Review- The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood

As the recently released film Courageous shows, 21st century American men are going through something of an identity crisis. One need only look to the plethora of websites and books geared toward men to see this. Sites like The Art of Manliness and 1001 Rules for my Unborn Son provide both advice and an outlet for today’s men searching for exactly what it means to be a man. 
Recent books like Raising a Modern Day Knight, and Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys, make attempts at helping fathers raise sons that will grow into men. Into this arena steps one of today’s foremost voices on values and virtues, William Bennett, with an excellent book, The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood.
Bennett is a curator of the museum of manhood.
Bennett does not simply talk about manhood today, he talks about the concept of manhood throughout recorded history. Stories, essays, historical vignettes, and contemporary profiles are his means to explore and explain what it means to be a man. In doing so he gives a fuller and richer picture of what being a man means and in turn, how best to become one. He does this by dividing the idea of manliness into six arenas of action:
  • Man in War
  • Man at Work
  • Man in Play, Competition, and Leisure
  • Man in the Polis
  • Man with Woman and Children
  • Man in Prayer and Reflection
In each chapter there are a series of readings from such varied sources as Pericles, St. Thomas Aquinas, President Kennedy & Iraq war veterans. Less of a book, what Bennett is actually doing is acting as a modern day curator of all the things that make one truly a man. 
Like Bennett’s previous work, The Book of Virtues, this book is one to hold on to for the long term.
One of the strengths of a book like this is it’s timelessness. It was not written to be read straight through, but to be used as a kind of a reference book. As a homeschooling parent of a young son I know this book will have a prominent place in my own library. The readings are short and will be food for rich discussion both now when my son is quite young, and later, when he is inevitably struggling to find his own way into adulthood.

One hopes that this museum of manhood is not one of ancient history, but one of things that were, that can be and will be again.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com a book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. 

Josef Pieper: Leisure, the Basis of Culture

Readers of my previous writing project may recognize this essay- it is about one of my favorite philosophical books. As I have recently shut down my old site I am in the process of migrating a few essays that seem to fit A Certain Quality of Life. If you have read this before, I apologize, if you have not, I hope you find it useful.

Josef Pieper (1904-1997) was a German Catholic philosopher, who helped popularize Neo-Thomistic philosophy in the twentieth century. His writings are rooted in the works of Thomas Aquinas as well as Aristotle and Plato. Pieper sought to explain and defend the wisdom tradition of the West and his short and powerful Leisure, the Basis of Culture was one of his most notable works.

Pieper’s Definition of Leisure
Pieper attempts to reintroduce the modern reader to the still important Platonic understanding of the value of philosophical work, and the sagacity of the Thomistic understanding of the relationship between philosophy and theology. He does this through two complimentary essays, Leisure and The Philosophical Work. Read together, these works explain that in order for man to reach his full potential, he needs to look beyond the world of servile, or useful, work and include philosophical work, or liberal arts, into his everyday life.

In 1952, when this book was first published the idea that one either lives to work, or works to live was teetering close to “work” being the point of existence. Nearly 60 years later, if we haven’t fallen off that precipice entirely, we are surely hanging on by our fingernails. What Pieper posits is that mankind is becoming a slave to the idea that only work that is hard, or servile in the social sense, is to be valued.

Leisure’s Importance in the 21st Century
We, in the early twenty first century, are losing our ability to do true philosophical work that is more contemplative, or receptive, in nature. The worship of progress for progress’ sake, the praise of mindless know-how, and education as training, not knowledge-seeking, all point to our drift toward the slave society where we are all defined as our function towards the common society as a whole.

Western culture has an outlook of the world as total work; of work-for-work’s sake. We seem to have internalized the protestant work ethic to such an extent that we threaten to lose our souls, in both a cultural and personal sense. Pieper claims that while we all must live in the work-a-day world we also need space in our lives to contemplate the infinite.

The idea of leisure is the antidote to our work-for-work’s-sake lives. Since man is made for union with God, human work is not separate from this end. Today, the work of man is an end in itself. Pieper shows how this is a reorientation from the classical world view which viewed both useful work and philosophical work as vitally important to the full development of man.

According to Pieper the one way for man to regain the original western tradition begun by Plato and continued by the Medieval masters is to re-marry philosophy to theology. He believes that it is through religious sacrifice in its truest sense that we can realize the kind of philosophical work that is not readily useful in the work-a-day world, but that is eminently useful for our cultural and spiritual survival.

 “Culture depends for its very existence on leisure, and leisure, in its turn, is not possible unless it has a durable and consequently living link with divine worship.”

The Great Books Project: A Re-boot

The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never HadA couple of weeks ago I posted about self improvement and the 5-foot shelf, a collection of books gathered by Harvard’s legendary president, Dr. Eliot. I wrote in that post that I was going to test his premise that 15 minutes a day spent reading these classics could provide you with an adequate liberal education.
Well, I got about 75 pages into Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and realized I needed some help. The last time I did serious reading of this type was back in college, and then I had a great group of professors to expound, elucidate and explain. Now I’ve got me, and I am a poor substitute. 
Classical education to the rescue.

I have been looking into classical education for a while now- the concept of schooling being broken down into three sections of grammar, logic and rhetoric. I am partly interested because my wife and I (mostly her, lets be honest) are homeschooling our kids, and partly because I want to incorporate some if this into my teaching career.
As I looked into resources I came across A Well Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had. Here was a book that could help me get through the ambitious reading project I got myself into. Author Susan Bauer provides a primer on how to attack a book that is not easy reading, largely modeling her method on Mortimer Adler and his classic How to Read a Book.
Not only does she give a battle plan of sorts, but she then provide specific things to look for in each genre of work. Taking her advice I am restarting my journey through The Great Books with some fiction, as this is the most accessible. Don Quixote is first up. 
I will also be journaling, using a slightly modified version of Bauer’s traditional commonplace book. I am using Tumblr to keep my quotes, note and questions. I am purposely not including a link to this (yet) as I don’t think my rambling notes would really be of interest to anyone – except maybe my psychiatrist, if I had one that is.

Hopefully this second stab at The Great Books will be a bit more successful. I am the type of person who thrives when I have a specific plan in place, an A Well Educated Mind has provided that for me. As I have written before, leisure time should be spent on quality self improvement if one is to have the necessary background to truly develop virtue, hopefully my Great Books Project will help my own quest.

Why Charity Matters

Does this sound familiar? It is dinner time and you have just sat down when the phone rings. It is yet another charitable organization looking for a donation. You feel for the caller, after all he is just doing his job and the cause is a good one, but you just don’t have any extra cash. Anyway, if there is a little money left over after paying the bills you should probably put it away in the emergency fund, right?
That pretty much describes me, and I don’t like it.
One of the areas of my own life that I know needs work is my generosity. While technically the virtue of Charity belongs to the theological virtues rather than the four classical virtues, I believe the concept of Justice really requires one to be generous as well. Justice is the ability to balance between self-interest and the rights and needs of others and one way to develop justice is throug being charitable. To paraphrase Isaiah 58:1-10, while charity gives, justice changes. It changes the lives of those giving as well as those receiving.
Most, if not all, of the world’s religions promote charity as a very important moral value. Hinduism, Jainism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and Sikhism place particular emphasis on altruistic morality. Here in the U.S. we have always been known as a charitable country. The United States is “a land of charity,” says Arthur Brooks, an expert on philanthropy and a professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, who sees charitable giving and volunteerism as the signal characteristic of Americans. Total American donations for 2006 amounted to almost $300 billion, and individuals accounted for 75.6% of that. In terms of the percentage of GDP given to charity the U.S. more than doubles the second place country, Britain.
While America is generally charitable, as a developed western society we also have a ready-made excuse not to get involved. We pay taxes and our government has programs to help the poor here and abroad. Yet, to rely on this fact as a way to side-step our personal responsibility misses the point. Aristotle famously stated that “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” We can easily substitute virtue for excellence.  Are we developing the virtue of Justice or Charity if we let an impersonal government do all the work for us? Besides, most quality charities only use about 10% of their funds for administrative costs. Do you think the government works anywhere near that efficiency level?

I have to admit my wife is much further along in the development of Justice than I am. She readily gives of her time, talents and money for causes she believes in and is doing a good job instilling this virtue in our children. In fact, as I write this she is with my oldest child volunteering at a local nursing home- something they do together once a month. I think she is starting to rub off on me too. 
Choose a charity as a family.
As a family we have decided to support two charities. I strongly recommend you chose a cause that speaks to you and not just donate to whatever organization happens to call. For one thing, there is only so much to go around ~ as much as we may want to we can not support everything. But more importantly, by carefully choosing your charity you establish a connection and commitment to that cause. 
Just as an example the organizations my family supports are Green Beans Coffee Cup Of Joe for a Joe program and Catholic Relief Services (CRS). We chose these because, one, the missions of each speak to us on a personal level and two, they are reputable charities who spend a high percentage of our donations on their respective missions. When looking for a charity to support it is important to look at their accounting. Any reputable charity will make this public. For instance, CRS puts 95% of their funding into programs with the remaining 5% into administration and fund raising. This gives them an “A” ranking from The American Institue of Philanthropy.
In order to live a just life we need to look out for each other.  This is something I will be working on in the coming months. I invite you to join me. Find an organization whose mission you believe in and set aside an amount of money you wish to contribute each month. Treat it as you would any other bill- you’d be surprised what you can afford. If the cable bill went up $25 a month would you cancel it or find the money somewhere? 
If you are living in America and are able to log on and read this you really have won the lottery of life. I know I have and its time I start practicing a little gratitude for that.

What This Blog Is Not

A plethora of sites inhabit the blogoshpere that purport to teach you how to make the most of your life. They use terms like risk-taking, unconventional life and doing the impossible to motivate you to do more and live better. To steal a quote made famous by the US Army, they try to enable you to “be all you can be.”
Development For Development’s Sake
Just Google the term lifestyle design or personal development and you’ll be inundated with information about how to become a better human. You’ll learn how to travel the world, live minimally, be location independent, raise an army to your cause and many other such things.
Before I go any further I want to make clear that I have no problem with these sites as far as they go. If they serve to motivate people to realize there is more to life than Netflix and iTunes then that is great. These sites act as giant pep rallies, and rallies have a purpose in life, a good purpose. They get us to move, break us out from our self-imposed lethargy. But rallies generally do not answer the questions, Why? and How?
I can readily find information online about how to run my first marathon, do 100 consecutive push ups or travel around the world with little more than a back pack. But aside from a feeling of personal satisfaction, or greater global awareness, I still do not really know why I should do these things or how they make me intrinsically better than I was before I accomplished them.
What This Blog Is
This has been a long-winded way of saying A Certain Quality of Life will not be one of these sites. I will hopefully inspire people to make more of their lives; that is of course why I am chronicling my own journey here. But more importantly, I think, is that I will be attempting to discover and share why living a fuller life is important to our being human and how living a certain way can help us attain that life. I admit I do not have the answers yet, but I hope a few of you will stick around for the conversation.
By focusing on the classical virtues as the glue holding this site together I hope to draw on the learning and experience of people much wiser than I am. The world has changed so much, and so fast, over the past 100 years, hell, over the past 20! It is easy for us to feel like we need to find the answers to life’s biggest questions on our own. But we don’t. People have been struggling with how to define what a good life looks like, what happiness is, for literally millennia.
People like Aristotle, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Thoma Aquinas.
Books like The Bible, Summa Theologica, and The Art of Living.
These sources can give us insight into how people, who dedicated entire lifetimes to study, attempted to answer some of life’s most perplexing questions. Through a study of those who have gone before us I hope to get closer to an answer to the Why and How.

The Value of a College Education

A classical education is defined as one that focuses on the seven liberal arts. According to Andrew Kern over at The Circe Institute, “[c]lassical education is the only hope for democracy. It is the only form of education that can make people fit to rule themselves.” While I tend to agree with Mr. Kern, I do think reasonable people can debate whether a classical education is the sole purveyor of self rule. However, according to recent reports our currrent college system may be missing the mark.

A recent New Yorker article by Louis Menand looked at both the purpose of college and the results presented in a new book, Academically Adrift, by, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, whose premise is that American colleges are more about a social experience than learning. I know the gut reaction to the latter is probably a, “Yes, of course. we didn’t need a study to tell us that!” But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just quite yet.
First, Menand states two possible purposes for college. One, it is essentially a sorting hat for the world of work. An IQ test is not reliable, but if someone makes it through 4 years of college with an acceptable G.P.A. then a potential employer can assume a certain level of proficiency. The second purpose, in his own words, is to

  …expose[s] future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing. In performing this function, college also socializes. It takes people with disparate backgrounds and beliefs and brings them into line with mainstream norms of reason and taste.

He then goes on to state that one of the problems with our modern college system is that it attempts to do both. As a classicist I support theory number two fairly strongly, though I have to admit to the efficacy of some type of sorting for the purpose of creating a productive society. But can a system that has as a main aim a vocational education truly create a citizenry of creative and independent thinkers? Here is where Arum and Roska come into play.

The book has an ample appendix and is full of research and data- it is not one of those red-meat diatribes against education. There are of course plenty of surveys included that talk about how much less studying goes on now a days, and how more and more college students spend their time on social and entertainment activities. To a certain extent I disregard these. The older generation always feels the younger just isn’t up to snuff in one way or another.
But one piece of interesting data that they focus on quite a bit is a test known as the Collegiate Learning Assessment, or C.L.A., which they gave to incoming freshman, sophomores and seniors to judge how much they were improving. The results were less than flattering.
Arum and Roksa say that 45% of the students showed little if any improvement. On the face of it this seems bad. However, you need to dig a bit beneath the surface to find the ray of hope. Menand finds this ray,

The most interesting finding is that students majoring in liberal-arts fields—sciences, social sciences, and arts and humanities—do better on the C.L.A., and show greater improvement, than students majoring in non-liberal-arts fields such as business, education and social work, communications, engineering and computer science, and health. There are a number of explanations. Liberal-arts students are more likely to take courses with substantial amounts of reading and writing; they are more likely to attend selective colleges, and institutional selectivity correlates positively with learning; and they are better prepared academically for college, which makes them more likely to improve. The students who score the lowest and improve the least are the business majors.

We are coming full circle back to the idea that a classical education is the one that best prepares one for life in a democracy. Those students studying the liberal arts, the foundation of any classical system, perform best. Unfortunately liberal arts students make up less than 20% of the population of college students. The far and away leader? Business degree. want to guess who score the lowest?
The point seems to be that while we need vocational training in a society that needs more and more specialized skills in the productive world, we also need a classical or liberal foundation to be more than just a cog in that world. How do we succeed at both?

Living & Finding Meaning in Work

How to Live on 24 Hours a DayOne thing I really enjoy is the reading of older self help books. By older I mean ones written between 1850 and 1920. The advice they give is often more clearly grounded in tangible acts of virtue than much of the modern,feel-good platitudinous works. The best resource for these treasures is Google Books. My latest find: How to Live on 24 Hours a Day (1910), written by Arnold Bennett. 

It is part of a more complete book called How to Live. Bennett offers everyday advice on how we can live and not just exist within the limits of a 24 hours day. He is writing at the turn of the century and for an English audience, but the message is surprisingly relevant.
Much of the populace was moving towards working in an urban jungle of cubicles and offices and they were leaving behind much of what he argues made them “men.” People worked to make money, but their day-to-day lives consisted of waking up, going to work, going home, relaxing, going to sleep, and repeating the whole thing the next day. 
Which of us lives on twenty-four hours a day? And when I say “lives,” I do not mean exists, nor “muddles through.” Which of us is free from that uneasy feeling that the “great spending departments” of his daily life are not managed as they ought to be? 
Basically, he didn’t believe they were really living. And to a large extent, not much has changed in the ensuing 100 years.
I would argue that meaning can be found in work. That is actually a prevailing theme of this site, but I would not disagree that many of us toil away in jobs that currently have little intrinsic meaning to us. Bennett says the solution is to use our leisure time for self improvement: reading, studying and other  classical pursuits. These are of course all valid and useful endeavors. But this doesn’t really solve the problem of not enjoying our daily work. 
To lead truly full lives we need to both use our leisure time well and find something meaningful in our actual jobs.

Plato and Our Current Culture

Plato: RepublicWe like in a culture that feeds on itself. We build people and organizations up simply to tear them back down. Little attention do we devote to our own moral development. without each doing his part the whole of society can not improve. Does this sound like the current state of affairs in the modern western world?

The state being a perfect one must exhibit in itself the four cardinal virtues. Not that every one of its citizens must exhibit them perfectly, but the philosophical rulers present prudence, courageous standing-army courage, the well-conducted populace and craftsman temperance. The remaining virtue justice, the virtue of the whole, the principle and cause of the existence of the other three, compelling each portion of the state to keep it own business, and to abstain from all interference with the affairs of the other portions.- Plato’s Republic, Book 4

The question is: how do we get there from here? As the U.S. moves into yet another divisive election season we could benefit from some attention to a basic civic virtue.

C.S. Lewis and Political Virtue

Mere Christianity

I have been rereading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity over the past few weeks and a section really got me thinking about the whole idea of the need for virtue in the political world. I apologize for the long quote, but I certainly can’t summarize Lewis’ point better than he does himself.

When people say in the newspapers that we are striving for Christian moral standards, they usually mean that we are striving for kindness and fair play between nations, and classes, and individuals; that is, they are thinking only of the first thing. When a man says about something he wants to do, “It can’t be wrong because it doesn’t do anyone else any harm,” he is thinking only of the first thing. He is thinking it does not matter what his ship is like inside provided that he does not run into the next ship. And it is quite natural, when we start thinking about morality, to begin with the first thing, with social relations. For one thing, the results of bad morality in that sphere are so obvious and press on us every day: war and poverty and graft and lies and shoddy work. And also, as long as you stick to the first thing, there is very little disagreement about morality. Almost all people at all times have agreed (in theory) that human beings ought to be honest and kind and helpful to one another. But though it is natural to begin with all that, if our thinking about morality stops there, we might just as well not have thought at all. Unless we go on to the second thing-the tidying up inside each human being-we are only deceiving ourselves.

What is the good of telling the ships how to steer so as to avoid collisions if, in fact, they are such crazy old tubs that they cannot be steered at all? What is the good of drawing up, on paper, rules for social behaviour, if we know that, in fact, our greed, cowardice, ill temper, and self-conceit are going to prevent us from keeping them? I do not mean for a moment that we ought not to think, and think hard, about improvements in our social and economic system. What I do mean is that all that thinking will be mere moonshine unless we realise that nothing but the courage and unselfishness of individuals is ever going to make any system work properly. It is easy enough to remove the particular kinds of graft or bullying that go on under the present system: but as long as men are twisters or bullies they will find some new way of carrying on the old game under the new system. You cannot make men good by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society. That is why we must go on to think of the second thing: of morality inside the individual.

 I am in agreement with C.S. Lewis on this point.  Unless we fix ourselves we really can not fix society. I am not suggesting that we stand by and let the country go to hell while we work on some sort of new age self improvement. What I am suggesting is that we hold our leaders to a higher standard. We need men and women who are serious, and who conduct themselves is a manner that is in accordance with some basic virtues. Otherwise we will just end up with more of the same.

Re-imagining The Bible Through Art

Today is The Annunciation according to the traditional Catholic calendar. This is when Catholics celebrate the announcement by the archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would become the mother of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. A site I sometimes read had a unique representation of The Annunciation that got me thinking about art and it’s role in how we envision religion.

I would venture to guess that many people of my generation picture Jesus looking like Robert Powell, the actor from the famous 1977 miniseries Jesus of Nazareth. This movie, which was shown every Easter season for years made an indelible mark on an entire generation.

If we travel back in time to the long march of history before television, art still shaped how we view much of religion. From Leonardo’s David, to Michelangelo’s ceiling, artists have told us what famous Biblical characters and scenes looked like. Before wide spread literacy, paintings and stained glass were in fact the main source of information about much of religious history.

However, because of this emphasis on classical artistic depiction do we create a barrier between ourselves and religion? Is it easier to keep the troubling theological aspects of the reality behind The Annunciation, Resurrection or Transfiguration at arm’s length because we envision them as part of some long-distant, almost mythological past. Would those who think nothing of accepting the reality of an angel visiting a 13 yr old girl and announcing her mystical pregnancy feel the same way if a similar situation happened today, in a modern setting?

I am not trying to start a religious debate; I am simply asking the question out loud- does our classical art influenced mental image of Biblical events make them easier to accept? Below are two paintings that got me thinking about this. Each represents a traditional narrative in a modern setting.

This Annunciation is set in suburbia, but the symbolism is quite traditional. Mary is reading from Isaiah about the Virgin who conceives and bears a son. The lily represents her purity, and she is welcoming St. Gabriel. By JOHN COLLIER
Joseph dressed as a carpenter with the Child Jesus standing beside him. Jesus holds a plumb line to say that He, as the Plumb Line, is a fixed point against which all else can be measured. By JOHN COLLIER