Tolkien Gateway

Letter 310

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 310
RecipientCamilla Unwin
Date20 May 1969
Subject(s)The purpose of life

Letter 310 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

[edit] Summary

Rayner Unwin's daughter Camilla sought a response from Tolkien to the question, "What is the purpose of life?" for a school project. Tolkien took a while to reply, stating that any opinion on such a large question required an explanation of how a person arrived at the answer. He first (as might be expected of a philologist) said purpose and life both needed some definition. Was it purely a human and moral question or did it refer to the universe? Was the question how a person ought to live? Or, what purpose do living things serve by being alive? Tolkien felt that the second question had to be considered before the first.

"Purpose" refers to the conscious purposes or objects of human beings or of what they make. "Other things" that exist outside of us have their value within; they would exist with or without us. But we do exist so one of their functions is our contemplation. They are deeply interesting because they are "other" and proceed from an invention richer than our own. We ask HOW, perceive patterns and ask WHY, and this implies reasons and motives and a MIND. Only a Mind can have purposes. This introduces the question of a God, a Creator-Designer, a Mind that is partly intelligible to us. This leads to religion and its moral ideas, which are bound up in the bonds we have with others. Morals then should be a guide to human purposes.

This only answered the smaller question, said Tolkien. To the larger question (the purpose served by being alive) there is no answer since it required a complete knowledge of God, which was unattainable. If you do not believe in a personal God, "What is the purpose of life?" is unaskable and unanswerable, since there is no one to whom to direct the question. If the universe could answer it would say, "I am as I am. There is nothing you can do about it." If you do believe in a personal God then the Universe itself is not worshipful, although devoted study of it is one way to honour Him. For believers in God, the chief purpose of life is to increase our knowledge of God and to be moved to praise and thanks.

Tolkien closed the letter by stating that his reply was much too long and much too short on such a question.