I enjoyed the spotlight that this book puts on hopefulness, and the rallying cry to hold tight to it, even in the face of a society with increasing cynicism and its accompanying peril to the health of the individual human soul. Many people may believe that people are not inherently good—but a society and democracy are doomed to fail if a prevalence of this type of thinking takes hold. Can we do good and choose correctly or must we be guided (i.e. coerced)? Must morality be legislated? Some people hold to these cynical beliefs, and at times they are easier to accept, but we should resist. Riemen believes that the ideals of classical humanitarianism can guard against cynicism and restore Western civilization’s highest values. I agree with this but think that we need to accept change and loosen our hold on the past somewhat. We need new “classical” ideals that will change the dynamic, shift the paradigm, and point us in a new, and even better, direction, encompassing the past but forging them into a new creation and a new future. The humanities and arts can inform a society of hopefulness and we should look to the past for many of these ideals but, more importantly we should foster environments in which the classical humanities can be a living thing that continues its lineage into the future. Evolution is a must. As the French say: plus cest change, plus cest la meme chose.
I also like that Riemen has related a healthy society to the health of the individual and, in turn related the health of the individual to the state of their dignity. Riemen says that “Personal ethics are more important than social institutions.” Individuals’ happiness is more important than social commitment; because a healthy society is based on healthy individuals. Value the individual, because society depends on it. Riemen also says that “…what this world needs above all else, a social order that would safeguard human dignity…” and that is what we should strive for in our lives and our influence on others.
American society and business today does indeed suffer from some of the problems that Riemen identifies. The power of money, and the multitude of things it can represent, has crowded out inner growth. We also often hear on the news “democracy” referred to as the justification for a policy, but no mention of what this really means or what democracy entails. Riemen says that “Politicized minds do not see concrete individuals who are alive, who love, and who are loved. All they see are abstractions: capitalism, communism, globalization…” and laments that “Morality is replaced by a doctrine of virtue.” Yes, we also see this in modern society, of ten in the form of legislation of morality. We indeed are losing our humanity and some of it has to do with us losing our roots, our connection to nature, I believe. The humanist view of the necessity of personal freedom and dignity vs. the view of the necessity of a powerful state to save people from their own evil devices is an argument that continues even today.
As human nature is twofold, we must respect and develop the twofold nature of the individuals whom we lead and who work with and for us. The physical body is the most obvious and we have arguably done a good job at tending to that. The soul, the nobility of spirit—“…life as the art of becoming human through the cultivation of the human soul.” per the book—is what is often missing. The goals of business must include people and individuals. We must also be more interested in substance than appearance. It is easy to look at the appearances of our friends and coworkers, a nice car and house, etc. and assume that they are doing well. However, it is the things that are not seen that are often overlooked and are the underlying importance. Riemen says that the poet teaches us true freedom. “Without that ultimate vivification—which the poet and other artists alone can give—reality would seem incomplete and science, democracy, and life itself finally in vain.” “…facts are good for scholars, but we must write the truth!” I’ve always tried to live my life as an art form and this ideal in the book spoke to me and I believe should be applied in business as in life. Goethe said that “Civilization is a permanent exercise in respect. Respect for the divine, the earth, for our fellow man and so for our own dignity.” For the sake of our own souls and of those that we are connected to we must resist the seductiveness of power and bad faith lest it damage our nobility of spirit. If we’re not faithful to our individuality and allow others to be faithful to theirs we also risk our souls, for as Riemen states “…being one of the herd languishes one’s soul away.” We must respect and nourish the twofold nature of humanity in both ourselves and those around us.
Another idea that resonated with me in this book is: “…the past is not closed, it receives meaning from our present actions.” Shamans have historically said the same thing; quantum physics is now beginning to say the same thing: everything is connected and influences everything else, even across time and barriers to influence that we once thought existed we are now seeing as not a barrier at all. This thought can be a wellspring of hope for us humans even in the midst of failures and shortcomings!
To my fellow classmates, I would like to point out the passage in the book that proclaims that “Thoughtful conversation is the best way to examine life and make it worth living.” We can achieve some soul growth and nobility of spirit and meaning of life through thoughtful, felt and authentic conversation. I invite all classmates to be human personalities attempting to come to grips with eternal problems posed by the moral, social, and political conflicts of our time. “Without the freedom to think differently, speak differently, be different, have differences of opinion—without these freedoms, all other values are defenseless. And whatever one might think of the capitalist West, these freedoms are back again. Right here.” So resist the urge to hold back or to say what is thought to be expected of you and instead let your true feelings and thoughts be released into the world. You never know what good may come of it.
Riemen, R. (2008). Nobility of spirit: a forgotten ideal. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press