Matthew Parris

You don’t have to be good to do good

18 March 2017

9:00 AM

18 March 2017

9:00 AM

I am a regular listener to the Sunday morning service just after eight on BBC Radio 4. It’s a habit owed to my old bedside clock radio. Purchased in 1978, its controls have gone wonky and the radio takes ages to retune; so I just leave it on Radio 4 all the time. Every week, therefore, I awake on Sunday to the sound of hymns.

I like hymns. Their melodies and words are often trite, their message sanctimonious, but from a churchgoing boyhood I know them so well, and early on a Sunday morning there’s something comforting in the familiar. Besides I’m not a very fierce kind of atheist. Rationality gets wearisome, and I cannot but think it a good thing that humans should gather regularly in pursuit of larger truths and greater goods than engage us in our daily grind — even if they are under a misapprehension as to what these are and where to find them. Lying abed, half–listening, I feel vaguely uplifted though intellectually I haven’t agreed at all. I never end the interlude feeling a worse person.

So last Sunday slumber yielded pleasantly to the music and prayer from St Mary’s Church in Guildford. Two schoolchildren, Toby and Megan, recited their personal favourite among the six guiding principles of their school, Holy Trinity, Pewley Down. One of them chose ‘Embrace the future with hope and confidence’ while the other chose ‘Live in the moment’. It struck me these precepts are directly contradictory, but why carp, surrounded as we are by folk wisdom collected to cover every base: nothing ventured nothing gained, though of course better safe than sorry. It will be good practice for becoming grown-ups for Megan and Toby to learn to believe two contradictory precepts at once.

Then we had the reading. I love dear, silly, unfair old St Paul: irascible, indefatigable, prejudiced and plainly troubled by a lifelong difficulty with women — yet trying so hard to get it right. I wish he would tell us what the mysterious ‘thorn in my side’ was, but he never does, and just keeps bashing away. Besides, something in his instinct chimes with mine: and last Sunday this leapt out at me from his Letter to the Colossians, chapter 3, verse 12. ‘Put on,’ he writes (other versions offer ‘clothe yourself with’) ‘compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience’.

‘Put on’. That’s so Paul! Jesus would more likely have enjoined followers to be inhabited by these virtues and wait for them to do their work from within. He would emphasise the inner transformation from which outward habits will flow, and there’s a direct philosophical/mystical line from His interest in the inner light, through the Quakers, to the hippies, ashram-seekers and Zen and yoga practitioners of our age. For all these, the internal peace and love must come first. The primary fact is the virtue. Where it resides, the secondary facts — right actions — will follow.

But Paul is with Aristotle, and me. Aristotle had a reductivist impatience with the idea that the virtues were mystical qualities that lodged within people, ‘causing’ them to behave virtuously. Virtue, he thought, cannot exist in isolation from action. Moral virtues are achieved by practice — they are not innate, not what he called ‘potentialities’. Performing the right action will help establish a habit of acting rightly. So we should not look for mystical abstract qualities within ourselves, hopeful they will work their magic. Instead of seeking to be a virtuous person, we should ask ourselves what a virtuous person would do, then do it. Just do it.

Here he is in Book II of the Nichomachean Ethics. ‘We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.’ I first saw this idea framed on a professor’s desk at Yale, worded ‘It is by acting bravely that we become brave.’ I did not recognise Aristotle, but knew at once it was what I thought. Later in the passage from which I’ve quoted, Aristotle sums it up: ‘By doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become just or unjust, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become brave or cowardly.’

If Paul, Aristotle and I have identified a truth about human nature, then the truth has consequences. Reacting strongly as a youth against the ‘let it all hang out’, ‘just be yourself’, ‘to thine own self be true’ strain of hippiedom, I objected in particular to the excuse common among such people that if they hadn’t managed to get up early/do the washing up/kick the habit, then that was because — no fault of theirs — the requisite bird within them was unfortunately not singing.

Our recourse to a belief that we can’t get it right in our outward behaviour until we’ve got it right inside can all too easily become an excuse for lack of virtue, or even for vice. At the other end of the scale, it can also prompt us to despair. I used to know a chap whose life was tormented by sexual desire for underage girls, but who exercised iron self-discipline, so far as I know never once straying from the path of what another age would call virtue. One day, wearying in his fight, he confided in a priest. The priest directed him to the biblical passage in which we’re warned that simply to look at a woman with adulterous feelings is to commit adultery. What terrible advice. My friend was brought close to despair. He knew he could control his actions, and did. He knew he could never entirely banish his desires.

Speaking for myself, I do not feel myself to be an innately merciful, a generous, or a brave man, and I doubt I ever will. But I can look around me and see what would be a merciful, generous, brave thing to do. And do it.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments