Enormous confusion follows when people delve into subjects in which they assume a “good enough” definition of the terms they are discussing. That seems to be the problem with Avram Alpert’s essay in the Feb. 20 New York Times, “The Good-Enough Life.”
Alpert insists he is not settling for mediocrity, and I believe him. (I think he settles for something worse). Also, despite a reader’s possible initial reactions, “good enough” has some things going for it.
Alpert knows, for example, that there are parents and other caregivers who stress themselves out, questioning whether what they have done for others was “good enough.” He wants to reassure them it was (although, I they weren’t challenged by the “greatest,” would they have done their personal best?)
Reading Alpert’s essay, I was reminded of a similar text in James Hilton’s Utopian novel, Lost Horizon. In a discussion about Shangri-La’s approach to life, Chang opines, “We inculcate the virtue of avoiding excess of all kinds—even including, if you will pardon the paradox, excess of virtue itself. In the valley which you have seen, and in which there are several thousand inhabitants living under the control of our order, we have found that the principle makes for a considerable degree of happiness. We rule with moderate strictness, and in return we are satisfied with moderate obedience. And I think I can claim that our people are moderately sober, moderately chaste, and moderately honest.”
Do you really want to live in a society where the average person is “moderately honest?” Or moderately doesn’t kill? Moderately avoids adultery or limits lying? Even the contemporary advocates of moral relativism won’t concede that. Outside of the obligatory belief in sexual license—as long as it’s consensual—do you really believe the mandarins of contemporary political correctness will find a modus vivendi with those whom they deem “moderately” racist, sexist, xenophobic, etc. etc.? No, I think the only “moderation” they might admit is about chastity.
I thought of the allusion to Hilton when Alpert contrasted the main thrust of “Western ethics,” which he identified with “greatness,” and “schools of thought” urging us to be content with “good enough,” including Buddhism. There’s a certain Western like for Buddhism’s version of “good enough.” It sounded just like Hilton’s thoughts about “vulgarity in the Western ideal of superlatives. … ‘[T]he utmost for the highest’ seemed a less reasonable … proposition than ‘the much for the high.’” Alpert says almost the same thing, noting how Buddhism “posits the idea of a ‘middle path,’ a life that is neither excessively materialistic nor too ascetic.”
Which brings me back to my point about not settling for a “good enough” definition of terms.
When Alpert does his compare and contrast, Buddhism joins the camp of the “good enough,” while the ranks of the “greatest” include “diverse philosophical camps of Western ethics,” including Aristotle, Kant, Bentham, and libertarians. (He doesn’t mention where Christianity fits).
Well, last time I checked, Aristotelean ethics was based on the media aurea, the “golden mean,” in media stat virtus (virtue is in the middle). True virtue was the mean between two extremes: the generous man is the one who is neither an avaricious miser nor a foolish spendthrift.
But this idea of ethics presupposes there is real virtue out there, against which individual embodiments of that virtue by individual persons can be measured. Good is something objective, a criterion against which human actions can be measured. One is not good if one hordes or wastes his money. A man cannot be “moderately honest.” He’s either honest … or he’s not.
Which brings us to another key idea of Western (and Christian) thought: the virtue of prudence. As St. Thomas Aquinas insisted, a man cannot be good if he is not prudent. To say something is evil is to say it should not ever be done. To say something is good does not say how or when it should be done. If good is a destination, evil simply will not get me there. But it tells me nothing about how good will get me there.
I used to use this illustration with my students: if I lived in Manhattan and wanted to go to New Jersey, then “thou shalt not” use the Brooklyn Bridge—not because I arbitrarily forbade it, but because it won’t get me there. But it tells me nothing about whether I should take the Lincoln Tunnel, the Holland Tunnel, the George Washington Bridge, or the Hoboken Ferry … and which one I should take at a given moment could differ.
Affirming that there is real good and evil exposes the point I made above: Alpert settles not for mediocrity but for relativism. Alpert’s “good enough” world, like Chang’s “moderately heretical” approach to principle, works only when one assumes that good and evil are just two equally legitimate choices before human freedom.
Alpert seems to take as a given “a world that is itself good enough, that is, as full of care and love as it is of suffering and frustration.” On a purely empirical level, that’s true. But it’s not how it’s supposed to be.
Human beings, insists Christianity, are meant for more.
They’re meant for the good. But evil is not moral margarine: 50 percent real good and 50 percent something else. It’s a lack of good. People should no more settle for the evil that is a lack of good than they should for the cavity that’s a lack of healthy dentin.
For Buddhism, good and evil are both “illusions” that man should move beyond. Western man has learned from Nietzsche the sorrowful lesson of man “beyond good and evil.” It is on exhibit in places like Auschwitz, Dachau, the Solovetsky Islands, and other parts of the Gulag Archipelago.
A “moderately honest” man is dishonest, a “moderately chaste” one lustful. Virtue is the mean between vices, not the mean between a vice and a virtue. So, pace Conway, Chang, and perhaps Alpert, “good enough” is not good enough in the face of evil.
Because, after all, good is to be loved — and can I ever love “enough?”
And that is what separates Catholicism from Buddhism. It’s also what separates Christianity for a modernity that doesn’t see why “good-enough” isn’t good enough for man, a modernity outfitting his horizons with blinders. “Be ye perfect as my heavenly father is perfect,” insists the Lord. The call to perfection is a call to greatest, a call to love. And love is never “enough” — because once one decides it is enough, it has ceased being love.
Does this sound naïve, unrealistic? To the secular world, perhaps. But Christians should not, because of that, surrender their convictions. They should, rather, give “an account of their hope.” As Stanley Hauerwas observes in another context, “To suggest that nothing less than love is at the heart of our contemporary challenges will no doubt be interpreted by many as an indication that [we] … have lost touch with reality. But that is the case only if you think the God Christians worship is not the God of Jesus Christ” (emphasis mine).
Alpert rightly recognizes that “greatness” is sometimes confused with megalomania: a dose of humility—a virtue—is usually needed to move a “greatness” project from an egocentric celebration of self to a more moderate but real quest for the good of another. Alpert also rightly recognizes—with the Romantic poets—that “greatness” often disdained the ordinary and every day. That is, indeed, a mistake. Catholicism affirms the goodness of the ordinary every day: ordinary bread and common wine have great destinies every day.
But, all that said, the quest for human greatness is the quest for human perfection enjoined by the Lord. Yes, we will fail, and sometimes prudence may tell us to accept the “good enough” here and now, because it may be the greatness of our personal best. But that’s not the same as a contentment with “good enough for government” (or God), much less a truce between good and evil as two poles of ordinary moral choice both deemed legitimate. “Good enough” is usually not the humanly possible as much as the convenient. Man is made for greatness. We’re made for love.
All opinions expressed herein are exclusively the author’s.