Campus & Community

The Good Life

6 min read

Gomes’ new book a guide to making a life, not a living

The Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes: ‘I think people began to ask the basic question: There must be more to it than all of this.’ Staff photo by Kris Snibbe

A good life: Aristotle defined it. Jesus Christ lived it. And for the past decade or so, college students have sought it out, says the Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church. Contrary to the prevailing stereotypes of college students as spoiled and self-indulgent, Gomes has witnessed among students a growing desire both to be good and to do good.

“The material things are what got them [to Harvard], but then once they’re here, they discover that they really are interested in something more than, or other than, or in fact even better than that,” he said in an interview at Sparks House, his on-campus home. “No one expects to be poor after a Harvard degree, but [students] redefine what the notion of riches and success and value is, and that’s what I’ve been noticing.”

Gomes’ recent book, “The Good Life: Truths That Last in Times of Need” (Harper-San Francisco, 2002) draws nearly as much inspiration from the generations of Harvard students he’s known as from Aristotle or Jesus. While it is unapologetically Christian in its outlook, drawing heavily on biblical teachings, “The Good Life” casts a wide net and catches wisdom from ancient and modern philosophers, secular academics, and speeches by Harvard presidents and personalities.

The next greatest generation?

“The Good Life” explores failure and success, freedom and discipline as elements – in equal measure – of the pursuit of the good life. Gomes introduces the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, derived from the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, and concludes with an exploration of the three theological virtues – faith, hope, and love – which he calls “the content and expression of the good life.”

Opening his book with a description of Commencement 2001 and the student oration by Seth Moulton ’01, Gomes describes a shift in students’ priorities in recent years. “The value questions ä which were once tied to potential net worth, increasingly have to do with matters of moral value, public and private virtue, and a sense of a fit vocation for making a good life and not just a good living,” he writes.

Gomes began to sense this growing moral curiosity in the late 1980s. For 20 years, former Harvard President Derek Bok had been encouraging the pursuit of the good life in baccalaureate speeches “which very often fell on deaf ears,” said Gomes.

With the materialistic more-better-faster culture of the ’90s, however, came doubt and inquiry that gave Bok’s speeches resonance.

“I think people began to ask the basic question: There must be more to it than all of this,” said Gomes. “What can I do in my own life that will overcome the tinny brassy sound of the world that I enter?”

While Gomes draws most of his examples from Harvard students he has known, he has observed a similar quest for living a good life among students at colleges and universities around the country. He was pleased, he said, to find his casual observations fortified by a sociological study that claims the Millennials – those born in or after 1982 – are poised to become the next “greatest generation.”

Happy and good

For Gomes, it is Aristotle who presents the working definition of the good life. “Happiness: the exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence, in a life affording them scope.”

A good person, Gomes writes, “is one who is good at being a person, doing what is most good, most noble, and most pleasant.”

Yet Gomes draws a careful distinction between mere happiness and Aristotle’s definition, which locates happiness as the result of good. “I’ve tried to suggest that happiness is by no means all there is to goodness,” he said.

When parents deposit their children at their freshman dorms and wish that they find happiness, “I think they really mean, ‘I want my kid to be good,’” said Gomes. “You don’t want to produce happy children, you want to produce good children who, whether they’re happy or not, can sustain themselves and be of some value and use to somebody else.”

As they strive toward goodness while enjoying a life of ease, comfort, and prosperity, said Gomes, students ask, “What will test me?”

“In a bizarre sort of way, Sept. 11 becomes the answer to that,” said Gomes. “It creates a new, a more uncertain, a more demanding environment.”

Gomes hastens to add that “The Good Life” is not a “Sept. 11th book”; that in fact he had written a draft of it several years ago as a follow-up to his best seller “The Good Book,” about reading the Bible.

A moral education

If the Harvard students of the past decade have asked more of themselves and their lives, they have also demanded that the University have a role in their pursuit of the good life.

Gomes clings to the notion – admittedly unfashionable – that higher education should provide moral as well as practical guidance.

“I still believe the business of the university is contemplation of the true, the good, and the beautiful,” he said.

Harvard succeeds at this business despite itself, he said; its weighty history and the world’s expectations of it outweigh the secular concerns that threaten to topple it from its moral foundation.

Gomes, who has served in the Memorial Church since 1970, mines the deep veins of Harvard history for “The Good Life,” extracting treasures from centuries’-old speeches and writings.

“I have spent all of my life in Harvard archives,” he said. “I know who’s had what thoughts before because I’ve worked closely with Harvard history for a long time.” The result is a book that, while it takes in the full sweep of moral history and philosophy, is very much grounded in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“It is the harvest of 32 years at Harvard,” said Gomes. “One could charge it or me with being provincial, but ä what better place is there to be provincial than in Harvard?”

For instruction on how to live a good life, however, Gomes looks to a source even more familiar to him than Harvard: his faith.

“The shortest answer to that,” he said, “is Jesus’ answer. It is love of God, love of your brothers and sisters. It’s as simple as that.”