Returning to Columbia for a new year, again, feels different. Gone is the gulping, heart-squashing anxiety, punctuated by waves of excitement that marked my first week on campus two years ago. I dimly recall arriving for sophomore year with a sense of renewed elation and of being ever-so-much-more-knowledgeable than the class of 2016. I’m happy to report that many of them became dear friends who teach and humble me every day.
Now I’m back once more, with half my college years blown past. I no longer find the presence of soda fountains enticing (Dr Pepper didn’t exist back home in Mozambique) or stumble every time I see Butler’s facade gleaming across Low Plaza—although that sight is still glorious!
I’ve been given a new sense of purpose: I know now what I want to study (literature and intellectual history), and what I want to do long-term (teach college students about ideas and stories and why they matter). Clarity on such matters is enormously liberating. I feel like a runner suddenly freed of the burden of too many choices, empowered to run a straight course with joy.
But I want to achieve much more than academic and career objectives. I want to live an authentically good life—one that is saturated with meaning, love, discovery, victory, and virtue. Reading Aristotle’s “Ethics” last year in Contemporary Civilization certainly helped awaken that longing for a good life. Aristotle sees goodness as the product of decades of seasoned experience in the world, requiring enduring habits of doing the right thing and the friendship and community of other people who can nudge you away from the foolish and nourish your commitment to the good.
If Aristotle gave me a pattern I longed to emulate, Dante’s “Inferno” certainly warned me away from quite a few alternatives (rather along the lines of Papa Bear’s “This is what you should not do”). I think all of us—whether or not we believe in an afterlife—can be struck by the futility and narcissism of the damned souls in the Inferno.
Giving our lives over to instant gratification really does eventually put us at the whims of our own most shallow desires. It’s like being constantly buffeted by whirlwinds in the second circle of Hell. Grabbing wealth for ourselves or being profligate with the gifts we’ve been given are like two sides of a giant, futile game of accusation and counter-accusation, and reading Dante’s description of the fourth circle’s punishment of the misers and spendthrifts hammered that point into my head. I knew I didn’t want to end up narcissistic, twisted in on my own pettiness, obsessed with emptiness.
A good life is, I think, easier to picture than to articulate. So sometimes when I think of virtue, a great painting springs to mind. There’s the heroic embodiment of courage in the face of tyranny, “Oath of the Horatii,” or the tender monument to the resilience of family love despite racial oppression, “The Banjo Lesson.” There’s incredible wisdom and justice in the clean lines of “Sir Thomas More,” the judge who lost his head for resisting Henry VIII. There’s the wonderful harmony and grace of Raphael’s “The Sistine Madonna,” or the loyalty and courtesy of “The Accolade.”
But my dad likes to observe that no picture can fully convey the meaning and achievement of a life, precisely because it only shows an instant in time. It’s music, he says, that provides a better analog: something like a symphony, which unfolds itself across time, with its somber depths, its disharmonies, its ringing crescendos, its lighthearted frills, and the wonder and awe it stamps on the audience.
Music is inherently both aesthetic and narrative in quality—each moment has its meaning, but it would be incoherent without the trajectory of the whole. That’s why you can’t make much sense of someone’s life after chatting with them once. It’s also why I want to be remembered as someone more along the lines of Beethoven’s No. 3 than a Miley Cyrus ballad.
Dante revealed in “Paradiso” that music saturated the universe, that each planet sang as it spun, fulfilling its place in God’s majestic order. Pythagoras’ “music of the spheres” sounded forth as the stars reflected the infinite glories of Creation, all sustained by God’s love. For Dante, then, the best life is one saturated in self-giving, sacrificial love. Aristotle, also an unabashed theologian, believed that the highest happiness was found in the contemplation of the Prime Mover—God. Infinite, divine goodness and small acts of kindness are intimately connected in the pursuit of a meaningful life. That, after all, is the insight of the finale of the ethereal “Les Miserables” musical: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
Luke Foster is a Columbia College junior. He is the president of the Veritas Forum, and a member of Columbia Faith and Action. Foster the Core runs alternate Fridays.
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