When I was a child, I quietly made the decision, at various points, to be good—even heroically good. To paraphrase St. Thomas More, my plan was to do no harm to anyone, to think no harm of anyone, but to wish everybody good, and to defend people who could not defend themselves. It was a strong desire. It wasn’t something I spoke of to anyone; it was quiet and subtle, but strong, like a sunset: beautiful, good, fresh, quiet, yet powerful. The beauty of childhood; I was around 6 or 7 or thereabouts. I don’t know if this is a common childhood experience or not, but I can say this: although these aspirations have never ceased, I have taken a vacation from them here and there over the years (never to any good end, I should add). A gentleman may fall, but he trusts in God’s mercy, knows himself weak, picks himself up, and tries his best once again.
It’s a great maxim, that saying by St. Thomas More, and one to which every gentleman should aspire, and perhaps should carry about with him written on a scrap of paper in his wallet: “I do nobody harm, I say none harm, I think none harm, but wish everybody good.” And if you fall flat on your face, however bad it may seem, get up again, so as to end well.
Anyhow, this got me thinking about some basic insights in re morality, how it is intrinsically good, never a means to something else, but good and beautiful in itself. Just some basic insights mind you, applicable to everyone, and good for the gentleman to ponder:
1) Moral virtues never present themselves as a means to something else. For example, you see the honesty and purity of your girlfriend or wife, and you can see that those things are good in themselves. They’re not like a piece of rope that only has moral relevance, for example, to pull a drowning man out of the water, and after the saving is done the piece of rope lapses back into moral insignificance.
2) Following on the above, a means to something else is commonly disregarded once the end has been achieved. But morality, being a good in itself, cannot be set aside as irrelevant. To use the above example, once you marry your sweetheart who is so honest you expect that honesty to continue. If she says she was only honest so you would marry her, then sets honesty aside as being no longer useful, you would find you had married someone who is not what you thought, their beauty diminished, and yourself wondering if the dinner on the table really was made from scratch. But mostly it would be horrible to see someone you love lose such an intrinsically precious aspect of their character. Morality, that is, makes us beautiful, more human.
3) If one were to take morality as a means to something else, it would sever the aspect of obligation we find in the moral sphere. For example, if you were passing a house and saw an unattended baby drowning in a small pool of water you would not think, “If I save the baby I may get a reward, and if I do not save it, I won’t. I must choose if I want that reward or not.” No, we find rather an obligation: “You MUST save that baby!” And the gentleman springs into action. There is this obligatory nature to morality. One thinks of criminals who after many years confess to the police or a friend, because they just can’t take it—their conscience smites them. All too many of us, perhaps, know of the sleepless night because we have done something we knew to be seriously wrong (a good sign though—it means your conscience is working; it’s the ones who can sleep peacefully after doing despicable things that are the ones I worry about).
4) Morality, taken as means, ignores the depth of the moral call. It’s not something that can be set aside at some point. Not one of us can say, “I have reached moral perfection now.” It’s the work of a lifetime, a daily work. If one had nothing else to do the next day, there is always this: to work at becoming a better, a truer, a more loving and lovable gent.
One final note, continuing the St. Thomas More theme. He likens life in this world to be, in a sense, like a play on a great stage. Your role may be the wealthy fellow, a King, a poor beggar, a simple family man, a mechanic, a composer of awe-inspiring music. But when the play is done, we all take off our costumes, King and beggar alike, and what is underneath? What are we, once the costume is removed? When you leave this world—who knows when—and you take nothing with you, your costume remaining here at the theatre, what will you have? What will you look like? I don’t know when my role on the stage will be complete, nor do you know of your exit, but one day all of us will lack our costumes, and on that equal playing field there will be no King or office manager, no wealthy chap nor poor beggar: what’s on the inside is what will show forth. It’s not the splash you make in this world that counts—it’s how you live.
Oh right, on a last, genuinely final note, I wanted to add this: how you live includes how you live when you have—as is all too common today—lost your job. I only mention this because it is so prevalent. But remember this—it is we who give dignity to work, work does not give dignity to us. If, gentlemen, you lose your job, do not despair. You have intrinsic worth that cannot be taken away by lack of work. You have far, far more to offer than mere work. And this is coming from a fellow who has been there, for years! No matter how bad it gets, stay positive: the stars still shine, and in time all will be well. In the meantime, live well, practice patience, persevere, frequently tell jokes, learn to play the piano, or write a book. Well, look for work too, but make the best of it, and despite the stress, remember—there are greater things in the world than this to be concerned with, and worse things that could happen. Be at peace.
And so gentlemen, today I leave you with the words, once again, of St. Thomas More (in fact, the more (no pun intended) one ponders these words, the more one realizes how dashed tricky it is to really live this)—and as I said in the last post, paste it into your hat:
“I do nobody harm, I say none harm, I think none harm, but wish everybody good.”