What Makes a Life Significant?: Part Four

We come to our fourth and final installment on William James’s 1900 lecture to college students, “What Makes a Life Significant?” After discussing the virtue of a working class life and the need for cultivating “ideals” to live by, James brings things to a conclusion:

The significance of a human life for communicable and publicly recognizable purposes is thus the offspring of a marriage of two different parents, either of whom alone is barren. The ideals taken by themselves give no reality, the virtues by themselves no novelty…

But, with all this beating and tacking on my part, I fear you take me to be reaching a confused result. I seem to be just taking things up and dropping them again. First I took up Chautauqua, and dropped that; then Tolstoï and the heroism of common toil, and dropped them; finally, I took up ideals, and seem now almost dropping those. But please observe in what sense it is that I drop them. It is when they pretend singly to redeem life from insignificance. Culture and refinement all alone are not enough to do so. Ideal aspirations are not enough, when uncombined with pluck and will. But neither are pluck and will, dogged endurance and insensibility to danger enough, when taken all alone. There must be some sort of fusion, some chemical combination among these principles, for a life objectively and thoroughly significant to result.

Culture and refinement. Pluck and will. A significant life is a life that brings these virtues into some sort of “fusion.” James continues: “The solid meaning of life is always the same eternal thing–the marriage, namely, of some unhabitual ideal, however special, with some fidelity, courage, and endurance; with some man’s or woman’s pains.–And, whatever or wherever life may be, there will always be the chance for that marriage to take place.”

He closes with an illustration:

Progress and science may perhaps enable untold millions to live and die without a care, without a pang, without an anxiety. They will have a pleasant passage and plenty of brilliant conversation. They will wonder that men ever believed at all in clanging fights and blazing towns and sinking ships and praying bands; and, when they come to the end of their course, they will go their way, and the place thereof will know them no more. But it seems unlikely that they will have such a knowledge of the great ocean on which they sail, with its storms and wrecks, its currents and icebergs, its huge waves and mighty winds, as those who battled with it for years together in the little craft, which, if they had few other merits, brought those who navigated them full into the presence of time and eternity, their maker and themselves, and forced them to have some definite view of their relations to them and to each other.

James is tapping into an enduring tension in American life. Those who pursue ideals, he argues, must be grounded in real communities and the day to day rhythms of life and labor. This is what some have called rooted cosmopolitanism or, as I prefer, cosmopolitan rootedness. Whether one wants to connect it to a sort of working-class intellectualism or the Jeffersonian vision of the educated yeoman, James is arguing that true significance in life comes when we use both our minds and our bodies in the way that they were intended to be used. Ideals are only worthwhile when they function in real places among real people doing real things.

I was drawn to this essay because it reflects the primary message of The Way of Improvement Leads Home. For James, like Philip Vickers Fithian, “rural Enlightenment” was not an oxymoron.