Caritas and Biography: Two Exhortations

On occasion, people have been known to examine their lives. If we agree with Socrates, then we will feel that this very act of reflection confers value to its object: “the unexamined life is not worth living.” The life worth living will be an examined one. Clearly, however, there is more to a life of value than reflecting on it. Indeed, a Greek historian preserves a notorious and pertinent dictum by another wise Athenian. Croesus, king of Lydia, seeking for an affirmation of his own supremacy in the Olympics of life, pressed the Athenian statesman over who was happiest. The king was affronted by the Solon’s terse reply: “call no man happy till he is dead.” Put another way, no autobiography is complete until the protagonist is. 

Still, it is something of a false dichotomy to set up reflection against living as though they are commensurate and yet somehow contrary. Rather, reflection is a mode of living and not an alternative to it. With this insight comes the realization that with every deed we inscribe another word, with every day another page, in the book that finally, bound together, is our life. Each of us is the author of one’s own biography. By the same token, we will read together in the papers tomorrow what we have collectively written into the world today. 

Given this recognition of our role of ongoing authorship, both individual and collaborative, we might again invoke the Socratic maxim and inquire: provided we are willing to suffer the inconvenience of examining our own lives, what will we find? The answer is, of course, that we will find the same in our biographies as we have written into them. What kind of biographies do we wish to write? And what sort of contributors do we wish to be for the story of our common world? 

Above, reflection was described as a mode of living. Every virtue could be considered in this light. Thus, “integrity,” “courage,” “intelligence,” and so forth are all modes of living, and may become leitmotifs of our magna opera. The reader can likely come up with myriad other themes of her own that she wishes to weave into her creation. If the present writer may be permitted to recommend one further virtue, however, it is “charity.” After all, the contrary would be a fly in the ointment of a fine story, and when Solon finally ceases to withhold his reckoning, his measure will be of what we have left to life, not of what we have left in our pockets.  

***

Everyone wishes to live well. This may strike some as axiomatic but, after all, exceptions will be few and far between, and it is likely that their plausibility rests on substituting the meaning of the word with specific culturally-stipulated representations of it. Whether owning a yacht, sustaining a loving partnership, or travelling to Mallorca for holidays are actions in harmony with the good life may be questioned, but that none of these is it may not. If this difference is kept in mind, then we need not be hamstrung by the Babel of different means to the good life. Instead, we may feel justified in the simple assumption that everyone wishes to live well. After all, one has to start somewhere and to say that “everyone wishes to live well” seems about as close to a tautology as one could come without it being one.

To live well means to do a good job at life. Because we are human beings, it is life of a specifically human kind. “Living well” would look different for an orchid or a paramecium, for instance, than for you or me. One way to think about living well is to consider the qualities or virtues that are implied in our very understanding of the notion. “Dignity,” for instance, is a quality no-less intimately conjoined with living well than is the concept of “radius” to that of a “circle.” Other examples of qualities that are intrinsic to a good life are “integrity,” “care,” and “love.” Before the writer is accused of extrapolating his idiosyncratic beliefs onto universal concepts, let him point out in his defense that he has not in the least prescribed what others ought to do. Instead, he has merely noted that the concepts above are related to the good life purely in virtue of what they all mean. The question of haggling over whether a specific deed was good or not, therefore, does not enter the present argument. 

Another concept as instrumental to the good life as the hand is to the mouth is “charity.” Keeping in mind the distinction we have striven to sustain to this point: to say that charity is instrumental to the good life is not to mandate anything to anyone. It is only to point out that charity is a virtue intrinsic to living well. After all, charity translates caritas from Latin, and agapē in Greek. Both of these words mean “love,” which I offered above as an intrinsic quality of the good life. Again, my intent has not been to compel people to life well; people do this themselves when they have grasped the concepts of “life” and “goodness.” Similarly, nothing in these words is intended to compel the reader to donate to charity. An emotional appeal, a guilt trip, or rhetorical exhortation might be effectively crafted for this purpose, but this is none of those. Instead, these words are meant as a brief philosophical inquiry into human nature and the life lived in consonance with it. Thus, these words have no need to move the reader. Instead, they are meant to remind her of her own human dignity, which, once recognized, will inspire the reader to move herself.

 

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