book review of a book i hope to return to often: Human Goodness, by Yi-Fu Tuan

I already posted at least one great vignette from this book.  Recommended.

a profound meditation on the meaning and experience of human goodness; it may even have left me with a bit more of that quality

I found this book thought provoking, inspiring, and behavior changing. I hope to return to it repeatedly.

Yi-Fu Tuan’s 200-page reflection has four parts:
(1) Vignettes from daily life illustrating the variety in manifestations of human goodness, demonstrating a range of what goodness might mean. For example, goodness may refer to producing “good” aesthetic (as in Mozart’s valuable service to the world), wholesomeness, good manners, indifference to self-image, etc.

(2) Vignettes illustrating the performance of good in the midst of great evil: Many of these stories are drawn from the Holocaust.

(3) Life stories from several people Tuan views as potentially “good”: the composer Mozart, the doctor Albert Schweitzer (who won the Nobel Peace Prize in the 1950s), the philosopher and social activist Simone Weil, and the poet John Keats.

(4) Tuan’s own reflections on goodness

Although I don’t know that the book holds together perfectly – several times I thought, This is a book one can publish at the END of one’s career – and although not all of Tuan’s observations are equally insightful, there is so much valuable content that these weaknesses are worth overlooking.

I found the profile of Albert Schweitzer particularly thought provoking, with his profound respect for all life – including animal and even plant life – and how he implemented that respect in life. In the admittedly short time since I finished the book, I have shifted how I think about animals and what our treatment of them implies not only for them but for our own spirituality.

Beyond that, the book is peppered with valuable insights. In the last section, Tuan explores the degree of violence we see in our lives, much of which is overlooked for its commonness. In the profile of Simone Weil, Tuan observes, “A test of sainthood is whether the person was widely and deeply loved. That seems to me even more convincing than an enumeration of good deeds, which can all be performed for mixed motives. … But perhaps the most convincing test of whether a person is truly good – a saint – is this. In his or her presence, does one feel oneself a better and more intelligent human being?” (180-1). And something from the vignettes: “By encouraging people to play at being good, manners may make people actually good; at least, such play, sincere or not, will make society itself more genial, more civilized” (18). From the preface: “Just think how the quality of our life will improve if we gossip, but gossip in the root meaning of that word, which is to relate `good tidings’ or `tidings close to God'” (xii).

I highly recommend the book. I will read more of Tuan (Escapism first), and I will likely pass copies of this book on to others.

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