A Worthy Life

Deep down everyone wants to live a worthy life, one with meaning and purpose. I am enjoying Leon R. Kass’ book titled, Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times.

People, especially the young, are confused about what this kind of life would look like. We need encouragement in order to liberate ourselves from the prevailing cultural cynicism and strive after “worthy” lives. This book discusses crucial aspects of this type of life including chapters on love, family and friendship; human excellence and dignity; teaching, learning and truth; and the great human aspirations of Western civilization.

Here are some representative quotes from the first four chapters:

  • “Young people are now at sea – regarding work, family, and civic identity. Authority is out to lunch. Courtship has disappeared. No one talks about work as vocation. The true, the good, and the beautiful have few defenders. Irony is in the saddle, and the higher cynicism mocks any innocent love of wisdom or love of country. The things we used to take for granted have become, at best, open questions. The persons and institutions to which we once looked for guidance have ceased to offer it successfully. Today, we are supercompetent when it comes to efficiency, utility, speed, convenience, and getting ahead in the world; but we are at a loss concerning what it’s all for. This lack of cultural and moral confidence about what makes a life worth living is perhaps the deepest curse of living in our interesting time.” (p.10)
  • “We can begin by rejecting the despair and cynicism that often surround us and cloud our vision.” (p.11)
  • “It takes only one or two really good teachers to open a mind and turn around a soul. And for students of whatever age, it takes only an openness to learning and a desire not to be self-deceived to make for ourselves a life of thoughtfulness, and to become people who will not sleepwalk through life but will delight in learning whatever we can about the world’s mysteries, beauties, and truths.” (p.18)
  • “Above and beyond the benefits of remuneration, there is dignity in earning a livelihood, in providing not only for oneself but also and especially for one’s family. Among the rising generations, gainful employment is an early sign of maturity and the first step toward self-reliance. Holding down a job requires not only know-how and competence, but also the virtues of diligence, dependability, and the exercise of personal responsibility.” (p.26) “Finding meaning in work generally depends less on the external task than on the attitude and manner in which the work is done.” (p.27)
  • “…many of us regard our families as the heart of what makes life worthwhile. We do so, in many cases, with greater difficulty and less cultural support than did our grandparents.” (p.28)
  • “But many humanists and social scientists, who should be showing us what things mean, have largely abandoned the standard of truth.” (p.33)
  • “This brings me to what is probably the deepest and most intractable obstacle to courtship and marriage: a set of cultural attitudes and sensibilities that obscure and even deny the fundamental difference between youth and adulthood. Marriage, especially when seen as the institution designed to provide for the next generation, is most definitely the business of adults, by which I mean people who are serious about life, people who aspire to go outward and forward to embrace and assume responsibility for the future.” (p.51)
  • “The progress of science and technology, especially since World War II, has played a major role in creating an enfeebling culture of luxury. But scientific advances have more directly helped to undermine the customs of courtship. Technological advances in food production and distribution and a plethora of appliances – refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, dryers, etc. – largely eliminate the burdens of housekeeping.” (p.53)
  • “How shallow an understanding of sexuality is embodied in our current clamoring for “safe sex.” Sex is by its nature unsafe. All interpersonal relations are necessarily risky and serious ones especially so. To give one-self to another, body and soul, is hardly playing it safe. Sexuality is at its core profoundly “unsafe”, and it is only thanks to contraception that we are encouraged to forget its inherent “dangers.” “Safe sex” is the self-delusion of shallow souls.” (p.57)
  • “Real reform in the direction of sanity would require a restoration of cultural gravity about sex, marriage, and the life cycle. The restigmatization of illegitimacy and promiscuity would help.” (p.60)
  • “But sexual modesty and chastity awaiting marriage are not just strategically sound and psychologically important. They are also an emblem of the unique friendship that is the union of husband and wife, in which the giving of the heart is enacted in the giving of the body, and in which the procreative fruit of their one-flesh bodily union celebrates their loving embrace not only of one another but also of their mortal condition and their capacity self-consciously to transcend it.” (p.84)
  • “True intimacy requires embodied and exposed human beings, who are grounded and synchronously together in real space and lived time, and who use tacit and tactful rather than explicit and unvarnished modes of communication, including modes of expression that are deeper than speech itself. True intimacies are translucent rather than transparent to one another; self-surrendering rather than controlling; embedded in networks of ties and obligations to families and communities, rather than isolated atoms utterly free to create themselves ex nihilo; adventurous rather than playing-it-safe; guided by hope and trust rather than by calculation and information; face to face or side by side, hand in hand or arm in arm, as much as mind to mind; and driven less by the self-centered desire to find what you were missing than by an eagerness to become all you might become by being fully present to, and concerned for, the well-being of the other, who will also be fully present, and concerned for, you and your well-being.” (p.99)

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