Book Review: Human Goodness

Human Goodness

By Yi-Fu Tuan

Published March 25, 2008

University of Wisconsin Press

244 pp.

ISBN 0-299-22670-0

Reviewed October 13, 2008

In both journalism and fiction writing, there’s a list of words experienced writers warn against using and “good” is usually at the top. It’s a word that seems weak and overly broad, applicable to any situation or object that finds any approval. Additionally, it’s an unspecific word that can be substituted easily: high-quality, superior, excellent, noble, worthy and virtuous are only a few of the dozens of options in any basic thesaurus.

But when “good” disappears under a wash of synonyms, the core meaning of the word tends to be obscured – and it’s that meaning Yi-Fu Tuan explores in the simply titled volume “Human Goodness.” Refreshingly, it’s not a solicitation to undertake charity or a lamentation on how much of the world has abandoned the path of rightness, but rather a well-researched meditation on what a good act means and its effect on the surrounding world.

Tuan, in exploring the topic of what goodness is, begins by splitting the idea into the variety of ways it takes form. Generosity and basic decency are the most practical ones, but it also becomes visible in the observation of manners, an indifference to pride and self-image in favor of other topics, and showing moral courage in the face of difficult circumstances. These are not new concepts, but Tuan reinforces them with an impressive depth of examples, ranging from real-life sightings of kindness to literary references ranging from Charles Darwin to George Orwell.

Part of what makes Tuan’s study of goodness so compelling is the fresh eyes he seems to have for his subject, particularly for a man who was 75 at the time of writing. Again, he avoids bemoaning how it was “back in the day,” but has an almost childlike fascination with the performance of good acts he observes in his daily life. A man trudges two miles in the snow of Minnesota, periodically stopping to free stalled cars; a fisherman pushes him on a bike through a swamp and disappears once the journey is complete; a student offers him a shoulder to rest his head on during a travel.

Following these everyday examples Tuan delves into history, providing character studies of six individuals he considers having lived truly good lives: Confucius, Socrates, Mozart, John Keats, Albert Schweitzer and Simone Weil. Each of these individuals, he argues, exemplified the traits of being a good person in areas ranging from their role as teachers, moral philosophers, crafters of beauty and self-appointed duty to others. His research is strengthened here as well by personal vignettes: Keats caring for his deathly ill mother, Weil offering free lessons to laborers, Mozart writing love letters to his wife.

But even after showing these exemplars “Human Goodness” doesn’t suggest that the reader spend their entire lives trying to match them in terms of output and quality. Tuan’s argument goes more to illustrating that good actions are far more captivating than we would expect, particularly in a world that is so often gripped by negativity. His viewpoint of goodness is almost an aesthetic one, treating it as if it were to be placed on a pedestal for multiple interpretations.

And like art, regardless of what criteria you use to measure them, Tuan argues that acts of good deserve to be appreciated for what they bring to the world, and it’s that genial tone that makes “Human Goodness” such an encouraging work of philosophy. Maybe the word “good” can’t escape its technical weakness, but Tuan’s scholarship shows it retains a significance that far outweighs that aspect.

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