Saturday, December 26, 2020

In Pursuit of the Ideal

 "Neither joy and not sorrow,

Is our destined end or way,

But to act that each tomorrow,

Find us further than today.

In one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite poems, American transcendentalist poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow advises us to seek progress on the path toward enlightenment -- basically work each day to simply get better. We will never be a perfect person, but we might become a better one - a better husband or wife, a better son or daughter, a better student, a better teacher, a better employee or boss, a better community member, a better citizen, a better friend. That pursuit of the ideal is at the heart of romantic thought, no doubt, but it has a place among classical thinking as well. 

The ideal, and a "defense of ideals," is at the foundation and starting off point for one of Mark Edmundson's most important and moving works, Self and Soul. Edmundson, a humanities professor at the University of Virginia, is a writer and thinker I deeply admire and enjoy for his work in exploring and explaining the point of the liberal arts and the question of why we read, why we write, why we study, and why we seek to learn about the human condition. In a world increasingly and unsettling moving in the direction of technological progress, economic growth, utilitarian focus, and material gain, I join Edmundson in worrying and wondering about the cultivation of the spirit. The humanities and the arts, I believe, are our source for understanding why we live -- the development of virtue and values.

If we seek to heal, if we hope to start fresh, if we seek a new path, if we desire some sense of unity and community in the future, we would benefit from returning to the humanities and the traditions of the classical world, the cultivation and pursuit of three ideals -- courage, compassion, and contemplation.  

At risk of "a mere existence based on desire, without hope, fulness, or ultimate meaning ... We can do better," Edmundson tells us. We can do better.

Let's do better. Let's be better.

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