Exemplary lives and great civilizations: What it means to live a good life

Working on the life story of Beverly Eckert often had my thoughts wandering in new directions and old. I was looking ahead, pondering what I would write about next. But I was also returning to those most basic questions that vex every thinking person: Who am I? What does my life mean? What should I be striving for? For Beverly, the loss of her life partner on 9/11 set her on a new course, and gave her a crystal-clear vision of who she was and what she wanted to accomplish in this world. She worked tirelessly to make our country safer, so that the mistakes and shortcomings of the pre-9/11 world would not recur. But she also threw herself into projects aimed at making the world — or at least her corner of it — a better place. Beverly wielded construction tools in Slidell, Louisiana with other Habitat for Humanity volunteers, building homes for those in need. She tutored students several times a week at the elementary school around the corner from her home in Stamford, Connecticut. And she taught art to the elderly in a nearby nursing home. helping others, she found, was her purpose in life.

My ruminations led me toward the idea of “civilization.” This complex concept seemed to embody all that we strive for. My next book could look at what civilization meant in the past, what we have inherited and preserved from our ancestors, and what we value now and will pass on to our children and grandchildren. Grand stuff, eh?

Now comes a review in today’s Washington Post of just such a book. Great minds.. John Armstrong has written In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea. Reviewer Michael Dirda presents these words of summary:

There’s much else in this carefully written book: reflections on barbarism and decadence; a defense of “charm” in education; thoughts on the true experience of art; and the importance of transmitting to others what we love. In particular the study of history, philosophy and the arts can supply us with “ideal achievements” worth emulating and integrating into our present-day lives. …

It’s a serious book, written with directness and simplicity, about what it means to live — in every sense — a good life.

The achievements of earlier civilizations have much to offer us in the way of shining examples. So do the lives of people who have learned through insight and the furnace of experience how to live a good life.

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