“Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” – Theodore Roosevelt.
In the search for greater meaning in one’s life, an ethical role in society seems to offer a higher degree of significance than is seen at the level of the self or one’s immediate environment. The basic ingredient of societal virtue is service, by which I mean, helpful activity in the broadest sense of the word, including all forms of employment, public and private, that lead to benefit to others (beyond oneself, family, and friends), and especially to society in the expansive sense. Alternatively we can use Kantian logic to pinpoint service as vocational actions worthy of the gratitude of society (even if unbeknownst to it). Service then is the area of overlap of two components of the meaningful life – virtue and purpose – in the dimension of cultural reality.
You seldom come upon philosophers who offer an analysis of service, but George Santayana devotes a considerable space to it in his masterpiece, The Life of Reason.1 His thesis is simple; civilization offers us three advantages – greater wealth, safety, and variety of experience – all of which are instrumental rather than absolute goods. Service is work which contributes to these benefits of human associations. Needless to say, law enforcement, fire protection, military, political, medical, construction, and food production and distribution personnel offer services that fit into the category of safety. Entertainers, artists, and competitive athletes, add to the variety of experience, but we might also include here educational, recreational, hospitality, restaurant, and some merchandise staff.
However, for those of us who may not quite fit into these groups, and perhaps even for those who do Santayana offers an analytical approach to societal service. His quasi-utilitarian suggestion is that one’s vocation contributes to the maximum enrichment for all. That is, someone (other than yourself) must live better from the fruits of your labor. Prudent service then consist in creating the maximum riches for others with the least lost opportunity; the key criteria being whether one produces more of value than is useful or prevents another good. Santayana feels government is inevitable but becomes good only when it adjusts provisions for all human interests. However, at least for now, man’s societal selfishness may be advantageous; “In pursuing prizes for themselves, people benefit their fellows more that in pursuing such narrow and irrational ideas as alone seem to be powerful in the world.”2
He concludes “If noble and civilized democracy is to subsist, the common citizen must be something of a saint and something of a hero. We see therefore how justly flattering and profound, and at the same time how ominous, was Montesquieu’s saying that the principle of democracy is virtue.”3
1 Santayana, George, The Life of Reason. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1953. Pages 115-148.
2Ibid. Page 147.
3Ibid. Page 148.