We continue our thoughts on William James’s 1900 essay, “What Makes a Life Significant?” Following James’s trip to the middle-class oasis of Chautauqua, New York, he finds himself on a train to Buffalo. (The picture below is the 1900 Buffalo Labor Day Parade). He looks out the window and sees a world quite different from the one he just left. His reaction is worth quoting at length.
As I awoke to all this unidealized heroic life around me, the scales seemed to fall from my eyes; and a wave of sympathy greater than anything I had ever before felt with the common life of common men began to fill my soul. It began to seem as if virtue with horny hands and dirty skin were the only virtue genuine and vital enough to take account of. Every other virtue poses; none is absolutely unconscious and simple, and unexpectant of decoration or recognition, like this. These are our soldiers, thought I., these our sustainers, these the very parents of our life.