Monday, July 20, 2015

On our fragile moral existence

This is an account of Langdon Gilkey's book Shantung Compound. One of my favorite questions is the question "Is it hard or easy to be moral." If we think it is easy, is it simply because we have lived much of our lives in relatively easy circumstances?


Anonymous said...

I can tell you, I live in favorable circumstances but it is not easy to be moral.

John B. Moore said...

Do, or do not - there is no "try." Morality is neither easy nor hard.

Gyan said...

Solzhenitsyn ponders the same in Gulag--a man is really tested in adversity.
But didn't Aristotle held the opposite? A man is morally most tested when he is given power over other men.

Dan Lower said...

As someone living in easy circumstances, I would answer that it is only easy for me because of my relatively easy circumstances (both social and economic as relates to the Catholic code) and pray I never have an opportunity to test the hypothesis.

B. Prokop said...

Gyan brings up an interesting point. There are literally dozens of examples in Solzhenitsyn of people who were regarded as decent citizens prior to their arrest, but who exhibited all sorts of cravenness and dishonorable behaviors once in the camps. But I think Solzhenitsyn's point wasn't that their characters were changed by the circumstances, but rather that we only got to witness these persons' "true colors" once the veneer of privilege and ease was stripped away.

I have to confess I know little about Aristotle's views on how power affects a person's character, other than the bumper sticker phrase "Power corrupts," etc. Was Aristotle implying that power turned a good man bad, or that it simply gave an visible outlet to what was beneath the surface all along? (Serious question - I don't know what he said on the subject.)

And don't forget that misfortune and tragedy have the capability to bring out the best in people as well as the worst. We see a man like Lenny Skutnik, who had exhibited an invisible, unheroic character his entire life, but who at an instant's notice on January 13, 1982, was transformed into a near superhero upon witnessing an airplane crash into the Potomac River during a snowstorm. Was that heroic capacity already there within him, just lying dormant? Or did some mysterious alteration in character occur on that river bank?

Just how "fragile" is our character? The question is, are these undeniable changes in a person's actions (for better or for worse) indicative of a corresponding change in who he is, or merely varying opportunities to show what had always been there?

I believe this is the real explanation for Pope Francis's controversial statement, "Who am I to judge?", meaning we cannot know what is within a person's heart, but can only see what he does.

Dante wonderfully expresses this essential distinction in the geographies of his Inferno and Purgatorio. In the first, the damned suffer the consequences of their actions, whereas in the second, the souls on their way to Paradise cleanse themselves of those traits which prevent their wills from being in perfect sync with God's.

Jezu ufam tobie!

Gyan said...

Solzhenitsyn does not condemn those that displayed "cravenness and dishonorable behaviors" in camps.
Often a heroic virtue was needed there just to show what elsewhere would be a common decency. So, it was more a sifting of saints from ordinary people.

God knows a man's heart but we don't. If a man is given power, then the acts may well be more revealing of the heart. That is a point why pre-modern literature mostly had kings and heroes as characters. Plus, a power gives to man an opportunity for fuller exercise of his virtues. There are defects both of commission and omission.

Anonymous said...

Was Aristotle implying that power turned a good man bad, or that it simply gave an visible outlet to what was beneath the surface all along? (Serious question - I don't know what he said on the subject.)

I wouldn't be surprised if it was both, actually. According to Aristotle, virtue and vice are both habits brought about by doing virtuous or vicious actions, so (not sure if he says this, but it would seem to make sense given what I know of his philosophy) someone who gets to express his hidden viciousness would end up making himself more vicious as a result. Someone virtuous enough to withstand the temptation wouldn't be affected by this, but an averagely virtuous person, whose vices are kept in check partly by social pressure, could very easily be corrupted if this pressure is removed.