It was on a wintry night last year, a night not unlike this one, that I met the Tempter for the first time. It happened during that season when the mood of the world begins to turn, when summer is a distant memory and the rustling sheaves of autumn are starting to give way to the chill of coming winter. Just ahead lay that season of secrets and whispers that comes with the annual dying of the harvest, the time when old superstitions creep back into the world and things better left unseen lurk outside doors on icy nights and scratch at the frosty windowpanes.
I have often observed that train stations are lonely places, because people do not live there, only pass through; it is built into the design. As it happens, this encounter took place at such a station: the junction of several lines, where wrought-iron stairs descended from a central rotunda down to long, melancholy platforms beside the tracks. I was standing at the foot of one such staircase, beneath the concrete span of the main building arching overhead, looking out into the distance where the tracks vanished into the dark. Evening lay in the past already, and still I was far from my destination. I had many hours of travel left through the dark and secret heart of the night before the coming of dawn.
It was a wet and gloomy night, that night. A thick pearlescent fog shrouded the world, coating the concrete pylons in a cold glaze, and a sleety swirl of precipitation, not rain but not quite snow, flurried through the yellow light cast by the lamps. It was easy to get the sense, there in the heavy, velvet silence, that all color and life had been drained from the world.
I was alone on the platform, save for a man standing in shadow at the very farthest end. There were no other passengers in sight, not even a conductor or station employee. It was easy to get the sense that all was abandoned and silent, that the whole world lay wrapped in darkness and slumber, not just that I was the only one in the train station, but that I was the only one awake for miles and miles around. Except for that other man…
I glanced up. No train had come, but the man standing at the end of the platform had disappeared.
For a moment I was utterly alone, and then the Tempter stepped from the shadows. Like me, he was wrapped up well against the cold, wearing a long overcoat and a broad-brimmed hat turned down low. He even looked a little like me, although of course that was to be expected. We wasted no time on greetings; he knew perfectly well who I was and I recognized him on sight.
“Have you ever given consideration,” he began, “to the inherent selfishness of humanity?”
“I’ve given thought to human selfishness many times,” I said, choosing my words carefully.
“I’ve read your essay on universal utilitarianism,” he said. “An admirable idea, to be sure, but thoroughly impractical. You call for people to be altruistic and to work to promote the happiness of others, but the brutal truth is that human beings just don’t behave that way. The overwhelming majority of people are concerned only with themselves and a few close friends and relatives, and once their lives are comfortable and secure, they can’t be persuaded to care about the welfare of total strangers. Why should they? What’s in it for them? If they bother to think about it at all, they view altruism as a waste of their time and energy to coddle the lazy. You’re deceiving yourself if you think the average person’s empathy extends any wider than that. UU may sound good, but it would be a dismal failure in practice.”
I was thrown off balance by the ferocity of the Tempter’s assault. I hadn’t anticipated getting off lightly, but I had expected him to work his way up to an attack this serious, not hit me with it right from the start. But this battle had just begun, and I wasn’t going to go down to defeat that easily.
“I don’t believe for a moment that human selfishness is intrinsic,” I said. “It does exist, but it isn’t the norm. I’ve witnessed more acts of human kindness than you know. A species that was intrinsically selfish wouldn’t be capable of the amazing acts of generosity and selflessness I’ve seen – not from saints, but from ordinary people on the street. What people lack is perspective, not moral sentiment. They care more about their friends and family because the well-being of people they personally know is more immediate to them. It’s easier to notice, so it’s easier to care. But this is a correctible error. Like any other part of human nature, empathy is a skill that can be taught and practiced. The only way to be a champion marathon runner is to go jogging every week; just the same way, the only way to be a champion empath is to practice raising your own consciousness and caring for others.”
“Hope springs eternal,” the Tempter replied with a sly grin. I noticed that his breath, unlike mine, did not steam in the icy air. “I like your analogy. You’re asking everyone to be a marathon runner – and who has the motivation or the time for that? Most people have to work their hardest and spend what little they have just to get by. And you’re asking them to set that all aside, to give you what precious leisure they have, and work for the benefit of others who may never thank them or even know about it? Who are you, to make such demands of them?”
“I reject that conception,” I said. “Being moral is not an activity in its own right that we do in addition to everything else. It’s a thread that runs through all the activities we engage in. We need honest, trustworthy, compassionate people right here just as much as we need them anywhere else in the world. Maybe I am asking people to be more thoughtful and do more to help others as their situation permits, but I see nothing wrong with that. We wouldn’t need to do very much at all to create a utopia if every person was willing to contribute. All I’m suggesting is that each person should do the little that would be needed of them in that scenario. And it is worthwhile: virtue isn’t a tax we have to pay, it’s an investment that bears dividends. Reach out to others, I’m saying, and you’ll find more happiness and meaning for yourself than you ever could have otherwise.”
In the darkness, the blare of a horn; a distant rumble increasing in pitch, a bright bolt of light spearing the dark, a whip of wind, a moment of thunder and then the other train had passed by, the windows of its cars lit, but no one visible within.
“We’re going to have to agree to disagree there,” the Tempter said, once the train had gone by. “If you’re determined to bring this gospel of yours to the masses, I can’t stop you. But I suggest you keep in mind the response you’re likely to get. Almost certainly, the vast majority of people will be uninterested and the ones who disagree will be actively hostile. It has ever been thus. Don’t forget, the majority of humanity is still religious, often very religious. What will they think of an atheist who claims to have the key to morality? Will they give you a fair hearing? Will they debate you from the pulpit? No, they will cast you aside with slander and scorn. You know this.”
“Then why?” he asked sharply. “Why try to enlighten people who will denounce you and fight against you every step of the way? Why proclaim what you see as the truth to people whose eyes and ears are closed against you, people who would silence you in an instant if only they could? You know the immensity of what you stand against. The institutions of faith are as old as humanity and control most of what goes on on this planet. They have truly enormous amounts of wealth, influence and power invested in them. Why try to sail into that wind? Why struggle against the current?”
“What else can I do?” I asked, realizing it was a mistake as soon as I said it.
“I’m glad you asked,” the Tempter smiled. “All along you’ve been viewing the religiosity of humankind as an obstacle, my friend. But just invert your perspective for a moment, and you’ll see matters in a completely different way. Human beings want to be deceived. They hunger for it, they plead for it. That castle standing before you could become a wide-open path if only you’d give them what they ask for. You would be doing them a favor. Tell them their beliefs are justified. Tell them their fantasies are all true. Tell them sometimes you just have to stop doubting and take a leap of faith. You know you could do it. You wouldn’t even have to believe it yourself, if it still offends your intellect. Just tell people what they want so desperately to hear, and they would reward you in ways you can scarcely imagine. You could have ten times the following you currently do, a hundred. It would be so easy.”
The Tempter was sparing no effort. I could feel his pull, an almost magnetic influence. For just a moment, I could see the world he sketched, like an image shimmering in the air between us. All it would take would be one step, one word, to divert reality from this track onto that one…
But then reason reasserted itself. I mustered my defenses and wrenched away from his pull.
“Most of what you say is true,” I conceded. “People might reward me for telling them what they wanted to hear. But how would I reward myself? Could I go before people every day and teach lessons I didn’t believe? Make arguments I myself can’t take seriously? And see them smiling and nodding all the while? No amount of fame or success could make up for that. What you don’t see is that I’m not doing this because I intend to get something out of it. I’m doing this because this, as best as I can possibly determine, is the truth. That’s what drives me, that’s what I respond to. I can see a better future than yours, a little further up the road maybe. It calls to me, like a lantern in the night, and I’m going to head for it. You don’t understand what drives me at all if you think I’d respond to something before that.”
“What’s this talk of lanterns in the night?” the Tempter scoffed. He had moved slightly back into the shadow, and his eyes glittered black in the snowlight. “You think that future you imagine is anything other than an illusion? You think you can drag humanity there by yourself? Face it, people haven’t joined you; they don’t use reason, they never have. That candle of rational skepticism you work so hard to shelter will burn out sooner or later. Night is falling, and you might as well take what you can get for yourself before that happens.”
“The dawn is coming,” I said firmly, looking into the east. It was still dark as deepest midnight.
“You see a dawn?” he scoffed. “There will never be a dawn, not after this night. There were a few flickers, but that was all, and they’re dying embers now. We’re hurtling toward the precipice, and people aren’t going to change their selfish, irrational ways in time. We have too much inertia to switch tracks now. Any change that you or anyone else could possibly bring about would come far too late.”
“People have been predicting doom for millennia,” I pointed out. “It hasn’t happened yet. We seem to have done well so far.”
“Just because the doomsayers of the past were premature doesn’t mean that no future predictions of the sort can come true. What you don’t grasp is that in the past, humanity never actually had the power to destroy itself. Now it does. We’re not a bunch of monkeys throwing stones at each other any more; we have weapons of unimaginable power, and people who still take their marching orders from a Bronze Age volcano god have their fingers on the buttons. We’ve learned just enough to destroy ourselves and no more; that’s always what happens when selfishness aspires to knowledge. And frankly, we deserve what we get.”
“Not so. It’s worked out that way because destruction is always easier than creation. But in our search for knowledge, we’ve also learned enough to get a glimpse of how much more we could be, and that vision has inspired many of us. Just look into the writings from the past – Jefferson, Paine, Ingersoll, Sagan – people who led us out of chaos and into enlightenment. I give humanity more credit than you do; there really are many of us who get it, and our voices are growing louder. All our problems are of our own making, and none are beyond our ability to solve. We’ve done it before, and we can do it again.”
“And do those noble visions you mentioned show any signs of catching on among the rest of us?” the Tempter scoffed. “The world is still the nasty, ignorant and brutish place it’s always been. It’s easy to exaggerate the influence of a handful of people, but don’t forget there are still tens of millions who wouldn’t have any idea what you’d be talking about if you said that to them. If the great people you name haven’t solved our problems, then what makes you think anyone alive today will be able to do better? Do you think they’ll be building statues to you a hundred years after you’re dead?”
“They did some, now we have to do more. Moral progress doesn’t start all over again in each generation; we build on what has been passed down to us. And just as you say that predictions of doom were premature, I say it’s premature to declare all our utopian visions to be failures. History is still unfolding, and there are a lot of forces working for good. And no, I don’t want any statues. If people are still reading any of the things I wrote in a hundred years, I’d be happy with that, but I’d be even happier if they no longer need to. I’ll contribute what I can to helping humankind fulfill the potential I know it has, but it’s more important to me that it gets done than who does it.”
The Tempter scowled. “Believe it or not, I’m an altruist,” he said. “I want what’s best for you. It’s unfortunate you don’t want to listen, but one day you’ll see the wisdom in what I’m saying, and then you’ll see your current position for the foolishness it is.”
“I can’t discount the possibility that I’ll change my mind in the future,” I replied, “but that doesn’t affect the fact that here and now, I must make my decision based on the best evidence available to me.”
The Tempter looked back at me one last time – a long, steady look – then stepped back into the shadows. A moment later, the blare of a horn burst upon me, much louder than before; a brilliant light cut through the dark, a whistle blew shrilly, and a thunderous rumble shuddered to a halt. My train rolled up to the platform, its flanks steaming with vapor. A door hissed open, and a shaft of light from within fell onto the platform. Shaking off my dark and dreamy mood, I grasped the handrail and stepped inside, ready for the next phase of my journey.