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LIFE . Across the centuries and the continents, human beings have revealed, through myths, rituals, religious and cultural institutions, social histories, and various other modes of symbolic expression, a central and overriding preoccupation with the creation and prolongation of life. Most of the human cultures known to us today have one or more terms to designate life, being, existence, or other cognate concepts, which have occupied a core position in the intellectual life of each tradition. The Chinese language, for instance, which does not possess an exact equivalent of the term life, does contain a number of other words to describe the seat of life or basis of the life process (such as yu, "being," and its counterpart, wu, "nonbeing"). So, too, Hebrew has nefesh/ruah, Greek psyche/pneuma, Latin spiritus, Sanskrit ātman/jīva/prāa/purua, Arabic ʿumrʿishah, and Nuer yiegh.

The identity of the human faculty or function that is regarded as an undeniable indication of the presence of life in an animated organism varies from one culture to another. By and large, however, the seal of life has been identified with the tangible signs of the presence of breath, with consciousness or mental functioning, and with physical movement orin the modern scientific fields of physiology and neurologypulsebeat and measurable brain-wave activity.

In many cultures, it is perhaps breath, more than any other single human function, that has been designated as the most dependable sign of life. This designation is confirmed by the fact that in many languages, both ancient and modern, the words for "life" and "breath" are one and the same. A particularly intriguing illustration of this phenomenon appears in one of the most ancient Hindu texts, the Brhadaranyaka Upaniad (composed around the sixth century bce), where a debate as to which of the human faculties is indispensable to the maintenance of life is resolved in favor of breath (prāa ).

Many religious traditions have attributed the existence of the world and its entire population of living inhabitants to the creative act of a god or gods at the beginning of time. According to various cosmologies, from both oral and written traditions, the divine creator fashioned the universe as we know it either out of nothing or from some type of preexistent materia prima (such as water, earth, fire, mind, or substances like tears or semen, emitted by the creator). Such traditions believe that the cosmos is therefore suffused with and supported by the sacred energies of the creator deity, and human life is linked physically and spiritually with the life of the cosmos as a whole. That is, the human realm is established within and directed by a cosmic, celestial, or divine dimension of reality, of either a personal or a transpersonal nature. As a consequence, human existence is believed to possess, both a human and a divine, a temporal and an atemporal dimension, with the latter being both logically and metaphysically prior to the former.

In addition, many religions and philosophies make a qualitative distinction between two contrasting and mutually exclusive modes or styles of life. The two categories of existence have been characterized variously as profane and sacred, impure and pure, fallen and redeemed, ignorant and enlightened, bound and liberated, alienated and authentic. In cultures having experienced colonization by Western countries, such a dichotomy can also take on the more politicized valence of indigenous/Western imperialist styles of life; or pre-colonial and postcolonial ways of being.

The first category pertains to life in a state of separation from or in opposition to the will of a god or gods in theistic systems or in opposition to the natural law or the principle of ultimate reality within non-theistic systems (such as dharma in Hinduism and Buddhism, moira or logos in ancient Greece, and dao in China and Japan). Life in this state is depicted as a realm of sin and ignorance, suffering and misery, and death (linked, in certain cases, with rebirth).

Achievement of the second, more salutary state of existence (conceived as one of wholeness, physical and spiritual integration, redemption, or liberation), is realized by living in compliance with the cosmic law or the will of God. For many cultures, human existence is viewed as real and meaningful only insofar as it is experienced as organically rooted in a divine realm of existence. This divine realm is conceived to be a celestial abode of God or the gods or the shadowy domain of the cultural ancestors. It is the function of the network of myths and symbols, cultic rituals, and cultural customs to preserve and strengthen the connection between the human and divine realms and, thereby, to guarantee to human beings the sense of reality and value that makes life not only bearable but fulfilling.

Clearly it is impossible to cover all the beliefs about life held by all the peoples of the world. The present article will merely select one or two salient examples from a few geographical or religious traditions, in hope that readers will be inspired to find out more on their own. Due to space limitations, moreover, coverage of the religious traditions themselves will focus only on their formative and classical periods.


The indigenous inhabitants of Arnhem Land in Australia believe that the world existed from the beginning; only human beings were lacking. Human life originated with the peregrinations of a primal ancestor and his two sisters. They wandered about the landscape, paused from time to time, engaged in sexual intercourse, and thereby produced human offspring and various totemic emblems known as Dreamings (that is, the world as it now is). The peoples who inhabit this territory trace the origin of all entities that constitute the world in which they live back to a "Dreaming period." It was during this timeless, mythical epoch that the life-world as we know it was established. To explore a further example: in Murngin society of Northeastern Australia, the sacred well, or water hole, contains the essence of all life. The soul (warro) returns to this water hole to be renewed by contact with the ancestorsboth those long dead, who are most pure, and those recently dead, who are still in contact with the living. Animals sacred to the Murngin are also part of this life-giving cycle of returning to the water to be purified and renewed.

Native Americans

Like the vast array of the Australian indigenous peoples, the equally vast array of Native American practices is united by a deep respect for the natural world. The power of life inheres in the powers of nature. Natural objects are imbued with sacred meaning, and in their ceremonial use they become supernaturally as well as naturally powerful. Native American groups tend not to make any distinction between ritual and theology, and therefore a successful life is something to be ritually enacted as well as imagined in a more abstract way. Many of these ceremonies include the insurance of a successful hunt, as well as contemporary hopes for life on the reservation. The Lakota, for instance, understand life to be comprised of seven rituals: The Sweat Lodge, The Vision Quest, Ghost Keeping, The Sun Dance, Making Relatives, Puberty Ceremony, and Throwing the Ball. One new ceremony, the Yuwipi, specifically incorporates the post-colonial life of the Lakota. The Apache believe that life endures through successful negotiation with the larger power that informs the universe, as well as with one's individual power, attained during visionary experiencessometimes alone and sometimes with the mediation of a holy person. The number four is central to the performance of these rituals and considered a basis for wholeness and healing in life. So, too, the Navaho's understanding of a prosperous life involves harmonious relations with the Holy People. Their rituals, especially the complex practice of chanting called the Blessingway, remember the creation of their own life on earth: their Emergence from the Underworld, as well as their travails and challenges after the Emergence.


According to the people of West Ceram in the Sulawesi Islands, human beings emerged from bananas that grew at the base of a sacred mountain. Living beings of all sorts, together with various foodstuffs and diverse sources of wealth, resulted from the sacrifice (literally, the "murder") of a coconut maiden, Hainuwele, and the implantation of the several parts of her body in the surrounding landscape. By this means, her bodily parts became sources of sustenance for all living creatures. But this primal murder was also the occasion for the advent of death. Hence, death is understood to be a necessary precondition for the creation and maintenance of life.

This kind of complementarity is also reflected in the beliefs other traditional Indonesian peoples, where sacred geography involves the upstream and downstream flow of rivers and other bodies of water, an upper world and a netherworld, inside and outside, and other opposites. For the Sumbanese, the major deity is a dual entity of Amawolo/Amarawi; for the Toraja, the marriage of heaven and earth gives rise to the universe. Such an idea of the life-giving balance between opposites has even influenced the religious traditions of peoples who later came and settled in Indonesia, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, and is shown in current cultural forms such as the wayang, or shadow theater.

Africa (South of the Sahara)

In the words of Richard Nyombi, for African peoples, "religion is literally life and life is religion." Doctrine and creed as such are less central to various African traditions than the force of sacred place and the power of sacred objects, especially as they are used in dance and art forms, as well as in festivals, ceremonies, and rituals. Each individual comes into being through social rites of passage, and gains, through these rites, the capacity to become an ancestor after his or her death. Each ritual preserves the web of relationships that give life and protects against those forces that would destroy it. J. S. Mbiti calls this African view of the world a "relational metaphysics": "I am because we are and because we are therefore I am" (Mbiti, 1990).

For example, according to the Nuer, a tribe of cattle keepers in the southern Egyptian Sudan, life is bestowed upon the universe and all its inhabitants by the cosmic spirit (Kwoth), invoked variously as "spirit of the sky," "grandfather of the universe," or "spirit who created the ancestors." This omnipresent spirit of the sky is credited with creating the world and its offspring and determining the course of its operations. From his lofty perch, he rewards and punishes human actions and upholds the moral order of the universe, by which all life is governed.

In addition, for the Nuer there are smaller and more localized spirits (kuth ) of the sky, atmosphere, and earth, through whose mediating powers the life energies of Kwoth are transmitted to animals and human beings. Specifically, this transmission of power is effectuated by the killing and partaking of the flesh and blood of the ox, the totemic ancestor of the Nuer. Even as birth necessitates a temporary separation from the primordial spirit, death is the return of the individual soul to the great spirit and its near-complete isolation from the realm of the living. The deceased are transmuted into ghosts at the moment of death but retain the capacity to return to the living in dreams, visions, and various types of misfortune.

Kwoth is only one example of such an idea of a Supreme Being, and kuth only one example of the mediating deities who maintain life. The Supreme Being is known by several names in other African traditions (and there are arguments to this day as to whether there is one African tradition or many): To the Ibo, the Supreme being is Chukwu; to the Akan in Ghana he is Nyame, to the Yoruba he is ĺrun, and in Central Africa he is Jok, to name a few. In most African traditions, he is a life-preserver who is a parent figure to the other gods, and charges them with maintaining cosmic processes; to the earth he is a husband standing behind her creative forces.


In the Book of Genesis, the world is created by divine fiat. In accordance with most of the Hebrew tradition, biblical thought identifies the basis of human life as the blood (Lv. 17:14).

The writers of the various books in the Hebrew scriptures are in general agreement that the relative length of life is determined by human virtues and vices, as exemplified by the travails of the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden. God is the lord of life and death by virtue of his sovereign rulership over the book of life.

In biblical thought, therefore, life reveals its presence through breath (ruah ) and blood. Hence, God is the prototypical living being whose life is eternal, whereas the existence of all created beings and entities is fragile and perishable, "like the grass of the field" (Ps. 103:15, Is. 40:6). God's life is manifested through action and creativity. He is the creator and therefore the lord of life (Jb. 43:14f.). Hence, to live in rebellion against his will is equivalent to experiencing death in the midst of life (Jb. 3:1126, Jon. 4:9). Such an existence will be filled, inwardly, with misfortune and misery, however favorable the external circumstances may be.

The realization that death is the fate of all living beings brings into question the ultimate value of life and its various aspects (Eccl. 1:111), but in the final analysis the judgment is rendered that those who live in submission to God's will can expect to enjoy a long and happy life and, in the end, be gathered to the fathers (Gn. 15:15, Jb. 42:17). All persons, therefore, face a choice between the way of life and the way of death (Prv. 5:6, 14:12).

In the biblical period, the life of Israel was believed to be maintained and revitalized through sacrifice. The community of Israel as a whole appropriates the divine power resident within the sacrificial oblation and shares in the sanctity created by the sacrifice. Likewise, by offering the sacrifice to God, the sacrificer also strengthens both God's nature and, through his revitalization, that of the world and its inhabitants. The covenant between God and Israel is expressed and strengthened though a system of sacrifice.

In rabbinic Judaism as it developed after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 ce, prayer and study of the Torah replaced sacrifice as the form of service to God. Rabbinic Judaism, whose central tenets are expressed in the Mishnah and the Talmud, posits the parallel existence of the written Torah and the Oral Torah. (The Oral Torah was written down between the third and sixth centuries ce). These two written documents, as interpreted by the Sages, are the sources of halakhah (the "way" or "path"), often called Jewish law. Life should be lived by following this path, according to the prescriptions of halakhah, a term that includes religious rituals as well as rules that govern the conduct of everyday life.


The New Testament concept of life rests upon the distinction between mere existence, or natural life (bios, as the ancient Greeks used the term), and true or authentic life in Christ. In the first instance, human life is finite, fragile, and mortal. As in the Hebrew Bible, to be alive is to possess the capacity to perform one's intended function and act efficaciously (Acts 7:38) and to do so in a state of health (Mk. 5:23). While animal life is sustained by nourishment, human life is dependent upon the continued presence of the soul (psyche ), or life breath (pneuma ), which is a gift of God. Since God is the only being who possesses life inherently (Jn. 5:26) and, hence, alone lives eternally, it follows that all living creatures derive their existence from him. In recognition of the fact that life is a divine dispensation, the believer does not live for himself, nor primarily for his fellow creatures, but for his creator and redeemer (Rv. 14:7f., Gal. 2:19). He who lives for his own selfish pleasure will come, in the end, to sin and death (2 Cor. 5).

While the life of redemption is available in the present as a consequence of the establishment of the new regime of faith through Christ's resurrection as the second Adam (1 Cor. 15:2022), its complete realization must await the end of time, when Christ is to deliver the kingdom of God and, thereby, put "all enemies under his feet." Since life in its truest and most efficacious form lies in the future, beyond the grave, then all present conduct is but a preparation for that eventuality. But, in the final analysis, this indestructible form of life is the result of divine grace (Jn. 3:16, Rom. 8:111), extended to those who repent past sins and accept the promise of salvation (Lk. 13:3, Acts 2:38, Rom. 2:4). The doctrine of the immortality of the soul is entirely foreign to the New Testament.

Building upon certain key concepts in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament writers declare that authentic life is based not upon God's nature in general, but rather upon God's expression of his love and compassion for the sufferings of humanity and his readiness to forgive and redeem all those who seek his forgiveness through the life, death, and resurrection of his only son, Jesus, the Christ (Jn. 3:16, 1 Pt. 1:1819). According to Paul, the consummate realization of the benefits of the "life in Christ" will occur only after the Day of Resurrection. Hence, true life can be appropriated in the present time only in the form of hope (Rom. 5:111, 1 Cor. 15). Whereas the letter of the law kills (i.e., destroys the freedom of life in the spirit), the spirit gives life (2 Cor. 3:6). Where the spirit is present there is life, eternal and indestructible (2 Cor. 3:17f.). This life is embodied in and offered through the preached word (kerygma ), the "power of God for salvation to all those who have faith" (Rom. 1:16).

According to Augustine, the wide panorama of living beings is distinguished by the divine creator according to a hierarchical order of existence. At the lowest level are the merely nutritive life forms such as plants, devoid of sensibility or consciousness. Then come sentient forms of life, devoid of mind or soul, such as cattle, birds, and fishes. Third, there is the human being, the crown of God's created order by virtue of his possession of mind and will. Ultimately, transcendent to humans, whose life is conditioned by the vicissitudes of change and death, there is the eternal, unchanging, absolute existent, God, "who is wisdom itself."

Augustine, like other Christian writers who followed him, understood God to be living in a highly exceptional, and indeed, absolute sense. He possesses the capacity to give life to the multitude of creatures that inhabit the world. He is the boundless and inexhaustible reservoir of power from which all other living beings derive their existence. He is, in short, the alpha and omega, the source and final resting place for all living beings.


In the Qurʾān, God (Allāh) creates humans from a "blood clot." (Sūrah 96.2: "Read: 'In the name of the Lord who creates humanity from a clot.'") God controls and supervises all of life, and is frequently envisioned in a magisterial and yet caring and compassionate capacity. God determines the span and quality of human life in accordance with the behavior of each individual. Humans are also judged at two moments: first, at their own time of death, and second, "at the hour"the day of judgment for all humanity.

The rules and standards by which the lives of Muslims will be judged are expressed in the sharīʿah ("path") or system of Islamic law. The sources of sharīʿah are the Qurʾān and the adīth the tradition of the actions and utterances of the prophet Muammad (d. 632 ce), both as told by the Prophet himself and as included in narratives and regulations about him recorded after his death.

A life well-lived is best judged by the capacity to which men and women might engage in the service and worship of God. As expressed in the rules of sharīʿah, such service and worship are often organized as the Five Pillars of Islam. They are: the profession of the faith (shahādah ); prayer five times a day (alāt ); fasting during the month of Ramaān (awm ); charity to the needy (zakāt ); and pilgrimage to Mecca (ājj ). Later Muslim tradition saw this ideal life as being contained in the early history of Islam. For example, the Life of Muammad by the Muslim philosopher Ibn Ishaq describes much of the setting for the establishment of these regular practices in Muammad's own example; thus, Muammad's life becomes the model life par excellence.

Many Muslim thinkers have argued that following this Five-Pillar structure is the most life-giving practice, infusing the world with a sense of God. The rich ūfī mystical tradition frequently emphasized the recollection of the Name of God as a particularly enlivening custom, in which God's merciful light could be shown on the faces of those engaged in prayer. All of the nature of creaturely existence can be known only when one fully surrenders to Godthus the Arabic word slm, or surrender, from which we derive the words "Muslim" and "Islam," also implies knowledge of the nature of life itself.

The more orthodox Sunnī and Shīʿah traditions also taught that ritual prayer and ritual acts in general give one a deeper sense of this life and of the life to come. The great twelfth-century lawyer and theologian al-Ghazālī writes that, during the ritual preparation for prayer, each person should say, "Oh God, I am purposing to read Your Book and to have Your name many times on my lips; through the steadfast word make me steadfast in this life and the world to come." (The Beginning of Guidance, 8).

The value of human life is emphasized in the Qurʾanic dictum that "If anyone slew a person it would be as if he slew the whole of humankind, and if anyone saved a life it would be as if he saved the life of all of humankind." (Śūra 5.32) In addition, the Qurʾān often mentions the physical resurrection of the dead at the end of time. "Does man think that we cannot assemble his bones? Nay we are able to put together, in perfect order, the very tips of his fingers." (Śūra 75.12) Thus, the creation of life and resurrection are imaginatively linked.


The Vedas (c. 1500900 bce), the earliest strata of Hindu texts, attribute the creation of the life-world to a variety of divine agents or cosmogonic entities, with no apparent compulsion toward consistency among the many theories of creation. The cosmos was believed to have originated from the primordial sacrifice of a cosmic superman (purua ) and the distribution of the parts of his body throughout the universe to form the sun, moon, stars, sky, earth, and so forth (gveda 10.90). Alternatively, the universe arose from the mysterious breathing, windlessly, of "That One" (tad ekam ) within the realm where "there was neither existence nor nonexistence" (gveda 10.129), or it resulted from the fragmentation of a primordial "Golden Germ" (hiranyagarbha ) floating upon the cosmic ocean (gveda 10.121). At least one sage expressed skepticism that the origins of the world can be known even to the highest deity (gveda 10.129.7).

The Brahmanas (c. 800 bce), liturgical manuals employed by Brahmanic priests, attribute the creation of the universe and its multitudinous inhabitants to a god addressed as Prajāpati ("lord of creatures"). The later traditions recorded in the Hindu epics and Purāas explain the creation of the universe as the work of other deities, each regarded as supreme among a pantheon of other gods. Chief among these are Viu, Śiva, and Devī (the Goddess), each worshiped under many different names and in many different forms. The actual task of making the world, however, is still often assigned to the god Prajāpati, usually under his later name, Brahmā, now regarded as a minor god under the direction of one of the supreme gods.

In the Upaniads, the basis of Vedānta, the focus shifts from cosmology to spiritual psychology, from accounts of the origin and operations of the universe to the birth, death, and rebirth of the human soul (ātman ). It is also here that the Hindu doctrines of karma and rebirth burst into full flower. From the Vedāntic perspective, creaturely existence (including that of the gods) is the direct result of action (karma ) performed in past lives in a state of metaphysical ignorance (avidya ). This ignorance, which pervades the existence of all creatures and is the cause of transmigration (sasāra ), results from the confusion of the finite and evanescent self (ātman ) with the absolute, unchanging self of the universe (also called ātman, but also brahman ). This phenomenal self or human personality is composed of five sheaths or layers of faculties, which account for a person's conscious existence and which, if identified egoistically as the ultimate basis of reality, serve as the causal basis of rebirth (sasāra ). The cyclical recurrence of rebirth can be terminated, and permanent liberation achieved, only after the person has come to a transformative knowledge (prajñā ) of the quintessential identity of the human self (ātman ) and the self of the universe (ātman /brahman ).

The Bhagavadgītā attempts a synthesis of Vedic and Upaniadic conceptions of the world and creaturely existence. The Gītā embraces the view that the life of the cosmos and all its inhabitants is the result of the formative activities of God, who appears here in the form of Ka. Ka is both the womb of the universe and its final resting place (Bhagavadgītā 7.6). He is the primal spirit (purua ), the source of all beings (10.8), the seed of all creatures (7.10, 10.39), and the universal father who plants the seeds from which all living entities arise. The world, in turn, is God's body (11.7). All beings abide in him (9.6). Hence, all states of existence arise from God alone (10.5). Abiding within the hearts of all beings and by means of his celestial power of creation (māyā ), he causes them to revolve (sasāra ) around the circuit of rebirth as though they were mounted on a machine (18.61).

When the life process is viewed sub specie aeternitatis, God projects creatures into being, time after time, by means of his material nature (prakti ) through the instrumentality of his magical power (māyā ). He implants spirit (purua ) within the physical organism as the basis for the experience of pleasure and pain. The human being, in turn, appropriates the material nature of God by identifying with the three strands (guna s) of creaturely existence (passion, lethargy, and mental clarity), rather than with the ātman, which is the spiritual essence of the divine nature.

Human beings, then, are bound to the factors of material nature. Their emotional and appetitive attachment to these factors provokes them to perform egoistical actions (karma ), which bind them to self-deluding ignorance and, thereby, to the round of death and rebirth. They are bound by their own past actions and also, paradoxically, by the will of God, who controls the ultimate course of events throughout the universe.

Once the embodied soul transcends the three strands that arise from physical existence, it is freed from bondage to death and rebirth and, in the end, it achieves immortality in God. Those persons who renounce the fruits of their actions and submit themselves completely to the divine will pass beyond the sphere of sorrow and death and arrive at the final termination of the cyclical life process to enjoy eternal bliss (ānanda ) in perfect union with the godhead. This tradition, in which union with God through passionate commitment is the aim of life, is frequently referred to as bhakti, or devotion.


The Buddha himself declared that the search for answers to all metaphysical questions concerning life (Was the universe created by God or is it eternal? Is the source of birth and death traceable to a divine agent? Does the human soul survive the death of the body?) is detrimental to the human quest for lasting peace and contentment. The sole raison d'être of the whole of his life and teachings was the identification of the human cause of human misery and the means to its permanent eradication. In one sense, therefore, it could be said that the Buddha was one of the first proponents of a philosophy of life.

The Buddha declared that creaturely existence is characterized by three distinguishing marks or factors: impermanence (anitya, Pali anicca ), suffering or unsatisfactoriness (dukha/dukkha ), and no-selfhood (an ātman/anattā ). With this teaching, the Buddha undercut, by a single stroke, the Hindu Vedāntic conviction that the life-world (nama-rūpa ), with its myriad of arising and perishing creatures, is established upon a single, universal, eternal, and unchanging reality (ātman-brahman ).

While the Buddha embraced the twin Hindu beliefs in dharma/dhamma (the universal law that governs the operations of the entire life-world) and karma (the principle that all past actions condition all current life situations), he radically redefined both concepts by rejecting the notion of an eternally enduring and unchanging soul or self. In place of the Vedāntic notion of soul, or ātman, he declared that the human personality is constituted of five aggregates (skandha s) or clusters of physical and psychological factors that form the core of human consciousness and behavior. The five groups of factors are:

  1. The body (rūpa ), or physical context of sentient existence.
  2. The feelings (vedana ), or physical and psychological sensibilities.
  3. The perceptual group (samjña ), from which arise the perceptions of physical objects.
  4. The mental factors (saskārās ), or tendencies of mind and will in combination.
  5. The consciousness proper (vijñāna ), the property of awareness in the fullest personal sense of the term and the factor that binds together the other elements to form a unified personality.

It is these five collections of psychosomatic factors, therefore, that constitute the functional apparatus of all human beings, the operations of which account for the birth, existence, death, and rebirth of each person. Nor are these factors to be thought of as real and permanent entities. They are physical and mental components of life that condition the multitude of situations under which a person exists within each moment of consciousness. Ultimately, viewed against the backdrop of the one, unchanging reality (called nirvāa, "cessation," or śūnyatā, "emptiness"), the aggregates or components of life are discovered to be an ever-fluctuating (hence, unreal) succession of psychosomatic events.

But the Buddha's teaching concerning the nature of creaturely existence becomes fully comprehensible only when interpreted within the context of the doctrine of causality or the universal law of karma. The Buddhist view of causation, succinctly stated, is as follows: "When this is present, that comes to be; from the arising of this, that arises; when this is absent, that does not come to be; on the cessation of this, that ceases" (Samyutta Nikāya 2.28).

The law of causation, which governs the coming to be and passing away of all forms of life, is depicted through the image of the wheel of life and death (sasāra-maala ). The wheel is composed of two causally interlocking aspects or links in a chain of causes and effects. Each of the pairs of links in the chain is dependent, causally, upon the one or ones preceding it, and each, in turn, is a precondition for the link or links that follow it. In this way, the two aspects of existence form a closed circle.

Again, properly understood, the doctrine of causation (or dependent co-origination) is to be viewed not as a set of abstract metaphysical principles but as the theoretical basis of a therapeutic system by means of which the infirmities of sentient existence can be diagnosed and an antidote administered. By demonstrating that the miseries of existence (death followed by rebirth) arise out of a series of finite conditions governed by a state of ignorance (avidya ), the teaching of causation defines the various points at which the succession of causally related symptoms can be broken and a cure achieved. Such a view of conquering ignorance proved to be compatible with other indigenous views of life where Buddhism traveled, such as the idea of kami, or life force in Japan, or the Bon practice of life-giving visualization in Tibet.

According to the teachings of Buddhism, therefore, the ultimate objective of human existence is to become conscious of and transcend all thoughtless desires, obliterate the causes of ignorance, suffering, and rebirth, and thereby to terminate the ever-recurrent cycle of death and rebirth in the bliss of nirvāa.


Human beings realize the aims of their existence through the medium of self-consciousness. Their possession of the faculty of self-consciousness enables them to exercise the capacity to transcend the sheer flux and flow of sensual experience and to reflect upon the nature of their existence, its origins, and the direction they wish it to take. Hence, they can imagine other ideal states of existence that are preferable to the one in which they find themselves at any given moment. They can, then, exercise their will in choosing among preferred states in hope of bringing those states closer to realization. For many people, mere physical survival is not an adequate legitimation of human life. They find human existence acceptable only when it can be experienced within the framework of a meaningful and purposeful order.

For many religious people, a meaningful life is predicated upon the confidence that the world and all the creatures who inhabit it are the handiwork of divine creative forces or beings, who also, in some cases, are believed to provide a cosmic milieu that is hospitable to the growth of plant, animal, and human species. Such people look to a transhuman order of being for the revelation of the basic structure of the universe and of the moral and spiritual laws that govern its various operations. For them, even the performance of such commonplace activities as eating and dying, working and sleeping, marriage and reproduction is patterned after celestial or transtemporal models. Other traditions have taught that life and death are inextricably interconnected aspects of a single reality and that all beings exist under the inexorable law of mortality. Most religious and cultural institutions that compose the fabric of the social life of a people (from temple or church to family and educational system, from fertility and puberty rites to funeral and ancestral ceremonies) have been established in response to the recognition that finitude and death are inescapable realities. Such religious communities sanction these and all other institutions in the belief that the élan vital that undergirds and nourishes all living beings can be augmented and either the event of death can be postponed or the remaining period of life can be enriched by means of these performative rites.

In addition, many religious traditions embrace social history, or their own version of such history, as a crucial element that gives meaning to life. For example, during the Passover Seder, Jews recite the life of the Israelites wandering in the desert as if they, too, were present. Historical reality becomes meaningful religious reality. Many Native American groups now tell their mythical histories in such a way that they end with recent social history, especially the ways in which colonial practices have stolen powers of life inherent in the earth and the world of nature.

Colonial and postcolonial realities, too, play a role in contemporary religious traditions' views of what is and is not life-giving. For some, the work of Christian missionaries has created a permanent shift in worldview in postcolonial times; previously colonized peoples must choose which god is more life-giving than another. The African thinker Bolagi Idowu writes of African converts "with two Gods in their hands," who are therefore "peoples of ambivalent spiritual lives." Ideas of life and human flourishing look very different in countries that have been colonized, where dominant/colonial and indigenous traditions have been engaged in ultimate struggles and negotiations for power, detente, or even simple coexistence. Christian traditions of resurrection may take on aspects of indigenous ideas about life-giving ancestors; so, too, indigenous practices may take on healing and life-giving powers of Christian saints. The practice of Santeria, in both America and the Caribbean, is one example of such a merging of traditions in the wake of the colonial and postcolonial effects of the slave trade. "Life" in these religious contexts must also be viewed politically and historically.

Many religious traditions also distinguish between an imperfect and ultimately unsatisfactory state in which human existence is set, and a more satisfying, long-lasting, and fulfilling state beyond the grave (variously referred to as Heaven, Paradise, the Pure Land, the Land of the Blessed, the state of enlightenment, or nirvāa ), toward which human life, in response to its loftiest aspirations, is striving. Among the world's religions, certain traditions within Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Mahāyāna Buddhism teach that access to this loftier, purer, and more enduring postmortem existence comes in the form of a gift, or an act of grace on the part of God, or some other celestial bearer of salvation.

How can we define life in the religious context? The very act of posing the question produces an initial sense of bafflement and perplexity. Augustine's statement that he knows the meaning of the term love until asked to define it could be echoed in this context. Yet the vast array of semantic values that have been attributed to the word for "life" in the various languages of humankind might lead us to conclude that a precise, distinct, and universally acceptable concept need not accompany the use of the term. Instead, merely asking the question brings in its wake a sense that life is a realm of endlessly self-perpetuating novelties, in which the solution to any given problem gives rise to a plethora of other questions. These questions force us to seek further for additional answers or, at least, to search out more intellectually refined, morally elevating, and spiritually salutary ways of pursuing the quest.

See Also

Afterlife; Archetypes; Breath and Breathing; Nirvāa; Sacrifice; Soul, article on Christian Concepts; Subaltern Studies.



Eliade, Mircea. Birth and Rebirth. New York, 1958.

Gleiser, Marcello. The Dancing Universe: From Creation Myths to the Big Bang. New York, 1997.

Harvey, Graham. Indigenous Religions: A Companion. New York, 2000.

Leeming, David Adams. A Dictionary of Creation Myths. New York, 1995.

Lincoln, Bruce. Myth, Cosmos and Society: Indo-European Themes of Creation and Destruction. Cambridge, Mass., 1986.

Long, Charles H. Alpha: The Myths of Creation (1963). Reprint, Chico, Calif., 1983.

Olupona, Jacob K. Beyond Primitivism: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity. New York, 2004.

Sproul, Barbara C. Primal Myths: Creating the World. San Francisco, 1979.

Von Ditfurth, Hoimar. The Origins of Life: Evolution as Creation. San Francisco, 1982.

Native Americas

Hultkrantz, Ake. Native Religions of North America. San Francisco, 1987.

Jones, David M., and Brian L. Molyneaux. The Mythology of the Americas: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Gods, Spirits, and Sacred Places in North America, MesoAmerica, and South America. New York, 2001.

Sullivan, Lawrence E. ed., Native Religions and Cultures of North America: Anthpology of the Sacred. New York, 2000.

Versluis, Arthur. Native American Traditions. Shaftesbury, U.K., 1994.

Australia and Indonesia

Charlesworth, Max. Religious Business: Essays on Australian Aboriginal Spirituality. Cambridge, U.K., 1998.

Geertz, Hildred. The Life of a Balinese Temple: Artistry, Imagination, and History in a Peasant Village. Honolulu, 2004.

Kipp, Rita Smith. Indonesian Religions in Transition. Tuscon, Ariz., 1987.

Pattel-Gray, Anne. Aboriginal Spirituality: Past Present and Future. Blackburn-Victoria, Australia, 1996.


Blakely, T.D., Walter E. A. van Beek, and Denis L. Thomson, eds. Religion in Africa: Experience and Expression. London, 1994.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. Nuer Religion. Oxford, 1956.

Gyekye K. African Cultural Values: An Introduction. Accra, Ghana, 1996.

Mbiti, John S. African Religions and Philosophy, 2d ed. Oxford, 1990.

Olupona, J.K., ed. African Traditional Religion in Contemporary Society. New York, 1990.


Martin, Richard, Editor. Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World. New York, 2004.

Rahman, Fazlur. Islam. Chicago, 1979.

Ruthven, Malise. Islam in the World. New York, 2000.


DeLange, Nicholas. An Introduction to Judaism. Cambridge, U.K., 2000.

Epstein, Isadore. Judaism: A Historical Presentation. London, 1966.

Neusner, Jacob, ed. The Blackwell Companion to Judaism. London, 2000.


Nystrom, Bradley Paul, and David Paul Nystrom. The History of Christianity: An Introduction. Boston, 2004.

Tillich, Paul. A History of Christian Thought. New York, 1968.

Weaver, Mary Jo, with David Bernhard Brakke and Jason Bivins. Introduction to Christianity. Belmont, Calif, 1998.


Flood, Gavin, ed. The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Malden, Mass., 2003.

King, Richard. Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought. Washington, D.C., 1999.

O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger, with Daniel Gold, David Haberman, and David Shulman, eds. and trans. Textual Sources for the Study of Hinduism. Chicago, 1990.


Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History, and Practices. Cambridge, U.K., 1990.

Kalupahana, David J. A History of Buddhist Philosophy: Continuities and Discontinuities. Honolulu, 1992.

Lamotte, Etienne. History of Indian Buddhism: From the Origins to the Saka Era. Translated from the French by Sara Webb-Boin, under the supervision of Jean Dantinne. Louvain-la-Neuve, France, 1988.

J. Bruce Long (1987)

Laurie Louise Patton (2005)


views updated Jun 11 2018


Bessie Head 1977

Author Biography

Plot Summary




Historical Context

Critical Overview



Further Reading

During her career, Bessie Head produced a body of work that focused on essential African concerns, such as village and tribal life, the effects of colonization, mythology and witchcraft, and the oral storytelling tradition. Her stories also delve into more universal issues, particularly the intermingling of traditional and contemporary culture and the roles of women. In “Life” (1977), Head examines the story of a young woman who has spent most of her life in Johannesburg, South Africa, but is forced to return to her native village in Botswana in the 1960s. Two very different worlds come in conflict when Life enters the village.

Life flouts convention when she becomes the village’s first prostitute, but more than that she asserts a woman’s right to be responsible for her own finances and own decisions. Despite her background, she marries the conservative, traditional Lesego. Both Life and Lesego believe that she can become a “woman,” but when Life cannot give up her independence, Lesego kills her. The story explores how and why women seek to emancipate themselves, as well as the roles that both men and women play in keeping women at a subservient level. At its most fundamental level, perhaps, the story questions what it means to be a modern African.

Author Biography

Bessie Head was born in 1937 in a South African mental institution where her mother had been admitted upon the discovery of her pregnancy. Head was the child of an illegal union between a white mother and an unknown black father. Head was placed in foster care with a black family. Head’s mother remained in the institution where she died six years later. During this period, Head’s grandmother occasionally visited, but in 1943, all contact between Head and her white relatives ceased. Head grew up believing that her foster family was her true family, but when she was thirteen, welfare officials removed her to an orphanage due to the poverty of her foster home. There she acquired an education that encouraged her readily apparent interest in reading, and eventually she learned the truth about her background.

Head studied for her teacher’s certificate, and in 1957, she taught at a primary school for black children. Head left this job a year later, however, and moved to Cape Town, where she found work as a journalist. After a brief period in Johannesburg where Head became involved with the Pan Africanist Congress, she returned to Cape Town. Unable to get her old reporting job back, Head began writing and printing a pro-Africanist news sheet called “The Citizen.” She also became involved in leftist political circles. Head married, and in 1962, she gave birth to a son.

By the end of 1963, Head had left her husband. She decided to leave South Africa, which was experiencing increasingly repressive racial policies. She was given an exit permit, which meant that she could leave South Africa but could never return. In March 1964, having secured a teaching position in Serowe, Botswana, Head left her native country.

Head held this position for a few years but then turned to clerical work and odd jobs. During this period, she continued to work on her writing. In 1968, she published her first novel, When Rain Clouds Gather.

Head had previously experienced mental instability, but in 1970, she had a severe breakdown and went into a mental hospital. After her discharge three months later, she began to write A Question of Power, an autobiographical novel. It was published in 1973.

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, Head focused on her writing. She attended several writers’

workshops as well as gave talks at international conferences. In 1979, she also was finally granted Botswanan citizenship.

In 1986, Head began drinking heavily. She fell quite ill and slipped into a coma. In April of that year, she died of hepatitis.

Plot Summary

“Life” opens in 1963, a period when all Botswana-born citizens living in South Africa were forced to return to their native country. Many of the people who are sent back had settled in the cities, but they return to villages in the rural countryside.

One woman forced to return to Botswana is Life. She left her native village when she was only ten years old and went with her parents to Johannesburg. Even though her parents have died by the time Life returns to the village (seventeen years later), the family’s land is still unoccupied, as is village custom. The neighbor women help Life put her yard in order because weeds and grass have overtaken the ground and the mud huts are in disrepair. The women are impressed with Life’s urbanity. They believe she will bring new ideas to their village.

They also notice that Life has a great deal of money, which she generously spends on the workers. She says that Johannesburg is filled with money and that you only had to know how to get it. The women heed Life’s words with caution, for villagers believe that a person cannot be honest and rich at the same time. They think that Life will eventually settle down.

The women who first welcome Life to the village soon come to shun her because they realize that she is prostituting herself. The villagers are not prudish—they believe it is fine to have sex, but they do not think finances should be part of the bargain.

As the village learns of Life’s new business, the beer-brewing women start to come over to her home. They have a lot of boyfriends—who mooch off them for as long as possible—but no husbands. Soon enough, Life’s yard begins to resemble a Johannesburg township. The respectable villagers disapprove of the activities going on at Life’s house.

A few months after Life arrives in the village, the first pub opens. It soon becomes Life’s favorite place to arrange her business. One night, Lesego, a cattleman, comes into the bar. He has just returned from his cattle-post where he has spent the last three months. Lesego is highly respected in the village. He is wealthy and generous, and he is also a clear thinker whom people turn to for advice.

Life immediately notices Lesego; she likes his urban looks and behavior and the way the other men defer to him. Lesego also notice Life. He orders her to come sit by him, and she does. They look at each other, but each only sees a false picture: she sees a powerful man, like the gangsters she knew in Johannesburg, and he sees a totally different kind of woman from the other women of the village.

Lesego and Life leave the bar together, and a week later their marriage is announced. Lesego’s friends are distraught. Sianana speaks up for the men. He tries to tell Lesego the truth about his fiancée, but Lesego replies that Life has already confessed her “past.” Life also announces the news to her beer-brewing friends and renounces her old ways.

Lesego’s life does not change greatly after the marriage, but he does make three household rules: he controls the money; he doesn’t want the radio on all day long; and Life must not get involved with any other men, or else he will kill her. The neighbors approve of the marriage because Lesego has turned Life into a good woman, but the boredom of daily life has an adverse affect on Life. She comes to realize that married life does not suit her and feels increasing anger at her situation.

One day, Lesego has to visit his cattle post. While he is gone, Life takes up her old ways. When Lesego returns three days later, Life goes to a neighbor’s house to keep a date with a man. Another neighbor comes over to tell Lesego of Life’s actions. Lesego goes to the neighbor’s house, kicks in the door, and finds Life with another man. The man runs away but watches from the edge of the yard. He sees Lesego with a large knife and promptly faints. Soon the neighbors hear a loud wail. Eventually they call the police—they initially forget to do so because they are not accustomed to murder in their village. When the police come to Lesego’s yard, they find him sitting quietly.

Lesego explains his actions at his trial. The white judge is impressed by Lesego’s calm manner and sentences him to five years of imprisonment. Sianana agrees to take care of Lesego’s business during this period. He asks his friend why he killed Life instead of simply leaving her, but the question remains unanswered.



Lesego is a successful, wealthy cattleman. His opinion is highly respected among the villagers, who often turn to him for help in sorting out issues. He spends months at a time at his cattle post, but when he returns to the village, he relaxes, spending time with his friends or attending the tribal court.

Lesego, though well-liked by women, has never stayed with one for long because they bored him. In Life, Lesego sees a whole new kind of woman. Initially he is attracted to her, but later, after their marriage, he seeks to repress what he liked about her in the first place. He takes away her independence by taking charge of all her money and by forbidding her from doing the activity that will earn her more money—prostitution. When Life disobeys him and sleeps with a man, Lesego kills her. His calm demeanor is rewarded at his trial; the judge, impressed with Lesego, sentences him to only five years in jail for her murder.

Life Morapedi

Life is the protagonist of the story. The daughter of two Botswana villagers who resettled in Johannesburg, South Africa, Life has spent the majority of her time in an urban environment. She absorbed the cultural mores of that city, such as liberal attitudes about money, sex, and crime. In 1963, Life is forced by law to return to Botswana, so she returns to her home village where she finds that she can claim the Morapedi family homestead.

Life is immediately brought into conflict with the social morals of the villagers. The respectable villagers, initially drawn to Life because of her vitality, shun her, and Life falls in with the people most like her acquaintances in Johannesburg—the beer-brewing women and the men who consort with them. Life also attempts to recreate her Johannesburg lifestyle by becoming the village’s first prostitute.

When Life meets Lesego, she attempts to turn her back on her former lifestyle. She soon discovers that she is unsuccessful because married life is too confining. She asserts herself by sleeping with men for money, which leads to her murder by Lesego.


Sianana is Lesego’s friend. He has been with Life sexually and is no longer attracted to her. He believes that Lesego will also see that Life is “rotten to the core,” but when Lesego announces that he will marry Life, Sianana attempts to forewarn his friend about her true nature. Lesego refuses to listen to his friend’s advice, and Sianana can do nothing further to prevent Lesego from making a mistake. Lesego evidently respects Sianana for his actions because while he is in jail, Sianana offers to take care of his business affairs.



Sexuality is an important theme in “Life”; Head uses sexual behavior to describe the interior life of her characters, their differences, and the social mores of the village. The first women who are drawn to Life are the farmers and housewives, but they soon begin “to shun her completely because men started turning up in an unending stream.” Life’s promiscuity makes her an unacceptable companion for these “conservative” women. The women who become Life’s friends are the beer-brewing women, “a gay and lovable crowd who had emancipated themselves some time ago.” Emancipation for the women, however, manifests itself through their drunkenness, illegitimate children, and trail of useless lovers. They see Life as their queen and her successful selling of her body as evidence of her superiority; unlike the farming women and housewives, they respect Life.

When Life wants to assert her independence from Lesego, she does so through her sexuality. She keeps an appointment with one of her customers, directly defying Lesego’s order. Although Lesego kills her, he is only sentenced to five years in jail, which shows that woman’s sexuality represents an object that men should be able to control.


The values of the traditional village and the values of the modern city are contrasted in “Life.” Life has been living in Johannesburg where ‘“Money flows like water.”’ In marked contrast, the villagers believe that people with a lot of money cannot be honest. They “never imagined money as a bottomless pit without end; it always had an end and was hard to come by.” Life, however, spends money freely on food and special treats, in fact, “anything the workers expressed a preference for.” Not only does Life have greater access to money because of what she learned in the city, she is also willing to spend it.

Attitudes toward money also point out another cultural difference between the village and the city. Life becomes the village’s first prostitute. Her ease at sexual relations stems from her desire for money. In contrast, village women engage in premarital sex but with “financial considerations coming in as an afterthought.” In fact, it is the men who take advantage of the beer-brewing women, living off of them as long as they are able to do so. These are the same men who “could get all the sex they needed for free in the village, but it seemed to fascinate them that they should pay for it for the first time.” The village men are attracted, not to sex, but to the unknown— in this case, the urban sensibility that Life represents.

Imprisonment and Entrapment

The Botswana village represents for most of the characters a place of imprisonment and entrapment. When Life first returns to the village and is shown to her family’s yard, she sees that the “rubber hedge had grown to a disproportionate size and

Topics for Further Study

  • Very few characters in “Life” are given names and distinct personalities. Why do you think Head makes this artistic decision? How effective do you think this technique is?
  • Find out about the life of the typical villager in Botswana today. How does this lifestyle compare to that described by Head in “Life”?
  • Find out more about Botswana’s movement toward independence. How did neighboring countries react to this impending event? Why were borders set up between Botswana and South Africa?
  • Find some examples of traditional arts and crafts or folktales in Botswana. What impression do you get of tribal life in Botswana from these examples?
  • In many of her stories, Head emphasizes the oral storytelling tradition of African tribes. Do you think the story “Life” would be a good story to tell aloud and pass down from generation to generation? Explain your answer.
  • What can you tell about the roles of men and women in village life in Botswana from the story?
  • If you were the judge presiding over Lesego’s trial, what sentence would you impose upon him? Explain your answer.
  • Head is a South African native and did not move to Botswana until adulthood. What role does she have within the Botswana community, as evidenced by “Life”? Do you see her as an outsider, as one critic maintained?

enclosed the yard in a gloom of shadow that kept out the sunlight.” This yard physically represents the prison in which Life has found herself. Forced to leave South Africa, Life attempts to recreate her carefree life in Botswana but is unable to do so. Surrounding her are people who are trapped by expectation and tradition. The village women think that Life “would soon settle down—intelligent girls got jobs in the post office sooner or later.” The beer-brewing women, despite their supposedly carefree ways, are also trapped—by the children they clutch to their hips and the boyfriends who leave as soon as they are asked to contribute to the household finances. Indeed, as the narrative points out, these women “too were subject to the respectable order of village life.”

Life is initially drawn to Lesego because she mistakenly believes that he represents the more freewheeling life she enjoyed in Johannesburg. Lesego, for his part, is drawn to Life because she represents “new ideas,” which the village is clearly lacking. Lesego, however, does not want to enjoy these “new ideas,” but rather he wants to suppress them. He takes over the handling of the money, forbids Life from playing the radio, and tells her she must give up her prostitution career. In essence, Lesego places Life in a prison by taking away those things that give her independence. At the end of the story, Lesego is also given the punishment of five years in prison, but his entrapment is only physical and temporary.



The story takes place in a traditional Botswana village in the early 1960s. Botswana, which has been under British colonial rule for almost a century, is on the verge of independence. Tradition and custom, however, still prevail in the village, and the respected residents are those who maintain decorum and adhere to the roles governing society, which include deference to males. Significantly, the women who first greet Life help her put her yard “in order.” The scenes of the men and women fixing up Life’s yard depict a community celebration, further emphasizing the villagers’ willingness to work together for one of their own.

The village is nothing like Johannesburg, South Africa, where Life has spent most of her life. Though the story does not show the city directly, the narration makes it clear that Life’s Johannesburg is nothing like the village; instead of working as teachers, farmers, clerks, or nurses, black women work as singers, models, and prostitutes—the type of careers unavailable in the village. Instead of consorting with ranchers and farmers, people like Life consort with gangsters. The village is nothing like Johannesburg, but, because of Life, “[V]ery soon the din and riot of a Johannesburg township was duplicated, on a minor scale.” Life, like the other Botswanans who had returned to their native country, “brought with [her]. . . bits and pieces of a foreign culture and city habits which they had absorbed.” Life’s attempt to convert her life into what she had known previously—which includes becoming the town’s first prostitute and getting involved with Lesego because he was “the nearest thing she had seen for a long time to the Johannesburg gangsters she had associated with”—ultimately must fail. For Life is attempting to recreate something that only exists in her memory.


The narrative style employed by Head in “Life” is integral to the story because it allows Head to explore the personal traits of her characters as well as the global traits shared by the villagers. Such a narrative style allows Head to fully set up the inherent difference between the villagers and the city dwellers, which is at the core of the story. The narration alternates between a detached factual voice that imparts pertinent information, such as the historical setting and the attitudes of the village women, and a more vivid portrayal of the village inhabitants that includes lively dialogue and image-filled descriptions. The story opens with the factual voice, to explain both the historical events that cause Life to return to Botswana and her feelings about this movement. At times throughout the story, the factual voice is used to more fully explicate various events. Although at times, the narration is deeply within the characters and their issues—as during Life’s murder—the story ends on the same note as it began. “A song by Jim Reeves was very popular at that time. ‘That’s What Happens When Two Worlds Collide’.” Head’s narrative voice thus serves as a running commentary on the story’s drama.


The very name Head chose for her protagonist, “Life,” is symbolic. Life is vibrant and vivid. “She had a bright, vivacious, friendly manner and laughed freely and loudly. Her speech was rapid and a little hysterical but that was in keeping with her whole personality.” In essence, Life is simply brimming over with spirit. The women immediately recognize this quality: ‘“She is going to bring us a little light,”’ they said. Life represents the vitality of “new ideas that would freshen up the ordinariness and everydayness of village life.”

Life, however, loses her self when Lesego oppresses her. As such, Lesego symbolizes death, a role he is placed in from his introduction: “Then one evening death walked quietly into the bar. It was Lesego, the cattle-man.” Lesego is the virtual opposite of Life. On a literal level, for instance, he keeps his money in a bank while Life spends hers freely. On an emotional level, he responds to his surroundings from a traditional point of view in which the man takes command while Life constantly seeks to create her own space. Since they come together, they are in almost constant collision. Eventually, as is inevitable, death subsumes life, but life asserts its vitality by causing death’s imprisonment.

Historical Context

The Creation of the Republic of Botswana

The area that comprises present-day Botswana came under British control in 1884. In the mid-1900s, as more and more African colonies began demanding self-rule, British governors considered handing the region over to South Africa. By the late 1950s, however, it became clear that such a plan would not work. The protectorate’s government began preparing the region for political and economic self-sufficiency.

A legislative council was set up in 1961 after limited national elections. Two new political parties were founded in the first years of the decade. During 1963 and 1964, a series of constitutional discussions took place to determine proposals for internal selfgovernment

Compare & Contrast

  • 1970s: The population of Botswana in 1971 is 630,000 plus approximately 11,000 nomads.

    1990s: The population of Botswana in 1999 is 1,464,167.

  • 1960s: The average life expectancy in 1966 is 50 years.

    1990s: The average life expectancy in 1996 is almost 67 years.

  • 1960s and 1970s: In 1969, diamonds are discovered in Botswana at Orapa. Mining begins two years later. Between 1970 and 1973, the value of Botswana’s exports rose from thirteen million rand to forty-three million rand. (The rand is the unit of currency in Botswana. A rand is roughly equivalent to a dollar.) This increase is due primarily to the beef and diamond industries.

    1990s: In 1996, Botswana is Africa’s third-largest mineral producer. By 1997, diamonds account for about 70 percent of Botswana’s exports, more than 45 percent of government revenue, and some 30 percent of the gross domestic product.

  • 1960s: In 1965, the cattle population in Botswana is 1.4 million.

    1990s: In 1994, the cattle population in Botswana is 2.8 million.

  • 1960s: In 1966, Botswana is one of the twenty poorest countries in the world. The average per capita income is U.S. $80.

    1990s: From the 1970s onward, Botswana has ranked among the fastest-growing economies in the world. The average annual growth rate has fluctuated between 5 and 10 percent. The average per capita income is U.S. $1,700.

  • 1970s: About 90 percent of the population makes their living from agriculture. The major crops grown are sorghum, millet, cowpeas, and peanuts.

    1990s: Agriculture provides a livelihood for more than 80 percent of the population. However, farmers supply only about 50 percent of food needs and account for only 4 percent of the gross domestic product.

based on universal adult suffrage and a ministerial form of government. In 1964, the first census was conducted, and by the end of year, voters had been registered throughout the protectorate. In February 1965, transference of the capital from Mafeking, South Africa, to Gaborone in Botswana began. At this point, the protectorate was granted internal self-government. The first general elections were held in March 1965. On September 30,1966, the country became the independent Republic of Botswana. Sir Seretse Khama, the heir to the Ngwato chieftaincy, was elected as Botswana’s first president.

The New Country

The Botswana constitution, which was adopted on the day of the country’s independence, provided for a republican form of government headed by the president and with three main branches of government: the legislature, the executive branch, and the judiciary.

For its first five years, Botswana remained financially dependent on Britain to cover the full cost of administration and development. However, economic development took place from 1967 through 1971, particularly after diamonds were discovered at Orapa, Botswana.

Through its initial years of being a republic, Botswana’s economy grew annually between 12 and 13 percent. Botswana developed an urban and economic infrastructure that included mining development as well as basic social services. Throughout the 1970s, the diamond mines were expanded, and nickel and copper mines also opened though the latter two were less economically successful.

Seretse Khama’s political party, now known as the Botswana Democratic Party, or BDP, was consistently reelected by a large majority. The Botswana National Front, or BNF, became a significant threat after 1969 when “tribal” conservatives joined BNF socialists in attacking government policies.

Botswana and Africa

From 1969 onwards, Botswana began to play a more significant role in international politics. It depicted itself as a nonracial, liberal democratic alternative to South African apartheid. With economic aid from the United States, Botswana built a road that went directly to Zambia. In the early to mid-1970s, Botswana, along with Zambia, Tanzania, Angola, and Mozambique, actively sought to bring majority rule to Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa.

Toward the end of the 1970s, refugees fleeing Rhodesia’s civil war as well as black South Africans fleeing urban insurrections came to Botswana. When Botswana began to form its own army, the Botswana Defense Force, the Rhodesian army crossed the border and massacred fifteen Botswana soldiers in a surprise attack. Botswana, however, helped bring about the final settlement of the Rhodesian war, which resulted in the independence of the colony, renamed Zimbabwe, in 1980. Also that year, Botswana helped devlop the Southern African Development Coordination Conference, or SADCC, to coordinate different economies throughout southern Africa.

Critical Overview

Bessie Head’s body of work centers around village and family life, the African tradition, and the problems that women encounter in society; the themes in her novels and short stories display significant overlap. The stories in The Collector of Treasures (1977), from which “Life” is taken, raise a myriad of issues, but most explore good and evil and the mistreatment of women in village life. Unlike Head’s novels, which have a clear didactic purpose, in her short stories “the distinction between right and wrong,” writes Greta D. Little in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, “is never clear.”

Head arranged the sequence of the stories to “reenact” the history of the African people from ancient times to colonialism to contemporary society. As such, Head is especially interested in African traditions, such as mythology, tribal witchcraft, and oral storytelling, oftentimes in juxtaposition with the demands of modern culture. “[E]ach story,” writes Craig MacKenzie in his study Bessie Head, “is also deftly allusive and evokes vividly and richly the sense of a real, living, bustling village struggling to cope with the intrusion of new forces into the traditional social fabric.”

The collection received mixed reviews at its publication but since then has been the focus of several critical studies. Michael Thorpe, writing in Word Literature Today, suggests that the stories “lend themselves especially well to an understanding of Head’s aims as a writer” and demonstrate that Head seems “troubled” by the “contradictions within customary life.” Sara Chetin explores Head’s feminist themes and “the neglected realm of female experience” in an article in the Journal of Commonwealth Literature . She also believes that Head “consciously exploits” her “‘outsider’ status” in her writing, “by deliberately distancing herself from the community whose tales she narrates so that her stories reveal a distinctly ambiguous, unresolved tone.”

“Life” demonstrates this characteristic. The narration remains detached and factual, and as MacKenzie points out, “no authorial judgment is imposed.” Other critics note that Head’s lack of self-involvement is appropriate to her issues. Writes Femi Ojo-Ade in the article “Of Human Trials and Triumphs,” “We believe that the ambiguity is an adequate comment on the very nature of the evolving society.”

“Life” also has the most precise historical setting of the collection. The setting of 1960s Botswana is important because it signifies the enormous change coming to the region, and as Kenneth W. Harrow writes in Callaloo, “The subject of Bessie Head’s stories is change itself, and specifically the threshold where change takes place.”

Harrow believes that Head is most concerned with the “boundaries between men and women, between past and present roles.” The maintenance or rejection of these boundaries is a strong indicator of change. Such concerns are clearly evident in “Life” where Life finds herself in conflict both with the men in her community and the traditional women. “Life is represented as a figure of freedom who refuses to accept the constraints of boundaries.” The beer-brewing women, as well, demonstrate this conflict. As MacKenzie points out, though the beer-brewing women attempt “to escape the constraints of a patriarchal culture,” they are “nonetheless abused by the men.”

In addition to its focus on change, Head’s work concerns itself with ways in which people, particularly women, seek to attain their independence. According to Harrow, Life “is a victim of the harsh and implacable enforcement of limits upon her conduct.” However, even when Head’s characters fail to achieve physical freedom, they still act and think independently.

Several critics note that Head’s short stories are different from her novels in that they derive their structure, not from imparting a moral lesson, but from the complexities of the world that she is describing. That is partially because, writes H. Nigel Thomas in the article “Narrative Strategies in Bessie Head’s Stories,”

one of her principal concerns was an understanding on the reader’s part of the social forces determining the actions of her characters. Where the events of the story do not fully imply what those social forces are, she provides them in her own voice.

One only has to read the first and last paragraphs of “Life” to see this practice at work.


Rena Korb

Korb has a master’s degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers. In the following essay, she discusses the clash between the village world and the city world and explores the ultimate victory of the villagers.

Kenneth W. Harrow writes in Callaloo of Bessie Head’s short stories, “The subject . . . is change itself, and specifically the threshold where change takes place.” The story “Life,” collected in The Collector of Treasures, begins with a period of great change, moves into a depiction of society in which change is little valued, and then asserts the victory of traditional values at its end. “Life” takes place in Botswana in 1963. Borders have recently been set up between that country and South Africa in anticipation of Botswana’s upcoming independence. All Botswana nationals must leave South Africa and return home. Before this time, according to Head’s narration, “Everything had been mingled up . . . and the traffic of people to and fro between the two countries had been a steady flow for years and years.” Life, originally from a rural village in Botswana, had come to Johannesburg with her parents at the age of ten. Now seventeen years later, after an adulthood spent working as “a singer, beauty queen, advertising model, and prostitute” as well as associating with gangsters, the vivacious Life is forced to return to the quiet, traditional village.

The villagers, warns Head’s narrator in the opening paragraph, carefully evaluate the “foreign culture and city habits” brought to Botswana by the migrants before deciding what they would accept. “What they liked, and was beneficial to them, they absorbed, for instance, the faith-healing cult churches which instantly took hold like wildfire; what was harmful to them, they rejected.” So even before meeting Life, readers know what sort of challenge migrants face. The first paragraph ends with the blunt statement, “The murder of Life had this complicated undertone of rejection.” Thus, it is immediately understood that it is not what happens to Life that is at the crux of the story but how it happens. Life, it is hinted, brings harmful change to the village. Interestingly, even though she lends her name to the title, Life is not the focus of the story but the village itself—the lifeways of the village—is the focus.

The environment into which Life must create a home is bound by tradition. When she first arrives in the village, “[Ojn mentioning . . . her name . . . the villagers immediately and obligingly took her to the Morapedi yard in the central part of the village.” That Life’s family homestead still remains unoccupied and available for any returning Morapedi, after seventeen years, shows the importance that the villagers place on family and community ties. This is a place where stability reigns.

The village women initially welcome Life, believing that she will “bring us a little light,” for their stable village offers little in the way of excitement, and an undercurrent of hysteria is detected in Life. The village women would welcome “new ideas that would freshen up the ordinariness and everydayness of village life,” but only if they are not harmful. Though the “everyday round of village life was deadly dull in its even, unbroken monotony,” the women look forward to small

What Do I Read Next?

  • The first novel of Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1958), is today a modern classic. It explores the clash of traditional Igbo life with colonial missionaries and colonial government. Okonkwo, the leader of his community, is banished for seven years after accidentally killing a clansman but then returns from exile to find the intrusion of colonial society into the tribe.
  • Bessie Head’s autobiographical novel, A Question of Power (1973), takes as its heroine a disoriented, paranoid woman who survives a mental breakdown through willpower. It is considered by many scholars to be her most unusual but most important work.
  • Doris Lessing is a British writer who grew up in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). In writings such as Going Home (1957) and African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe (1992), she reflects on the African community.
  • Buchi Emecheta is a Nigerian writer. Her first two books, In the Ditch (1972) and Second-Class Citizen (1974), are both semi-autobiographical and explore the author’s search for first-class citizenship, self-confidence, and dignity. Her novel Double Yoke (1982) centers on the still unequal position of women in contemporary African society.
  • Ama Ata Aidoo is a writer from Ghana. Her short story collection No Sweetness Here (1970) is concerned with the role of women in modern Africa, in terms of both Western influences and traditional communal society.

changes, such as fixing up Life’s yard that, in the number of people involved and the food served, comes to mimic “one long wedding-feast.” It is Life’s ease with spending money on “anything the workers expressed a preference for” that causes the women to first distrust her. Clearly, it indicates that “their child could not have lived a very good life in Johannesburg.” Their fears are confirmed when Life starts the villages first prostitution business. The villagers are not averse to sex outside of marriage, but it must be “on a respectable and human level.” The language the narrator employs again points to the villagers careful assessment of foreign ways; it is up to the villagers to decide what is respectable, and this decision comes from their community, not from any outside influences. By making people pay for what is widely “recognized as a necessary part of human life,” Life challenges the villagers manner of running and viewing their own lives.

The only people who are drawn to Life are the men who are “fascinated” with the idea of paying for sex and the beer-brewing women whose main occupation is drinking all day long. Both these groups are playing at tasting Life’s urban freedom, but it is only a game for them—it is not a way of life. Although they cavort in Life’s yard, so much so that it begins to resemble a Johannesburg township, they are still tied to preconceived traditional mores. Sianana claims that the men want to “try it out. .. because it is something new,” yet they continue to return to her. Sianana calls her “rotten to the core,” even while he sits in the bar that serves as a symbol of the change that Life has brought to the village. The beer-brewers, though they had “emancipated themselves some time ago,” are still tied to the “respectable order of village life.” Although they don’t have husbands, they do not sleep with men indiscriminately; their partners are “all for a time steady boyfriends.” They make Life their “queen.” The rest of the village reacts darkly to Life’s new enterprise. ‘“They’ll all be destroyed one day like Sodom and Gomorrah,”’ they prophesy. What they are reacting to so strongly is not Life’s usurpation of the standard village morality but rather her usurpation of the power held by male villagers. Instead of allowing men to be in charge of her and to dictate her mode of behavior, Life effectively places herself

“Thus, it is immediately understood that it is not what happens to Life that is at the crux of the story but how it happens. Life, it is hinted, brings harmful change to the village.”

above them by demanding money for something she alone possesses.

When Lesego enters the story, it is immediately clear that he represents the male authority figure. He is well respected by villagers for his wealth as well as for his common sense. Life correctly notes his “power and control,” but she associates it with Johannesburg gangsters, not a “king” of the village world. Lesego’s character and stability indicate that, like most of the villagers, he would little welcome the change that Life brings to the village. He is nonetheless drawn to her because he correctly notes that she represents a “new kind of woman.” What he primarily wants, however, is to tame her, taming being a mark of possession. The first interaction between the two indicates both his nature and the path that the relationship will follow. He says, “‘Come here,’” and she obeys, whereas with the other men, they ask what time she is available, and she tells them.

For a period, Life believes that she will be able to change and she wants to do so. She tells Lesego and her friends, ‘“All my old ways are over . . . I have now become a woman.”’ Her choice of words is significant, revealing her own impression of her previous behavior as childlike or playful. A woman has certain responsibilities but whatever they are, “drawing water, stamping corn, cooking food,” they are not appropriate for Life. She is accustomed to financial independence, but Lesego insists on taking control of all the household money. He also takes control of her environment, demanding that she turn the radio off. Further he tells her, ‘“If you go with those men again, I’ll kill you,’” thus forbidding her the one activity that can bring her more money—money to replace that which he has taken away. The neighbors, those who had shunned Life, are impressed by the change in her behavior, saying, that “one never ought to judge a human being who was both good and bad, and Lesego had turned a bad woman into a good woman.” Their approbation rests on Lesego’s effective reining in of Life.

Life, however, cannot function within the dictates of this relationship. As soon as Lesego is called away on business, she returns to her former ways for “a wild anger was driving her to break out of a way of life that was like death to her.” If she must live in a manner prescribed by another, it is not worth living. She deliberately allows Lesego to catch her with a man, and he fulfills her wish. Alone among the villagers, Lesego maintains his “unperturbed” demeanor. The villagers recoil in shock; the village police look on in horror. Though these people did not approve of Life, neither can they approve of murder, which is “outright and violent.” Again, the village draws away from an activity that transgresses their normal boundaries.

Despite Lesego’s reliance on murder to enforce order, the end of the story upholds the traditional values of the village and the superiority of the male. Lesego explains his actions to the judge “calmly”: “T thought if she was doing a bad thing . . . I’d better kill her because I cannot understand a wife who could be so corrupt.’” Lesego’s explanation is inherently nonsensical; he sits in judgment of Life because he “had been doing this for years.” His feeling that he has the right to do so shows, again, the way he asserts control over his surroundings. The judge remains unswayed by Lesego’s explanation—he is a white man and knows that it is the white Africans who have ultimate control—but he does respond to Lesego’s manner. Despite the seriousness of the crime, the judge sentences Lesego to only five years in jail instead of a hanging. (It should be noted that in “The Collector of Treasures” Head wrote of a woman who killed her abusive husband and received life imprisonment for that crime.) Lesego will go to jail, but when he is freed, he will return to his usual mode of life; While he is gone, Sianana will take care of his business affairs. Meanwhile, the village, freed from Life’s subversive influence, returns to itself, having rejected Life’s murder by her husband. “A song by Jim Reeves was very popular at that time,” the narrator closes the story, ‘“That’s What Happens When Two Worlds Collide’.” Such an ending underscores that the story is about a much graver issue than two people who are utterly incompatible; it is about two worlds— the city and the village—that cannot coexist.

Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on “Life,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

Lois Kerschen

Kerschen is a writer and public school district administrator. In this essay, she explores Head’s incorporation of the genre of the folktale with journalistic reporting of village life, all with an underlying feminist theme.

Bessie Head’s unique talent lies in the way she intertwines her feminist aesthetic into traditional African folklore. Head’s short story “Life” appears to be a simple folktale that provides a brief glimpse into a traditional Botswanan village after independence in 1966. The characters are stereotypical, the events matter-of-fact, and the moral crystal clear. Yet hidden beneath this tale is a clue to understanding not only the struggle of women in a patriarchal society, but also the struggle of all people forced into roles and categories by those in power.

Folktales are defined by Jan Harold Brunvand in his book The Study of American Folklore as “traditional prose narratives that are strictly fictional and told primarily for entertainment, although they may also illustrate a truth or point a moral.” Both critics and Head herself have said that the stories, including “Life,” in her collection The Collector of Treasures, are stories designed to read like folktales in that they are entertaining and instructive. However, Head was an experienced journalist who could not help but create her stories from actual events. As she told Susan Beard in a 1986 interview for Sage: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women:

What I could say about The Collector of Treasures is that it was like a kind of resume of thirteen years of living entirely in village life. . . . In actual fact, all of the stories are based on real life happenings. The village is like this: it’s very peaceful and everyday. There’s one story, “Life,” which describes the rhythm almost as monotonous. One day is just the same as another, but human beings are so similar all over the world. Suddenly, a great drama explodes. Now you wake up and take your shopping basket and walk down the road and people say: ‘Oh, have you heard. . . . ’ [A]ll I simply did was record stories that had happened and had been told to me and described to me. Most of the stories there are based on reality; they’re not inventions. They happened; they are changed. They are decorated; they are interpreted. But there’s a basis there in fact, in reality.

The title character, Life Morapedi, is a woman caught in a world that cannot understand her or

“She was the victim of a patriarchal society that did not value her as an individual woman but instead saw her as a piece of the whole that had to be made to fit.”

accept her, nor does it even want to try. Life enters the village of her youth as an enigma; she is fancy, rich, and metropolitan. Everything about her, from her personality to her dress, is above and beyond anything the villagers have seen before. She is a woman unlike any other in the village, and at first she is welcomed as a new “light” that will impart “new ideas that would freshen up the ordinariness and everydayness of village life.” However, it quickly becomes apparent that her “new ideas” are not acceptable within the constraints of traditional village society.

Life breaks the unspoken rules of how a woman is supposed to behave, and thus begins the struggle between Life’s freedom and the demands of society’s expectations. The villagers who had once welcomed her with open arms are the same ones who turn away from her when they realize she is unwilling to pay the price for their hospitality— conformity. She frequents a pub and charges money for sex, something even the beer-brewing women (the lower class) consider beneath them. Life is a threat because she tests the boundaries that have been placed around her by village routine and by her gender and then proceeds to break right through them. This kind of blatant disregard for tradition upsets the careful, oppressive balance of the village, and something must be done, according to the villagers, to set it right again.

Hence the arrival of Lesego. If Life represents everything nontraditional, Lesego represents everything traditional. He is a strong, powerful, dominant, authoritative man. He is the epitome of masculinity, from his profession (rugged cattleman) to his emotionless sense of reason. He also represents society’s last effort to integrate the wild woman into its comfortable clutches. His purpose is to marry Life and turn her into a proper village wife, one who does not handle money, does not throw loud parties, and does not fornicate with other men. At first, Life seems interested in this newfound order; as she tells the beer-brewing women, “All my old ways are over,” she says. “I have now become a woman.” In other words, she is now conforming to the village’s definition of what a woman should be. Yet Life’s will and soul cannot be suppressed for long, and she soon finds herself reverting to her old ways. However, this last rejection of traditional societal values comes with a fatal price. Lesego murders Life, knowing that he has the unspoken approval of the rest of the villagers. Her disruption of their society has to be stopped, either by taming her or killing her. Either way, the villagers will be satisfied as long as their lives can return to their ordinary ways.

The clear moral of this story is meant to be a warning to all young women: Life died because she was bad. “Bad” in this instance takes on many different meanings: different, controversial, immoral, uncontrolled, dishonorable, disrespectful, and evil. But the root problem is that Life did not conform to her traditional role as a woman. That nonconformity, in and of itself, was “bad” enough. Then it was merely a matter of designating her actions as “sins” against society to justify fully rejecting her. Yet it is not Head’s intention to perpetuate the moral of this story; in fact, quite the opposite is true. She is attempting to point out the injustice and atrocity suffered by Life. She was the victim of a patriarchal society that did not value her as an individual woman but instead saw her as a piece of the whole that had to be made to fit.

On a small scale, Life represents the oppression of individual women. On a larger scale, she represents the oppression of an entire people under the auspices of racism, colonialism, and apartheid. The method of operation is the same: as the villagers repair Life’s house and restore her yard in exchange for her conformity, so do imperialists build roads and impose order in exchange for a nation’s subjugation. It is the classic story of those in power dictating to those in the minority. “Life” is an example of Head’s writing that, according to Feminist Writers, is an effort to “recover a sense of one’s own history and the dignity of a self stamped down by colonialist exploitation, especially that of women who were usually subject to state as well as patriarchal ideologies.”

Head uses this folktale to tackle such large abstract issues because it is within the context of human relationships that the true nature of such institutions is revealed. The nature of good and evil is not understandable until it is viewed as a tangible action performed by one person on another. Therein lies the deepest struggle of all: the nature of good and evil in people, in society, and in political structures. Through “Life,” Head attempts to show how blurry the line between good and evil can be. What is considered good by Life (her lifestyle being her only real option as a black woman in Johannesburg) is thought to be evil by the villagers; what is considered good by the villagers (ridding themselves of Life one way or another) is evil to anyone who does not see women as disposable property.

One cannot ignore the significance of the title character’s name. She is Life because she is a woman and therefore the giver of life. She is also struggling to live her own life the way she sees fit despite the constraints of society. She is more alive than anyone else in the village because her soul and her spirit are free and unhindered by assumed feminine characteristics. Finally, her life is the price she pays for going against the system. She is, as her name suggests, the thing that others would like to subdue and control but ultimately cannot.

In a review of a biography of Bessie Head for Africa Today, J. Todd Moye reports, “Although she wrote about women and women’s issues, Head hated to be called a feminist.” She did not consider herself to be a feminist writer, but her works are filled with feminist subjects such as exploring the position of women within traditional African society and the mistreatment of women in village life. Nonetheless, Head’s works cover a larger picture of discrimination and oppression.

In a study of the themes that Head emphasized, Huma Ibrahim notes that her interests as a writer “reside in the particular exploration of exile, gender, and resistance emanating from usually silenced voices.” In “Life,” the protagonist is both an exile and a woman who resists the dictates of her husband. As a reflection of her own experiences as an exile, a black, and a woman, Head uses her fiction, based on the heritage of African life, to comment on the conditions of modern life in Africa, particularly in her home of Botswana. Further, Bessie Head’s novels and short stories reveal an understanding of the human condition that touches all people no matter what their station in life.

Source: Lois Kerschen, Critical Essay on “Life,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

Femi Ojo-Ade

In the following essay excerpt, Ojo-Ade analyzes “Life,” praising Head for making “a poignant statement on the potentially destructive forces dogging Africa’s heritage.”

Life is the heroine of the story of the same name. A well crafted tale, it relates the tragedy of the African woman recently returned to the village from the city. It goes deeper than the run-of-the-mill city-village dichotomy, however, for Bessie Head uses the story to make a poignant statement on the potentially destructive forces dogging Africa’s heritage. Life is a stunning, young, black beauty just back to her Botswanan village after a stint in South Africa as “singer, beauty queen, advertisement model and prostitute.” She symbolizes the fast growing foreign culture largely conveyed by returning migrant workers. The villagers accept some of these ever increasing influences while rejecting others; they accept Life, but reject her murder by her husband.

To see her upon arrival from Johannesburg, one would never associate death with Life. She is bubbling with life, disarmingly confident, totally charming, so much so that her fellow women are fascinated by her establishing humanity’s oldest profession as a business in the village. For them, Life is a heroine; even although they themselves would not dare sell their body to the best bidder, they see her as a match for the men. In their turn, the men welcome her innovation with glee. Paying her for her services reduces, indeed, removes any danger of responsibility towards girlfriends abandoned with fatherless babies. Life is quick to declare her motto:

‘Live fast, die young, and have a good-looking corpse.’ All that was said with the bold, free joy of a woman who had broken all the social taboos.

With her budding business comes the first hotel in the village. The women beer-brewers of the village join Life in drinking and exhibiting this seemingly new-found freedom. Suddenly, with a quick stroke of artistry, Bessie Head shows that Life is more a symbol of modern mania than the suffragist type leading her sisters to behavioral emancipation. The sentence changes the story, definitively:

Then one evening death walked quietly into the bar. It was Lesego, the cattle-man.

At once, Life, as if destined to destruction, reveals the other side of her persona: she is weak, impressionable, just a woman capable of loving, and of being dominated by a strong male.

“A further twist in the whole logic of science translated into human irony by Bessie Head is, that both qualities of good and evil are at once present in each of the two protagonists of the tragic drama. Life, the prostitute, makes an effort to ‘become a woman again’ and Lesego, the calm one enjoying everyone’s respect, ends up being a murderer.

He was the nearest thing she had seen for a long time to the Johannesburg gangsters she had associated with—the same small, economical gestures, the same power and control.

The fire of desire is mutual; for Lesego, normally only interested in transient encounters, sees something special in this “new kind of woman.” He marries her upon her assurance that her “old ways are over. I have now become a woman.”

This last statement by Life is an eye-opener. She accepts that her vaunted freedom is, after all, only another prison and a sad solution to man’s meanness, and that the so-called city-civilization is but another form of dehumanization. As usual in a Bessie Head story, and with an irony made all the more mind-boggling by scientific and sexual coupling, like poles repel. The good woman is forever seeking after the bad man; the good man, always attracted to the bad woman. Good women and men “seldom join their lives together.” So it is with Life and Lesego, the good and the bad producing the tragedy of death. A further twist in the whole logic of science translated into human irony by Bessie Head is, that both qualities of good and evil are at once present in each of the two protagonists of the tragic drama. Life, the prostitute, makes an effort to “become a woman again” and Lesego, the calm one enjoying everyone’s respect, ends up being a murderer. Still, the overwhelming fact is that, sooner than later, the couple’s incompatibility is confirmed. Lesego does not like the noise of Life’s transistor radio and, revealing the seedy side of that maleness admired by her, he takes total control of the family-purse. In spite of the communal culture of the village, Life cannot cope any longer. She states: “I think I have made a mistake. Married life doesn’t suit me.” So, when Lesego goes away briefly, “the old, reckless wild woman awakens from a state near death with a huge sign of relief.” He returns home, asks her to go purchase some sugar for tea; instead she goes to keep an appointment with a customer. It is an appointment with death: Lesego is calm as ever, goes to the place and stabs Life to death. The white judge calls it a crime of passion and sentences him to five years in prison.

Now, Bessie Head has remained ambiguous about that crime. We believe that the ambiguity is an adequate comment on the very nature of the evolving society. Modernism is being espoused without proper understanding of its qualities and, as proven by Life—both the character and the state— the danger of destruction is as strong as the positive potentials of the new experience. The mania of modernism can only lead down the road to the cultural abyss where Africa’s proud past has been buried. That the drunken village women have the last word on the saga of Life and Lesego is itself another comment on the modernist trend; for, as the repository of real culture, villagers are often too eager to imitate the been-to-the-city, thus tacitly accepting the inferiority of the culture whose preservation is being preached by some luminaries.

Villagers also support another woman, Mme-Mompati, “the patron saint” whose life proves to be just a facade for some fiendish activities, belongs to the elite, rich, humanitarian, Christian; she is “the warm-hearted, loud-voiced firm defender of all kinds of causes—marriage morals, child care, religion, and the rights of the poor.” When her husband, Rra-Mompati, leaves her for another woman, the whole village sympathizes with her and forces him into exile; in addition, the divorce-court grants her a handsome settlement after her great oration “to God, the Church, the Bible, the Sick, the Poor, the Suffering, the Honour of an Honourable Woman, the Blessings of Holy Matrimony and so on.” Their son, Mompati, stays with his mother. They remain together, like “two peas in a pod” for ten years when Mompati takes a wife who brings about the end of Mma’s influence upon the son. Then, the village loses faith in her. “The pose of God and Jesus were (sic) blown to the winds and the demented vampire behind it was too terrible to behold.” Mother and son never see each other again.

The consolation is, that the villagers finally see through the hypocritical Mma. Bessie Head uses this story to criticize Christianity, one of the most pervasive aspects of modernist mania. However, the writer’s position is not fully convincing; for, from the story-line, the woman’s demise is really due to her highhandedness and too great motherly influence over Mompati. In essence, she represents better the notorious mother-in law than the hypocritical Christian. Viewed from this perspective, the story of “The Village Saint” would be considered as testimony of the triumph of love over every obstacle, as well as Head’s advocacy for monogamy. Mompati’s declaration would thus appear to be a defiance to the vainglorious polygamist and to the meddlesome mother-in-law: “I’m sorry, I never do anything without first consulting my wife.” Unfortunately, the facts of life are not that simple. Besides, love, being a human condition and feeling, always falls prey to many an unsavory companion, just as the human beings themselves. The treasures of love are never immune to tragedies.

Source: Femi Ojo-Ade, “Of Human Trials and Triumphs,” in The Tragic Life: Bessie Head and Literature in South Africa, edited by Cecil Abrahams, Africa World Press, Inc., 1990, pp. 85–89.

Bessie Head with Linda Susan Beard

In the following interview excerpt, Head discusses her exile from South Africa and the factual basis for many of her stories, including “Life.”

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

Source: Bessie Head with Linda Susan Beard, “Interview with Bessie Head,” in Sage: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women, Vol. Ill, Fall 1986, p. 96.


Beard, Susan, “Interview with Bessie Head,” in Sage: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women, Vol. Ill, No. 2, Fall 1986, pp. 44–47.

Brunvand, Jan Harold, The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction, 2d ed., W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1978, p. 125.

Chetin, Sara, Exploration of The Collector of Treasures, in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. 24, 1989, p. 114, quoted in Craig MacKenzie, Bessie Head, Twayne Publishers, 1999, p. 120.

Harrow, Kenneth W., “Bessie Head’s The Collector of Treasures: Change on the Margins,” in Callaloo, Vol. 16, No. 1, Winter 1993, p. 169.

Ibrahim, Huraa, Bessie Head: Subversive Identities in Exile, University Press of Virginia, 1996.

Little, Greta D., “Bessie Head,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 117: Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers, First Series, edited by Bernth Lindfors and Reinhard Sander, Gale Research, 1992, pp. 186–193.

MacKenzie, Craig, Bessie Head, Twayne Publishers, 1999.

Moye, J. Todd, review of Bessie Head: Thunder behind Her Ears, Her Life and Writing, in Africa Today, Vol. 44, No. 1, January 1997, pp. 97–101.

Ojo-Ade, Femi, “Of Human Trials and Triumphs,” in The Tragic Life, Bessie Head and Literature in Southern Africa, edited by Cecil Abrahams, Africa World Press, Inc., 1990, pp. 79–91.

Sarker, Sonita, “Bessie Head: Overview,” in Feminist Writers, 1st ed., edited by Pamela Kester-Shelton, St. James Press, 1996.

Thomas, H. Nigel, “Narrative Strategies in Bessie Head’s Stories,” in The Tragic Life: Bessie Head and Literature in Southern Africa, edited by Cecil Abrahams, Africa World Press, Inc., 1990, pp. 93–104.

Thorpe, Michael, in World Literature Today, Vol. 57, 1983, p. 414, quoted in Craig MacKenzie, Bessie Head, Twayne Publishers, 1999.

Further Reading

Abrahams, Cecil, ed., The Tragic Life, Bessie Head and Literature in Southern Africa, Africa World Press, Inc., 1990.

This is a collection of essays that explore Head’s life and writing, including an essay on Head and southern African writing.

Eilersen, Gillian Stead, Bessie Head: Thunder behind Her Ears: Her Life and Writing, Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1995.

This is a biography of Head that includes some discussion of her works.

Head, Bessie, A Gesture of Belonging: Letters from Bessie Head, 1965–1979, edited by Randolph Vigne, Heinemann, distributed in southern Africa for South African Writers/Heinemann, 1991.

This collection of unexpurgated letters that Head wrote to her friend, Vigne, depict fourteen years in the life of the struggling writer.

Ingersoll, Earl G., “Sexuality in the Stories of Bessie Head,” in CLA Journal, Vol. 39, No. 4, June 1996, p. 458.

The author examines Head’s views on male-female sexuality as depicted in the stories in her Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales.

Zeleza, Paul Tiyambe, “Visions of Freedom and Democracy in Postcolonial African Literature,” Women’s Studies Quarterly, Vol. 25, Nos. 3–1, Fall-Winter, 1997, p. 10.

The author discusses three African writers, Bessie Head, Nurrudin Farah, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, all of whom have different views of democracy in Africa.


views updated May 29 2018



Like many of the concepts foundational to the field of bioethics, life is a subject about which there is both longstanding conviction and increasing uncertainty. The beginnings and endings of life, as well as its creation, have become subject to greater technological modification, particularly through the rise of the modern biological sciences and new reproductive and genetic technologies. In the late twentieth century, increasing technological control over the management, regulation, and production of life and lifelike systems, as well as the accelerating commodification of life forms, raise questions about the limits of what can or should be done to life itself. Hence, seemingly timeless and universal human attitudes toward life, such as mourning in the wake of its loss and joy in its creation, are today accompanied by profound ambiguities concerning the meaning, value, and definition of life.

Some commentators have claimed that even a few decades ago life was more often understood as an absolute value—for example, among medical professionals, for whom the protection of life was an unquestioned moral duty (Parsons et al.). Related arguments hold that the technologization of life has produced a shift away from an understanding of life as an absolute value, and toward more relative assessments of the quality of life (Parsons et al., pp. 405–410). The appearance of an entry entitled "Life" in an encyclopedia of bioethics would support the position that life itself has become the object of increased management in the form of decision making.

In contrast to the urgent call for guidelines concerning the subject of life is the difficulty of defining this term. Neither philosophers, theologians, nor scientists can offer a clear understanding of life. This is in part due to the wideranging uses of the term. Not only does life have many meanings as a noun, it is a key term within a wide range of systems of thought from religion to science. In all of the many senses in which the word is used, definitions of it have varied historically in relation to changing social forces and cultural values. Contemporary moral, legal, theological, and scientific uncertainty attends the origins of life, the relative importance of human versus other forms of life, the beginnings and endings of life, the creation and destruction of life, and the nature of life. These and other concerns follow from the definitional issues, raised by the concept of life itself, that remain subject to dispute and ongoing transformation.

Historical and Cultural Variations

To be animate or vital is a condition for which crossculturally and transhistorically there exists a range of modes of recognition. Broadly speaking, notions of life, or of a vital force, are often connected to beliefs about the supernatural, divinity, and sacredness. It is also generally the case that understandings of life are often made most explicit in relation to death (Bloch and Parry; Huntington and Metcalf). These features characterize both Judeo-Christian and classical understandings of life, the two predominant sources of its definition in the Euro-American tradition prior to the rise of modern science.

According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, life is interpreted and valued as a gift from God. The Old Testament relates that God created man (Adam) in his own likeness, with dominion over all living things. In the Garden of Eden, life was everlasting; and Adam and Eve's expulsion, through which they became mortal, was both a sign of divine displeasure and a partial rescinding of the gift of life. According to the New Testament, the gift of everlasting life was restored through the sacrifice of God's only begotten son, Jesus, and his resurrection to the kingdom of Heaven. Consequently, only those who believe in the resurrection of Christ have "life" in the Christian sense. When Jesus states "I am life" (or "I am the way, the truth, and the life"), it is the resurrection promised to believers in the life, death, and salvation of Christ that is invoked. The historian Barbara Duden notes:

In most of the New Testament and in two thousand years of ecclesiastical usage, to "have life" means to participate as a believing Christian in the life of Christ.… Even the dead live in Christ, and only those who live in Christ can have life in this world. Of those who exist outside this relationship, the Church has consistently spoken of those who "live" under conditions of death. (p. 102)

Blood is a key symbol of life in the Christian tradition as well as in much secular culture, most notably medicine. To give the "gift of life" is more literally possible today than ever before in the context of organ donation, whereby a body part of a deceased person may "live on" in the body of another person, or a living donor may sacrifice a body part (such as a kidney) on behalf of a relative. The capacity to donate not only blood and vital organs but also egg and sperm cells, and the increasing availability of bodily tissues through a service sector and a marketplace, complicate the understanding of life as a "gift" (Parsons et al.; Titmuss). The sacrificial importance of the body and the blood of Christ makes the exchange of body tissue a potent symbolic practice, as does the definition of kin ties in terms of "blood relations."

The association between the flow of blood and the flow of life anticipates the notion of germ plasm (the hereditary material of the germ cells) as the basis for heredity; this in turn gives rise to the modern scientific concept of the gene, which is today described as the essence of life. While the gene in some senses represents the triumph of mechanistic explanations of life itself, the most reductionist accounts of genes as "selfishly" reproducing entities defined by the attainment of their own inbuilt "ends" may seem not dissimilar from that of the most influential proponent of vitalism, Aristotle. Aristotelian definitions of life were predominant for nearly two millennia, in part because Aristotle was among the few philosophers of antiquity to pay significant attention to the problem of defining life. According to Aristotle, life is defined by the possession of a soul, or vital force, through which an entity is rendered animate and given shape. The attainment of a predetermined end point is seen as the purpose of life in Aristotelian terms, a purpose that is contained in itself, independent of any external causal agent. This view is known as entelechy—a telos, an ultimate end that is self-defined as the achievement of a final form.

Although the Aristotelian view was based on close observations of the natural world and eschewed any notion of divine creation, it is strongly criticized by modern scientists for its teleologism (conflation of an endpoint with a cause) and essentialism (predeterminism), which are dismissed as metaphysical and therefore insufficiently empirical. Cartesian accounts of animation, which defined life in terms of the organization instead of the essence of matter, succeeded Aristotelian vitalism in the seventeenth century. From the perspective of mechanism, which explained motion or aliveness purely in terms of the articulation among parts of a whole (as in the ticking of a watch), Aristotelian vitalism came to be seen as mystical, nonobservable, and therefore unscientific.

The history of the concept of life in Western science, from which many of the most authoritative contemporary definitions of it are derived, underscores the importance of change and variation in the meanings of this term (Canguilhem; Schrödinger). Eighteenth-century natural historians employed a horizontal ordering strategy to classify diverse life forms into taxonomies of kind or type. A vertical ranking of the value of these life forms (known as the great chain of being, descending from God to humanity and thence to other living entities) was based on their proximity to the divine. According to this conceptual framework, life comprised a diverse array of animate entities classified epistemologically and ranked theologically in terms of proximity to God. The sacred act of divine creation that brought life into being was, in this schema, paralleled by the secular production by natural philosophers, such as Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778), of a classification system through which life forms were named, defined, and ordered according to their perceived nature, which was seen to be immutable.

The stability of these vertical ranking and horizontal classifying axes was irrevocably shaken by the gradual acceptance of the evolutionary model of life, in particular the work of Charles Darwin, which, over the latter half of the nineteenth century, gained acceptance in Europe and America. With the rise of Darwinian theories of evolution came a radical new understanding of life: as an underlying connectedness of all living things. It was the evolutionary view of life as a distinct object of study in its own right that gave rise to the modern notion of life itself; not until this time could such a thing have been conceived. Many of the current dilemmas in bioethics demanding our attention came to be understood as a direct result of the emergence of this particular conceptualization of life.

As the historian Michel Foucault points out, life itself did not exist before the end of the nineteenth century; it is a concept indebted to the rise of the modern biological sciences.

Historians want to write histories of biology in the nineteenth century; but they do not realise that biology did not exist then, and that the pattern of knowledge that has been familiar to us for a hundred and fifty years is not valid for a previous period. And that if biology was unknown, there was a very simple reason for it: that life itself did not exist. All that existed was living beings, which were viewed through a grid of knowledge constituted by natural history. (p. 128; emphasis added)

Life, in the sense of life itself, is thus a concept linked closely to the rise of the modern life sciences, founded on notions of evolutionary change, the underlying connectedness of all living things, and a biogenetic mechanism of heredity through which life reproduces itself. As the foundational object of the modern life sciences, the concept of life itself does not exist as a thing, as something visible or tangible. Only its traces are accessible, through the forms in which life manifests itself. Like Newtonian gravity, Darwinian life is a principle or force subject to an orderliness decipherable by science, such as the process of natural selection by which evolution is understood to proceed.

Life as Defined by Modern Science

From the vantage point of the modern life sciences, life itself has come to be associated with certain qualities, including movement, the ability to reproduce and to evolve, and the capacity for growth and development. Other criteria for defining life as opposed to nonlife include the capacity to metabolize, in particular through the possession of cells. These characteristics of aliveness in turn comprise key areas in the study of life forms, and in the forms of connectedness and interrelatedness among them. Whereas the comparative anatomy or morphology of animals and plants was the definitive technique for the classification of life forms during the classical period of natural history, it is molecular biology that today provides the primary analytic perspective on the essence of life, which is seen to be DNA, or the genetic code. It is DNA, composed of nucleotide chains that guide the manufacture of essential proteins, that all living beings are said to have in common. Thus DNA is the substance and mechanism of heredity intrinsic to the neo-Darwinian notion of life itself. (For a historical account of Darwinian notions of life itself, see Jacob. For a contemporary view, see Pollack.)

The most definitive accounts of life itself today rely on evolutionary and genetic models. "The possession of a genetic program provides for an absolute difference between organisms and inorganic matter," claims the biologist Ernst Mayr, one of the great twentieth-century exponents of evolution as a unifying theme in modern biological thought(p. 55). "Life should be defined by the possession of those properties which are needed to ensure evolution by natural selection," states John Maynard Smith, one of the leading evolutionary biologists in Britain (p. 7).

In addition to offering the most definitive accounts of life, the modern life sciences provide the most detailed and substantive information on the subject. In the article "Life" written for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Carl Sagan notes: "A great deal is known about life.… Anatomists and taxonomists have studied the forms and relations of more than a million separate species of plants and animals." A range of biological specialties have together compiled "an enormous fund of information" on the origin, diversity, interaction, and complexity of living organisms and the principles that order their existence (p. 985).

Yet even such definitive accounts of life from established scientific figures are often admittedly provisional. Both within and outside the scientific community there is considerable uncertainty about what is being studied when the subject is life itself. As Sagan notes perfunctorily, "There is no generally accepted definition of life" (p. 985).

Problems in Defining Life

The definition of life is not only contested from within the scientific community; it is also troubled by the proximity of lifelike systems, especially those that are computer-generated, to the requisite features of animate existence. There may well be, as Stephen Levy notes in his account of artificial life, a "particular reluctance to grant anything synthetic or manmade the exalted status of a life-form" (p. 6). Yet insofar as the biogenetic definition of life itself relies on an informational model, of DNA as a message or a code, the distinction between life and nonlife is readily challenged by complex informational systems that are to a degree self-regulating and that have the capacity both to replicate themselves and to evolve. If, as some have claimed (Oyama), information is the modern equivalent of form, then life is transformed from an absolute property into a receding horizon merging with artificial, synthetic, or virtual life. (see also Langton, and Levy).

Today, both the border between human and nonhuman life and the distinction between life and death are increasingly blurred. Genetic science offers the possibility of transspecies recombinations effecting a merging of human and animal body parts. Artificial-life scientists using information technology distinguish computer-generated organisms, which live, evolve, reproduce, and die, from the "wet" life forms they imitate (Levy). Health professionals distinguish degrees of death: dead (in the sense of brain-dead); double dead (respiratory failure); and triple dead (no body parts suitable for donation). Such distinctions indicate the increasing difficulties of establishing the parameters of life and death.

In sum, life itself may be charted along the course of its four-billion-year history to its estimated point of origin, and along this path may be classified and analyzed scientifically according to established principles, such as the operation of natural selection, and specific qualities, such as the possession of DNA. It is from the perspective of the modern life sciences that the most elaborate and definitive accounts of life are constructed, and from these in turn that the concept of life itself emerges. Yet the instability of these definitional parameters, like those of previous eras that they replaced, ensures their continued transformation.

Life as a Moral Issue

Despite the ubiquity and authority of biological definitions of life, they are also reductionist and materialist, relying upon mechanistic and objective terms that are ultimately most meaningful to professional specialists. Most people, when asked "What is life?" do not appeal to Darwinian principles.

Many of the more everyday definitions of life can be classed as processual or phenomenological, referring to the course of events comprising the life of an individual or other entity (including inanimate objects, as in the expression "shelf life"). Expressions such as c'est la vie ("that's life") invoke the fortuitous and inexplicable dimensions of life, very much in contrast to scientific accounts, which emphasize order and predictability even while admitting great uncertainty. Such expressions convey a sense of limits to the capacity for rational understanding, and especially prediction or control, in relation to the vicissitudes of life and living.

The lengthy debate in early modern science concerning mechanism (the presumption that animate and inanimate entities alike are composed of matter, which can be explained through inherent principles of structure and function) versus vitalism (the presumption of an inherently inexplicable vital force differentiating the quick from the dead) opposes the ancient association of lifelike properties with mystery and the sacred to their accessibility through instrumental reason (see Merchant). In relation to the moral questions concerning life—whether as a process, a possession, or a right—the vitalistic notion of life as something inexplicable and deserving of reverence and protection is far more prevalent than the more mechanistic and instrumental account dominant within science. In both secular and religiously derived accounts, life does not need to be fully explicated or rational to be seen as uniquely deserving of protection, especially human life.

The Protection of Life

In his discussion of abortion and euthanasia, two of the most controversial areas of debate concerning human life, philosopher Ronald Dworkin emphasizes the importance of recognizing that life is not exclusively or even primarily understood by many people in terms of scientific explanations, but rather in terms of a value more akin to sacredness. In relation to moral dilemmas, he claims, life does not present itself as a question of objective fact, but rather as a truth, or a "quasi-religious" principle held to be self-evident through "primitive conviction."

Dworkin's approach thus differs from the more utilitarian arguments about the beginnings and endings of life propounded by philosophers and other commentators who use rights or interest-based approaches to questions of the meaning and value of life. In demarcating the value of life as a "quasi-religious" one, something essentially felt rather than reasoned, Dworkin returns the question of the value of life to an older, more traditional paradigm linked to notions of divinity or a vital force.

Social scientists have shown the value of life to be a key symbolic resource in struggles of many kinds, including both ways of life (as in the preservation of ethnic traditions or indigenous cultures) and life forms (such as endangered species). Anthropologist Faye Ginsburg's study of the abortion debate in a midwestern American community, for example, demonstrates the symbolic dimensions of life as a subject of dispute extending to notions of citizenship, nationalism, and the sexual division of labor. Precisely because the preservation of human life may be seen as an absolute moral value, it proves readily amenable to the social function of grounding other beliefs and practices.

Abortion is one of the best-known arenas of controversy in which both definitions of life and the value of human life are paramount and explicitly formulated. Opponents of abortion argue that life begins at conception and therefore that the deliberate termination of a pregnancy is the taking of a human life, which is seen to be immoral or even comparable to murder. Proponents of a woman's right to control her own fertility, including the choice to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, often argue on the basis of consequentialism, that is, that the moral value of an act should be measured in reference to its outcome. Rightsbased claims are used by both sides, antiabortionists stressing the right to life of the fetus, which they argue to be paramount, and pro-choice advocates stressing a woman's right to control her own reproduction, on which they, in turn, place primary importance.

Current legislation on abortion in many industrialized countries, including the United States, invokes a combination of rights-based arguments and biologically based distinctions. Hence, for example, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which currently determines abortion law in the United States, combines protection of the individual right to privacy with a biologically based definition of fetal viability as the determinant of the upper time limit for abortion. The same standard holds in Great Britain.

Both the notion of biological viability and the definition of the person to whom rights are ascribed invoke a particular construction of life. Viability, for example, is strictly biologically determined: It is measured by the ability of a fetus to survive biologically. The question of the social viability of a child's life, such as its likelihood of receiving adequate nurture, shelter, protection from disease, or sustenance is not considered part of the criteria valid in determining the morality of a decision to terminate a pregnancy. Feminists have been prominent in the challenge to the notion of the person often used by antiabortionists on similar grounds. It is undeniably the case that an embryo is human, that it is a being, and that it is a form of life. That it is a living human being is therefore undeniable. Yet it is no more or less a living human being in this sense than an egg or sperm cell, or for that matter a blood cell, none of which is considered a person or seen as entitled to civil rights. Increasingly, antiabortionists have used biologically based arguments to support their position, even when it is derived from religious principles. Hence, it is the potential for an embryo—unlike an egg, a sperm, or a blood cell—to develop into a human being that is often stressed. This argument is based on an embryo's possession of a unique genetic blueprint, which some established theologians claim is evidence of ensoulment (see Ford).

Hence, arguments against abortion based on fetal viability, or those that stress the genetic potential of the fetus to develop into a person, are based on a particular model of life, according to which its sanctity may be represented in biogenetic terms. Historian Barbara Duden has called this historically recent turn toward biology as an arbiter of moral decision making the "sacralisation of life itself." Life, in this sense, is not a biological fact but a cultural value, an essentialist belief, or even a fetish.

The Geneticization of Life Itself

Similar claims have been made regarding the biogenetic definition of life as possession of a genetic blueprint. Critical biologists have argued against the genetic reductionism or genetic essentialism such definitions risk (see Hubbard). Social scientists also have warned of the dangers of eugenicism implicit in such a view (Nelkin and Lindee); other scholars have minimized such risks (Kevles).

Advocates of a "strong" genetic essentialism argue not only that genes are the essence of life but that life itself is consequently based on the selfish desire to reproduce itself. From this vantage point, humans are mere epiphenomena of a primordial genetic drive to self-replicate, and human moral or ethical systems are a complex admixture of altruism motivated by strategic sacrifice, which benefits one genetic trajectory or another (Dawkins).

The belief that life processes will one day be subject to much greater control through instrumentalized understandings of their genetic code is the basis for a major expansion in the biotechnology industry, and corresponding scientific research, since the early 1980s. International scientific projects, such as the attempt to map the human genome by sequencing all of the DNA in the twenty-three pairs of human chromosomes, reflect the increasing importance of genes and genetic processes to the understanding of life itself (for a description of the Human Genome Project, see British Medical Association, and Cook-Deegan; for an account of the ethical dimension, see Kevles and Hood; for a critical account, see Hubbard and Wald). In turn, increasing information about the role of genes in heredity will pose new choices and decisions, as well as dilemmas, for many. On the one hand, new diagnostic procedures utilizing genetic screening to detect severe, chronic, degenerative, and often terminal disorders caused by a single gene are claimed to offer greater reproductive choice and control, and the potential to alleviate human suffering and disease. On the other hand, the identification of gene "defects" poses worrisome questions, especially when linked to notions of individual predisposition, genetic selection, and the elimination of "undesirable" traits. Controversies such as that attending the putative discovery of a "gay gene" underscore the dangers of social prejudice wedded to genetic determinism in the name of greater reproductive choice and control.

Altering the genetic code of an individual entity, be it human, plant, or animal, is most controversial when the alteration has the potential to be replicated in subsequent generations, therefore resulting in irreversible and cumulative hereditary effects. Although a distinction is currently maintained between somatic cell gene therapy (genetic alteration of nonreproductive bodily tissue) and germ-line gene therapy (genetic modification of the egg or sperm cells, or the early embryo), this boundary is known to be unstable. Considerable ethical concern therefore surrounds the advent of human gene therapy, now practiced in both Great Britain and the United States (for further discussion, see British Medical Association). The release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment, largely in the form of plants and microorganisms, has also attracted controversy, in particular concerning the labeling of foodstuffs and the limits of acceptable risk.

It is the biogenetic definition of life, then, that informs many of the moral debates about the protection of life, whether human, animal, or environmental—the latter category denoting the ecosystem as a complex "living whole" (for a discussion of protecting life as "biodiversity," see Wilson; also Kellert and Wilson). Confusions about when life begins, for example, as in debates about fetal rights, derive from a biogenetic definition of life, which is continuous: each life form has its origin in the lives of those preceding it, and their connectedness underscores the interrelation of life itself. Given such a definition of life, clear demarcations concerning the beginnings and endings of life, of a life, or of life itself are understandably subject to dispute.

Artificial Life

New techniques for technologically assisting the creation of life (e.g., assisted conception) and for prolonging life or redesigning life (genetic engineering) add to the difficulties of establishing a clear basis for decision making by health professionals, relatives, policymakers, or legislators. Technology now enables the production, extension, and even redesign of life forms, including humans, animals, plants, and microorganisms. Increasingly sophisticated medical technology has affected both the beginning and the ending of human life. Life-support technologies can artificially sustain human life in the context of severely restricted life functions both at the beginning of life (perinatal support) and toward the end of life, in cases where the individual becomes fully dependent on technology for respiration. Cases of prolonged "vegetative" human existence raise difficult questions as a result of the availability of technologically maintained biological viability. Insofar as a person is more than a biological life, difficult decisions concerning continued treatment for a person who is only minimally alive are the inevitable result of modern technology's capacity to sustain baseline survival functions indefinitely.

Technology also affects the creation of life itself. As medical scientists acquire ever greater command of genetic structure, the question of the ethical acceptability of the creation of life forms such as the Harvard "oncomouse," genetically engineered to develop cancer so it can be used in the design of new drugs for the treatment of human disease, must be addressed. The subject of a major patent dispute in the European Parliament, and removed from the market in 1993 by its manufacturer, DuPont, the oncomouse was among the first higher life forms to be defined as a technology, comparable to other forms of laboratory apparatus. As both a mammal and a scientific instrument, the oncomouse inhabits a domain subject to increasing ethical, commercial, and political controversy (Haraway).

Most significant, the oncomouse raises the question of ownership of life, which is established as an inviolable right for humans within the liberal democratic tradition and was described by humanist philosopher John Locke as "ownership of one's person." This principle, used in arguments favoring the emancipation of women and the abolition of slavery (both women and slaves being considered chattels), is more recently evident in disputes concerning body parts. In the landmark case of John Moore v. California Regents, conflict over the use of Moore's body tissue in the design of a drug, through production of an immortal cell line derived from his spleen cells, culminated in a U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibiting the individual ownership of bodily tissue. Ownership of human life in this case was declared not subject to extracorporeal extension.

The question is again different in the case of the "right to life" of the oncomouse, or the "geep," the transspecies hybrid of a goat and a sheep produced through genetic manipulation. Here, the question concerns the deliberate production of a life that brings great suffering to the resultant organism. Only the greater good to humans of such developments can justify their deliberate creation by scientists. But the basis for ethical decision making in such an instance remains indeterminate.


Many of the ethical questions addressed to life itself concern the degree of protection it requires. These questions in turn depend on how life is defined. Whether they concern the beginnings or endings of life, its creation, redesign, or sustenance under technological conditions, the underlying definition of life itself is a fundamental force shaping ethical decision making. Scientifically, life is defined according to the modern life sciences in a biogenetic idiom, which constructs it as a continuous and connected force unto itself, manifested by the self-replicating properties of DNA. In the liberal humanist tradition, human life is also seen as a possession, and the persistent association of life with sacredness is well established. The rights to life, the protection of life, and the quality of life are extended to some degree to other life forms, on the principle of avoiding cruelty and suffering. In none of these areas are definitive boundaries or limits available upon which to base ethical practice. Instead, as definitions of both life and death are subject to ongoing transformation, so are the ethical frameworks brought to bear on the creation, management, and protection of all life forms.

sarah franklin (1995)

bibliography revised

SEE ALSO: Abortion; Animal Welfare and Rights: Ethical Perspectives on the Treatment and Status of Animals; Cloning; Embryo and Fetus; Environmental Ethics; Human Nature; Life Sustaining Treatment and Euthanasia; Life, Quality of; Moral Status; Palliative Care and Hospice; Value and Valuation


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Wilson, Edward O. 1992. The Diversity of Life. New York: Norton.


views updated May 08 2018


Throughout recorded history human beings have recognized the qualitative difference between the living and non-living worlds, the animate and inanimate. Placing that recognition on solid, rational footing or giving it a quantitative basis has remained a major challenge, however. What exactly makes a living being so different from one that is nonliving? Living organisms carry out oxidation, for example, but so does a candle when it burns; living organisms grow from some sort of seedlike beginning to a larger form, but so does a crystal in a supersaturated solution; some organisms move, but others, like plants, do not; organisms reproduce (that is, make copies of themselves), but so do some molecules in the chemical process known as autocatalysis; viruses, probably the most confusing of all forms of matter in this regard, can enter living cells, reproduce themselves, break out of the cell, and infect other cells, yet they can also be crystallized and placed on a shelf for decades, only to become reactivated when placed in a solution in contact with host cells. In short, no single criterion or set of behaviors can unequivocally be said to distinguish living from nonliving matter. Yet there is also little doubt in most cases when we encounter a living organism. Life is characterized by a whole set of activities or functions, no one of which is unique but which collectively set living organisms apart from other physical entities.

In the history of Western thought, attempts to define life have been characterized by a series of alternative or dialectically opposed approaches that have reflected changing philosophical, cultural, and economic conditions. These alternative approaches will be described briefly and then applied to various aspects of the characterization of life.

Idealist versus Materialist Conceptions of Life

One of the oldest debates about the nature of life centered on whether living organisms functioned by means of a nonphysical process that lay outside material nature and therefore could not be fully understood by rational investigation or whether they could be understood in terms of everyday natural processes. The view that dominated the ancient and medieval worlds, known philosophically as idealism, claimed that living beings were qualitatively different from nonliving, representing a special set of categories whose "essence" existed only in the mind of the Creator. Associated particularly with the philosophy of Plato (c. 428348 or 347 b.c.e.), this idealistic perspective claims that rational understanding of the essence of life is philosophically impossible, since by definition the categories of each unique species exist not in the material world but only in the nonmaterial, essentialist categories conceived by the Creator. Idealists did not deny the material reality of living organisms but only claimed that the essence of living organisms could never be understood by human investigation. Most idealists saw life as originating from a special, supernatural process of creation by a nonmaterial being.

The diversity of living organisms observed in the world was always viewed as a product of the creation of separate essences known as species, which were absolute and immutable. The biologist's role was to try to understand the essence as much as possible by examining individual representatives of the species and determining their common or essential features. Variation among individual members of a species was recognized of course but was viewed as natural deviations from the "essence" in the same way that any given piece of pottery can be viewed as a deviation from the potter's mold. The Platonic tradition thus became the basis for the Western idealistic view of "life" in the biological sense, informing questions not only about the functionality of organisms but also about their origin.

Idealism continued to form a backdrop to discussions of the nature and origin of species in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the works of the taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus (Carl von Linné; the so-called "father" of taxonomy), the anatomist and paleontologist Georges Cuvier, and others who continued to see species as fixed entities formed by special creation. The "scientific creation" movement in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s and "intelligent design" arguments in the early twenty-first century are yet more manifestations of idealistic thinking, because they are based on the claim that creation by supernatural (nonmaterial) processes has occurred and is as theoretically valid as theories of descent with modification by material processes, such as gene mutation, selective agents of the environment, and differential fertility. "Intelligent design" is idealistic in that it postulates a supernatural, nonmaterial "designer" to explain the structure, function (adaptation), and diversity of organisms.

A second approach to understanding life, known as materialism, denies that living organisms have any special status in the physical world, maintaining that they are material beings, more complex than other entities in the universe but not immune to rational study. To materialists, all aspects of living organisms can potentially be understood by the same processesknown at present or knowable in the futurethat govern all physical systems. Materialists have generally rejected all accounts of the origin of life by supernatural processes or nonmaterial "Creators." Historically the study of living systems has been characterized by the gradual retreat of idealistic in favor of materialistic approaches to understanding the nature of life.

Mechanistic materialism.

A long-standing debate among materialists has concerned whether and to what degree it is possible to treat organisms as simply special, complex kinds of machines or whether they are qualitatively different from machines, due to characteristics such as the ability to self-replicate or repair themselves, control their internal environment by self-regulating feedback loops, and so on. Mechanists argue that the basic principles on which machines functionmatter in motion, transformation of energy, chemical reactionsare also at work in living organisms and provide a way of understanding life in accordance with the same laws of physics that govern nonliving systems.

Proponents of mechanistic thinking advocate the idea that complex entities are composed of separate, dissociable parts; that each part has its own characteristics that can only be investigated separately from other parts; that the functioning of the whole organism or machine is a result of the sum of its interacting parts and nothing more; and finally, that changes in the state of a machine or organism are the result of factors impinging on it from the outside (for example, machines and organisms decline in function due to physical wear and tear over time).

With the advent of the scientific revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, living organisms came to be seen for the first time as truly mechanical entities functioning physically like machines and chemically like alchemical retorts. The "mechanical philosophy," as it was called, was a version of mechanistic materialism, describing organisms in terms of levers, pulleys, and chemical combustions. William Harvey (15781657) compared the animal heart to a pump, with valves to insure one-way flow; Giovanni Borelli (16081679) described flight in birds as the compression of a "wedge" of air between the wings as they moved upward; and René Descartes (15961650) described the contraction of muscles as due to a hydraulic flow of "nervous fluid" down the nerves into the muscle tissue. This view persisted through the Enlightenment, which made the mechanical analogy explicit in its obsession with "automata," models of birds, insects, and humans that moved by a series of windup gears and levers, drank from dishes of water, flapped their wings, or crowed.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries mechanistic views again gained considerable support with the school of Berlin medical materialists, spearheaded by the physicist Hermann von Helmholtz (18211894). In a famous manifesto of 1847, Helmholtz and his colleagues Ernst Brücke and Emil Du Bois-Reymond stated emphatically that living organisms have no special "vital force," and thus research on organisms should be based only on the known laws of physics and chemistry. Life was, to the medical materialists, a manifestation of matter in motion. Their successor in the next generation, the German-born physiologist Jacques Loeb, after moving to the United States published a new version of the materialists' manifesto as the widely read book The Mechanistic Conception of Life (1912). With a blatant mechanistic, materialist bias, Loeb declared that organisms moving unconsciously toward a light source were "photochemical machines enslaved to the light" and that life could ultimately be explained in terms of the physical chemistry of colloidal compounds. Though somewhat extreme, such claims emphasized that the biologist needed to probe "life" with the tools of physics and chemistry, not abstract or metaphysical conceptions.

Holistic materialism.

Opposed to the mechanistic view is a philosophy known as holism. While some forms of holism, especially in the early twentieth century, had a mystical, idealistic quality about them (associated in particular with Ludwig von Bertalanffy [19011971] and Jakob von Uexküll [18641944] in Germany and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in France), holistic views within a materialist framework have become more and more common since the 1960s. The holistic materialist view maintains that while organisms (or any complex systems, for that matter) are indeed only material entities, they acquire special properties by virtue of their multiple levels of organization (from the atomic and molecular to the organismic and populational) and through the interactions of their parts.

What is missing from the mechanistic view, to holistic thinkers, is the description of each component of a system in terms not only of its isolated properties but also of its interactions with others. The characteristics derived from such interactions are known as "emergent properties" and function at a higher level of organization (including the parts and their interactions) than the individual parts alone. A cell can carry out certain functions in isolation (in a culture dish), but the many different functions it carries out as part of a tissue (a group of like cells) represent a higher level of organization. Individual nerve cells, for example, can depolarize when stimulated and release neurotransmitters at their terminal ends, thus acting like neurons; but when integrated into a nerve network, they function to stimulate a whole set of other neurons that can lead to complex outcomes, such as coordinated muscle contraction or thought, which would be emergent properties of the complex, integrated system. Holistic materialists do not admit supernatural or metaphysical explanations, only the insistence that complex systems are more than the sum of their individual parts.

Dialectical materialism.

A particular version of holistic materialism known as dialectical materialism emerged in the later nineteenth century in the work of Karl Marx (18181883) and Friedrich Engels (18201895) and was further developed in the twentieth century by Karl Kautsky (18541938) and Gyorgy Plekhanov (18561918) in the Soviet Union and J. B. S. Haldane (18921964) and others in Britain and subsequently by Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins (The Dialectical Biologist; 1985) in the United States. Dialectical materialists maintain not only that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and that complex systems have various levels of organization, each with its own emergent properties, but also that such systems are always in flux, changing dynamically due to the interaction of opposing forces within them. Thus organisms move developmentally through their life cycle in a constant struggle between the opposing forces of anabolism (building up of molecules, tissues) and catabolism (the breaking down of molecules and tissues). Ultimately the forces of catabolism win out, and death follows. Similarly evolution can be seen as change in a species over time due to the interaction of the opposing forces of heredity (faithful replication) and variation (unfaithful replication). Constant temperature in homoeothermic organisms is maintained by the interaction of heat-generating and heat-dissipating processes. A dialectical materialist view of life particularly emphasizes the dynamic, ever-changing nature of living systems.

Holistic approaches to "life"dialectical or otherwisehave become increasingly prominent in certain areas of the life sciences since the 1980s, for example, in physiology (especially the study of homeostatic feedback systems), in neurobiology (brain and behavior in particular), and in population biology and ecosystems work, where any useful understanding of the system must take into account numerous variables and their interactions. The advent of the computer in the study of such systems has aided greatly in providing ways of handling the immense amount of data that such investigations must utilize. Growing out of this revived holistic movement is an increasingly prominent field known as "systems science" or in some quarters as "the study of complexity."

Methodological Debates about the Study of Life

A corollary of the philosophical contrast between mechanistic and holistic materialist conceptions of life is the distinction between reductionist and integrative methodologies. Reductionism, closely allied to mechanistic materialism, is the view that the proper way to study organisms is to take them apart and examine and characterize their individual components in isolation under strictly controlled external conditions. For example, to study the way in which the heart functions, a reductionist would remove the organ from the body and place it in a chamber where temperature, pH, and concentration of other ions could be held constant. Integrative biologists argue that the reductionist approach is a necessary if insufficient approach to understanding complex systems. The heart in the intact animal, they point out, is connected to nerves, blood vessels, and other organs and thus is subject to neural and hormonal influences that cannot be understood from investigation of the heart in an isolated chamber. According to proponents of holism, it is necessary to devise methods for studying component parts in the living state, in the context of the whole organism of which they are a part (in vivo), as opposed to studying them only as isolated entities (in vitro).

A component of the methodological debate between reductionism and holism is the debate between the strictly observational and the experimental approach to living systems. Proponents of strictly observational studies, such as the Austrian animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz (19031989) from the 1930s to the 1960s, argue that living systems must be studied in their natural context and that when experimenters bring organisms into the laboratory under highly artificial (controlled) conditions, they create an environment so foreign to the organisms that the information obtained is an artifact and of limited use. In contrast, proponents of experimentation, such as the behaviorist Daniel Lehrman, point out that restricting investigations to only what can be observed under "natural" conditions limits the kinds of questions the investigator can ask and the kinds of information that he or she can obtain. Such debates have surfaced in fields such as ecology, evolution, and animal behavior, where field investigators have often claimed that laboratory conditions are so different from those the organisms experience in the wild that the information obtained can have little relevance to how the organism functions in its natural habitat. Experimentalists argue that those who limit their work strictly to field observation have no ways to test their theories and consequently can never develop a rigorous, scientific explanation. Of course as many scientists and philosophers have pointed out, the approaches, like those of reductionism and holism, are actually complementary. Nonetheless, debates on reductionism and holism, observation and experimentation, have continued to resurface and influence the development of biology down to the twenty-first century.

Unity and Diversity in Living Organisms

Another important aspect of life is its vast diversity built on a base of underlying unity. For example, organisms as outwardly dissimilar as a bacterium, a human, and an oak tree are all composed of the same basic structural element, the cell, which in turn have many similar subcellular and molecular components. All eukaryotic cells (those cells of higher organisms that have a membrane-bound nucleus) contain mitochondria (organelles that carry out oxidation and thus provide energy), Golgi apparatus (a membrane system involved in packaging newly synthesized proteins), endoplasmic reticulum (a complex system of internal membranes), and ribosomes (small structures that form the site of protein synthesis). Simpler cells known as prokaryotes (bacteria, blue-green algae, and so forth), while lacking mitochondria and other organelles, contain ribosomes and share all the basic molecular infrastructure with eukaryotes. For example, both prokaryotes and eukaryotes have their hereditary information encoded in the molecule of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), transcribe that message into messenger RNA (mRNA), and translate that message into proteins in exactly the same ways. Furthermore the language in which the DNA code is written is the same in all organisms: as a triplet in which specific sequences of three out of four possible bases (adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine) specify each of the twenty amino acids that make up all proteins in the living world. Thus beneath apparent diversity lies a major infrastructure of unity. How to interpret this obvious contradiction has motivated a wide variety of views of the nature of life since at least the early twentieth century.

The Molecular and Biochemical View of Life

Deriving from the reductionism-holism debate, an important issue from the 1930s onward has been the extent to which living systems are ultimately reducible to molecules and chemical reactions. Biochemical definitions of life surfaced in the late nineteenth century with the discovery of enzymes as "living ferments" and became particularly prominent during the heyday of biochemical work (in England and Germany from 1920 to 1939) on enzyme-catalyzed pathways for synthesizing or degrading the major molecules in living systems. Many biochemists, flushed with success in elucidating the multistep pathways for fermentation or oxidation, attempted to define life in terms of enzyme catalysis. They held that what differentiated living from nonliving systems was the rapidity with which enzyme-catalyzed reactions and energy conversions could take place and the precision with which they could be controlled. The cell, one biochemist argued, is nothing more than a bag of enzymes. The biochemical view of life paid little if any attention to cell structure and organization, focusing almost exclusively on metabolic pathways, their interconnections, reaction kinetics, and energetics.

In the decades following the working out of the double helical structure of DNA by James D. Watson and Francis Crick in 1953, the biochemical definition of life was replaced by, or encompassed within, what came to be called the molecular view of life. The molecular view was more comprehensive than the biochemical, including the study of the three-dimensional structure of molecules, such as hemoglobin and myoglobin, and attention to cell structure and its relation to function, using techniques such as electron microscopy, ultracentrifugation, electrophoresis, fluorescence dyeing, and later confocal microscopy. Paradigmatic along these lines were detailed investigation of the structure of hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying molecule in animal blood, and the discovery of its allosteric changes (positional shifts) in structure as it alternately bonds to and releases oxygen. The molecular and biochemical views of life tended to be highly reductionist, seeing life as merely a manifestation of molecular structure. Nonetheless, the molecular view did emphasize the importance of understanding life in terms of molecular configurations and the ways various molecules interacted chemically in such living processes as respiration, photosynthesis, protein synthesis, cell-to-cell communication, and signal transduction (the way a cell responds internally to receiving a specific message from the outside).

A particularly prominent aspect of the biochemical and molecular views of life has been the field of abiogenesis or the origin of life. Beginning with the work of the Russian biochemist A. I. Oparin (18941980) in the 1930s through that of Sidney Fox (19122001) from the 1950s to the 1990s, Stanley Miller in the 1950s, and Cyril Ponnamperuma in the 1970s, investigations as to how living systems might have originated on the primitive earth (or other extraterrestrial bodies) have gained considerable attention. Oparin showed that simple globular formulations that he called coacervates (formed from gum arabic and other organic substances in an aqueous medium) could perform simple functions analogous to living cells (movement, fission). Miller's experiments in the early 1950s demonstrated that basic amino acids, sugars, and other organic compounds (formic acid, urea) could be produced from components of what was hypothesized to have been the earth's early atmosphere (ammonia, carbon dioxide, water vapor, and hydrogen), thus giving credence to the view that life could indeed have originated on earth by simple biochemical processes. Later work of Fox and others on how the basic building blocks of organic matter (amino acids, simple sugars, nucleotides, and glycerides) could have become organized into macromolecules and basic cell structures showed that the origin of the next level of organization up from the molecule, the cell and its components, could be studied by experimental means. These investigations gave considerable support to the view that life is truly an expression, though an emergent one, of the basic properties of all matter, as understood through the analysis of atomic and molecular structure.

See also Behaviorism ; Biology ; Creationism ; Determinism ; Development ; Ecology ; Evolution ; Historical and Dialectical Materialism ; Life Cycle ; Materialism in Eighteenth-Century European Thought ; Natural History ; Nature ; Naturphilosophie ; Organicism ; Science, History of ; Sexuality ; Suicide .


Allen, Garland E. "Dialectical Materialism in Modern Biology." Science and Nature 3 (1980): 4357.

. Life Science in the Twentieth Century. New York: Wiley, 1975.

Bertalanffy, Ludwig von. Problems of Life. New York: Harper, 1960. Translation of vol. 1 of Das Biologische Weltbild (1949).

Coleman, William. Biology in the Nineteenth Century: Problems of Form, Function, and Transformation. New York: Wiley, 1971.

Fruton, Joseph S. Proteins, Enzymes, Genes: The Interplay of Chemistry and Biology. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999.

Hall, Thomas S. Ideas of Life and Matter. 2 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

Harrington, Anne. Reenchanted Science. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Lenoir, Timothy. The Strategy of Life: Teleology and Mechanism in Nineteenth-Century German Biology. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Reidel, 1982.

Mayr, Ernst. The Growth of Biological Thought. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1982.

Oparin, A. I. Life: Its Nature, Origin, and Development. Translated by Ann Synge. New York: Academic Press, 1961.

Garland E. Allen


views updated Jun 27 2018


Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta as Michael King Jr., the first son of a Baptist minister and the grandson of a Baptist minister. His forebears exemplified the African-American social gospel tradition that would shape his career as a reformer. King's maternal grandfather, the Reverend A. D. Williams, had transformed Ebenezer Baptist Church, a block down the street from his grandson's childhood home, into one of Atlanta's most prominent black churches. In 1906, Williams had joined such figures as Atlanta University scholar W. E. B. Du Bois and African Methodist Episcopal (AME) bishop Henry McNeal Turner to form the Georgia Equal Rights League, an organization that condemned lynching, segregation in public transportation, and the exclusion of black men from juries and state militia. In 1917 Williams helped found the Atlanta branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), later serving as the chapter's president. Williams's subsequent campaign to register and mobilize black voters prodded white leaders to agree to construct new public schools for black children.

After Williams's death in 1931, his son-in-law, Michael King Sr., also combined religious and political leadership. He became president of Atlanta's NAACP, led voter-registration marches during the 1930s, and spearheaded a movement to equalize the salaries of black public school teachers with those of their white counterparts. In 1934, King Sr.perhaps inspired by a visit to the birthplace of Protestantism in Germanychanged his name (and that of his son) to Martin Luther King.

Despite the younger King's admiration for his father's politically active ministry, he was initially reluctant to accept his inherited calling. Experiencing religious doubts during his early teenage years, he decided to become a minister only after he came into contact with religious leaders who combined theological sophistication with social gospel advocacy. At Morehouse College, which King attended from 1944 to 1948, the college's president, Benjamin E. Mays, encouraged him to believe that Christianity should become a force for progressive social change. A course on the Bible taught by Morehouse professor George Kelsey exposed King to theological scholarship. After deciding to become a minister, King increased his understanding of liberal Christian thought while attending Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. Compiling an outstanding academic record at Crozer, he deepened his understanding of modern religious scholarship and eventually identified himself with theological personalism. King later wrote that this philosophical position strengthened his belief in a personal God and provided him with a "metaphysical basis for the dignity and worth of all human personality."

At Boston University, where King began doctoral studies in systematic theology in 1951, his exploration of theological scholarship was combined with extensive interactions with the Boston African-American community. He met regularly with other black students in an informal group called the Dialectical Society. Often invited to give sermons in Boston-area churches, he acquired a reputation as a powerful preacher, drawing ideas from African-American Baptist traditions as well as theological and philosophical writings. While the academic papers he wrote at Boston displayed little originality, King's scholarly training provided him with an exceptional ability to draw upon a wide range of theological and philosophical texts to express his views with force and precision, a talent that would prove useful in his future leadership activities. During his stay in Boston, King also met and began dating Coretta Scott, then a student at the New England Conservatory of Music. On June 18, 1953, the two students were married in Marion, Alabama, where Scott's family lived. During the following academic year, King began work on his dissertation, which was completed during the spring of 1955.

Soon after King accepted his first pastorate at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., he had an unexpected opportunity to utilize the insights he had gained from his childhood experiences and academic training. After the NAACP official Rosa Parks was jailed for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, King accepted the post of president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which was formed to coordinate a boycott of Montgomery's buses. In his role as the primary spokesman of the boycott, King gradually forged a distinctive protest strategy that involved the mobilization of black churches, the utilization of Gandhian methods of nonviolent protest, and skillful appeals for white support.

After the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed Alabama bus segregation laws in late 1956, King quickly rose to national prominence as a result of his leadership role in the boycott. In 1957 he became the founding president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), formed to coordinate civil rights activities throughout the South. The publication of King's Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1958) further contributed to his rapid emergence as a nationally known civil rights leader. Seeking to forestall the fears of NAACP leaders that his organization might draw away followers and financial support, King acted cautiously during the late 1950s. Instead of immediately seeking to stimulate mass desegregation protests in the South, he stressed the goal of achieving black voting rights when he addressed an audience at the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington, D.C. During 1959 he increased his understanding of Gandhian ideas during a month-long visit to India as a guest of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Early in 1960, King moved his familywhich now included two children, Yolanda Denise (born 1955) and Martin Luther III (born 1957)to Atlanta in order to be nearer SCLC's headquarters in that city and to become copastorwith his fatherof Ebenezer Baptist Church. The Kings' third child, Dexter Scott, was born in 1961; their fourth, Bernice Albertine, was born in 1963.

Soon after King's arrival in Atlanta, the lunch counter sit-in movement, led by students, spread throughout the South and brought into existence a new organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC activists admired King but also pushed him toward greater militancy. In October 1960, his arrest during a student-initiated protest in Atlanta became an issue in the national presidential campaign when the Democratic candidate, John F. Kennedy, intervened to secure his release from jail. Kennedy's action contributed to his narrow victory in the November election. During 1961 and 1962, King's differences with SNCC activists widened during a sustained protest movement in Albany, Georgia. King was arrested twice during demonstrations organized by the Albany movement, but when he left jail, and ultimately left Albany, without achieving a victory, his standing among activists declined.

King reasserted his preeminence within the African-American freedom struggle through his leadership of the Birmingham, Alabama, campaign of 1963. Initiated by the

SCLC in January, the Birmingham demonstrations were the most massive civil rights protests that had occurred up to that time. With the assistance of Fred Shuttlesworth and other local black leaders, and without much competition from SNCC or other civil rights groups, SCLC officials were able to orchestrate the Birmingham protests to achieve maximum national impact. During May, televised pictures of police using dogs and fire hoses against demonstrators aroused a national outcry. This vivid evidence of the obstinacy of Birmingham officials, combined with Alabama overnor George C. Wallace's attempt to block the entry of black students at the University of Alabama, prompted President John F. Kennedy to introduce major new civil rights legislation. King's unique ability to appropriate ideas from the Bible, the Constitution, and other canonical texts manifested itself when he defended the black protests in a widely quoted letter, written while he was jailed in Birmingham.

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King's speech at the August 28, 1963, March on Washington, attended by over 200,000 people, provides another powerful demonstration of his singular ability to draw on widely accepted American ideals in order to promote black objectives. At the end of his prepared remarks, which announced that African Americans wished to cash the "promissory note" signified in the words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, King began his most quoted oration: "So I say to you, my friends, that even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creedwe hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." He appropriated the familiar words of the song "My Country 'Tis of Thee" before concluding: "And when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's childrenblack men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholicswill be able to join hands and to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last.' "

After the March on Washington, King's fame and popularity were at their height. Named Time magazine's Man of the Year at the end of 1963, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964. The acclaim he received prompted FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to step up his effort to damage King's reputation by leaking information gained through surreptitious means about King's ties with former communists and his extramarital affairs.

King's last successful civil rights campaign was a series of demonstrations in Alabama that were intended to dramatize the denial of black voting rights in the deep South. Demonstrations began in Selma, Alabama, early in 1965 and reached a turning point on March 7, when a group of demonstrators began a march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. King was in Atlanta when state policemen, carrying out Governor Wallace's order to stop the march, attacked with tear gas and clubs soon after the procession crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the outskirts of Selma. The police assault on the marchers quickly increased national support for the voting rights campaign. King arrived in Selma to join several thousand movement sympathizers, black and white. President Lyndon B. Johnson reacted to the Alabama protests by introducing new voting rights legislation, which would become the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Demonstrators were finally able to obtain a court order allowing the march to take place, and on March 25 King addressed the arriving protestors from the steps of the capitol in Montgomery.

After the successful voting rights campaign, King was unable to garner similar support for his effort to confront the problems of northern urban blacks. Early in 1966 he launched a major campaign in Chicago, moving into an apartment in the black ghetto. As he shifted the focus of

his activities north, however, he discovered that the tactics used in the South were not as effective elsewhere. He encountered formidable opposition from Mayor Richard Daley, and he was unable to mobilize Chicago's economically and ideologically diverse black populace. He was stoned by angry whites in the suburb of Cicero when he led a march against racial discrimination in housing. Despite numerous well-publicized protests, the Chicago campaign resulted in no significant gains and undermined King's reputation as an effective leader.

His status was further damaged when his strategy of nonviolence came under renewed attack from blacks following a major outbreak of urban racial violence in Los Angeles during August 1965. When civil rights activists reacted to the shooting of James Meredith by organizing "March against Fear" through Mississippi, King was forced on the defensive as Stokely Carmichael and other militants put forward the Black Power slogan. Although King refused to condemn the militants who opposed him, he criticized the new slogan as vague and divisive. As his influence among blacks lessened, he also alienated many white moderate supporters by publicly opposing U.S. intervention in the Vietnam War. After he delivered a major antiwar speech at New York's Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, many of the northern newspapers that had once supported his civil rights efforts condemned his attempt to link civil rights to the war issue.

In November 1967, King announced the formation of a Poor People's Campaign designed to prod the nation's leaders to deal with the problem of poverty. Early in 1968, he and other SCLC workers began to recruit poor people and antipoverty activists to come to Washington, D.C., to lobby on behalf of improved antipoverty programs. This effort was in its early stages when King became involved in a sanitation workers' strike in Memphis. On March 28, as he led thousands of sanitation workers and sympathizers on a march through downtown Memphis, violence broke out and black youngsters looted stores. The violent outbreak led to more criticisms of King's entire antipoverty strategy. He returned to Memphis for the last time early in April. Addressing an audience at Bishop Charles H. Mason Temple on April 3, he sought to revive his flagging movement by acknowledging: "We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I've seen the prom ised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."

The following evening, King was assassinated as he stood on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. A white segregationist, James Earl Ray, was later convicted of the crime. The Poor People's Campaign continued for a few months but did not achieve its objectives. King became an increasingly revered figure after his death, however, and many of his critics ultimately acknowledged his considerable accomplishments. In 1969 his widow, Coretta Scott King, established the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, in Atlanta, to carry on his work. In 1986, a national holiday was established to honor King's birth.


Baldwin, Lewis V. There is a Balm in Gilead: The Cultural Roots of Martin Luther King, Jr. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1991.

Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.

Branch, Taylor. Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.

Fairclough, Adam. Martin Luther King, Jr. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.

Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: William Morrow, 1986.

King, Coretta Scott. My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James Melvin Washington. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Carson, Claybourne. New York: Warner Books, 1998.

King, Martin Luther, Sr., and Clayton Riley. Daddy King: An Autobiography. New York: William Morrow, 1980.

Lewis, David Levering. King: A Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978.

Oates, Steven B. Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Harper & Row, 1982.

Reddick, L. D. Crusader Without Violence: A Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Harper, 1959.

clayborne carson (1996)
Updated bibliography


views updated May 21 2018


Two of the most prominent magazines ever published in the United States have borne the name of Life, each vastly different in style and content but both unique mirrors of the tastes and images of their respective eras. The first, published from 1883 to 1936, offered polished humor and satire, and was renowned for the "Gibson Girl" (and "Gibson Man") illustrations of Charles Dana Gibson that embodied the standards of the turn-of-the-century young sophisticate. As this magazine foundered in the 1930s, publishing mogul Henry Luce purchased, for $96,000, its "name and good will" for his own Life, a slick, photo-oriented magazine published weekly from 1936 to 1972 and less frequently thereafter. During the peak of its influence from the 1940s through the 1960s, this second Life, a visual companion of sorts to Time, Luce's weekly newsmagazine, exalted the art of photojournalism to unprecedented levels by offering a graphic snapshot of American manners and morals to millions of readers—and helped shape public opinion on issues ranging from the role of America in world affairs to the role of the "Negro" at home, and from the perils of fascism and communism to the realities of an affluent postwar society. For the first 36 years of its existence, Henry Luce's Life was arguably America's most influential mass magazine, one whose generalized approach gave it an advantage in successfully negotiating many of the contradictions that more specialized publications could not. It advanced the cult of the celebrity without resorting to tabloid sensationalism or gossip; it extolled the can-do attitudes of the homespun war hero without glorifying militarism; it presented an image of a more homogeneous America without neglecting the plight of the poor and racial minorities; it sent a Republican message of order and authority without treading on the Democratic predilection for the common man. Life did not aspire to be either as highbrow as the Saturday Review or as specialized as the Literary Digest, but it did bring to its multifaceted readers a commendable grab-bag of visually outstanding articles on, say, medieval architecture, or on Hemingway or grand opera, albeit often side-by-side with pieces depicting amusing farm animals or eccentric folk artisans.

The earlier of the two Life magazines was founded in New York City by John Ames Mitchell, a recent Harvard graduate, who appointed as its first editor Edward Martin Sandford, a classmate who had founded the Harvard Lampoon in 1876. Combining satire, verse, and criticism with advertisements for luxurious products, this original Life became, as Christopher Gray wrote in the New York Times (November 5, 1996): "sophisticated and satirical, something like the old Spy magazine without the nastiness." Publisher Mitchell later commissioned the architectural firm of Carré and Hastings to erect an elaborate Beaux-Arts headquarters for its editorial offices, helping authenticate New York City's new role as the nation's nerve center of publishing and image-making in the Gilded Age. For a while, illustrator Charles Dana Gibson occupied the building's atelier, from which issued the "Gibson Girl"—and "Man"—illustrations that defined the look of his generation.

By the mid-1930s, Henry Luce, who had founded Time magazine in 1922 and Fortune in 1931, had established a work-group within his publishing empire to develop plans for an American "Picture Magazine" based on the model of European periodicals like the Parisian Vu or the Illustrated London News. Working from offices in New York's Chrysler Building, the group included John Stuart Martin, a Time editor, Natasha von Hoershelman, a researcher, and a recent Yale graduate named Dwight Macdonald, later to achieve renown as an essayist and critic. But much of the concept for the new magazine came from an employee of a rival publisher, Clare Boothe Brokaw, an editorial staffer at Vanity Fair magazine who would become Luce's second wife in 1935. When the two met for the first time, Brokaw proposed an idea she had been unsuccessfully trying to sell to her own publishers at Condé Nast, one that would report "not all the news nor, necessarily, the most important news, but the most interesting and exciting news," in photographs, and interpreting it editorially through accompanying articles by capable writers and journalists. Luce had been especially fascinated with what he termed the "picture-magic" capabilities of photography, especially in the new German miniature cameras such as the Leica that were enabling photojournalists to expand the limitations of candid photography that would later be in such Life features as " Life Goes to a Party." Luce had already been convinced of the power of the visual image in journalism through his experience as producer of the popular March of Time newsreels that reached millions of American moviegoers. His hiring of Kurt Korff, a German, as picture consultant, underscored his commitment to produce a magazine "designed to capture and occupy the position of No. 1 look-through magazine of America … the damnedest best non-pornographic look-through magazine in the United States."

An early working title for this proposed ten-cents-a-copy "look-through magazine" in its first prospectus was Dime: The Show-Book of the World, a designation greeted with derision by colleagues who feared the name would be confused with that of Time. Before the first issue of Life hit the newsstands on November 23, 1936, other of the dozen or more names considered but rejected for the fledgling periodical included Album, Eye, Flash, Go, Nuze-Vuze, Scan, See, Snap, and Wide Awake! In the meantime, Dwight Macdonald had been soliciting dossiers from the world's leading photographers, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, who had to turn down a request for more work due to other commitments.

The original Life photographers were Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Tom McAvoy, and Peter Stackpole. Robert Capa, another early cameraman whose work was often published by Life, remained an independent contractor for most of his career. Arguably the most famous and instantly recognizable photograph Life ever ran was Eisenstaedt's shot of an exuberant sailor and nurse lost in a kiss in Times Square during V-J celebrations in the summer of 1945. Loudon Wainwright, who edited Life when it became a monthly in the 1980s, suggested that it was this interest in the lives of ordinary people that made Life such a powerful medium. As he wrote in his memoir The Great American Magazine: An Inside History of Life : "Whatever its preoccupations with royalty and politics and the high and low jinks of the famous … Life's greatest resource for its best picture stories would always be the lives of ordinary people, their work, their pleasure, their follies, their anguish. Such stories touched virtually every reader."

The first volume of Life, published on November 23, 1936, featured on its front cover Margaret Bourke-White's dramatically lit photograph of Fort Peck Dam, a proud artifact of the Works Progress Administration's (WPA) contribution to public works in Depression-era America. Inside, a famous editorial photograph of a doctor in a surgical mask holding the newborn George Story upside down, with the double-entendre caption "Life Begins." The florid caption capsulized what the magazine was to be about, and set the florid style that other captions would imitate over the next 37 years. "The camera records the most vital moment in any life: Its beginning. A few hours ago, the child lay restless in its mother's womb. A second ago, its foetal life was rudely ended when the surgeon snapped its umbilical cord … Suddenly the baby's new and independent life begins. He jerks up his arms, bends his knees and, with his first short breath, gives out a red-faced cry." For Life's 25th anniversary in 1961, Story was pictured holding his own son; he was also featured in Life's 50th birthday issue in 1986 and in its 60th ten years later.

From the first issue, the magazine's cover bore the familiar red rectangle in the upper left corner with the word "Life" in white sans-serif capitals, a logo that would, with one exception, appear on every one of the more than 2000 issues for the next six decades. The logo was dropped entirely for the cover of April 26, 1937, which bore a leghorn rooster, and it was printed twice in black instead for issues memorializing the slain president Kennedy in 1963, and once in green for an Earth Day cover in 1990. Until 1963, the cover of Life also featured a distinctive red border along its bottom. For the next 36 years, until December 29, 1972, Life appeared weekly. From 1973 through 1978, it appeared only as a twice-yearly special issue. In 1978, it began monthly publication, with occasional special single issues making it a "fourteenthly" (as in 1989) or even "fifteenthly" (as in 1988 and 1990). In 1991, during the Persian Gulf War, it resumed weekly publication for the duration of the conflict, for a total of twenty issues that year. From its earliest days, Life relied on a tried-and-true formula of outstanding photographs presented in a wide variety of departments, ranging from in-depth reportage on breaking news to features that relied on clever juxtapositions of text and image, or on homely photo spreads of children and animals, singly or in tandem.

Despite its generally conservative stance on many social and cultural issues, Life, from its earliest days, published material that occasionally made it a target for censors. One of its first issues, that of April 11, 1938, was banned in many localities for its quite nonprurient portrayal of scenes from the educational film The Birth of a Baby. Charges were quickly dropped, with many public figures, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, backing Life's stance. Another controversy erupted in 1955 when Life published photographer Lennart Nilsson's images of the human embryo, which some anti-abortionists later used to justify their argument that life begins at conception. "Maybe … it starts with a kiss," remarked Nilsson. Also in the early 1950s, Life published a reproduction of Tom Kelley's 1949 calendar shot of a nude Marilyn Monroe.

Life quickly sold out its first press run of 250,000 newsstand copies and within a year reached a circulation of 1.5 million, which cost the magazine much revenue because its initial advertising rates were pegged to a smaller circulation. Within four years, it was claiming an audience of nearly 20 million readers each week with a total annual revenue of $11 million from circulation in 1940 dollars. Over its 36-year span as a weekly, Life would, in the words of Loudon Wainwright, become "the most successful weekly the world has ever known," reaching a circulation of 8.5 million at its peak. Life came into its own with its extensive coverage of World War II, both on the battlefield and on the home front. Life photographers sought and found hazardous assigments on the front lines, preferring this direct journalism to the practice of some other publications in accepting staged handout photographs by the War Department. Life's weekly portrayal of the horrors of war and of the grit and determination of Americans and their allies helped create a sense of national unity and purpose far beyond that of earlier eras before spot-news photography had been developed. Although Mathew Brady pioneered the use of the camera on the battlefield some eighty years earlier, he did not portray the home front as carefully and as craftily as did Life, as in its "Day in the Life of… " feature, in which photographers and reporters covered simultaneous events in different parts of the country, helping readers take comfort in seeing a national pattern emerge through the mosaic of local color. This was particularly effective in home-front reporting during World War II, as in its feature "American Sunday." Describing it, Wainwright wrote: "In this somewhat grandiose and typical cornball effort, sixteen photographers from coast to coast took pictures on a single day that would emphasize our sturdy unanimity…. What it all added up to was a forgivably dull exercise in patriotism by photography, a sort of Norman Rockwellism in pictures that was supposed to make the readers feel powerfully joined together in a common cause—which, in fact, they already did." In a sense Life was using its photographers to replicate what Rockwell was creating by pen and ink for the rival Saturday Evening Post : a homespun, motherhood and apple-pie version of America whose very guilelessness in the face of militarism and fascism became one of the strongest weapons in its arsenal.

Luce himself, the son of Presbyterian missionaries in China, brought a secular evangelicalism to his role as publisher. On February 17, 1941, when isolationism was in fashion among many American political leaders, Luce reserved five photo-free pages in Life for his famous essay, "The American Century," in which he pontificated on the role he believed the United States was destined to play in the world arena. He had earlier warned his Time-Life colleagues that "The country is in danger. Danger. Danger" and urged them to "cultivate the Martial Spirit" and to be "hawk-eyed in our observation of Preparedness." In "The American Century," Luce articulated several points that would indeed describe the American presence in the postwar world, with the nurturing of free enterprise and human progress among its most important national goals. Presaging the Marshall Plan and other examples of American humanitarian and economic aid, Luce declared "We must undertake now to be the Good Samaritan of the entire world. It is the manifest duty of this country to undertake to feed all the people of the world who as a result of this worldwide collapse of civilization are hungry and destitute." Luce's formative years in Asia gave him a lifelong sympathy for China, and he became an ardent supporter of Chiang kai-Shek, a policy that Americans came to support in part because so many of them learned about Asian affairs through Life's lens.

Luce's idealistic sermon struck a sympathetic chord with the masses of the American people—many of whom were subscribers to Life —who emerged from World War II with a heightened sense of purpose about their national identity. With echoes of "The American Century" in their heads, Life's editors and photographers gave a tacit blessing to the new consumer society being created by newly affluent readers as they moved to the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s, since Luce, a Calvinist at heart, had essentially anointed their affluence as a sign of election and an opportunity for national benevolence. Even in the arena of domestic life, Life emerged as a powerful if unconscious player in bridging some of the nation's divisions over class and race. While Luce and the power elite he represented would naturally recommend a more gradualist approach to social change, the graphic immediacy of the photographs in the pages of Life helped call attention to the ills of American society. In the decades following World War II, side-by-side with its frivolous stories on show business and fads, the magazine gave prominent though dispassionate coverage to the plight of blacks in the South, whites in Appalachia, native Americans on reservations. Life was not at all a muckraking magazine, but by permitting its camera's eye to rove across the nation's psychic landscape, it played a role in dissolving stubborn sectionalisms and replacing them with a greater sense of national civic purpose. Photographs in the 1940s and 1950s of black children in dingy and overcrowded segregated classrooms helped fuel the nation's determination to end Jim Crow. As early as 1938, Life published an indepth fourteen-page feature titled "Negroes: The U.S. Also Has a Minority Problem" that went beyond what other mass-circulation periodicals had done. Despite a tone that sounds patronizing by later standards, the feature was praised by black leaders, including Duke Ellington, who declared his belief that it was "one of the fairest and most comprehensive articles ever to appear in a national publication." In the 1960s, when Hedley Donovan was editor, Life supplemented the role of the television networks in publishing graphic pictures of American casualties in Vietnam, though one of its most moving issues, that of June 27, 1969, published thumbnail portraits of most of the 242 Americans killed in Vietnam in the week beginning May 28. The spread personalized the conflict for millions of Americans who recognized their kinfolk and neighbors in those pages.

Always striving for an exclusive scoop, Life quickly purchased rights to the classic Abraham Zapruder movie of the Kennedy assassination, and published all but the goriest shots in its next available issue. In 1971, however, it was the victim of a hoax when it acquired what it believed was the "autobiography" of billionaire recluse Howard Hughes purportedly written by Clifford Irving. But already it was becoming clear that the mass audience that was once Life's mainstay (and that of Look and the Saturday Evening Post) was vanishing, casualties of television and other sources of information and entertainment. Besieged by overwhelming production costs and the withdrawal of some large advertisers, Life ceased weekly publication with its December 29, 1972 issue. It re-emerged as a semi-annual from 1973 through 1977 before rebirth as a monthly in 1979, with occasional special editions each year.

—Edward Moran

Further Reading:

Hamblin, Dora Jane. That Was the Life. New York, W. W. Norton &Co, 1977.

Reed, David. The Popular Magazine in Britain and the United States. London, The British Library, 1997.

Tebbel, John, The American Magazine: A Compact History. New York, Hawthorn Books, 1969.

Tebbel, John, and Mary Ellen Zuckerman. The Magazine in America: 1741-1990. New York, Oxford University Press, 1991.

Wainwright, Loudon. The Great American Magazine: An Inside History of Life. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.

Wood, James Playsted. Magazines in the United States. New York, The Ronald Press Co., 1978.


views updated Jun 08 2018


In consideration of the ethical uses of science and technology the phenomenon of life, especially human life, has repeatedly played significant roles in both progressive and conservative arguments. In modern philosophy notions of life have also made repeated appearances, from Thomas Hobbes's claim that the fundamental aim of politics is to replace the insecurity of life in the state of nature with a more secure life by means, in part, of technology, to Friedrich Nietzsche's appeal to a life ideal that transcends concerns of personal security. Contemporary debates about the limits of biomedical interventions in terms of whether or not human life begins at conception and feminist criticisms of cultural tendencies to disembody life thus reflect and advance long-standing concerns. Indeed, at the beginning of philosophy in Europe, one of Socrates's fundamental theses was that "The unexamined life [bios] is not worth living for humans" (Apology 38a); and as a manifestation of his divinity, the Christian scriptures record Jesus's claim to being "the way, the truth, and the life [zoe]" (John 14:6).

Life Sciences

Science has from its earliest forms distinguished two fundamental realms in nature: the nonliving and the living. Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) was among the first systematic investigators of nature and for centuries provided an authoritative orientation that took its bearings from the living. For Aristotle, living entities reveal the workings of nature better than the nonliving; life provides the key to explain the nonliving—in contrast to modern natural science, which seeks an explanation of life in terms of nonlife. Certainly life more clearly displays the dynamism and purposefulness that Aristotle sees as central to reality as a whole. Purposefulness, final causation, and teleology conceptualize that by which entities seek natural states or places proper to their kind. The acorn matures in order to become an oak tree because that is its inner nature; the oak tree maintains its state through metabolism because this inner nature has been achieved. Living things have an internal principle of motion and rest, which can be grasped by reason, whereas the non-living are moved by external forces, the rationality of which is more difficult to comprehend.

For modern natural science, however, it is the external forces moving nonliving entities that are most readily calculable, thus giving rise to physics in a new sense. René Descartes (1596–1650), for instance, proposed that animals are simply complex machines, and that all life functions (except human thinking) could be explained in terms of mechanical interactions. From the beginning, however, the adequacy of this view has been contested, and the reduction of life to physics and chemistry challenged. The vitalism of Hans Driesch (1867–1941) and Henri Bergson (1859–1941), who argued that life involved some nonphysical element or is governed by special principles, was but one of the more pronounced examples.

Traditional explanations for the variety of life—namely, that either species are eternal or divinely created—and how organisms change over time had long been scrutinized before Charles Darwin (1809–1882) published On the Origin of Species. It was Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, however, that produced the first comprehensive account of the changing diversity of life that appeared to go beyond simple mechanism without rejecting it. Fused with the model of biological inheritance developed by Gregor Mendel (1822–1884), the synthesis of evolution by natural selection operating on the gene became the cornerstone of modern biology.

In the early 1940s the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger (1887–1961) proposed that genes functioned by means of a "molecular code-script" present in chromosomes. This pointed toward the idea of molecular biology. A decade later, in 1953, James D. Watson (b. 1928) and Francis Crick (1916–2004) discovered the double-helix molecular structure of DNA. Analyses of DNA eventually elucidated the connection between genetic information and the traits of living organisms, which describes the transcription and translation of genetic information into proteins.

Redefining Life

Difficulties nevertheless remain for developing a post-Aristotelian definition of life as a biological phenomenon. One common approach has been to consider an entity living if it exhibits the following characteristics at least once during its existence: growth, metabolism, reproduction, and response to stimuli. Yet in some sense fire meets all these criteria. Moreover, some entities are not clearly either living or nonliving. Chief among these are viruses, which contain protein and nucleic acid molecules that make up living cells but require the assistance of those cells to replicate. In response, life can be further described as cellular and homeostatic—even though this would continue to classify viruses as anomalous.

Systems theorists such as Ilya Prigogine, Fritjof Capra, and Francisco Varela, however, have preferred to define life as a complex, autopoeitic (self-creating), dissipative feedback system. This conception gave rise to the Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, which conceives of the entire biosphere as living insofar as it maintains conditions favorable to its continued existence.

What about the possibility of human-made, artificial life? This term can refer to a number of different research programs. Genetic engineering (and even animal breeding) creates forms of life that might not otherwise occur in nature. For Christopher G. Langton computer programs that model life processes by means of complex algorithms constitute artificial life or "a-life." Some theorists go even further to argue that beyond modeling, life is a process that can be abstracted away from any particular medium and need not necessarily depend on carbon-based chemical solutions.

Precisely when human life begins, whether at conception or some point further along in embryonic development, is also a highly contested issue. The premodern view that human life begins at the "quickening"—that is, when a woman experiences the first movements of a new child in her womb—has been altered by the very biological science that often proposes to treat embryos as no different than many other rudimentary organisms.

Life Philosophies

All such modern definitions have difficulty accounting for life as having any intrinsic ethical significance. The purposelessness of natural selection and the lowered status of humans in a hierarchy of being challenge traditional moral and theological beliefs. When life is conceived as an assemblage of adaptations to random and constantly changing circumstances, there remain no forms or essential types to imitate, and no harmonious order or basic good to maintain. Yet despite the most sophisticated explanations, purposefulness does appear to be an aspect of the living.

One response has been the development of a life philosophy (German Lebensphilosophie) that arose as a reaction against Enlightenment rationalism. Life is prioritized over mere understanding, and life philosophy has had many variants, including artistic movements in which life is used as a concept to assess and critique modern society. Certainly over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries life as "vitality" or vividness, a sense of both spiritual striving and joyous experiencing, played an important role in literature, art, and music as a touchstone of criticism of the scientific and technological. Among the most important representations of this view are attempts made by Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) to grasp life as an all-encompassing metaphysical category or first philosophy.

Nietzsche's life philosophy differed from the thought of Schopenhauer in its naturalism. In his genealogical work, he traced the development of the life-denying ascetic ideal that he saw as dominant in Western (and most Eastern) philosophy and religion. Value comes to being always in support of life, but ascetic philosophies give vital ideals a life-devaluing interpretation. Anything that is part of the natural, changing, life-world is interpreted as wrong and sinful, and ideals of truth and virtue are rooted in otherworldly, changeless realms. The ascetic ideal removes all source of value from nature, whereas modern natural science removed any faith in a realm outside of nature. One interpretation of the "death of God" is the extinction of this transcendent, nonhuman, and ahistorical realm to ground human values. There is nothing but life on which to base values, including truth. Whether Nietzsche successfully distinguished this revaluation of values from nihilism remains a subject of dispute.

During the mid-twentieth century life philosophy made a new appearance in the forms of phenomenology and existentialism. Phenomenology especially criticized science as separating itself from the human lifeworld or as disembodying experience. Related arguments have been carried forward in feminist criticisms such as those of Barbara Duden and Donna Haraway. In her studies of women's medicine and experiences such as pregnancy, Duden (1993) defends the primacy of lived experience over its conceptual analysis. In her notion of "companion species," Haraway (2003) criticizes the primacy of conceptual oppositions in favor of mutuality of living relationships, which harks back to the work of Pytor Kropotkin (1842–1921) and his notion of "mutual aid" among organisms.

Whether molecular biology can account for what is apparently goal-directed behavior in organisms likewise continues to spark controversy (see, e.g., Allen, Bekoff, and Lauder 1998). Finally, given the difficulties of understanding the ethical significance of biological life in the modern sense, philosophers such as Hans Jonas (1966) and Leon R. Kass (1985) have even attempted to revive an Aristotelian approach that would understand the most elementary forms of life in terms of higher forms of life rather than vice versa.

The Human Condition, Bioethics, and Biotechnology

According to Hannah Arendt (1958) the life of human activity, or vita activa, may be distinguished into labor, work, and action. Labor pertains to the biological processes of the human body, work to the world of artifice, and action to politics. Political action is so central to the human condition that the Romans used the same term (inter homines esse) to signify both "to live" and "to be among men." But as Arendt also notes, "life" takes distinct forms in each level of the vita activa. In the first instance life is related to the futile, biological labors of the body in which there is a kind of "deathless everlastingness of the human as of all other animal species" (p. 97). In the second instance life takes on the worldliness of work with distinct beginnings and ends and can be told as a story.

The first notion of life corresponds to the Greek zoe, from which English derives zoology; the second corresponds to the Greek bios, from which comes biography and a sense of the historical. For Arendt the modern world may be characterized by an effulgence of zoe as labor moved from the most-despised to the most-esteemed position with a productivity that outstripped all traditional work and overwhelmed action. But action and speech, beyond the necessary but lower forms of the animal laborans (labor) and homo faber (work), is the highest form of human life. The measure of all things, she claims, "can be neither the driving necessity of biological life and labor nor the utilitarian instrumentalism of fabrication and usage" (p. 174).

The term bioethics was initially coined by the biologist Van Rensselaer Potter (1911–2001) to refer to an ethics grounded on the science of life, rather than on religion or philosophy. It has since come to signify the field that studies the intersection of biology and biography, or the science of life studied scientifically and life lived experientially (Kass 2002). The focus on biography and the good life, rather than mere biological life, has taken on more importance as new biomedical technologies expand the capacities of human biology, or what Arendt would call the labor of human bodies. This is best illustrated by advances in life-extending techniques used in palliative care. In many instances, one's biological life is extended well beyond the duration of one's biographical life among the world of things and within the plural realm of action and speech. This raises ethical questions about what it means to die a dignified death and who should make such decisions in various circumstances.

Advances in biotechnology offer new powers to alter and to some degree control the phenomena of life. This has brought both reward and risk. In agricultural uses, biotechnology has raised concerns about risks, especially involving uncertain ecological interactions and health effects. In biomedical uses, similar health risk issues occur along with questions of informed consent and privacy. Additionally, the controversial techniques of abortion, cloning, and stem cell research sustain heated debates about when human life begins. New reproductive techniques have stimulated questions about how much control the present generation ought to have over future generations.

This last issue highlights the fact that both in agricultural and medical biotechnology, traditional ethical issues are complemented by deeper concerns about the proper limits to the human activity of "remaking Eden" and "relieving man's estate." How ought humankind responsibly exercise its power over life and where should limits be drawn? For example, even though biomedical technologies offer obvious rewards in terms of satisfying deep human desires, they can also serve (intentionally or not) to diminish human life. As the President's Council on Bioethics remarked in Beyond Therapy (2003), "To a society armed with biotechnology, the activities of human life may come to be seen in purely technical terms, and more amenable to improvement than they really are" (p. xvii). Promoting the genuine flourishing of human life is foremost a matter of understanding the good life rather than commanding the tools to manipulate life processes.


SEE ALSO Bioethics;Environmental Ethics;Medical Ethics.


Allen, Colin; Marc Bekoff; and George Lauder, eds. (1998). Nature's Purposes: Analyses of Function and Design in Biology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Arendt, Hannah. (1958). The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Duden, Barbara. (1993). Disembodying Women: Perspectives on Pregnancy and the Unborn, trans. Lee Hoinacki. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Haraway, Donna. (2003). The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Jonas, Hans. (1966). The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology. New York: Harper and Row.

Kass, Leon R. (1985). Toward a More Natural Science: Biology and Human Affairs. New York: Free Press.

Kass, Leon R. (2002). Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics San Francisco: Encounter Books.

Schrödinger, Erwin. (1944). What Is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Based on lectures delivered at Trinity College, Dublin, 1943.

U.S. President's Council on Bioethics. (2003). Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness. Washington, DC: President's Council on Bioethics.


views updated Jun 08 2018

life / līf/ • n. (pl. lives / līvz/ ) 1. the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death: the origins of life. ∎  living things and their activity: some sort of life existed on Mars lower forms of life the ice-cream vendors were the only signs of life. ∎  the state of being alive as a human being: she didn't want to die; she loved life a superficial world where life revolved around the minutiae of outward appearance. ∎  [with adj.] a particular type or aspect of people's existence: an experienced teacher will help you settle into school life revelations about his private life. ∎  vitality, vigor, or energy: she was beautiful and full of life.2. the existence of an individual human being or animal: a disaster that claimed the lives of 266 Americans. ∎  [often with adj.] a way of living: his father decided to start a new life in California. ∎  a biography: a life of Shelley. ∎  either of the two states of a person's existence separated by death (as in Christianity and some other religious traditions): too much happiness in this life could reduce the chances of salvation in the next. ∎  any of a number of successive existences in which a soul is held to be reincarnated (as in Hinduism and some other religious traditions). ∎  a chance to live after narrowly escaping death (esp. with reference to the nine lives traditionally attributed to cats).3. (usu. one's life) the period between the birth and death of a living thing, esp. a human being: she has lived all her life in the country I want to be with you for the rest of my life they became friends for life. ∎  the period during which something inanimate or abstract continues to exist, function, or be valid: underlay helps to prolong the life of a carpet. ∎ inf. a sentence of imprisonment for life.4. (in art) the depiction of a subject from a real model, rather than from an artist's imagination: the pose and clothing were sketched from life [as adj.] life drawing. See also still life.PHRASES: bring (or come) to life regain or cause to regain consciousness or return as if from death: all this was of great interest to her, as if she were coming to life after a long sleep. ∎  (with reference to a fictional character or inanimate object) cause or seem to be alive or real: he brings the character of MacDonald to life with power and precision all the puppets came to life again. ∎  make or become active, lively, or interesting: soon, with the return of the peasants and fishermen, the village comes to life again you can bring any room to life with these coordinating anything for a quiet life make any concession to avoid being disturbed.for dear (or one's) life as if or in order to escape death: I clung to the tree for dear life Sue struggled free and ran for her life.for the life of me inf. however hard I try; even if my life depended on it: I can't for the life of me understand what it is you see in that place.frighten the life out of terrify.get a life [often in imperative] inf. start living a fuller or more interesting existence: if he's a lout, then get yourself out of there and get a life.give one's life for die for. (as) large as life inf. used to emphasize that a person is conspicuously present: he was standing nearby, large as life.larger than life (of a person) attracting special attention because of unusual and flamboyant appearance or behavior. ∎  (of a thing) seeming disproportionately important: your problems seem larger than life at that time of and limbsee limb1 .the life of the party a vivacious and sociable in the fast lane inf. an exciting and eventful lifestyle, esp. one bringing wealth and's life's work the work (esp. that of an academic or artistic nature) accomplished in or pursued throughout someone's lifetime.lose one's life be killed: he lost his life in a car accident.a matter of life and death a matter of vital importance.not on your life inf. said to emphasize one's refusal to comply with a request: “I want to see Clare alone.” “Not on your life,” said someone's (or one's own) life prevent someone's (or one's own) death: the driver of the truck managed to save his life by leaping out of the cab. ∎ inf. provide much-needed relief from boredom or a difficult situation.see life gain a wide experience of the world, esp. its more pleasurable aspects.take one's life in one's hands risk being killed.take someone's (or one's own) life kill someone (or oneself).that's life an expression of one's acceptance of a situation, however difficult: we'll miss each other, but still, that's life.this is the life an expression of contentment with one's present circumstances: Ice cubes clinked in crystal glasses. “This is the life,” she the life exactly like the original: there he was, Nathan to the life, sitting at a save one's life [with modal and negative] even if one's life were to depend on it: she couldn't stop crying now to save her life.


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244. Life

See also 44. BIOLOGY ; 430. ZOOLOGY

Biology. the production of living organisms from inanimate matter. Also called spontaneous generation . abiogenetic , adj.
a state or condition in which life is absent. abiotic, abiotical , adj.
a revival or return to a living state after apparent death. anabiotic , adj.
the study of the chemical processes that take place in living organisms. biochemist , n. biochemical , adj.
biogenesis, biogeny
1. the process by which living organisms develop from other living organisms.
2. the belief that this process is the only way in which living organisms can develop. biogenetic, biogenic , adj.
the science or study of all manner of life and living organisms. biologist , n. biological , adj.
the destruction of life, as by bacteria. biolytic , adj.
biometrics, biometry.
1. the calculation of the probable extent of human lifespans.
2. the application to biology of mathematical and statistical theory and methods. biometric, biometrical , adj.
that part of the earths surface where most forms of life exist, specifically those parts where there is water or atmosphere.
Philosophy. the theory or doctrine that all the phenomena of the universe, especially life, can ultimately be explained in terms of physics and chemistry and that the difference between organic and inorganic lies only in degree. Cf. vitalism . mechanist , n. mechanistic , adj.
ontogeny. ontogenetic, ontogenetical , adj.
the life cycle, development, or developmental history of an organism. Also called ontogenesis . ontogenic , adj.
Biology. the development of an egg or seed without fertilization. Also called unigenesis . parthenogenetic , adj.
the branch of biology that studies the functions and vital processes of living organisms. physiologist , n. physiologic, physiological , adj.
spontaneous generation
asexual reproduction; parthenogenesis. unigenetic , adj.
1. Philosophy. the doctrine that phenomena are only partly controlled by mechanistic forces and are in some measure self-determining.
2. Biology. the doctrine that the life in living organisms is caused and sustained by a vital principle that is distinct from all physical and chemical forces. Cf. mechanism . vitalist , n. vitalistic , adj.
Phrenology. 1. the love of life and fear of death.
2. the organ serving as the seat of instincts of self-preservation.
1. Philosophy. a doctrine that the phenomena of life are controlled by a vital principle, as Bergsons élan vital.
2. a high regard for animal life.
3. a belief in animal magnetism. zoist , n. zoistic , adj.


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Two important U.S. popular magazines have been known as Life. The first, a sophisticated humor magazine published from 1883 to 1936, was noted for the "Gibson Girl" (see entry under 1900s—Print Culture in volume 1) illustrations of Charles Dana Gibson (1867–1944). The more famous of the two, part of the Time-Life empire of Henry Luce (1898–1967), was published weekly from 1936 to 1972 and at less frequent intervals to this day. With a peak circulation of 8.5 million readers, it was one of the largest of the mass-circulation magazines. By bringing high-quality photojournalism to millions of readers each week, Life helped shape public opinion through the Great Depression (1929–41; see entry under 1930s—The Way We Lived in volume 2) and World War II (1939–45) years, and into the Cold War (1945–91; see entry under 1940s—The Way We Lived in volume 3) period that followed. Some of the most familiar photographs of the twentieth century appeared in the pages of Life, such as the famous shot of a sailor and a nurse embracing during World War II victory celebrations in New York's Times Square.

Henry Luce, who had founded Time (see entry under 1920s—Print Culture in volume 2) in 1923 and Fortune in 1930, bought the rights to use the name from the earlier Life magazine, which was in financial trouble. The first issue appeared on November 23, 1936, and cost ten cents. The magazine introduced a style and a graphic approach that would remain basically unchanged for the rest of its existence. On its cover appeared a dramatically lit photograph of Fort Peck Dam, one of the era's important public-works projects, taken by Margaret Bourke-White (1906–1971). The magazine's logo, a rectangular red box with the word "Life" in white letters, appeared in the upper left corner, as it would for nearly all of the more than two thousand issues that would follow.

Life adhered to a standard formula over the years. Each issue included a mix of serious photos that illustrated current events, humorous pictures that unveiled the quirky side of life, and comprehensive photo essays on a theme, such as architecture, scientific discoveries, or space travel. Text was kept to a minimum, serving as extended captions for the photographs, which were the real centerpieces of the magazine's appeal. As a mass-circulation commercial magazine, Life succeeded in appealing to a large number of Americans who enjoyed seeing the common man (and woman) glorified in its pages each week.

—Edward Moran

For More Information

Hamblin, Dora Jane. That Was the Life. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1977.

Life. (accessed February 12, 2002).

Tebbel, John, and Mary Ellen Zuckerman. The Magazine in America: 1741–1990. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Wainwright, Loudon. The Great American Magazine: An Inside History of Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.

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