Wednesday 18 May 2011

To do good, or to become good?


One form of personal crisis is the sense that you are doing no good, or doing harm, in your work - and the desire to do good with your life.

To do something worthwhile.


Because of the way that modern people conceptualize the world, doing good equates with 'helping people'.

And helping people equates with giving them stuff they need (or, at any rate want).


But helping people turns-out be harder than you hoped.

In modern society it seems that 'helping people' requires training, exams, screening, a lot of paperwork, a lot of management...

And somehow the officially defined and measured and approved sort of 'helping' does not, at a common sense level, equate with actual, you know, helping...


And you want to help people that need helping.

And helping (nowadays) involves giving stuff.

But most people in the West have enough stuff, more than enough - so first you need to find people who lack basic stuff before you can help them: before you can 'do good'.


For moderns, the ultimate 'good' is to find someone materially poor, clearly suffering; then share your stuff and relieve their suffering.

If the media and institutional literature are anything to judge by - the ultimate modern act of goodness is, basically: to make Africans happy.


The multi-faceted unsatisfactoriness of this moral strategy seems obvious enough; but for many people - including many Christians - it seems the only sure way that they can do good is... to make Africans happy.


The problem is: if not that, then what?


As so often, it is the basic assumptions that need to be questioned.

The mainstream modern assumptions are that the aim of life is hedonic: enhancing happiness, diminishing suffering - the main moral imperative is unselfishness, sharing.

But that fact should be seen as a reductio ad absurdum of mainstream modern morality, not a call to action...


However, to find an answer involves nothing less than an abandonment of this-worldly materialism; it involves nothing less a belief in the soul and in life beyond death: nothing less than religious conversion.

(Which can be difficult if you consider yourself already to be religious, already a Christian - yet you nonetheless regard reducing suffering by giving people stuff to be the ultimate moral imperative.)


But what if the main problem is not suffering, and especially not the kind of suffering that can be relieved by stuff - but what might be called 'lack of holiness' - spiritual impoverishment.

Then there would be two main ways to do good: missionary work, and spiritual progress.

Successful missionary work gets people across the line and is therefore of immense value.

But missionary work is hampered by the extremely low level of holiness that prevails, even among Christians.


So perhaps the most valuable thing that could be done nowadays is to strive for sanctity, in oneself I mean.

By traditional means: prayer, asceticism, participation in rites and rituals and so on.

Because, if you are a Christian, you will know that all humanity is in fact united and all human choices are significant; so in seeking sanctity you are not engaged in a personal (nor 'selfish') behaviour - it is for everybody.


At the same time, it is very difficult to seek sanctity in a society so spiritually impoverished - where do you start?

Who can give you good counsel and guard against the snares of spiritual pride?


Who indeed? - it is a big risk to strive for sanctity nowadays (more so than it used to be, which may be one reason why success seems so very rare).

Nonetheless, that is what is most needed.


The world does not really need more people to 'do good', but for some people to become good.



Brett Stevens said...

Regarding basic charity, at least the "lifeguard rule" should prevail: make sure we're safe first, then help others.

We like material aid because it doesn't cause us to look deeply into whether or not we are happy, or even sane.

Just "we have some stuff; here, have some. And also, have our neurotic system of government."

Luckily Africa isn't buying it.

The Crow said...

Bullseye! Robin Hood style.
Discover exactly what ego is, then set about dismantling it, making way for what ego pretends to be, but is the antithesis of.
Almost everything modern man does, thinks, believes and feels, is the appearance of something, and not the thing itself.
Ego is the fast track to appearing to be something one is not. If one aims to become something, one must become it, not merely appear to be it.
You can not change the world.
But since you are the world: Change yourself and the world is changed.

Gyan said...

That man is made in the image of God implies that man needs to be a creator.
(or as Tolkien says "sub-creator").
Man suffers if his creativity is suppressed.

One can be creative even in one's personal relationships, in doing good (as Mother Teresa) and in doing a regular job.

Alms are not optional but they do not save you.

Neither do rites and rituals save you. Only love does. One must love each person one comes into contact with.

Daniel said...

Mr. Charlton,

I do not have a comment other than this: Can you please try to say some more on this topic? It speaks to me very deeply, but I still find myself at a loss.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ Daniel - this is where Eastern Orthodox Christianity becomes so important.

Have you read this article? -

Do you understand it? (Read it with care, obviously).

It was this particular piece that enabled a breakthough into understanding for me - but I had already read quite a few Orthodox texts before I read it.

Bruce Charlton said...


I don't think that we must be creative (or sub-creative) but that creativity is a 'talent' given to some (probably a small minority) which then ought to be used for the glory of God (and not for the glory of oneself).

This is related to the idea that creativity is 'inspiration' coming from outside, the 'breath' of God (or the pagan gods) - and not a possession.

Since creativity is not a possession but a gift, it ought to be used for the glory of the giver.

This ideas was pretty much standard throughout antiquity and until the threshold of modernity. Now it sounds quaint or even dishonest (or even as if the claim to be inspired is a claim for personal status).

Yet even that scoundrel and waster Dylan Thomas wrote: “These poems, with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions, are written for the love of Man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damn fool if they weren’t.”

If he wasn't sincere, and of course he might well have been either sincere or manipulative, Thomas's hypocrisy was at least a tribute paid to virtue; and an acknowledgment that he would be both a fool and damned if he misused his talent.