Karen Sue Smith
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In 1969, after surveying his life’s work in The Journey Not the Arrival Matters, the last of five short autobiographical volumes, Leonard Woolf concluded: “I see clearly that I achieved practically nothing.” The world would be the same, he reasoned, had he played Ping-Pong or tended his garden full time instead. Yet for most of his 89 years he worked long days.

Woolf’s brutal honesty sticks with me. Self-assessment is important, especially if it is realistic and humble. Having read Victoria Glendinning’s 400-plus page biography, Leonard Woolf, I’m not sure whether I am more inspired by what she calls Woolf’s “habit of loving” or by his habit of throwing himself into pursuits with unreachable goals—like world peace. Or do these two traits stem from the same root? That is the explanation I’m leaning toward.

You see, I am interested in why people live the way they do, especially if their actions are selfless and their circumstances difficult. I don’t care how often they falter or whether they are cantankerous on the way (foibles add to the credibility of the human struggle) or if they accomplish their goals. Rather, I am eager to understand why they bother. What motivates ordinary people to be good, to reach beyond the quotidian, to create the arts or build structures for justice or charity on behalf of others? I watch for motivations like this among my friends and family and seek it in newspaper reports, in Scripture, in books, films and theater. And while the saints are a part of this community I cobble together, my world is also peopled by secularists and colorful stumblers of all sorts.

Most Americans know Leonard Woolf only as “the husband of Virginia.” Yet Glendinning’s biography convincingly shows that we would likely never have known of Virginia had it not been for Leonard. His sacrificial love sustained her and kept her mental state from crumbling even earlier. He encouraged her to write and published her work through his basement start-up, Hogarth Press. After her suicide, he promoted her genius—in which he wholeheartedly believed—until his own death 28 years later.

Leonard Woolf’s contributions to society are exemplary. As a young district judge in Ceylon, he saw to the education of girls and tried to bend Britain’s colonial rule to give locals more self-government and cultural expression. As a British public intellectual, he wrote International Government, a classic tome that influenced the formation of the League of Nations—his biggest idea. He had served on advisory committees in the Labour Party to develop its vision and structure and felt great disappointment when the party did not ultimately support the League.

Woolf was an active citizen all his life, who wrote, spoke publicly and lobbied behind the scenes. He championed local causes (as an elected member of the County Council, as school manager, president of the horticultural society, the literary club) as well as international ideals. Long before others did, he saw the world slipping inexorably into the darkness of economic depression, dictatorships and world war. He could not abide injustice, cruelty, intolerance and tyranny. Woolf wrote that the goal of defeating them was “enough carrot to keep a human donkey going.” Yet those goals overwhelm most people.

Woolf was not overtly religious, but faith anchored his life and work. It wasn’t easy being a Jew in late 19th-century England, nor during World War II. But Woolf had interiorized the precepts of his faith, basics that underlie Catholic social teaching, too. “Justice and mercy—they seem to me the foundation of all civilized life and society, if you include under mercy toleration,” he wrote. And that “Semitic vision,” as he called it, explained the purpose of life and the motivation for his own labors.

Karen Sue Smith is editorial director of America.

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