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.

3 of 3 people learned something from this entry.

  1. sfauthor said,

    June 18, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    Nice posting. Do you know about this edition of the Gita?

  2. Jim in PA said,

    June 19, 2009 at 5:55 am

    (Learned something new!)

    Great post! Apologies in advance for the long comment.

    I too have, in the past, had crises of purpose. The first time, when I was in high school, I concluded that our purpose on earth was to combat entropy — the tendency of all things toward randomness. At the time, that seemed to me to be the unique contribution of life and most acutely of human beings. The universe may tend toward disorder, but humans had the capacity of create pockets of order within the chaos (even if those actions still contributed to the global trend toward disorder).

    In my first or second year of graduate school, I revisited those ideas when I read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. Cliche book, cheesy title, but I found it to be a fantastic read. The book is an exploration of the Metaphysics of Quality; Quality being “the continuing stimulus which our environment puts upon us to create the world in which we live”. The book explores and attempts to unify several strains from different philosophies with a nice survey of several ideas from Greek philosophy. It really changed and refined my thinking about purpose.

    I was reminded about this book two weeks ago when I finished the newly released “Shop Class as Soul Craft”. The book touches on a number of the same themes, but from a more pragmatic bent: value of craftsmanship, the difference between “knowing that” and “knowing how”. The book also touches on politics – an almost Rand-ish love of small business, citations from Tocqueville, a sample quote [about middle management and the lack of objective standards]: “When no appeal to a carpenter’s level is possible, sensitivity training becomes necessary.”, etc. Also a great read that helped refresh my thinking.

    For me, the notions of Quality, craftsmanship, and creating value have come not only to define my notions of purpose, but also how I see others and the world around me, and how I vote. I find that I have come to have a natural respect bordering on awe for people who can “do” stuff and near total disdain for people who just suck up resources and “do” nothing.

    I have felt the same thing you describe about a desire to learn and experience as much as possible. I agree that is essential in life. But, I always feel that unless those experiences translate to the production of something of Quality, the experience was wasted – a dead end or unclosed loop. I feel guilty in a way for having consumed but not produced. A sense of duty? One of the things that I take pride in is that in my job, I have the potential to need almost everything I have ever learned every day. I, too, have thought that someday I would like to teach or go into an almost full-time “give back” mode. However, I am always suspicious of plans to do something “someday” – even in myself. I constantly feel like I am taking in more than I am putting out. To the extent that I have any crisis of purpose in my life right now, that is it.

  3. wkiri said,

    June 19, 2009 at 9:36 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    Jim, what a thoughtful response to my post! I really enjoyed all of your comments, which are strongly in line with my own views. I discovered Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in grad school, and was totally blown away by it. It made me rethink a lot, too. I hadn’t heard of “Shop Class as Soul Craft” — but now I want to get my hands on a copy.

    I also share a feeling of vague unease about consuming without contributing. I get to do some of this, through working, teaching, writing, and volunteering, but it doesn’t really seem to match the volume of great ideas and other benefits I take in. Mentoring student interns gives me a taste of it, but that’s mostly in the context of work; I think there is much more that I could (should?) be sharing. If you get any bright ideas about how to accomplish that, please do share. :)

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