Stumbling Blocks in the Active Life

Suppose we begin with the person who has renounced four prominent pursuits: the idea of leading a comfortable life (bourgeois), that of leading a pleasurable life (hedonism), that of doing whatever he feels like whenever he feels like doing it (the wastrel), and the idea that there is no sufficient reason for living (nihilism). It may be out of a sense that something is to be done and he, among others, is to do it that he senses that these four pursuits are empty. Having renounced all four, therefore, he will declare a statement analogous to this one: ‘I want to make a difference with my life.’

This declaration tells us that he is devoted to the active life, to the life in which an agent seeks, in all his actions, to fulfill some social good or the common good. It implies that he is not committed to the contemplative life, which life would turn his gaze, his soul, his being upon the eternal stillness or the immeasurable fecundity. Therefore, we know where this young person stands: he stands above the ordinary and is devoted to an active conception of what is higher.

Where might he stumble? There are two places. The first place is at the beginning since his declaration, ‘I want to make a difference with my life,’ is (as I argued yesterday) vague, so vague that it fails to reveal in what way it would be best for him to do so. Therefore, he would have to learn to articulate and specify.

The second place would be located somewhere in the middle. Suppose he has found the path–the right path–that calls to him. Even so, at some point or another, he is bound to get stuck. Stuck how? He may face burnout; his ideas may cease to be interesting; his projects may be frustrated or endlessly delayed; his partners, colleagues, or teammates may turn fair-weather; he may drift about restlessly, unnervingly; he may be paralyzed for any number of reasons. As an elementary part of his education, then, he would need to learn how to unstuck stuckness.’

For someone committed to the active life, there is, in brief, the question of how I am specifically to make a difference, and there is the further question of how I am to persist whenever I am lost and get confused.