I summoned my inner philosopher this summer and participated in a Great Books seminar offered at my son’s high school. Whether he had us reading excerpts from Thoreau or Aristotle, Ayn Rand or Delmore Schwartz, Virgina Woolf or Emmanuel Kant, Martin Luther King or George Bernard Shaw, the gifted instructor, Peter Bachmann, kept us keenly focused on a central question: What does it mean for a person to live the good life? Through ten hours discussing dozens of readings over five weeks, several voices reverberated clarion clear in the classroom where we met. Strive as I might to live by the voice of “the sage,” I realized that, as a product of American civic culture, I feel the pull and tug of “idealist” and “individualist” voices, among others, within me. Here is how the three might frame their views if asked to speak:
How does a life contribute to “the good life?” Only so far as the person living that life seeks justice, equity and fairness equal to or beyond what they take for themselves. Martin Luther King said: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” The basics of food, clothing and shelter for all too often are held as the pinnacle of human generosity rather than merely a starting point; they mean little without an enriching, inviting community to surround and uplift the fed, the clothed, the housed. Community comes from the striving of all to see and succor all. Moral beings lay a hand on the brow of the thing that others call ugly or dim. In words and in touch, they remind that thing it is lovely, until it flowers again, from within, of self-blessing.
My good life and your good life bear no relation to one another. We share about as much “mutuality” as the cow and the crow. They forage in the same pasture but share no joint fate except death. Give me the industrialist Undershaft from Shaw’s play Major Barbara. He would be “a full-fed free man at all costs” and nothing “except a bullet,” not “reason nor morals nor the lives of other men” would hold him down. He would sooner shoot than save Prospero from The Tempest whose treacherous brother Antonio has betrayed him. Aren’t we all in various ways the kin of Hank Rearden in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged? “My own good [is] my purpose,” says Hank, “and I despise the man who surrenders his.” Govern me? Hell no! I will master the money. I will flex the muscle. I’ll show those weaklings and bureaucrats, the television writers and social workers just what power can do.
Prefer love. Resist indifference. Hold your strength humbly. Defend yourself, but choose violence last. Make mercy your guide. Break the judge’s iron grip; allow empathy in. Gather what facts you can. Take risks. When in doubt, trust the dictum: “Amplexus, expecta.” Cling and wait. Strive to locate beauty. When you find it, share it with someone else, and someone else after them. Join a room filled with others. Speak in civil voices. Work hard to understand and harder still to care. Act on what you have learned. Repeat often. The real work is still ahead.