Cynicism is the great deception of our age says Paul Miller in his excellent book "A Praying Life." It offers the illusion of an enlightened mind that is suspicious of all appearances of sincerity and goodness because it is "in the know" of how things really are. It is seductive. At Trinity Academy we are not naive to the effects of human weakness on our ability to do good but we are confident that excellence of character is possible and we should celebrate it when we see it. This post is the second of three installments on truth, goodness, and beauty by Dr. Kerry Koller the President of Trinity Schools. Next week we will publish his essay on beauty.
"Tell me," asked Glaucon, "is there in your opinion a land of good which we would choose to have not because we desire its consequences but because we delight in it for its own sake?"
Thus begins the discussion in Book II of Plato's Republic. Justice, or righteousness, asserts Socrates, is just such a good.
Glaucon is incredulous. Most men, he avers, prefer injustice and would act unjustly, except that the cost of allowing others to be unjust is simply too expensive: one might suffer injustice oneself.
Glaucon undergirds his case by recounting the myth of the ring of Gyges. This magic ring has the ability to render its wearer invisible. With such a ring, asks Glaucon, would anyone resist doing evil? No, he concludes. People are good only because they are compelled to be so. If they were invisible and knew that they would not be caught out in their injustice, they would pursue it with abandon.
The ring of Gyges. It is an arresting proposal. What would one do? What would I do?
The cynic says that goodness, if it is lived at all, is lived only by compulsion. No one would choose it on its own merits.
What is scary is that there is a lot of truth in this. Which of us do not know ourselves well enough to sense the temptation that invisibility would provide for us. To paraphrase the Gospel, which of us can claim to have no sin? And which of us, having experienced much of the world, are not convinced that a huge percentage of the world's population is driven by the will to power, rather than the will to live virtuously? We live in a world which most often rewards vice rather than virtue.
As playwright Robert Bolt, in A Man for All Seasons, says through his character Thomas More:
If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good. . . . But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought, and to have to choose, to be human at all... why then perhaps we must stand fast a little—even at the risk of being heroes.
Bolt's insight is germane here. In the environment of a comfort-oriented, sensate culture, it takes a certain kind of heroism to say "no." It takes a heroic decision to return the magic ring, to live publicly, to live in the light and to pursue a course of virtue and righteousness no matter what the cost.
Goodness can be lived. I see it all around me at Trinity School. I see it in the student who, having found a bracelet, sought out its owner, rather than keeping it herself. I see it in the student who took responsibility for his missing homework and admitted his own forget-fullness and laziness, rather than shifting the blame. I see it in the parent who notified the dean when she discovered that her son was involved in some serious wrongdoing at the school. I see it in the faculty in their kindness to one another and in the ways in which they serve the students day in and day out.
Goodness can be lived—it is being lived!