Although I’m not sure where from, I remember many years ago once reading a moral study, almost a koan in its nature, maybe by C.S. Lewis but maybe not. It went like this:
two workers stay late one night. Neither worker is aware of the other, and both men believe they are the only soul there that night.
both men are struggling financially in their lives, for different reasons, and this is in part why they are both staying late.
one man finishes his work 5 minutes before the other, and he begins to leave
on his way out, he notices on a desk there is a large sum of cash
he quickly remembers who the owner of the desk is, though the owner is no personal friend of the worker here, and the worker does not know anything of the owner’s life, whether he has a family and a wife and kids, or if he merely lives by himself, whether he is rich or poor, whether he is kind and jovial or cruel and villainous
the worker immediately says to himself, “ah! I know the owner of that desk. He’ll be missing that and will be along tomorrow to have it.”
he then leaves, and a few minutess later the other worker comes by the same way
he is fronted with the same desk and the same lonely stack of money, and is also unfamiliar with the owner of the desk and the money, though he does know his name and face through passing
the second worker stands there a while, tormented by his painful desire for the money to fix his financial struggles, and justifies his conscious every which way, declaring the owner of the desk and the money must be well off to even misplace such a tidy sum of cash, and probably doesn’t need it as much as him self
he then begins to imagine the man’s life as a bachelor with no debts or expenses, and living a luxurious life style, and even offering the worker the cash if he knew how much he needed it
he considers the possibility that its divine intervention. a miracle delivered by God
right then, in all the rationalizations, he snaps out of his thinking and scolds himself for even entertaining the idea of doing something so unjust, and tells himself that his troubles are his own
he smacks himself and leaves
Both men did not know the man who owned the money. Both men needed the money. Both men believed they could get away with it.
Now, the question is: which of the two men acted more virtuously? To anyone born in the 20th century or later, I think the answer seems obvious who most will immediately side with. The second worker certainly displayed more self-discipline and denial than the first worker who easily walked away from the money despite his own circumstances.
We are raised on movies and stories that foster our love of perseverance in the face of denial because we see ourselves in these heroes. We have a name for them, called underdog stories, like Rocky or Rudy. But this archetype has been around long before sports movies.
In the story of David and Goliath, 1000 years before the birth of Christ, David, the second kind of Israel, was a shepherd and a young man when he fought the giant Goliath who was claimed to stand over 9 feet tall (however this is frequently debated, particularly because anyone who reached 5 feet back then was considered tall).
More recently, there is the denied heroes in our fiction. Perhaps one of the most well known names in literature is Jean Valjean, who was the height of a man persecuted by social injustice, being imprisoned 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister and her children. There’s an ancient Roman proverb that goes… “strict justice is injustice”. Hugo closes his epic with the epitaph:
HE SLEEPS. ALTHOUGH SO MUCH HE WAS DENIED,
HE LIVED; AND WHEN HIS DEAR LOVE LEFT HIM, DIED.
IT HAPPENED OF ITSELF, IN THE CALM WAY
THAT IN THE EVENING NIGHT-TIME FOLLOWS DAY.
It seems I should now amend what I said earlier. Anyone born at any time in history should know immediately who they side with in the moral study we began with. The ability to fight the urge and press on without failure is noble. There is honor in stumbling as long as one doesn’t give up. As William Lyon Mackenzie King said in his temperance speech to Canada during World War II, “Self-denial and self-discipline, however, will be recognized as the outstanding qualities of a good soldier.”
It is not in the act so much as the triumph over the temptation and the evil thoughts that displays heroism in story telling.
In John Steinbeck’s “The Winter of our Discontent”, Ethan Allan Hawley is a man who experiences a moral decay. In the climax of his insidious fall from uprightness, Hawley is seen planning a bank robbery, a bank which is run by two friends of his who know nothing about it. In the final words of his soliloquy before he commits the act, he says “a change is coming.” In the context of the story, Hawley is referring to ushering in his better life, but it’s clear what Steinbeck actually meant.
At that moment, Hawley is paralyzed with sick feelings and cannot move forward. The plan is called off and he later discovers from his friend Joey, the teller, that they had implemented a new security system that morning, and Ethan knows his plan would have failed. Though he did not go through with the robbery, the reader is left feeling as bad as if he did.
The question of which of the two workers is more virtuous is a question that contains more truth in the thought process behind answering than in the answers themselves. Humans are sympathetic animals, and it’s natural for us to decide based on which one shows more of an internal conflict we ourselves might experience. However, to play Devil’s Advocate for the sake of academics, the question was not which one is more pathetic or which one do you side with. The question was, which is more virtuous, and to answer that we must first decide on an accepted definition of the abstract concept of virtue. Merriam-Webster defines virtue as ‘a particular moral excellence’. This subdivides and complicates our original intention of defining virtue because we must know confront what is ‘moral’ and in which direction it ‘excels’, something that has challenged philosophers for millennia, such as Aristotelian ethics, ideas of the good, and ‘eudaimonia’ (a Greek word that directly translates to “good spirit”) which refers to the concept of human flourishing and the pursuit of happiness. Then there’s Immanuel Kant’s deontological ethics which are rooted in logical foreseeing of consequentialism and how each individual’s specific duties are related to these consequences. There’s utilitarianism, pragmatism, virtue ethics, and an entire branch of meta-ethics including moral realism, ethical subjectivism, moral nihilism, empiricism, skepticism, non-cognitive theories, and a plethora of others.
Because it’s impractical to try and reconcile all these opposing philosophies into one acceptable standing ground, I’d like to side-step all of that and present an idea from a simpler and more “everyday” circumstance, so to speak.
J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, wrote a story that is rather different from the Disney adaption, and understandably so. Disney had to change the story and the characters around or it would be unsuitable for children. There are parts where Peter, for his own enjoyment, allows the young Darling children to plummet towards the ocean which would surely kill them, and saves them only at the last moment. He does this repeatedly, despite Wendy’s protests. There are times when Peter seems indifferent to life altogether, including and especially the lives of others. There is mention that when the Lost Boys of Neverland get too old, Peter kills them and replaces them with younger boys. And when the boys and Wendy are all taken hostage by Captain Hook, Peter is initially apathetic and uninterested in rescuing them.
This is critical to the book, however, because it is in these chapters that Captain James Hook descends into a philosophical, Macbeth-esque soliloquy exploring a concept he’s observed and struggled with his entire life, particularly at Trinity College where he studied as a young man before becoming a pirate captain. He calls this idea “Good Form”. He first mentions it when he is observing his henchman, Smee, with the children. Smee is a pirate and wants children to be frightened of him, so he smacks them with his palm and acts viciously towards them. Despite this, the children jump on his neck, and play with his glasses and act excitedly around him. Hook takes note of this, and acknowledges that the children, through no effort of his own, are naturally frightened by him. For a moment, it seems that we are witnessing the exposed heart of Captain James Hook, a famous literary villain, in a light that shows for a fleeting moment the metanoia his soul wandered through to come out a bad guy on the other side. In this speech, Hook seems pathetic to the sympathetic reader, and especially questions the beliefs of those who have only heard the Disney telling of the story. He remarks that Smee has ‘good form’ without knowing he has it, which is ‘the best form of all.’ It’s a strange and trying thing on the heart to read this speech. It seems to tell us in brevity the life of James Hook, not captain, and how he is perhaps the first villain in story telling history to openly express his remorse that he was cast as the bad guy and merely played his part.
So, is Hook right? Is having good form and not knowing it, as was the case with the first worker, the best form of all? Is it that no matter how hard the second worker struggles to live an honest life, he will always be less upright and honest than the man who does not struggle at all? Or does the man who does not struggle even exist?
Anyways, that’s all I have to say about that. See you on the flip side.