I’ve read a lot of books across the years, not surprising I suppose for someone who’s invested more than forty-years in academia. Of those many books, there are a chosen few I’d take with me into island exile. Let me list them. I’d add some poets, too, but not right now:
I fashioned this list in less than a minute, since each of the items triggers easily recalled memories of excited discovery, awe, and insight. David Copperfield, for example, I read in eighth grade. From the very beginning I loved it, identifying with David, whose childhood, in good measure, mirrored my own as well as that of Dickens.
Walden, with its eloquence, gave sanctuary not only in wilderness, but in its verbal tranquility.
And there’s John Stuart Mill, that proverbial “saint of rationalism,” two of his books here. On Liberty taught me to hold out against censorship for the rest of my days; how to discern between just and unjust laws; the importance of protecting minority voices in a democratic society.
His Autobiography demonstrated a first rate humanity, a life of balanced thought and feeling, a passion for social justice. There isn’t any person I’d like to imitate more.
I could go on about the remaining works, too, as each of them has constituted a grace upon my life–a favoring of wisdom and influence. Of all of them, the one I esteem most is surely Vergil‘s The Aeneid, which I chose to teach in my literature classes for a good many years.
Now I’m not about to launch a book review here. I simply offer that this ancient, extended poem, ostensibly a tribute to his patron, Augustus Octavian, whom some historians rank as among the wisest of rulers, ultimately deals with what the Romans regarded as pietas, or the ability to rule one’s passions. As such it mirrors the civic code for good leaders everywhere, sadly forfeited by most.
But The Aeneid is good for you and me as well in its call for balanced living in the stasis of mind and heart, thought and emotion, logos and pathos. To conquer yourself is to conquer a world.
When I studied in Europe on two occasions, England and France, I came upon an important word, character, something I find rarely talked about in America. Europeans would often talk of someone’s character, encompassing integrity markers like dependability, perseverance, equanimity, fairness, empathy, all adding up to a fundamental decency. It’s what Vergil advocated. It’s what Mill is all about. It’s what I’d like, when all things are said and done, people to say of me: “I like his character.” I think it’s what you want too.
Our schools need to inculcate character along with academics. What helps assure success isn’t so much raw intelligence or mastery of a discipline, but the ability to govern oneself exemplified in channeling our emotions into riverbeds of altruism that foster others even as it nurtures our best selves in well-doing.
I like how Daniel Goleman summed it up in his best selling Emotional Intelligence (1995):
Much evidence testifies that people who are emotionally adept–who know and manage their own feelings well, and who read and deal effectively with other people’s feelings–are at an advantage in any domain of life, whether romance and intimate relationships or picking up the unspoken rules that govern success in organizational politics. People with well-developed emotional skills are also more likely to be content and effective in their lives, mastering the habits of mind that foster their own productivity (p. 36).
Life doesn’t just happen. We make it happen, for good or bad. We do it best when we learn pietas, or character, with its legacy of decency and discipline fostering empowerment and destiny..