus. It doesn't ask whether you have friendships or are married. It asks what values are you getting from them. Having a friend is not enough. What's the point? Well, the point may be to share experiences with. To take on challenges together. To face the world with someone you trust.

Your goal is never to merely maintain a friendship. It's to enjoy a friendship. You have friends in order to achieve values. To enhance your experience of living. Friendships open up opportunities. They allow actions that are not possible without them. The dynamic view of life makes you ask "How can I gain satisfaction and enjoyment from this relationship".

This is similar with other forms of relationships, including romantic relationships. The dynamic view of life always looks at what the relationship is providing. If it's not much, you should act to improve it. Is your romance fading? Do something about it! Spend a weekend together. Write a poem. Tell her how beautiful and intelligent you think she is. Never take a relationship as a given, never to be questioned. Earn the relationship, and make it work for you. Don't do just enough to prevent your spouse from leaving you. Make it as great as possible.


I briefly mentioned health as the primary value in the static view of life. It's your distance from death, after-all. So in this sense, the measurement of health is how likely you are to not die, now and in the future.

The dynamic view of health is a bit wider. It's not just a matter of how likely you are to die, but how able you are to live. Are you fit enough to enjoy exercising? Are you strong enough to move your own furniture. How about mental health? Some slight cases of mental illness may not cause you to die, but certainly affect your ability to live. So in this sense, the dynamic view of life views health as a much wider concept.

But there's another difference. The static view of life holds health as some kind of duty. You have to maintain it, since it's what prevents you from dying. Can you smoke? Never. That stuff can kill you. What should you eat? Only what the doctors say is best for you. Tofu, wheat germ, and seaweed. How often should you exercise? Every other day. In what form should you exercise? Anything without risk. No sports, cause you could hit your head. No wind-surfing, cause you could get eaten by sharks. Something nice, safe, and boring. Like jogging. Or yoga.

Of course, the dynamic view of life doesn't buy into any of that. Sure, exercise is good for you, and enables you to live a better life. But it's not a duty. It's part of the process of living. Find ways to enjoy it. Pick the exercises you get excited about. Make trade-offs between exercise and other activities. You're not living in order to stay alive. You stay alive in order to live.


The last topic I want to discuss is ethics. In a way, this whole talk has dealt with morality. But I want to address a few specific differences.

Since life is that standard of morality, obviously the differences in views have different results. The static view, always looking at a particular state or condition, will look primarily at the results. How you got there isn't important. What you're going to do now is also not very important. It's only what you have, and how that prevents you from dying.

The dynamic view looks closer at method. It claims that your life is a process, a series of action unified towards a common goal. It also cares about where you are right now, but only in the context of where you're doing with it. Having a nice job is nice under both views, but the dynamic view also looks at how you do your job, and where you're going from here.

Since the dynamic view is more focused on the process, it's not surprising that it is more compatible with the idea of virtues. Virtues are guides to living your life. They're guides to how to act, and what actions to take. The static view, only concerned with results, is much harder to associate with virtues. Many people try, showing that virtues lead to the best conclusions, but it's so indirect, and there's always imaginary scenarios where it'd work better defying your virtues.

But working better by what standard? By the standard of a static view of life. A view of values you possess, and the condition you're living in at some point. Under the dynamic view of life, virtues are far more important. They enable you not only to gain particular values, but make it easier for you to gain future values as well. Through virtues, you develop the correct moral habits, that enhance your ability to live. You don't just achieve values. You achieve the ability to achieve values.

The dynamic view of life holds that it's not just the values you pursue that are important, but how you pursue them. In this view, the means become an end as well. There is no moral distinction between them. You never need to sacrifice one for the other. They're all values, and so they can all be judged accordingly.


Let's go over what we've learned. I've shown that there are two very different meanings to the word life. The static view of life holds that life is a state. The state of not being dead. It looks at any particular point in time, and points to what you've got.

The dynamic view of life holds that life is a process. You are living when you are acting. It looks at method as much as goals.

The two views have very different implications in areas such as health, happiness, and success. In every case given, the dynamic view of life is broader in its implications, and more valuable as a standard of evaluation. It suggests how you should act, and not just what you should act towards.

I'll end this speech on an interesting note. It's been said that men have unlimited desires. As soon as you satisfy some, they have new ones. Many people have taken this as a point to despair about. They think that we can never be happy because we can never achieve everything we want. If you're always left wanting, it must truly be a cruel world.

Well that's the static view of life talking. When you recognize that life is a process, and it's about the things you do, you realize the implications of their wishes. They wish for a state in which you have nothing further to pursue. You have no goals, no values, nothing new to accomplish. According to the dynamic view of life, your life would be over at this point.

Fortunately, we live in a world where we can always achieve new and greater things. There's no end to the possibilities we have ahead of us. Thank you.

If you enjoyed this, why not subscribe to The Free Radical?

Sanctions: 35Sanctions: 35Sanctions: 35Sanctions: 35 Sanction this ArticleEditMark as your favorite article

Discuss this Article (15 messages)