Wednesday, December 24, 2008

"Nothing comes easy or free."

My friend also wrote, "Nothing good comes easy or free."

Perhaps not initially, in this fallen world; but it is the faith of Christians that some things come for free, and that eventually it is possible that some good things come easier and easier. I turn to Josef Pieper here, who writes in Leisure, the Basis of Culture:

" ...according to Kant, the morl law by definition is opposed to natural inclination. It is simply part of the nature of things that the Good is difficult and that the voluntary effort put into forcing oneself to do something becomes the standard for moral goodness. The more difficult thing must be the higher good. Schiller's ironic verses point out the problem:

I help my friends, and it feels nice,

until I fear that it's a vice.

So, effort is good. This was the thought formulated long ago by the Cynic philosopher Antisthenes, one of Palto's friends and a fellow disciple of Socrates. Antisthenes, by the way, was a suprisingly 'modern' figure. He was responsible for the first paradigm of the 'worker'--or rather, he represented it himself. He not only came up with the equation of effort with goodness, he also extolled Hercules as the Accomplisher of Superhuman Actions. Now this is an image that still (or , once more?) has a certain compelling attraction: from the motto of Erasmus to the philosophy of Kant, who used the word 'Herculean' to praise the heroism of philosophers, and on to Thomas Carlyle, the prophet of the religion of Work: 'You must labor like Hercules...'As the ethicist of independence, this Antisthenes had no feeling for cultic celebration, which he preferred attacking with 'enlightened' wit; he was 'a-musical, ( a foe of the Muses: poetry only interested him for its moral content); he felt no responsiveness to Eros (he said he 'would like to kill Aphrodite'); as a flat Realist, he had no belief in immortality (what really matters, he said, was to live rightly 'on this earth'). This collection of character traits appear almost purposely designed to illustrate the very 'type' of the modern 'work-aholic.'

"Effort is good': objecting to this thesis in the Summa theologieae, Thomas Aquinas wrote as follows: 'The essence of virtue consists more in the Good than in the Difficult.' 'When something is more difficult, it is not for that reason necessarily more worthwhile, but it must be more difficult in such a way as to be at a higher level of goodness.' The Middle Ages had something to say about virtue that whill be hard for us fellow countrymen of Kant to understand. And what was this? That virtue makes it possible for us master our natural inclinations? No. That is what Kant would have said, and we all might be ready to agree. What Thomas says, instead, is that virtue perfects us so that we can follow our natural inclination in the right way. Yes, the highest realizations of moral goodness are known to be such precisely in that they take place effortlessly because it is of their essence to arise from love. And yet the overemphasis on effort and struggle has made an inroad even on our understanding of love. Why, for instance, in the opinion of the average Christian, is the love of one's enemies the highest form of love? Because here, the natural inclination is supressed to a heroic degree. What makes this kind of love so great is precisely its unusual difficulty, its practical impossibility. But what does Thomas say? 'It is not the difficulty involved that makes this kind of love so worthy, even though the greatness of the love is shown by its power to overcome the difficulty. But if the love were so great as completely to remove all difficulty - that would be a still greater love...

...The innermost meaning of this over-emphasis on effort appears to be this: that man mistrusts everything that is without effort; that in good conscience he can own only what he himself has reached through painful effort; that he refuses to let himself be given anything. We should consider for a moment how much the Christian understanding of life is based on the reality of 'Grace', let us also recall that the Holy Spirit Himself is called 'Gift';that the greatest Christian teachers have said that the Justice of God is based on Love; that something given, something free of all debt, something undeserved, something not-achieved-- is presumed in everything achieved or laid claim to; that what is first is always something received -- if we keep all this before our eyes, we can see the abyss that separates this other attitude from the inheritence of Christian Europe."

Merry Christmas! May you receive God's greatest Gift on Christmas and always.

1 comment:

Ted M. Gossard said...

Thanks for the thought provoking post.

It does seem like we struggle to receive the gift. This reminds of the words in Hebrews telling us to make every effort to enter into God's rest. This looks like an effort to cease from our own works and effort, and to rest in faith in God's promises in Jesus. But that kind of faith is surely a new way for us, since we tend to believe that so much really does, after all, depend on us.

Thanks again.