My cousin and I drove to the store to pick up a few forgotten things for dinner. This was the first time I had seen him in about a year. He had piled his wife and two young children into the car and made the six hour trek from Chicago to Ohio. Though he is about ten years older than I am, we had passed many days together with a youthful ignorance of the responsibilities of life. But now, he had a young family of his own, and I was about to graduate from college and begin my own adult life. Our days of carefree romping were over.
As we drove along, he asked the stereotypical question for every college senior: what are you going to do when you graduate? With no good answer, I quickly moved the conversation toward what I was doing before I graduated. I explained that I was writing a thesis on Machiavelli, Aristotle, and Aquinas. He asked me a little about it, but then he sighed and said, “I used to know that stuff.” During his academic career he would have willingly conversed with me about these topics, but, these once clear philosophies now slip a little more into oblivion with each passing day. He now has a full-time job as a lawyer in Chicago, and he comes home to two children where he reads fairy tales rather than Plato.
He understood the choice he had made, and, though there was a pang of loss in his voice, he had a new devotion now. I saw him gaze upon his wife laughing with their daughter, and it was plain that his love for them produced a joy that consumed his soul. It gave his life purpose. He was their protector and their provider. They fulfilled each other in a way that could never be rescinded. However, while he deeply loves the family he created, he knew that he had given up something that was truly good. Long conversations about the virtues of Caesar are not possible when cradling a crying child.
After four years devoted to educating myself about the best possible life, I had become entirely captivated by my studies. I lived a life of leisure, accomplished through long nights of reading books and even longer nights of writing papers about them. But, I loved it. I could sit up into the early hours of the morning discussing the role that reason was meant to play in faith. This study, more than anything else I had ever done, inspired my soul. It saved me. I no longer lived a life of aimless pursuits. How could anything be more important than this?
My cousin smiled as his wife convinced their three year old daughter to try some lasagna. I considered his choice. This was not simply a problem of time. Children are not taught virtue through an hour session once a day. They require constant devotion and love so they understand that virtue is not a particular act, but rather, it is an ever-present disposition. Thus, if there were more hours in a day, there would be more hours to be spent instilling virtue. The job of a parent is to ensure that their child always receives the proper care. My studies too seemed to demand the full attention of their pursuer. I had devoted four years to them, and it was not until my senior year that I began to understand the magnitude of my subject. But this only showed me how woefully inadequate my own knowledge was. I would need ten more years of study to be moderately versed. But more than this, my studies infiltrated every thought that I had and influenced every action that I took. They had consumed my life.
Is it possible that we are forced to choose something to which we devote ourselves and all other things can only receive what is left of our efforts? I had always assumed I could pursue my studies while working my dream job and coming home to a loving family, but there have been many very good people whose families have been disregarded because of the constraints of their noble work. It seemed that two very real goods were in great conflict over what merited the attention of the human soul.
As I watched my cousin show his daughter how to share with her younger sister, I contemplated all that we learn from families. While I learned much from my studies, they never caused me to give up something for the betterment of my family or friends. I never had to forgive someone for a harm done to me, and I never felt the need to tell the truth when I had done something wrong. They may have taught me what to do in many situations, but they never gave me the opportunity to feel what it is like to actually do what is right. Virtue is not achieved alone in quiet contemplation because it is easy to make the right choice when there is no choice at all. We must live, and it is in living that we truly know virtue. We learn generosity only when we give what is ours. We learn forgiveness only when we know the passion of anger that must be overcome. We learn the difficulties of justice when we must disadvantage ourselves in its service. We only truly understand virtue because we experience it. Human beings cannot exist in thought alone. We must also act. However, action without an understanding of the end for which we live also neglects a part of the human being. We must intentionally do good, and, for this, we require a knowledge of what is good. This knowledge is only obtained through the study of human beings and the best way to live. We are soul and body, and both are essential to virtue. So, must we determine to which good our devotions lie?
Stacey Sadowski is a senior from Copley, Ohio, majoring in Political Science and History.