Great ideas from great books: duty and purpose

Reading, like talking, serves many different purposes: entertainment, education, enlightenment, et cetera. A few months ago, I sampled an audio lecture on “Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life” from The Teaching Company. I was so impressed by this single lecture that I purchased the entire 36-lecture course and recently started listening to it. And wow: that sample was definitely characteristic of the whole course. Dr. J. Rufus Fears is simply one of the best orators that I have ever had the pleasure of listening to, especially in a course setting. I actually finish each of his lectures feeling uplifted, energized, and excited about all of the grand ideas that we don’t often take time to meditate upon—but which are critical to our existence: Does God exist? Do good and evil exist? What is the role of duty in our lives? What about social justice? Courage, ambition, and honor? And the kicker: What is the purpose of my life?

Dr. Fears’s definition of a “great book” is not simply one that appears on an Educated Person’s Reading List, but one from which he believes we can individually derive lessons useful in our own lives, here and now. “What do great books say to you?” he asks. And even more importantly, “What personal wisdom can you derive from them?”

We’ve begun with The Iliad, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and The Bhagavad Gita, none of which I had previously read (although I did read Ilium, by Dan Simmons, which familiarized me with the story of the Iliad, in its own way). All three discuss the notion of duty and life purpose quite heavily. The Iliad advocates a personal quest to discover what purpose the gods have selected for you, and then pursuit of that goal with both courage and moderation. Marcus Aurelius, who managed to find time to write his Meditations while actively fighting to defend the borders of the Roman Empire, had a very stoic approach to life, and likewise believed that everyone must determine their assigned duty and then do it to the best of their ability, regardless of their own inclinations. The Bhagavad Gita (which I’m now in the middle of reading) makes an even stronger case for subjugating your will, your desires, your body, and your senses to your duty, being attached only to the fulfillment of it, but not to the outcome and side effects (positive or negative). I think there’s a certain danger in following your duty so narrowly, because what happens if you guess wrong about what that duty is? If you’re Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, you may end up killing friends and relatives in a misguided battle, believing that it was your duty simply to be a warrior and fight.

In terms of applying these ideas to my own life, a pre-destined duty is a bit of a strange concept to me… but a purpose in life—now that I can subscribe to. Pre-destined or not, what other reason to live on day to day than at the behest of a grand Purpose? It’s always been clear to me what mine is, whether inbred or emergent: to study and learn and grow in understanding about the world, and people, and ideas, as much as I can possibly absorb. (I’m fortunate enough to have my credo already encapsulated by someone else, in this case a song by Cat Stevens: “There’s so much left to know, and I’m on the road to find out.”) And ultimately, I want to be able to turn it around and share what I’ve learned, with anyone of like-minded interests. If I am very lucky, they’ll do the same for me along the road to find out.