“Culture arises only when the individual fulfills his cycle of obligations.” – Käthe Kollwitz



We have seen that, in my synthesis, purpose is the second key component of the meaningful life (the first being virtue). In turn the first two levels of human purpose concern the self and one’s contacts. At those levels purpose comes down to establishing a good life, improving the self, increasing understanding of the world, and pursuing happiness and meaning individually and reciprocally. A similar set of guiding principles informs societal purpose distilling into the question, “What am I uniquely positioned to do in society or for the advancement of civilization or for the future of humanity?”

We can bracket this question and pose its inverse, “What purpose does civilization or society serve for the individual?” By peering deeper we se that  civilization is not a mere fact of the world or random happening, but a functional product of the exertions of our ancestors and our contemporaries. As if by design its purpose emerges as the means to secure necessities and order, to transfer knowledge across generations, to improve the character and virtue of its citizenry, and as the platform for the quest for happiness and meaning by its members. Logic leads us to the conclusion that societal purpose for each of us must take the form of contributing to these functions of civilization – in short the answer to the first question is that we seek that unique and authentic role most apropos to our furthering the emergent purposes of civilization itself.

As Aristotle tells us, the state continues “for the sake of the good life” making it an uncanny mirror of the very purposes of the self and of our relationship with familiars. In return, he explains, the individual must remain an active member of the group, that is, fill a specific role in that community purpose. Here we find the rationale for an obligation to community that intersects with our personal need for a societal purpose in a meaningful life. Meanwhile Ernest Becker adds a further nuance; culture serves to validate our significance through our societal roles bringing individual and societal purpose full circle.

Unlike in the case of individual purpose, societal purpose is chosen not integral to rational existence itself. Thus it is variegated not uniform; such purposes range from manual labor or basic service for others to musical composition or philosophical inquiry. Societal purpose can be multiple  and can entail degrees of magnitude not seen with purpose at the level of the self. One may even choose to bypass societal purpose altogether and pursue cosmic purpose (the subject of the next section).

(continued next post)


“Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” – Theodore Roosevelt.

In the last two posts we looked at some of the personal benefits of pursuit of purpose within cultural reality. Today we consider the other two main categories – benefits for others and benefits which persist as a legacy for the human community and civilization. The value of social purpose regarding others comes down to two items – direct benefits to the community and the value of human association. Let’s take them in reverse order.

For a few people, societal purpose may be a solo activity, but for the majority of us, our role is as part of a group with a common goal. Thus every scientist builds on the work of other scientists and depends directly on some support staff, and every ethical business person achieves results only as a member of a team or organization. Integrated into social function is relationship with coworkers and likeminded individuals striving to see a higher goal accomplished. The value of these associations was addressed in the section on purpose and others, but it is important to remind oneself that many of our acquaintances and even some true friends originated from joint participation in a social purpose. Even if we fail in our purpose we have at a minimum the consolation of the benefits of expanded human relationship unique to mutual purpose.

But of course the very definition of social purpose refers to providing services or goods to others and this benefit is the ultimate justification of one’s efforts. From a purely ethical standpoint this dimension of benefit is foremost and ought to drive one’s decision regardless of the other benefits previously discussed. Therefore the purpose of the Union Army volunteer during the civil war should not have been some future political aspirations, but his sheer commitment to maintaining the nation whole and the elimination of the injustice of chattel slavery.

The final and perhaps most desirable benefit of social purpose is a legacy that lasts beyond retirement, and even death. Such a legacy we discussed as a form of metaphorical life extension or immortality. This enduring benefit to community and humanity is most apparent with artistic, literary, scientific, inventive, and political efforts, but likely applies in all areas. For example the teacher’s effect on a child may lead to the amazing accomplishments of the former student. For myself, in addition to my practice of medicine, I have founded several small businesses, some in which I no longer participate. There is an immense sense of meaning in leaving a purposeful and thriving enterprise for others to maintain and enhance as any retired entrepreneur can confirm.

Next time I will draw together the various elements of social purpose into a final synopsis. Join me then.


Continuing with the personal rewards of social purpose, next is creativity which emerges naturally through necessity as we encounter obstacles to our goals or contemplate maximum effect. the example of Benjamin Franklin whose noble purpose in 1984 was to represent the United States in the French court. There he found he could understand French better if he could see the expressions of the speakers but also needed to record notes, so in a moment of genius sawed his eyeglass lenses in half and combined them to invent bifocals.1 Many common examples apply in our more mundane work lives such as with problem solving, project management, team building activities, customer service, etc. And of course those who choose an artistic field experience the full force of their creativity.

A fourth personal benefit of social purpose is the exercise and consolidation of virtue. Some missions are intrinsically virtuous such as helping the homeless while others are the arena of the honing of virtue such as business where ethics are essential or politics where a moral compass is vital. Aristotle tells us virtue is a habit and like other habits one in which we initially progress awkwardly but in which we finally find pleasure in mastery. No venue like one’s social purpose is more apropos of this. The result is at last satisfaction in the achievement of purpose, the virtuosity of competence, and the realization of virtue.

Next comes contentment which is the subject of the next large section on this site. For now, it is worth noting that each human being is a basket of emotions, idiosyncrasies, and foibles which undermine contentment. Ordered work, particularly for a worthy goal, is an outlet where calm is attained by suppression of our defects. Professionalism then offers a kind of serenity which can be experienced on a day to day basis, and intense focus on work allows us to stay in the present moment which is a critical feature of contentment.

A seventh benefit of social purpose derives from interactions with the world that increase our understanding of life and what it means to be human. It forces us to face the big picture of our existence and figure out where meaning is found in a way impossible through idleness or recreation. Last, social purpose is one, and perhaps the main expression of individual authenticity. The unwavering dedication to that which one believes is worthy of a lifetime commitment becomes the statement of one’s raison d’etre and the ultimate manifestation of one’s authenticity in the panoply of human civilization.


1Bronowski, J, The Ascent of Man. Little, Brown, and Company, 1973. Page 271.


“Without a vocation, man’s existence would be meaningless.” – Anwar al-Sadat, 1978 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate



We return today to societal purpose, the third tier of purpose in a meaningful life – the first two being internal (for oneself) and proximate (towards others directly). We have already investigated five areas regarding societal purpose – clarification of the purpose of culture for the individual, the nature of purpose at the level of cultural reality, types of roles for consideration, factors in our decision, and success factors. Our next task is an analysis of the benefits of societal purpose.

Now on the face of it, the benefits of one’s particular purpose at the level of community or humanity appears to be instantiated in that specific selection, but in reality, all societal purposes involve at least the potential of four orders of benefit: subsistence of self and dependents, self-fulfillment, value to others, and legacy. In other words, although the arena of cultural purpose is society, its rewards are multidimensional.

For most of us, our chosen occupation, profession, or mission originates as the primary means of sustenance. In the absence of inherited wealth, our first social purpose functions, at a minimum, to meet our needs for food, clothing, shelter, and other basic requirements for survival  – typically in the form of a paycheck or reliable source of income.  The practical philosopher should not ignore this motivation underlying social roles nor its place in a properly functioning society. Two comments worth noting here: financial compensation alone is a poor criterion for the type of work we choose, and higher salary or profit, when virtuously obtained, serves as a quantifiable, if inexact, measure of the value of one’s exertions for society. This latter point illuminates the lower compensation of the college professor compared to the university football coach.

The second dimension of benefit of a well-chosen social role is its deeper personal rewards (in rough order of depth): identity, control, creativity, virtue, satisfaction, contentment, understanding, and authenticity. Starting with identity, many social purposes serve to define one’s image of oneself in society – for example as teacher, pastor, tradesman, merchant, judge, artist, and so forth. For myself, I know that one of the greatest challenges I face in retiring is the loss of my identity as a physician or healer. It is as if my social role is integral to my very sense of self. In a similar vein, we develop a competence in our work we often lack in other areas of life because of the control and order within our professional sphere and our occupational virtuosity (Lao Tze’s wu-wei) we wish we had in every theatre of existence.

(continued next post)

CURRENT READING – Fallen Leaves by Will Durant (final continuation)


After a lifetime of study Durant concludes the only consistent idea of beauty in nature and for humans is the opposite sex. He also admits to a bias in favor of or art prior to the twentieth century. His distaste of modern art is its revolt against beauty where his criticism is severe, “Any art that has no ruling form is the empty vanity of an undisciplined mind “31 He believes “the essence of art, as of beauty, lies not in content or elements but in structure and form.”32 He does however appreciates modern architecture where he agrees with Louis Sullivan that “form must follow function.” As for the place of art versus science in civilization he adds “Art without science is poverty and science without art is barbarity. Let every science strive to fulfill itself in beauty or wisdom, and let us rejoice when a science becomes an art.”33


Durant appears to have a great respect for science and its accomplishments, its commitment to the advancement of human knowledge. However, he has some concerns. As a lay person, he sees scientists, whose specialized knowledge is seemingly inscrutable for most of us, as the new priesthood. We must accept their pronouncements on faith, and like religion in the past, science is used as such by government. He honors their discipline in truth-seeking, but expresses skepticism as to its uses citing the examples of the machines of war and the pollution of industrialization. He argues for the need of wisdom in addition to knowledge.


He distills his theory of education to the following points: (1) “That education is of most worth which opens to the body and the soul, to the citizen and the state, the fullest possibilities of their harmonious life.”34 and (2) Education is the perfection of life – the enrichment of the individual by the heritage of the race.”35 He thus believes that a rounded education should emphasize health, cleanliness, character, and self-discipline – all of which he would teach each of the first 15 years of schooling. He would put more emphasis on human association, especially friendship and on Nature, and athletics. He would focus historical studies on the remarkable cultures and literature of ancient Greece and Rome. He would limit education on art and music to those who show interest, but of course believes everyone needs education on science, history, and philosophy. He would delay specialized training until after college.


Durant has written so much on history that I believe only some choice pearls are appropriate here. The reader should consult the book for more details.

“The present is merely the past rolled up and concentrated in this second of time”36

“A wise man can learn from other men’s experience; a fool cannot learn even from his own.”37

“History finds that human nature is essentially the same…”38

“Civilization is a fragile bungalow precariously poised on a live volcano of barbarism”39


While On Death is the fifth of the 22 chapters, thoughts on death are logically the ultimate ones so I end here. What does a man whose life was devoted to the understanding of human existence and civilization think of his own death? I allow him to speak for himself:

“I am quite content with mortality; I should be appalled at the thought of living forever, in whatever paradise. As  I move on into my nineties my ambitions moderate, my zest in life wanes; soon I shall echo Caesar’s Jam satis vixi – ‘I have already lived enough.’ When death comes in due time, after a life fully lived, it is forgivable and good. If in my last gasps I say anything contrary to this bravado, pay no attention to me. We must make room for our children.”40


31Durant, Will, Fallen Leaves. Simon & Schuster, New York, N.Y., 2014. ISBN 978-1-4767-7155-7, page 129.

32Ibid., page 130.

33Ibid., page 131.

34Ibid., page 139.


36Ibid., page 157.

37Ibid., page 158.

38Ibid., page 159.

39Ibid., page 161.

40Ibid., page 39.

CURRENT READING – Fallen Leaves by Will Durant (third continuation)

In the last three posts I presented some key metaphysical and ethical thoughts expressed by Will Durant in his final book, Fallen Leaves. In this and the next post I would like to add some of his less formal insights that round out his thinking in the last years of his life. This is offered to the reader not mainly for his or her erudition but as enticement to read the book.  I have classified them based on subject though they do not always appear in chapters one might expect.


After having read his many books on philosophy and philosophers, I found one of his most interesting revelations is that Spinoza is his favorite philosopher though he does not say why. Scattered through the book are vintage Durant pearls like the ones below:

“The only real progress is moral development.”19

“Perhaps all vices were once virtues, indispensable in the struggle for existence; they became vicious only in the degree to which social order and increasing security rendered them unnecessary for survival.”20

“The gift of children should be our payment to the race for the heritage of civilization.”21



Intellect is the capacity for acquiring and accumulating ideas; intelligence is the ability to use experience – even the experience of others – for the clarification and attainment of one’s ends.”22

“Every life, every society, every species is an experiment and must give way.”23


Durant states he was a communist or socialist in youth, but ended up a liberal leaning Democrat in middle age. He has a very high regard for FDR and supports welfare programs as necessary for decency and to prevent class conflict. He notes that unequal ability to generate wealth in a capitalist system leads to decreased purchasing power of the less advantaged promoting further increases in differences of wealth that stymie the economy. He tells us “You cannot make men equal by passing laws,”24 but also “though there are many sluggards among the poor and discouraging abuses in the administration of relief, we must recognize that the majority of the poor are victims of racial discrimination and environmental handicaps.”25 For him education is the great equalizer.

Regarding capitalism and communism he believes the two systems have been moving closer to each other and nothing pushes them closer than war. I was fascinated by this insight: “In both systems, the men who can manage men manage the men who can manage only things.”26 Speaking in the late 1970s, he is remarkably prescient about the rise of China (Chapter 16).

He offers a few other political pearls of note, some humorous:

“Men fear solitude, and naturally seek the protection of numbers”27

“Governments find it easier to begin a war than win an election.”28

“Our armies have proved themselves to be a necessary evil in a world that has never accepted the Buddhism of Buddha or the Christianity of Christ.”29

“Persons under thirty should never trust the economic, political, or moral ideas of any person under thirty.”30

(final continuation next post)


19Ibid., page 53.

20Ibid., page 92.

21Ibid., page 141.

22Ibid., page 143.

23Ibid., page 173.

24Ibid., page 169.

25Ibid., page 171.

26Ibid., page 123.

27Ibid., page 93.

28Ibid., page 101 (in discussing the war in Vietnam).

29Ibid., page 172.

30Ibid., page 176.

CURRENT READING – Fallen Leaves by Will Durant (further continued)

In the last two posts I extracted some key metaphysical conclusions offered by Will Durant in his final book, Fallen Leaves. We move now to his thoughts on morality, a term he seems to prefer over the word ‘ethics.’ In chapter 10 he contrasts Webster’s definition of morality as “the quality of that which conforms to right ideas or principles of human conduct” with his own as “the consistency of private conduct with public interest as understood by the group.”14  He enumerates a surprisingly conventional Christian list of morals including chastity before marriage, fidelity within marriage, extensive charity, and peaceful opposition to all but the most clearly defensive war (he cites WWII as the exception). He is realistic on extra-marital sex, believing society should encourage younger marriages, but he also thinks childbearing should be voluntarily limited to three per couple.

In addition to societal mores, Durant tells us natural morality requires intelligence and sympathy (citing David Hume and Adam Smith). Intelligence allows us to see that some instincts must be suppressed. Morality can be taught and understood by showing the young that a stable society assures personal security, advancement, and fulfillment. As a result, he is a proponent of law and order, but thinks peaceful protest is fine if one accepts the legal consequences. In chapter 12 he expresses his antiracist philosophy that “…all men are brothers and that mutual tolerance is the price of liberty.”15 He thinks the solution to racial inequality is extended and expanded education, and believes we “owe it to conscience and justice that every person – irrespective of their race – has full and equal opportunity to enter into the promise of American life.”16

In his chapter On Science, he explains the limits of science in perfecting human behavior. In addition to knowledge we need character and wisdom. He defines character as “a rational harmony and hierarchy of desires in coordination with capacity. He defines wisdom as “an application of experience to present problems, a view of the part in the light of the whole. A perspective of the movement in the vista of the years past and years to come.” 17

When he jumps to the international realm he notes that morality is a habit of order generated by centuries of compulsion, thus international morality must wait on international order which in turn requires an international force – “conscience follows the policeman.”18 Peace then must be planned and ordered preferably by a specially appointed international commission with realistic goals, not designs on utopia.

(third continuation next post)


14 Durant, Will, Fallen Leaves. Simon & Schuster, New York, N.Y., 2014. ISBN 978-1-4767-7155-7, page 66.

15Ibid., page 76.

16Ibid., page 80.

17Ibid., page 136.

18Ibid., page 97.

CURRENT READING – Fallen Leaves by Will Durant (continued)

Last time I introduced Will Durant’s final book, Fallen Leaves, and discussed his metaphysical views from Chapter 6 regarding the soul. In that same chapter, he also addresses determinism which he rejects since it “would make consciousness a superfluous encumbrance, and I doubt if so remarkable a development would have persisted if it had no value for survival. Part of its value is that it can serve as a rehearsal stage for testing diverse possible responses to a situation…”9 He admits determinism seems irrefutable based on logic alone, but thinks it fails at the level of a Shakespearean play where “its distant cause and explanation in some gaseous primeval nebula…is harder to believe than any medieval miracle story.”10 He believes the escape from the reduction of the universe to purely mechanistic rests in a ‘power of spontaneity’ in nature, manifest in humans as the ‘procreant urge’ of the soul. For humans this freedom is facilitated by the world’s ‘conflicting vitalities and wills’ of which the ‘laws’ of mechanics, in his opinion, may be an approximate average as is implied in physics by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.

In the next chapter Durant discusses God. He admits outright that he is a theological skeptic arguing any evidence for order and design in the universe is countered with contrary evidence of disorderly randomness and design flaws. In addition, the abundance of undeserved suffering undermines belief in an all-powerful and benevolent deity. He proposes an alternative theology based on our understanding of evolution wherein life, not matter, is the essential comic process. “Life itself can be the new God…this is the God I worship: the persistent and creative Life that struggles up from the energy of the atom… This is a very old philosophy; otherwise I would distrust it.”11 He also tells us we should not be surprised that this God is not personal as personality belongs only to parts of creation, not the creative force itself.

In this and the next three chapters, Durant synthesizes his religious principles on a Christian foundation. He deeply admires the personality and ethics of Christ, and thinks the story of Christ is the ‘best ever,’ and thus remains committed to behave like a Christian. He distinguishes this from his Catholic upbringing, although he finds much of the teaching of the Church makes great sense metaphorically, for example, original sin as symbolic of man’s base instincts of greed and pugnacity. He concludes that while in our time of general disbelief, religion is moving to “the sincere acceptance of the moral ideas of Christ,”12 viewed historically, “the Church can make an impressive case for itself as an indispensable bulwark of morality.” 13

(further continued next post)


9 Durant, Will, Fallen Leaves. Simon & Schuster, New York, N.Y., 2014. ISBN 978-1-4767-7155-7, page 36.

10Ibid., page 37.

11Ibid., page 43-44.

13Ibid., page 54.

13Ibid., page 66.

CURRENT READING – Fallen Leaves by Will Durant

“I propose to tell, in a very informal way…how I feel, now that I have one foot in the grave, about those ultimate riddles…” – Will Durant.1






For Christmas, my daughter and son-in-law gave me this priceless book written by Will Durant (1885-1981) in the last years of his life. The first philosophy book I ever read was Durant’s The Pleasures of Philosophy (1952) which served as an introductory ‘text’ in my junior high school course on the humanities. Over the subsequent 47 years I have acquired nearly all of his books including Philosophy and the Social Problem, The Story of Philosophy, Transition, his 11 volume The Story of Civilization  (several co-authored with his wife, Ariel), The Lessons of History, Interpretations of Life, A Dual Autobiography (also written with Ariel), and The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time. I previously summarized and commented on his 1932 book, The Meaning of Life on this site.2 Much of Durant’s personal philosophy is suggested in these earlier works, but what makes Fallen Leaves (written 1968-1978) so special is that it clarifies his mature beliefs in the context of approaching death. As with Bryan Magee’s Ultimate Questions,3 this manuscript offers us the rare opportunity to hear the concluding thoughts of an acknowledged master of philosophy, and in Durant’s case, history as well.       

The book consists of 22 chapters. The first five chapters offer the characteristically beautiful prose of Durant on birth, youth, middle age, old age, and death without taking on specific philosophical questions. However, the sixth chapter, On Souls, addresses some of the most troublesome questions in metaphysics. He tells us that despite ubiquitous houses of worship, we cannot know whether there is anything beyond death. He appears to doubt Kant’s assertion that we cannot know ‘the thing-in-itself’ and Schopenhauer’s belief that the world is “my idea.” In his view our perceptions of the world are instantiated in its reality.

Durant believes mind is not matter, as the pure materialist claims, since it does not occupy space. And, unlike Hume, he believes the self is real: “In addition to that succession of mental states there is, by the direct witness of introspection, a sense of continuity and personality constituting ‘the self’…” Durant is convinced the subconscious is in fact the  psychological ‘self.’ He continues: “…dormant recollections are part of the self and the soul; consciousness is not all of the soul, but only the soul’s supreme achievement.”5  Nonetheless the soul is distinct from the mind being “an inner directive and energizing force in every body…closely associated with breath.”6 For Durant the soul consists of “not merely sensations and ideas, but desire, will, ambition, and pride…” 7

However he does not expect the soul to survive death. In his words:

“Death is the breakup of the human soul – i.e. of the life-giving, form-molding force – of an organism into those partial souls that animate individual parts of the body; so these lesser souls can for a time continue the growth of hair and nails on a corpse. And when the corpse completely disintegrates there will be souls or inner energizing powers, even in the ‘inorganic’ fragments that remain. But my soul as me is bound up with my organized and centrally directed body, and with my individual memories, desires, and character; it must suffer disintegration as my body decays.”8

(continued next post)


1Durant, Will, Fallen Leaves. Simon & Schuster, New York, N.Y., 2014. ISBN 978-1-4767-7155-7, page 1.

2See posts titled Current Reading – On the Meaning of Life, Parts I and II dated 1/13/21, 1/15/21, and 1/18/21 on this website.

3See posts titled Current Reading –Bryan Magee dated 9/27/21, 9/29/21, 10/1/21, 10/4/21, and 10/6,/21 on this website.

4 Durant, Will, Fallen Leaves. Simon & Schuster, New York, N.Y., 2014. ISBN 978-1-4767-7155-7, page 35.



7Ibid., page 36

8Ibid.,page 38.


“The great men of culture are those who have had a passion for diffusing, for making prevail, for carrying from one end of society to the other, the best knowledge, the best ideas of their time; who have labored to divest knowledge of all that was harsh, uncouth, difficult, abstract, professional, exclusive; to humanize it, to make it efficient outside the clique of the cultivated and learned, yet still remain the best knowledge and thought of the time, and a true source, therefore, of sweetness and light.” – Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy

In the last 8 posts I suggested a classification system for societal roles and reasonable decision and success factors the reader may wish to consider in proceeding. Table 6 in the appendix provides a modeling of the decision process based on the earlier discussion. Below is a sample calculus and its explanation which I did for myself.

Age 63
Health Excellent
Aptitudes Science, Math, Reading, Philosophy, Medicine
Tolerance Medium to low Candid assessment
Location u.s.
Political Environent Free, Progressive Few limitations
Historicity 21st century
Human Destiny Galactic Human Colonization Optimistic preference
Size Large Hope for larger impact
Likelihood High to medium
Measurability Medium Can accept
Multiple Low Limited by age.
Desirability ? Timeliness
Proportion High Team role less desirable
TABLE 6.  Social Purpose Decision Chart

The first item to resolve is the ordering of the three main categories – individual, external, and intrinsic. Since I have already completed a career as a physician and am in late middle age, individual factors are the most important. This may be less true for a young person. Since I reside in the open society of the United States, external factors are least relevant making intrinsic factors intermediate.

My age forces me to work quickly making the prospect of obtaining a Ph.D. in philosophy and finding a job as a professor less judicious. In addition my relatively low tolerance of obstacles and the interference of others and my preference to work alone make the choice for independent study and writing the more desirable course for me. At this point in life, having already completed one career with medium impact, I am looking for something larger, preferably which can outlast my lifetime. Given these considerations, I am willing to accept a lower likelihood of success and of measurability.  Desirability is the most difficult consideration. Philosophy, even if limited to the study of ethics, appears to be out of favor. However, like the Stoics, I have little concern for fame or popular opinion, as long as the potential for some contemporary success and future interest exists.

The net result of this factoring process is that I chose to create a philosophy website and work on a book for possible future publication. Should this fail, I am learning key skills that I can use for a later purposeful function – perhaps a website to explain and update medical literature for lay readers.

Hopefully this demonstrates the use of Table 6, but as always, readers are encouraged to pose questions on this site for further clarification.