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John Calvin puts forward a very simple reason why love is the greatest gift: “Because faith and hope are our own: love is diffused among others.” In other words, faith and hope benefit the possessor, but love always benefits another. In John 13:34–35 Jesus says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Love always requires an “other” as an object; love cannot remain within itself, and that is part of what makes love the greatest gift.
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One-on-One with Karen Swallow Prior on ‘On Reading Well’

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Reading good literature well is in itself a practice of virtue.


Ed: The subtitle of your book is “Finding the Good Life through Great Books.” What do you mean by “the good life”?

Karen: Some people think living “the good life” means having career or financial success, traveling the world, and owning lots of things. But in classical philosophy, going all the way back to Aristotle and through the founding of America, the pursuit of the good life, or as it is alternately translated, “happiness,” refers to having the freedom to fulfill our human purpose by excelling at the very things that make us human.

In other words, what makes for a good life is good character. And good character is manifested through the virtues.

Ed: How are these virtues defined?

Karen: Philosophers and the early church fathers put a lot of thought into identifying and examining these “excellencies,” or virtues, that cultivate good character. They include courage, prudence, humility, kindness, patience, diligence—all of which I cover in the book—and many, many more.

Aristotle defined a virtue as a mean between an excess and a deficiency. For example, to be excessively bold is to be rash; to be too lacking in boldness is to be cowardly; the mean between these two extremes constitutes the virtue of courage. Each virtue is a moderation between two extremes, and each virtue depends on all the others. For example, it takes prudence to determine how to avoid both cowardice and rashness in a given situation in order to exercise true courage. And while the origins of these ideas are in Greek philosophy, we find confirmation of them in biblical truth: Philippians 4:5 exhorts believers to let their “moderation be known to all,” as it is rendered in ...

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