On Monday evening, hundreds gathered in Battell Chapel to learn what makes a good life.
The talk, titled “Character, Flourishing and the Good Life,” was a conversation between David Brooks, The New York Times columnist and senior fellow of the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, and Yale Center for Faith and Culture founder Miroslav Volf. The talk was part of Yale’s Life Worth Living Program, developed by the Yale Center for Faith and Culture as a way to engage students in “the big questions of life,” according to one of the program’s professors, Ryan McAnnally-Linz. The hope of the program overall, McAnnally-Linz added, is to encourage conversations across ideological divides and learn successfully from the different perspectives students bring to the classroom. Brooks and Volf hold different religious ideologies, but were brought together Monday night to discuss questions of meaning and value in the context of Yale’s fast-paced environment.
The aim of the Life Worth Living Program is to introduce students to a variety of religious and philosophical claims, Volf said, and then to have students apply these methods of living in real ways, creating an “interface” between students and traditions. In between the two nihilisms of modern society — which Volf characterized as “oppressive religious nihilism” and “nihilism of the absence of meaning” — the big question then becomes how to reconcile pleasure with belief. Though Volf spoke from a strongly Christian background, he emphasized that the major world religions can offer similar and compatible approaches, as each emphasizes the treatment of all individuals as equal.
Volf said that though religion is often perceived in today’s globalized world as being damaging, it can instead offer a powerful vision for what allows an individual and, by extension, the whole of humanity to flourish. Religion forces those engaged in a capitalistic economy to evaluate their actions against the good of a larger society and push toward what he referred to as “social flourishing,” or recognizing that a good life is one that necessarily thrives off the well-being of others, he said.
“The flourishing of one person is tied to the flourishing of others, and therefore my flourishing is tied to the flourishing of the entire planet, and I think this kind of flourishing is being significantly eroded, and in some places, radically destroyed by the present form of capitalism,” Volf said.
In the second half of the talk, Brooks spoke of writing his most recent book, “The Road to Character,” which tells the stories of individuals that throughout history he characterized as being “pathetic at age 20, but kind of magnificent at age 70.” The book was inspired by Brooks’ personal anxiety about achieving career success over achieving an “inner light.” The journey, Brooks said, is often what makes a life worth living, and joy can be found not in the attainment of success, but in the desire for it. Times of hardship are important to develop a flourishing life, and unlike Volf, Brooks said he believes that one can be capable of flourishing in the absence of basic needs such as physical or socioeconomic well-being.
Brooks also addressed society’s growing interest in fame, which he said has risen in recent years to be prioritized by college students above everything but economic security. Part of living a good life is looking beyond the urge to succeed, and instead creating a new value system within oneself, he said.
“There are two sets of virtues: one, the resume virtues … and then the eulogy virtues, the things they say about you after you are dead,” Brooks said. “We live in a world, and I think I would include this institution, where we are a lot clearer about how to build the resume virtues than the eulogy ones. People have a clearer sense of how to have a good career than how to build good inner character. It’s not that people are bad, it’s that they are lacking a moral vocabulary for how to do that.”
Antonia Campbell ’18, a student fellow in the Life Worth Living Program who attended the event, praised the talk for its accessibility, especially in Brooks’ use of case studies to help attendees “learn by emulation.” Campbell said that the speakers’ insights would lead her to reflect on what makes a person good beyond simple achievement, a reflection she said Yale and other American institutions do not promote.
David Rico ’16, an attendee who is a student in the “Life Worth Living” class — a Yale College course developed as part of the program — said that he hoped Monday’s conversation would lead to future discussions of a similar nature on Yale’s campus. He praised the Life Worth Living Program for its utilization of student diversity to learn about a variety of opinions and backgrounds within the classroom.
“I think any sort of discussion approaching morality, humility and the values of society in an institution like Yale has the potential to start making a difference,” Rico said. “We are an institution that often shies away from our moral devotions to this world; we say [‘For God, For Country and For Yale’] very openly … but as soon as we enter into the classrooms and into our residential colleges the discussion ends … Hopefully, we can begin these kind of discussions.”
The “Life Worth Living” course was introduced in spring 2014.