On February 3, 2021, Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota’s Character and Virtue Education program hosted Dr. Tony Klemmer, founder and president of Wisdom for Good and the National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education. The seminar included a dozen faculty and staff members from across the university, as well as a university Trustee and a rural educator from southern Minnesota, for a 90-minute interactive seminar to explore moral goodness as expressed and lived out in multiple and diverse wisdom traditions of the world. In this discussion of “moral” and “goodness,” the group included members of diverse expressions of cultures, race-ethnicity, religious perspectives, and professional backgrounds.
After brief introductions, the group spent a half hour sharing individual understandings and interpretations of the Bhikshuni Weisbrot poem, The Nature of Light. Some commented on the echo between this poem and Amanda Gorman’s poem, The Hill We Climb, which she had read just two weeks earlier during the Inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on the Capitol steps. Similar to Weisbrot’s poem, Gorman’s ends with allusion to light and its possibilities. Several comments were offered connecting the poem, in a religiously-themed way, to the way God works in our lives through grace. All seemed to acknowledge the very human-rootedness of the poem, acknowledging both the light and the shadow sides of our shared humanity. The poet, all agreed, seems to believe that we are each “meant for more” and as this is revealed to us “then light will claim you.”
The group then turned its attention to Klemmer’s new book, A New Manual for Living (2020) and its accompanying Companion Guide, Virtue through the Wisdom Traditions: A Cross-Mapping (2020). Klemmer introduced the book as presenting and inviting an “aspirational approach for individuals who are intent on being good, flourishing and building lives of meaning.” He acknowledged that he is most interested in providing people with opportunities to reflect on their own experience and the real-life application of the classical virtues in their day-to-day personal lives. Klemmer believes that we are on a journey and that we will never achieve perfectly virtuous lives, but that we are each and all called to work toward the betterment of our own lives and the world. In the Companion Guide, Klemmer writes, “It takes a full lifetime of practice, failure, reflection and renewal to ‘arrive’ in a place of contentedness with regard to our efforts at moral goodness—being good/doing good—in order to flourish. We never fully arrive.” Further, such effort contributes to one’s own personal flourishing by way of the discovery of meaning and purpose in our lives.
A New Manual for Living, after some brief introductory material, is divided into four equally structured sections, each composed of four chapters. These 16 chapters provide the focus and purpose of the book, which is to lay the groundwork for understanding the nature of virtue, how one can seek and gain virtue, and arguing for the necessary connection between head and heart, idea and action, and failure and (relative) success. The “Companion Guide” to the book is made up of some 16 chapters, 13 of which address a specific and particular virtue with a relatively large number of written expressions of “examples” of each virtue from across a wide spectrum and diverse pool of what Klemmer calls “wisdom traditions.” The list of sources and texts is long and diverse, and reflects a wide range of philosophical, ethical, and religious traditions.
Given the constraints of time, this seminar focused solely on one virtue, that of moral goodness. Textual examples related to, arising out of, or reflecting something about “moral goodness” from the world’s monotheistic religions as well as various Eastern religious traditions, diverse philosophical orientations, and secular approaches are presented in the Companion Guide. Klemmer invited comments and asked if any one specific quote provided or provoked more “connection” or insight for members of the seminar group. The sharing and discussion was rich, respectful, stimulating, and dynamic. Klemmer intends to offer a three-day retreat-type experience around these themes in the future.
There was a clear and enthusiastic consensus that the group would value and be grateful to be provided similar opportunities in the future. After the seminar, one participant said, “It is rare that I actually take time to reflect on morality and wisdom. Most of us spend a lot of time trying to do good in small, everyday ways without often asking: what is ‘The Good?’ The seminar allowed for once to stop and ponder the things that matter most, but are talked about least.”