What Makes a Life Significant?

This afternoon I read William James’s lecture to college students, “What Makes a Life Significant?” Since I often talk with students about this very issue, I thought I would revisit it to see if the remarks James made in 1900 have any relevance for today’s college student. I think I will spend a few posts working through this essay.

James begins the essay describing a trip to Chautauqua, NY–the nineteenth-century middle-class center for arts and education in upstate, New York. He is quite taken by this place–the music, athletics, religious services, soda fountains, lack of poverty, drunkenness, and crime. James spends a week in Chautauqua, but no more. He realizes that this lakeside paradise, for all its security, intelligence, humanity and order, is missing something. He finally realizes what it is:

But in this unspeakable Chautauqua there was no potentiality of death in sight anywhere, and no point of the compass visible from which danger might possibly appear. The ideal was so completely victorious already that no sign of any previous battle remained, the place just resting on its oars. But what our human emotions seem to require is the sight of the struggle going on. The moment the fruits are being merely eaten, things become ignoble. Sweat and effort, human nature strained to its uttermost and on the rack, yet getting through alive, and then turning its back on its success to pursue another more rare and arduous still-this is the sort of thing the presence of which inspires us, and the reality of which it seems to be the function of all the higher forms of literature and fine art to bring home to us and suggest. At Chautauqua there were no racks, even in the place’s historical museum; and no sweat, except possibly the gentle moisture on the brow of some lecturer, or on the sides of some player in the ball-field. Such absence of human nature in extremis anywhere seemed, then, a sufficient explanation for Chautauqua’s flatness and lack of zest.

But was not this a paradox well calculated to fill one with dismay? It looks indeed, thought I, as if the romantic idealists with their pessimism about our civilization were, after all, quite right. An irremediable flatness is coming over the world. Bourgeoisie and mediocrity, church sociables and teachers’ conventions, are taking the place of the old heights and depths and romantic chiaroscuro. And, to get human life in its wild intensity, we must in future turn more and more away from the actual, and forget it, if we can, in the romancer’s or the poet’s pages. The whole world, delightful and sinful as it may still appear for a moment to one just escaped from the Chautauquan enclosure, is nevertheless obeying more and more just those ideals that are sure to make of it in the end a mere Chautauqua Assembly on an enormous scale.

Here is the beginning of James’s critique of upper middle class life at the turn of the twentieth century and his championing of what might be called the tragic dimensions of everyday life in this period. How does this all relate to his theme of what makes a life significant? Stay tuned.

6 thoughts on “What Makes a Life Significant?

  1. Sounds like a plan. Speaking of inspirational texts I’ve used one of Du Bois’s prayers with my students to great effect. It is from a century ago. He read these prayers to his students at Atlanta U.Here it is:“God give us grace to realize that education is not simply doing things we like, studying the tasks that appeal to us, or wandering in the world of thought whither and where we will. In a universe where good is hidden underneath evil and pleasure lurks in pain, we must work if we would learn and know. It is the unpleasant task, the hard lesson, the bitter experience that often leads to knowledge and power and good. Let us, O Lord, learn this in the days of youth while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when Thou shalt say, “I have no pleasure in them. (Ecclesiastes 11:1-7)”


  2. Thanks, Phil. I have not read much of James either, but this piece has always caught my attention. I reread it because it was included in Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass’s anthology *Leading Lives That Matter* (Eerdmans, 2008).


  3. Interesting post. I have not read much of James, other than the “standard” work such as Varieties, etc. I also know of him as one of W.E.B. Du Bois’s teachers at Harvard. As this series develops I’ll perhaps mention more of the Du Bois-James connection in the comments. There’s a great story about their visit with Helen Keller.


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