The Human Equation

Susan Parker Cobbs - Swarthmore, Pennsylvania
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, December 25, 2009
Susan Parker Cobbs
Photo illustration by Faithful Chant via Flickr

Swarthmore College classicist Susan Parker Cobbs believes, as Socrates did, that the unexamined life is not worth living. In her essay from the 1950s, Cobbs says all people have goodness within them, which can be expressed where there is freedom, faith and truth.

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It has not been easy for me to meet this assignment. We have so many changing and transitory beliefs besides the ones most central to our lives. I hope that what I say won’t sound either too simple or too pious.

I know that it is my deep and fixed conviction that man has within him the force of good and a power to translate that force into life. For me, this means a pattern of life that makes personal relationships more important, a pattern that makes more beautiful and attractive the personal virtues: courage, humility, selflessness, and love.

I used to smile at my mother because the tears came so readily to her eyes when she heard or read of some incident that called out these virtues. I don’t smile anymore, because I find I have become more and more responsive in the same inconvenient way to the same kind of story. And so, I believe, that I both can and must work to achieve the good that is in me. The words of Socrates keep coming back to me: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” By examination, we can discover what is our good, and we can realize that knowledge of good means its achievement.

I know that such self-examination has never been easy. Plato maintained that it was “the soul’s eternal search.” It seems, to me, particularly difficult now. In a period of such rapid material expansion and such widespread conflicts, black and white have become gray and will not easily separate. There is a belief, which follows from this: If I have the potential of the good life within me and the compulsion to express it, then it is a power and a compulsion common to all men. What I must have for myself to conduct my search, all men must have: freedom of choice, faith in the power and the beneficent qualities of truth.

What frightens me most, today, is the denial of these rights because this can only come from the denial of, what seems to me, the essential nature of man. For if my conviction holds, man is more important than anything he’s created, and our great task is to bring back again, into a subordinate position, the monstrous superstructures of our society.

I hope this way of reducing our problems to the human equation is not simply an evasion of them. I don’t believe it is. For most of us, it is the only area, in which we can work—the human area, with ourselves, with the people we touch—and through these, too, a vicarious understanding with mankind.

I watch young people these days wrestling with our mighty problems. They are much more concerned with them than my generation of students ever was. They are deeply aware of the words equality and justice. But in their great desire to right wrong, they are prone to forget that cult is a people—that nothing matters more than people. They need to add to their crusades the warmer and more affecting virtues of compassion and love. And here again come those personal virtues that bring tears to the eyes.

One further word: I believe that the power of good within us is real and comes there from a source outside and beyond ourselves. Otherwise, I could not put my trust so firmly in it.

Susan Parker Cobbs was a teacher of Latin and Greek as well as and Dean of Women at Swarthmore College. A native of Anniston, Alabama, Cobbs studied the classics at New York University and the University of Chicago. She taught at Swarthmore for nearly a quarter century.