I would love to teach a class comprised of only two texts: Leading Lives That Matter and its companion volume, William C. Placher’s Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation. Together these volumes comprise a library that would enrich the thought and decisions of any college student who worked through them, both in thoughtful solitude and communal conversation. Both offer a liberal education in the subject of vocation that “retrieve[s] questions of meaning and purpose” (Leading Lives, 6). Callings, which I have used for faculty retreats, offers a rich selection of texts from the Christian tradition; Leading Lives casts a wider net. Both help sustain the kind of college education that recent books, such as Mark Roche’s Why Choose the Liberal Arts? (2010) and Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (2012), have seen in need of restoration.
Both Roche’s and Delbanco’s books engage Mark’s Exiles from Eden (1993), which had a powerful influence on me when I began my professional life at Christ College in the Fall of 1990. In 1994, I was blessed to team-teach a class with Mark, and I learned the way he could carefully focus students’ attention on the text by the incisive questions he would ask. In fact, reading the selection from William James in Leading Lives, with its tacking from tentative thesis to further questions, recalled Mark’s own pedagogical presence. Later that decade, I participated in many conversations with Mark and Dorothy in the Lilly Fellows Colloquium, and I was grateful for the penetrating questions both would raise. Indeed, the educational potential of Leading Lives lies not only in its careful selection of stories, poems, and essays, but in the quality of the questions it raises throughout. These questions help students (and their teachers) develop a richer and more precise vocabulary in articulating and acting upon the decision to choose a particular path. Allow me to present some of these questions here:
What is the difference between a good life and a significant one? Is an ethics of authenticity and self-fulfillment commensurate with a life centered around the practice of the virtues, or with a life committed to the self-sacrifice entailed in any Christian calling? Are we justified in committing ourselves to a vocation that may cause others to suffer? Do we, in fact, choose the best part of ourselves when we choose self-sacrifice? How does the work we do shape our character? Should we live in order to work—and thus fulfill our creative identity as imago Dei—or work in order to live—to contemplate the good, true, and beautiful in the company of friends? Or, as Yeats (included in Leading Lives) asks, do we choose “perfection of the life, or of the work”? Is it ever really possible to “balance” a life of work, leisure, and family? Whose counsel should we seek when discerning a vocational path? And even assuming good counsel, how much control do we really exercise in the work we end up doing? What kind of stories do we tell of our lives to make sense of them? Can we, in fact, tell our own story? And, if not, “Who can tell your story?” as Neil Young once sang in his frail falsetto. Tolstoy tells the story of Ivan Ilych, mired in falsity, amour proper, and the denial of death. But he dies caring for others; can a good death redeem a life lived poorly?
In their final editorial notes to this story, Mark and Dorothy cite Isaiah Berlin’s seminal insight into Tolstoy: he had the eye of a fox, seeing many disparate things, but the heart of a hedgehog, yearning to unify all into a single vision. As Mark and Dorothy put it, “[Tolstoy’s] vocation was to represent in nearly inexhaustible detail many lives in such a way that his readers could gain greater clarity about the issues that mattered so deeply to him. The same spirit and purpose have guided this anthology….” (491). Indeed it has, and this results in the creative tension that animates Leading Lives. The voices it represents at times conflict, and the writers raise questions that seem, at first, to insist upon an either/or. For example, can a life devoted to anonymous daily toil ever be called “significant?” Perhaps so, even as happily as that affirmed by the Irishman quoted by William James in his essay: “When asked, ‘Is not one man as good as another?’ [he] replied, ‘Yes; and a great deal better, too!’” In fact, both James and Albert Schweitzer are seen as belonging both to the tradition of Christianity, with its emphasis upon the supremely saintly virtues of humility and love, and Democracy, with its insistence upon the equality of all.
While the volume embraces a “both/and” vision, it eschews the contemporary illusion that one “can have it all.” Implicit in the book’s argument is that diverse ways of living in the world always entail receptive work of discernment and judgment. Here Leading Lives might have added just a bit more of Aristotle, specifically those sections of Book VI of Nicomachean Ethics that describe the virtue of phronesis—prudence or practical wisdom—the intellectual virtue that makes the exercise of the moral virtues possible. Phronesis assumes universal precepts, but calls one to apprehend the particular contours of one’s situation and the best way in which to apply those precepts and proceed. In the words of Josef Pieper, prudence “is the cautious and decisive faculty of our spirit for shaping things, which transforms the knowledge of reality into the accomplishment of the good.... in prudence, the dominant virtue of the conduct of our lives, the happiness of active life is resolved” (1991, 15–16). In other words, prudence illumines both what we should do and who we should be.
Here we might explore one particular tension highlighted in Leading Lives. Aristotle’s list of virtues includes magnificence and, more importantly, magnanimity, the virtue which aspires to greatness. Doesn’t this contradict Jesus’ call to self-giving service? Well, not necessarily, for Aristotle acknowledges that it is finer to sacrifice one’s life for a single, noble cause than to persevere more prosaically. For Aristotle, the war hero shines more brightly, and matters more significantly, than George Bailey’s quotidian life in Bedford Falls, wonderful as it may have been. But don’t most saints choose the more prosaic path? And doesn’t such humility ultimately clash with magnanimity? Here is where I would, again, have added just a few more pages to this already capacious anthology: St. Thomas Aquinas’s discussion of the tensile interrelation of humility and magnanimity, virtues which he saw as necessary to each other. As God’s creatures, we stand in humble, dependent relation to a loving Creator; but created in God’s image and likeness, we are called to greatness, and bear, in C. S. Lewis’s phrase, “the weight of glory,” both now and in the hereafter. Here again is Pieper, summarizing St. Thomas Aquinas on this matter:
Nothing shows the way to a correct understanding of humility so clearly as this: that humility and magnanimity are not only mutually exclusive but also are near to one another and intimately connected: both together are in opposition to pride as well as to faintheartedness.... In the Summa Theologica it is stated, “If one disdains glory in such a manner that he makes no effort to do that which merits glory, that action is blameworthy.” On the other side, the magnanimous one is not broken by disgrace; he looks down on it as unworthy of himself.... The magnanimous person submits himself not to the confusion of feelings or to any human being or to fate—but only to God.... [A] “humility” that would be too narrow and too weak to bear the inner tension of coexistence with magnanimity is indeed no humility. (1991, 37–39)
The angelic doctor himself stands as an exemplar of such humility and magnanimity. As Denys Turner comments in his recent portrait of Thomas, the great teacher makes himself absent in his teaching: “It is a lovely paradox, one that gets to the heart of what Thomas seems to have wanted to hide from us behind the bulk of his writings, that there is something intensely holy about his absence from them. It reveals a lot about Thomas the man that his writings tell you nothing about Thomas the man. Thomas gets himself entirely out of the way of the act of communication. In short, Thomas is all teacher—a holy teacher, and a professor of theology as holy teaching” (34). As such, Thomas represents a model to anyone who has pursued the vocation of teaching.
Yet how difficult is such self-effacement! I must conclude on a personal note by emphasizing that Leading Lives offers not only a great gift to college students, but to middle-aged folks like me who are striving to lead lives of generativity (to employ Erik Erikson’s virtue, evoked a number of times in this volume). What a joy it was to rediscover works I hadn’t read in decades, and to hear them in a different key: the moving music of Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” or of Gray’s “Elegy” or Longfellow’s “Village Blacksmith.” And to discover new works: the beautiful description of the canyons of Northern Arizona in the “retreat” rendered by Willa Cather in Song of the Lark, or the melancholy mystery of H. G. Wells’s “Door in the Wall.” Reading the unsentimental Dorothy Day’s deep appreciation of St. Therese of Lisieux, “the little flower,” was an unexpected revelation.
For it seems the saints especially inspire us to lead lives that matter. Their lives seem most compellingly formed, both holy and whole. The saint is called to conform to the pattern of Christ, a pilgrimage of descent into the particulars of adult responsibility, in the hope of eventual ascent and homecoming. The scriptural saints—Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Mary—hear God’s call and answer “Here I am.” The saint responds not with an assertion of autonomous, imperial subjectivity, “I think, therefore I am,” but with an acceptance of finite, particular circumstances—“Here”—and willingness to conform to the infinite Divine—“I am.”
I am grateful to Mark and Dorothy not only for their work, but for the lives that they have led —in their particular place, Valparaiso, Indiana—by which they have inspired so many. They have now inspired me to teach a new class, and I am confident that Leading Lives will inspire both students—and their teachers—for generations.
Paul J. Contino is Blanche E. Seaver Professor of Humanities at Pepperdine University.
Delbanco, Andrew. College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2012.
Pieper, Josef. A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991.
Placher, William C. Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2005.
Roche, Mark. Why Choose Liberal Arts? Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010.
Schwehn, Mark. Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America.New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Schwehn, Mark and Dorothy Bass, eds. Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2006.
Turner, Denys. Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.
Young, Neil. “See the Sky About to Rain.” On the Beach. LP. Warner Brothers, 1974.