What Makes a Life Significant? Part Three

We continue our thoughts on William James’s 1900 essay, “What Makes a Life Significant?” Up until this point in the essay, James has suggested that a significant life is found by cultivating the virtues common among the laboring classes–hard work, duty, suffering, loyalty. But as the essay continues he suggests that these virtues are not enough. In order to live a significant life one must be motivated by “ideals.” James writes:

And such hard, barren, hopeless lives, surely, are not lives in which one ought to be willing permanently to remain. And why is this so? Is it because they are so dirty? Well, Nansen grew a great deal dirtier on his polar expedition; and we think none the worse of his life for that. Is it the insensibility? Our soldiers have to grow vastly more insensible, and we extol them to the skies. Is it the poverty? Poverty has been reckoned the crowning beauty of many a heroic career. Is it the slavery to a task, the loss of finer pleasures? Such slavery and loss are of the very essence of the higher fortitude, and are always counted to its credit,-read the records of missionary devotion all over the world. It is not any one of these things, then, taken by itself,-no, nor all of them together,-that make such a life undesirable. A man might in truth live like an unskilled laborer, and do the work of one, and yet count as one of the noblest of God’s creatures. Quite possibly there were some such persons in the gang that our author describes; but the current of their souls ran underground; and he was too steeped in the ancestral blindness to discern it.

If there were any such morally exceptional individuals, however, what made them different from the rest? It can only have been this,—that their souls worked and endured in obedience to some inner ideal, while their comrades were not actuated by anything worthy of that name.

And what exactly does James mean by an “ideal.” He continues:

Can we give no definite account of such a word? To a certain extent we can. An ideal, for instance, must be something intellectually conceived, something of which we are not unconscious, if we ‘have it; and it must carry with it that sort of outlook, uplift, and brightness that go with all intellectual facts. Secondly, there must be novelty in an ideal,-novelty at least for him whom the ideal grasps. Sodden routine is incompatible with ideality, although what is sodden routine for one person may be ideal novelty for another. This shows that there is nothing absolutely ideal: ideals are relative to the lives that entertain them. To keep out of the gutter is for us here no part of consciousness at all, yet for many of our brethren it is the most legitimately engrossing of ideals.

James suggests that education–that entrance point into a middle-class life–is the best means of “multiplying our ideals.” Education exposes us to ideas which, in turn, are turned into “ideals,” which in turn provides us with purpose and a moral compass for life. James sums up:

The barrenness and ignobleness of the more usual laborer’s life consist in the fact that it is moved by no such ideal inner springs. The backache, the long hours, the danger, are patiently endured-for what? To gain a quid of tobacco, a glass of beer, a cup of coffee, a meal, and a bed, and to begin again the next day and shirk as much as one can. This really is why we raise no monument to the laborers in the Subway, even though they be out conscripts, and even though after a fashion our city is indeed based upon their patient hearts and enduring backs and shoulders. And this is why we do raise monuments to our soldiers, whose outward conditions were even brutaller still. The soldiers are supposed to have followed an ideal, and the laborers are supposed to have followed none.

James has now painted two pictures of virtue for us: the working class life and the educated idealist. Can these two worlds be brought together to produce a “significant life?” We will find out in the next post.