Columbia Forum

George Stade on the value of horror fiction
Phillip Lopate '64, coming of age as a moviegoer at Columbia
The "small, quiet worlds" of watercolorist Donald Holden '51
"Lost and Frozen" by Jeffrey Harrison '80
Charles Van Doren revisits Morningside Heights

The Biggest Challenge of All


Charles Van Doren at his presentation to the Class of '59 during Reunion Weekend, June 4–6, 1999.


 In June, an invitation from the Class of 1959 to speak at its reunion brought Charles Van Doren back to Columbia for only the second time in 40 years. (The first was for his son's graduation from the College in 1984.) Noting that he started teaching at Columbia in 1955, the year the Class of '59 entered, Van Doren remarked, "You were my class; I was your teacher. I'm glad to be here to celebrate our joint reunion." In this excerpt from his remarks, Van Doren, who became editorial vice president at the Encyclopaedia Britannica after leaving Columbia and is the author of (among many others) A History of Knowledge: Past, Present and Future (1991), returned to a theme familiar to anyone who took the Core Curriculum: the good life.

The following remarks are addressed to my "classmates," that is, members of the Class of 1959 at Columbia College. If there are persons here who are not '59ers, they can stay and listen if they want to. But what I'm going to say I mean to say to you guys.
I've been thinking a lot about you. For one thing, I can add. You must all be 40 years older than you were when you graduated. Young men are usually in their early 20s when they graduate from college. That means you're now in your early 60s, maybe a little older. It's unlikely that you're younger, unless you skipped some of the intervening years.

Since you're now 60-plus, you must be beginning to think about what it means to be old. I don't mean you are old, or that you should think you are. Most of you look remarkably healthy to me. I hope you feel healthy. I'm about 10 years older than most of you, and I do.

But some things change when you get to be our age. In your case you may be thinking about retiring, or maybe you already have. Either way, there's likely to be a problem. What are you going to do for the rest of your lives? Assuming that so far you've led successful lives -- we are, in fact, an extraordinarily fortunate generation as fortune is thought of nowadays -- you have now to face the biggest challenge of all. Not, "How shall I make a living?" but, "How shall I live a really good life?"-- a life that I can look back on with deep satisfaction, a life that, in old Aristotle's meaning of the word, I can call happy.

Some of you read with me 40 years ago a portion of Aristotle's Ethics, a selection of passages that describe his idea of happiness. You may not remember too well. I remember better, because, despite the abrupt caesura in my academic career that occurred in 1959, I have gone on teaching the humanities almost continually to students of all kinds and ages. In case you don't remember, then, I remind you that according to Aristotle happiness is not a feeling or sensation but instead is the quality of a whole life. The emphasis is on "whole," a life from beginning to end. Especially the end. The last part, the part you're now approaching, was for Aristotle the most important for happiness. It makes sense, doesn't it?

Aristotle also said something else. Happiness, he said, is made up of a lot of different things: having good habits, both moral and intellectual, and enjoying the things you and all human beings really need, like a good family and good friends and a good city to live in, like good health and a decent education, like a modest but sufficient competence, like the time to experience good art and do some serious thinking. And one more thing: good fortune.

Myths are stories that are so true they can never happen.

Many people don't pay much attention to this last of the genuine goods that add up to a good life. I asked a seminar the other day what proportion of a happy life they thought good fortune represented. We'd been talking about moral and intellectual virtues and that sort of thing, and the highest proportion anyone suggested for good fortune was 50 percent.

They asked me what I thought, and I said 99 percent. They were shocked, silent for a while. Then one of them gulped and said, "Yeah. You may be right."

In a sense it's a ridiculous question. Statistics don't apply to individuals. Having this or that chance of enjoying or suffering this or that fortune, good or bad, means absolutely nothing about what will happen to you or me. Even so, we can't not pay attention to probabilities.

The probability that we'll die is 100 percent for all of us. Having said that, let's forget it. Other probabilities are more interesting, in the sense that it's possible for us to do something about them. Something, not everything; none of us can control life and time completely.

I don't have time, even if I could, to spell out all the things you can actually do in this upcoming last third of your sojourn on Earth to try to make the whole of your life thoughtful, fruitful, balanced -- happy.... One is suggested to me by Virgil. We may have talked about it 40 years ago. Even if we did, we probably didn't understand it then. I know I didn't.In the sixth book of the Aeneid, which we read together -- I hope -- Aeneas decides to take the greatest of all risks. His father has died, but now he needs his advice. So Aeneas goes to the Sibyl and asks for help. She replies:


?facilis descensus Averno;

noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;

sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras,

hoc opus, hic labor est.

In Robert Fitzgerald's beautiful translation:


The way downward is easy from Avernus.

Black Dis's door stands open night and day.

But to retrace your steps to heaven's air,

There is the trouble, there is the toil.

Hoc opus, hic labor est! Indeed.


The Sibyl tells Aeneas that in order to make the fearful and fated journey down and up again he must find a Golden Bough that awaits him in the dark forest surrounding Lake Avernus, "where no birds sing." He finds the bough and completes the journey, in the course of which he encounters three shades that affect him deeply. One is the shade of his father, who gives him good advice and foretells the future of the city Aeneas will found on the banks of the River Tiber. A second is the shade of Dido, the woman, the queen of Carthage who loved him and whom he seduced and then abandoned. She turns her back and won't speak to him. The third is Phlegyas, whom Aeneas comes upon in the Valley of the Tyrants.

His is not a household name, and you may not recognize it. Phlegyas was a son of Ares, god of war; he had a daughter whom he loved. Her name was Coronis, and she was seduced by Apollo and gave birth to Asclepius, the god of medicine.

Phlegyas, in his fury at the heartless seduction of his daughter, burned down the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Apollo, in turn, threw him down into Hades, where Aeneas found him crying out, over and over, over and over,
this warning:


Discite iustitiam moniti et non temnere divos!

Study justice, and do not scorn the gods!


Is that good advice for all of us seeking to live really good lives? I think so. Of course to study justice is difficult, for we may all understand it differently; and what does it mean to "scorn" the gods?

Probably scorning the gods means believing or acting as if they don't exist. But they do exist. They're the powers that surround our life and in whose grasp we enjoy only a little freedom. They have many names, English or Greek or Latin or Norse or Aborigine or Ojibway, but despite the difference of names they're pretty much the same everywhere, and always have been.

Apollo was -- is -- the handsome stranger with a smile on his face who promises us whatever we desire and then betrays us. He withholds the thing we desire the most because we desire it the most. A liar and deceiver, he demands only one thing, that we love him despite his faults. If we don't, he punishes us. We can't blame him; it's his way.

Humans might think Phlegyas was justified in taking revenge on his daughter's seducer, who left her with a careless smile. But Apollo's way is beyond our justice. Apollo's justice isn't fair; that's why we have to study it.

None of us can take Aeneas's journey, nor, in fact, did he. The story of his descent into the Underworld and his return to the brightness of the sun is a myth, and myths are stories that are so true they can never happen. Something like his journey may happen to anyone. The human name for it may be despair.

Despair -- the Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard called it. As we enter this last part of our time we mustn't forget that bad things can happen. The failure of hopes, the death of friends, the venality of politicians, the manifest cruelty that stalks the world -- these may tempt us to descend from Avernus into that dark place where safety seems to lie. But then we scorn the gods. This great line is from Paul Valéry's "Le cimitière marin":


Le vent se lève; il faut tenter de vivre!

The wind's rising; we have to try to live!