I see two valid interpretations of this statement.
The first is hyperbole:
- We all love free stuff - it's nearly impossible to resist. But it's hyperbole, because we don't really believe these free things are the best of life. We feel getting something free is better than paying for it because then we have more money to spend on something else.
The second is wordplay:
- The best things of life are in fact free, because they simply cannot be bought with money. They can not be bought as tangible commodities, they are, dare I say, "priceless" (Mastercard has been airing a "Public Service Announcement" along these lines since 1997).
Though, there are some caveats to both of these interpretations:
- Do we really value something that is free more than the same thing if we paid for?
- Even further, are these "best things of life" which can't be bought with money, truly free?
- Do they really not have any cost?
- And would these things still be valuable if they didn't require a cost?
How we answer this last question decides whether the value of things are inherent or relative.
This topic was sparked by the following excerpt, which is a fictional exchange between a teacher and student concerning how the value of things in life are defined. I encourage you to read it to further process this topic.
Mr Dubois, the teacher, begins with a short lecture and then engages in some role play with one of the students:
"This very personal relationship, 'value', has two factors for a human being: first, what he can do with a thing, its use to him... and second, what he must do to get it, its cost to him. There is an old song which asserts 'the best things in life are free.' Not true! Utterly false! This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted... and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears.
"Nothing of value is free. Even the breath of life is purchased at birth only through gasping effort and pain." He had been still looking at me and added, "If you boys and girls had to sweat for your toys the way a newly born baby has to struggle to live you would be happier... and much richer. As it is, with some of you, I pity the poverty of your wealth. You! I've just awarded you the prize for the hundred-meter dash. Does it make you happy?"
"Uh, I suppose it would."
"No dodging, please. You have the prize - here, I'll write it out: "Grand prize for the championship, one hundred-meter sprint.' "
He had actually come back to my seat and pinned it on my chest.
"There! Are you happy? You value it - or don't you?"The excerpt is from Chapter 6 (Page 93) of Starship Troopers. It's probably apparent why I didn't state that at the beginning - I wanted you to actually read it.
I was sore. First that dirty crack about rich kids - a typical sneer of those who haven't got (money) - and now this farce. I ripped it off and chucked it at him.
Mr Dubois had looked surprised. "It doesn't make you happy?"
"You know darn well I placed fourth!"
"Exactly! The prize for first place is worthless to you... because you haven't earned it. But you enjoy a modest satisfaction in placing forth; you earned it. I trust that some of the somnambulists here understand this little morality play. I fancy that the poet who wrote that song meant to imply that the best things in life must be purchased other than with money - which is true - just as the literal meaning of his words is false. The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion... and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself - ultimate cost for perfect value." (-Robert Heinlein)
I've never seen the movie, and I don't have any desire to see it. The book is brilliant. It first lit up on my radar when a friend told me it was his favorite book because of the political and philosophical content. I was intrigued and subsequently delighted to snag a copy at a book swap.
Back on topic and in conclusion, I propose a more literal statement concerning the human experience to be "The best things in life are attained through agony, sweat, and devotion".