In Chasing the Flame (Penguin, 2008) Samantha Power, who is now U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, gives us the enthralling, inspiring, and maddening story of Sergio Vieira de Mello. An international crisis man sometimes described as a humanitarian James Bond, Vieira de Mello was a brilliant and deeply humane UN diplomat whose combination of passionate idealism with hard-nosed pragmatism was repeatedly frustrated by forces larger than himself, including the shortcomings of his own organization, the UN. His was a thrilling life prematurely ended in 2003 by a bomb in Baghdad while he served as the UN chief of mission in Iraq.
This diplomat, who shuttled from one conflict zone to another to defuse international crises, was not only a man of action, but also a man of deep thought, a man after philosophy. A brief statement from early in his career reveals that for Vieira de Mello, philosophy not only provided the internal grounding for the bold pursuit of justice to which he devoted his life, but was also at the core of what makes us human. In his words below, he also echoes the ancients’ (was it Plato? It was probably Plato) insight that just as those who are most gifted have the greatest potential for good, they also have the greatest potential for evil. We’re reminded that this applies to the realm of thought and ideas as well.
After receiving the highest grades in philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, Vieira de Mello wrote to his ex-girlfriend:
“‘But for what?’…if he had studied economics or marketing instead, ‘some American company would have assured me a “happy future” strewn with dollars.’ He would never sell out, he told her, and ‘just short of dying of hunger,’ he would ‘never abandon philosophy.’ The philosopher, he wrote, could become either ‘the most just man’ or the ‘the most radical bandit.’ Either way, he insisted, ‘to do philosophy is to have it in your blood and to do what very few will do – to both be a man and to think everywhere and always.’” (21)
Cicero’s On Old Age is ancient wisdom at its best. In it he answers the charges of younger men against old age, such as lack of physical activity and the loss of mental acuity and bodily pleasures, such as taste and sex. To each of these charges Cicero responds by arguing that much of the discomfort and failings of old age are due more to the bad habits of earlier years and personal character faults than to old age itself. Old age, he says, has much to offer to those seeking the improvement of their mind and the refining of their spirit. As the French essayist Montaigne said of the work, Cicero makes you look forward to old age.
Written about 40 years before the birth of Christ, this work also shows human wisdom’s limits as well as its glimmers of eternal wisdom. For example, Cicero’s affirms the immortality of the soul but is unable to imagine much else beyond death. As the last quote below shows, however, he seems to have understood that this life is a temporary stay on the way to our true home, much like the Christian concept of pilgrims on the way to our true and final home.
I encourage everyone, young and old, to treat themselves to this classic work. It’s only about 30 pages. But if you won’t get to it for a while because you have so much to read as it is, here’s a (completely free!) sampling:
“A person who lacks the means, within himself, to live a good and happy life will find any period of his existence wearisome.”
“[In old age] there is great satisfaction in the knowledge of a life well spent and the memory of many things well done.”
“The evils for which ignorant people blame old age are really their own faults and deficiencies.”
“Great deeds are not done by strength or speed or physique: they are the products of thought, and character, and judgement. And far from diminishing, such qualities actually increase with age.”
“At the very least we must concede age the capacity to teach and train young men and fit them for jobs of every kind; and no function could possibly be more honorable than that.”
“When its campaigns of sex, ambition, rivalry, quarreling, and all the other passions are ended, the human spirit returns to live within itself – and is well off. There is supreme satisfaction to be derived from an old age which has knowledge and learning to feed upon.”
“Old age must have its foundations well laid in early life.”
“Old people are also complained about as morose, and petulant, and ill-tempered, and hard to please…but these are faults of character, not of age…For the fact is that not every personality, any more than every wine, grows sour with age.”
“The particular harvest of old age, I repeat, is its abundant recollection of blessings acquired in earlier years.”
“Since death is an imminent possibility from hour to hour, you must not let the prospect frighten you, or you will be in a state of perpetual anxiety.”
“What nature gives us is a place to dwell in temporarily, not one to make our own. When I leave life, therefore, I shall feel as if I am leaving a hostel rather than a home.”
Everyone believes something.
Some give this more thought than others and develop a consistent set of beliefs, while others take the buffet table approach – choose and take what you like and if it no longer serves or pleases you, leave it aside and don’t bother picking up after yourself.
The household in which German theologian and anti-Hitler conspirator Dietrich Bonhoeffer grew up fell firmly in the former camp, having a lasting effect on the children’s futures as their accomplishments demonstrate.* Lazy thinking and not practicing what one professed were not tolerated, as Eric Metaxas shows us in Seven Men: And the Secret of their Greatness (Thomas Nelson, 2013):
“Karl Bonhoeffer taught his children that having a remarkable IQ was of no use if one didn’t train one’s mind to think clearly and logically. As a scientist, he believed that was of paramount importance. One must learn to follow the evidence and the facts and the logic all the way through to the end. Sloppy thinking of any kind was not tolerated in the Bonhoeffer household. One would surely think twice before opening one’s mouth at the dinner table because all statements would immediately be challenged. This early training in how to think was at the core of the Bonhoeffer children’s upbringing, and it was one reason that Dietrich grew up to have the tremendous impact on those around him that he did.
“Perhaps even more important in the Bonhoeffer family was acting upon what one said one believed. One must not only think clearly but must prove one’s thoughts in action. If one was unprepared to live out what one claimed to believe, perhaps one didn’t believe what one claimed at all!” (92)
* According to Metaxas, Dietrich’s father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was “a scientific genius and the most famous psychiatrist in Germany for the first half of the twentieth century,” while his wife Paula was a brilliant teacher who earned a degree at a time when few women did and homeschooled all eight of their children. Then, the eldest brother, Karl Friedrich, became a physicist who at 23 participated in Max Planck and Albert Einstein’s splitting of the atom, and the middle brother, Klaus, went onto head the legal department of Lufthansa. Their sisters, meanwhile, also were “brilliant and married brilliant men.”
Twentieth-century theologian, public intellectual, and prophet, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote powerfully about America’s role in the world. He beckoned Americans to examine their own values in light of their professed virtues and noble national goals, reminding a nation of the need for humility and faith even as it pursues justice and confronts real evil in a morally ambiguous and often tragic world. In his classic The Irony of American History (University of Chicago, 1952), he achieved the nearly impossible: critiquing his own society from within, like an astute and wise outside observer, but with eyes of faith which transcended the events of his day.
A short sampling of some of my favorite excerpts:
“A sane life requires that we have some clue to the mystery so that the realm of meaning is not simply reduced to the comprehensible processes of nature. But these clues are ascertained by faith, which modern man has lost.”
“Genuine community is established only when the knowledge that we need one another is supplemented by the recognition that ‘the other,’ that other form of life, or that other unique community is the limit beyond which our ambitions must not run and the boundary beyond which our life must not expand.”
“The God before whom ‘the nations are as a drop in the bucket and are counted as small dust in the balances’ is known by faith and not by reason. The realm of mystery and meaning which encloses and finally makes sense out of the baffling configurations of history is not identical with any scheme of rational intelligibility. The faith which appropriates the meaning in the mystery inevitably involves an experience of repentance for the false meaning which the pride of nations and cultures introduces into the pattern. Such repentance is the true source of charity; and we are more desperately in need of genuine charity than of more technocratic skills.”
“…the whole drama of human history is under the scrutiny of a divine judge who laughs at human pretensions without being hostile to human aspirations.”
“…humility…is the prerequisite of every spiritual achievement.”
“Those who succeed in life, whether by the acquisition of power, wealth, or wisdom, do incline to value their achievements too highly and to forget the fragmentary character of all human achievements.”
Have you ever paused to consider how much of our culture is influenced by that seminal phrase, “the pursuit of happiness”? I think it’s fair to say that before these words were penned into our Declaration of Independence, no nation had ever before staked its people’s happiness as one of its founding principles and a reason for being.
Today we see this fixation with happiness in many places, from the check-out lines where Cosmopolitan reveals its “7 Secrets to Happiness” to the Barnes & Noble with the prominent display of Gretchen Rubin’s #1 New York Times bestseller, The Happiness Project (Harper, 2011). But “happiness” is no simple proposition, and too often in its pursuit we forget that more important than mere happiness is the wisdom needed to negotiate life’s challenges and to know when to try to change one’s circumstances and when to accept, and even embrace them. This kind of wisdom produces not happiness, but joy and peace. Alternatively, does the absence of “happiness” indicate personal failure? Are those whose days are more characterized by difficulty and suffering than cheery happiness doing something wrong or missing out on a fuller and better experience of life?
In his recent book, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (Penguin, 2013), Tim Keller writes that one of the major failings of modern society is that it fails to provide an adequate framework, if any, for understanding suffering. He explains that unlike in previous civilizations where suffering and trials were understood to be a crucial aspect of life which could better one’s character, many people today are more likely to see suffering as an accident of life to be avoided and removed from human experience.
More than fifty years ago Reinhold Niehbur wrote eloquently about this dilemma for American society, calling it “our difficulty as a nation.” Does this still hold true today? And has it gotten worse?
“The real question is whether a religion or a culture is capable of interpreting life in a dimension sufficiently profound to understand and anticipate the sorrows and pains which may result from a virtuous regard for our responsibilities; and to achieve a serenity within sorrow and pain which is something less but also something more than ‘happiness.’ Our difficulty as a nation is that we must now learn that prosperity is not simply coordinated to virtue, that virtue is not simply coordinated to historic destiny and that happiness is no simple possibility of human existence” (The Irony of American History, University of Chicago, 1952), 52.
My most recent personal tussle with questions about the Christian faith thankfully led me to Michael Novak’s unusually thoughtful No One Sees God (Doubleday, 2008). In this book Novak, a Catholic scholar, posits that Atheists and Christians have more in common than they think, namely that both are in important respects “in the dark” about God. Here he tackles – with a thoughtfulness that is hard to find in most popular books about faith – some of the most formidable objections to faith in God, including the question of whether God is truly a God of “ultimate kindness” given the reality of suffering we see every day. He responds simply but profoundly, pointing to the universal phenomenon of gratefulness, and with it, mere existence, as a large sign pointing to the goodness of God:
“During my seventy-four years, I have met extremely few people who are not grateful for the very fact of life, fresh air, the taste of water on a dry day, the stars and moon at night. It may be surprising how often even people who are very poor, or who suffer mightily from cancer or other illness, give thanks for the good things they have received from the Almighty. There are not many people who think everything is bleak, that death is better than life, that nothingness is better than being. Just existing has a sweet taste to it, even in extremities” (115).
2012 has been a year of many great reads, but these were the standouts.
5. Augustine of Hippo (Peter Brown)
Peter Brown’s masterful Augustine of Hippo is widely considered the definitive biography of the bishop, and with good reason. He is exhaustive in his use of original sources and other scholarly material (it seems that every other line has a footnote); he skillfully re-creates the world in which Augustine moved, giving us a tangible feel for the rich and volatile atmosphere of North Africa in the 3rd century; and most gratifying, he writes beautifully, making it a great pleasure to read and soak in. For the uninitiated in Augustine, this book should be like the main course that comes after some appetizers that can give you a taste for what is to come. It also is abundant in details, concerning not just Augustine but surrounding controversies and political problems, which might not interest the reader meeting Augustine for the first time. For such a reader, I recommend beginning with his Confessions.
4. Confessions (Augustine)
Augustine’s Confessions is an important and rich work. It’s important because it is the first autobiography of the modern world, containing deep psychological and existential reflections, long before such terms and concepts came into popular use. And it is a rich work in that it is no mere recounting of events and reflections on these, but rather a lengthy prayer to God that takes the reader (and as a renowned and popular bishop, Augustine knew he would have many readers) from the earliest memories of infantile selfishness (he shows us why babies are not really “little angels”) to the loftiest meditations on the nature of time and memory, and his place in God’s cosmic plan. The Confessions give us Augustine in full measure: the young and promiscuous “lusty stallion,” the demanding and intense friend, the brilliant rhetorician and philosopher, the loving son who never spoke a harsh word to his mother (she commended him for this in her dying moments), and ultimately, the giant of the church who was, through and through, a true lover of God.
3. Churchill (Paul Johnson)
The list of Churchill biographies is almost endless. This is part of what makes Paul Johnson’s book a great contribution: it gives us a great sense of the man, and covers the crucial events of his outsized life. More than this, Johnson generously shares all those quirky and fascinating details that have made Churchill one of the most closely studied persons of history (e.g. his talent for going from hard-charging, energetic work to being able to, almost at will, relax and recuperate his energies; it helped that he was a great napper!). Johnson writes of Churchill, whom he once met, with warmth and affection, yet he does not try to hide character defects and other less than flattering facts about him. And in true form to the kind of historian he is, he concludes his brief but highly enjoyable biographical portrait with five lessons (see my post, listing these, below) we can take away from the life of Churchill.
Just Courage was the most challenging book I read this year. It is International Justice Mission president Gary Haugen’s highly personal account of his work to end human trafficking as well as an impassioned call to Christians to take justice seriously, because justice matters to God. He compellingly shows that justice for the vulnerable (e.g. the poor, the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan) is a major concept in Scripture which we ignore to our own spiritual loss. One thing I appreciate about Haugen is that he understands the fears and hindrances that keep many of us, with our comfortable jobs and pretty houses and neat lives, from engaging in this kind of work (granted, not everyone is called to fight human trafficking halfway around the world; many can do it from their own house or church, even). He admits that it can be scary to leave what to us mean comfort and security and predictability, and to go risk your safety by upsetting the snake pit that is the world of human trafficking. But as a man who knows and loves Jesus, he then reminds us that we have better reasons not to fear: because God is the one doing the work; we are but the instruments he chooses to use to accomplish his purposes in this world.
Before he wrote the recent, highly acclaimed biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy), Eric Metaxas wrote of another great man: William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was a highly successful Member of Parliament from the late-18th century to the early 19th century, whose lifelong mission as a gifted politician was to abolish the slave trade. This was my favorite book not only because it is about my historical hero, but also because it is superbly written. Furthermore, It is not an exhaustive biography of Wilberforce. It focuses on his conversion to Christianity and his subsequent decades-long struggle to abolish the slave trade. Metaxas does a great job of showing us Wilberforce the person – lively, cheerful, witty, indefatigable, and keen on putting his faith into action. This was not only a pleasurable read, but personally important in that it painted a picture for me of how a committed Christian can successfully navigate the dangerous world of politics, and not just survive or keep his position, but accomplish a great victory in the cause of justice in this dark world.
Screwtape writes to his apprentice devil, on one of the spiritual “perils” of war:
“And how disastrous for us is the continual remembrance of death which war enforces. One of our best weapons, contented worldliness, is rendered useless. In wartime not even a human can believe that he is going to live forever” (16).
As Lewis writes, the “Enemy” here would have us stupidly holding onto the illusion that death is something abstract and remote, nowhere to be seen or many years down the road. Thus war – or at least such a war as World War II, which provided the backdrop for Lewis’s classic work – can offer a healthy dose of reality to “contented” human beings who live as if death will never come. It forces one to become acquainted (one prays in a healthy and not traumatic way) with the cold fact of death, and in so doing provides a necessary and more complete perspective of life. Indeed, many philosophers and thinkers have said something similar – that it is a wise thing to hold the prospect of death before one.
Do you ever ask such things as, “What is real?”, or “What is truth?”, or “What does it all mean?” These shouldn’t be questions asked only by fresh-faced college students or airy philosophers. Each of us should at some time or another grapple with the truly big questions of life, the ones that seek to uncover the meaning, the truths, behind the reality we experience day to day.
This is C.S. Lewis’s point at the outset of his acclaimed fictional work, The Screwtape Letters (Time Life, 1942). Lewis’s brilliance is on full display in a series of letters from a senior demon (named Screwtape) instructing a junior demon (named Wormwood) on the “best practices” for leading a man astray from God and into eternal damnation. Wickedly funny while at the same time instructive, Screwtape demonstrates Lewis’s keen grasp of human nature and moral psychology. Whether or not you are religious, I heartily recommend you pick up a copy and read this smart, entertainingly serious book.
“Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false,’ but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical,’ ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary,’ ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless’… The trouble with argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s [the "Enemy" here is God] own ground… By the very act of arguing, you awaken the patient’s reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result?… Your business is to fix his attention on the stream [of immediate sense experiences]. Teach him to call it ‘real life’ and don’t let him ask what he means by ‘real’ (2).”
Have you ever known you had to do something, but hesitated just to begin because you feared the outcome? Perhaps you feared that it might not turn out in your favor, or that it might make a situation worse, not better? This may be a misplaced, premature attempt to justify a course of action, because one is seeking to judge this action by an outcome that has yet to be determined. Maybe it is often more simple than we think: if we believe we ought to do something, we should stand on that conviction and make a leap of courage and do it, to the best of our ability, leaving the results to God.
It seems this is what the nineteenth century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard (a father of modern existentialism) was onto when he wrote the following in Fear and Trembling (Penguin, 2003), his remarkable reflection on the meaning of faith as seen in the story of Abraham’s offering of Isaac. In this passage he asks, “How does the single individual assure himself that he is justified?” The short answer is, he can’t. This is why it takes faith, and why such a faith is indeed a virtue.
“…[the fact is that] ever since the Creation it has been accepted practice for the outcome to come last, and that if one is really to learn something from the great it is precisely the beginning one must attend to. If anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according to the outcome, he would never begin. Even though the result may gladden the whole world, that cannot help the hero; for he knows the result only when the whole thing is over, and that is not how he becomes a hero, but by virtue of the fact that he began.”