Le Penseur in the Musée Rodin in Paris
David Swenson (1876-1940) was a Kierkegaard Scholar who taught at the University of Minnesota in the 1920s and 1930s. In his article, “The Dignity of Human Life,” published in 1949, he argued that humans live not only in the present but in the past and future. This concern for past and future is distinctively human and connects them with the eternal.
Here is a beautiful quote from the piece:
Youth is often too sure of its future. The imagination paints the vision of success and fortune in the rosiest tints; the sufferings and disappointments of which one hears are for youth but the exception which proves the rule; the instinctive and blind faith of youth is in the relative happiness of some form of external success. Maturity, on the other hand, has often learned to be content with scraps and fragments, wretched crumbs saved out of the disasters on which its early hopes suffered shipwreck. Youth pursues an ideal that is illusory; age has learned, O wretched wisdom! to do without an ideal altogether. But the ideal is there … and no mirages of happiness or clouds of disappointment, not the stupor of habit or the frivolity of thoughtlessness, can entirely erase the sense of it from the depths of the soul.
Here is a summary of the piece:
To prepare themselves to live in the present, the young need to be trained to contribute to life, to learn the specialized skills that will help them and others. But they need something else—they need “a view of life.”[i] This is not acquired through formal education but is a product of self-knowledge and subjective conviction: “a view of life is the reply a person gives to the question that life asks of him.”[ii] Essentially, this view of life is that which will give one’s life meaning, worth, and dignity.
Swenson notes that all persons desire happiness, and those who are unhappy have “failed to realize [their] humanity.”[iii] But for thinking beings happiness is not a pleasant momentary enjoyment of the present, but something deeper. Complete happiness requires that life be infused with “a sense of meaning, reason, and worth.”[iv] A view of life, therefore, should answer the following: “What is that happiness which is also a genuine and lasting good?”[v] Aristotle believes that happiness consists in possessing certain really good things that most people desire—creative work, good food, friends, music, aesthetic enjoyment, wealth, freedom, etc.
However, Swenson notes a number of problems with this approach. First, this leaves us with so many desires that we are torn by different impulses, and we do not find the peace that comes from devotion to a single end. Second, we are a captive of desires which themselves depend on an external world over which we do not have control. So if we do not fulfill our desires we may fall into despair. Third, most of these things are not intrinsically valuable. Some, like health and beauty, are relative; others, like money and power, are only good if one knows how to use them.
A final reason to reject the Aristotelian approach is that some people are way ahead in the race for these goods, as they have been bestowed with talents or circumstances that most of us lack. Swenson believes this inequality should be deeply troubling to any sympathetic human being. He argues that he cannot enjoy the happiness that others don’t have. That which gives life meaning must be inclusive; it must be something to which all have access. It must be something absolute that underlies life and may be found by all who seek it. “The possibility of making this discovery … is … the fundamental meaning of life, the source of its dignity and worth.”[vi] With this discovery comes true happiness.
These considerations led Swenson to duty which “is the eternal in man.”[vii] In ethical considerations we discover the infinite worth of the individual; essentially, we find the eternal in human beings. Nevertheless, humans cannot create their own meaning, since they are derivative of the gods. But they can discover meaning by surrendering to the will of the gods. Swenson knows this message may fall on deaf ears, especially of the young. Youth are idealistic and quixotic; the mature are realistic and sensible. But all must accept that we are equally human; this is the moral realization that lends dignity and meaning to our lives.
[i] David Swenson, “The Dignity of Human Life,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 17.
[ii] Swenson, “The Dignity of Human Life,” 18.
[iii] Swenson, “The Dignity of Human Life,” 18.
[iv] Swenson, “The Dignity of Human Life,” 19.
[v] Swenson, “The Dignity of Human Life,” 19.
[vi] Swenson, “The Dignity of Human Life,” 22.
[vii] Swenson, “The Dignity of Human Life,” 23.