1. The Big Questions
I’ve never really written anything about myself on this blog. I’ve related some brief anecdotes, but usually in the context of a larger piece that didn’t have much to do with me. Certainly, my views and ideas find their way into much of what I write here. I don’t think any writer can avoid that. However, I’ve barely discussed my personal life, primarily because it’s just not very interesting or worth writing about. I’m literally the most boring person you’ll ever meet. If my writing ever suggests otherwise, then I suppose I’m doing something right.
Last week, however, something significant happened and it has set my mind reeling over certain life lessons and questions. I graduated, having completed my Master’s degree in the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s University. Now, as with every graduate, I am bombarded with certain questions, from others and from myself. The biggest, of course, is what will I do now? What do I want to be?
The question is an important one, of that I have no doubt. It is, however, somewhat narrow in scope, referring strictly to what one wants to do as a career. What job would you like to have? How will you make money? Will you continue on to a doctorate or law degree? Again, the questions are worth asking and one can’t avoid them, but as I’ve realized over the course of these reflections they are far from being the only questions that I need to ask myself.
2. Who Do You Want to Be?
The path I’ve taken over so many years of education has been a strange one. For the better part of it, even right up until finishing this degree, I had literally no clue what I wanted to do. Most of my colleagues seemed to have a sense of certainty with regard to their career path, or they were at least damned good at pretending that they did. I didn’t even have that luxury. I had absolutely no direction and had a new idea of what I should do with my life every Monday morning. These ideas were accompanied by little foundation or intention to take action. For most of my university life, I stuck to the options that made sense and that others held in high regard, not necessarily because any of these paths really truly appealed to me.
Having studied politics, these conventional paths usually come down to law, academics, or the civil service. These are, or are thought to be, the most prestigious and lucrative paths that I could take with my education. I certainly don’t wish to generalize, but the overwhelming majority of my colleagues throughout university were heading straight down these paths, hoping to land the cushy government job, as they saw it, or the coveted throne of a high powered and high salaried attorney.
Once again, these are career questions. They’re important and they’re practical, relating back to the big question of what one wants to do or be. Until recently, I still found myself unable to answer this question. In fact, I still do struggle with the question, though I’ve made significant progress. This progress is owed to the fact that I managed to ask and at least begin to answer another big question: who do I want to be?
An education, and I was privileged enough to have received a pretty high quality one, certainly gives an individual credentials and skills. Those that I received were expected to lead me down one of those aforementioned paths of law, academics, or government. Something else my education gave me, however, was certain values and principles. These were the key to who I wanted to be, and to establishing what ideals would underpin and inform any move that I might make from this point forward. It was a surprisingly easy question to answer, I just never asked it.
3. The Greatest Glory of All
In the study of politics, we are constantly examining problems of both a local and global scope and assessing attempts to solve them. From here, we arrive at the even bigger questions of politics: What makes a state just? What are the rights and duties of a citizen? What is the appropriate role of government? These are the oldest questions in the study of politics as anyone who has ever taken a political theory class will know. These are not just questions of policy or immediate actions, but an attempt to establish the permanent moral and ethical principles by which individuals and states ought to conduct themselves. No easy task, but it’s quite fun once you get into it.
What it has come down to for me is this: politics is about service. The word itself is Greek in origin, meaning the affairs or business of the state. It does not, as many think, mean a myriad of blood sucking insects (poly=many ; tics=blood sucking insects), though it certainly speaks to our attitude toward those holding office that this has become accepted as fact. It is a matter of ensuring the sustainability and flourishing of the state and the individuals within it. It is a matter of ensuring the justness of a state.
For Aristotle, politics was a direct consequence of us being inherently social animals. According to Cicero, the glory of the public servant was the greatest glory of all. “[T]he activities of greatest importance,” says Cicero, “and the ones appropriate to the greatest spirit, are those performed by men who conduct public affairs, because the tasks they handle have the widest repercussions and affect the greatest number of people.”  I won’t rehash too much political theory here, but it is certainly true that for our own personal fulfillment and flourishing a just state is a vital foundation.
This public service that Cicero speaks to highly of is certainly conducive to a career in law or government or academia, and I did not intend to ridicule those professions here. The important takeaway from this understanding of politics is that we are all political animals, belonging to a community that thrives on our service and efforts directed toward its prosperity, whether that be the nation-state or one’s immediate local community. The greatest moral wrong we could commit is to live for ourselves alone and to hunger solely for glory and prestige or the approbation of others.
4. We are Not Born for Ourselves Alone
Though I cannot see myself taking the traditional career paths, these are the principles that I now know I will strive to maintain no matter where I go from here. I want to be someone who is committed to service and who is an asset to his community. The greatest fulfillment I have had in my short career has been on those occasions on which I served. Whether as a tutor, running a community organization as a student, my brief stint in child care, or in my teaching commitments as a graduate student, I was never left feeling empty or as if I was doing something worthless when I was committed to ensuring and enabling the well-being of others. I was not always good at it, and still have much to learn, but I was always eager to learn in these situations and that says something. Perhaps here we have an indication of what practical direction I will take.
It may not, however, be the case that my profession is directly associated with service, but it will absolutely be up to me to ensure that no matter what path I take that these principles are not forgotten and somehow find their way into my actions. Wherever I go, I have to make my life one of service. In whatever minuscule way I can – it’s not like I’m going to be the Prime Minister or anything – I want to embody the values of one who is able to care and take action in matters that concern those other than myself.
To draw again on Cicero, who is here drawing on Plato, “…we are not born for ourselves alone, for our country claims a share in our origin, and our friends likewise; and again, as the Stoics have it, all that the earth produces is created for men’s use, and men have been begotten for men’s sake to be of service to each other.”
As I’ve said, I’m not yet sure what the practical implications of this will be . I have some time to figure this out and that in itself is a great privilege. I’ve completed my education at a very young age without owing money to anyone, so I have the luxury of taking my time and mapping life out in accordance with these values, a luxury afforded to very few. I hope that it is not lost on readers, however, that these grand ideals of service may manifest themselves in different ways, whether through simple volunteering or something so grand as holding public office, with the right intentions, of course. In this way, they are accessible to all.
That, in a nutshell, is who I want to be. Now on to figuring out the what…
Cicero, On Obligations (P.G. Walsh, translator). Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 2000., pp. 32