A Man of Easier Virtue (Summer in the Republic 10)

Satan cannot produce blessings and so his ancient trick is to make blessings a snare.

Wealth, as the Old Testament demonstrates, is a natural result of following God’s laws. In a broken world, this does not always happens, but it generally does.

If Biblical authority is  not enough, try classical. Socrates and his friend in Republic suggest:

The best thing about being rich is that it makes virtue easier to obtain. The worst thing about being rich is that wealth makes virtue appear less valuable. 

The poor man who is undercharged at the grocery store has a greater temptation to keep the money than the rich man. Virtue is its own reward, but for a rich man the start up costs of Virtue Inc. are lower.

The rich person can do the right thing more easily. Generally a good and just society will reward good behavior and punish bad, even unjust societies could not function at all if they did not do this to some extent. As a result, people tend to do well by doing good.

The blessings of a goodly inheritance extend to the very end of life.

Rich and poor, we all will do one thing: die. The rich are privileged even in death! How? As death approaches, a person’s thoughts turn to what is next. If a person generally has done the right thing he can hope for mercy, but if he has blown it badly, then he is troubled in his heart. One advantage of wealth is that it is easier to make restitution!

Yet having gained the advantages of a good parent, the headstart of a good inheritance, and residence in a republic, the young heart might confuse these thing with good he has done. This is delusion, but one that can allow the heir of a great republic, of wealth, or privilege to use his inheritance for vice as if he possesses himself some natural goodness to counteract the errors.

An old man, Cephalus, tells Socrates in Republic:

But the man with a clear conscience will have Pindar’s “sweet hope” as the constant companion of his age. Pindar’s lines are really a beautiful celebration of the old man who has lived justly and reverently:

Hope, the mainstay of our mortal purposes, warms his heart and shares his journey into age, his companion and his tender nurse. This is a fine-indeed, a wondrous-saying.

This is the reward of virtue, and the chief value of wealth is to strengthen virtue-if not in every man, then in the good man. Money makes it easier for a man to shun cheating and fraud. Money enables him to pay his debts, so that he need not fear the next world because of what he owes to gods or men in this one. Money obviously has other uses, too. All in all, however, I believe that wealth’s chief service to the reasonable man is what I have just described:

Wealth does not equal virtue, but is a tool that can further a good man’s quest for courage, temperance, practical wisdom, justice, faith, hope, and love. When our forefathers and mothers leave us a good inheritance, we are given the gift of time and so opportunity, purchased with that inheritance, and so are thankful. If we use that inheritance well (Lord have mercy on me!), then we gain hope for our children in this life and the benefits of a clean conscience as we face the world to come.

Yet here is the great error that Cephalus makes and that if I am not careful I will make. He has indentified good actions that money has helped him do, but also implies that one can buy off the gods with sacrifices. In our context, that might be the foolish notion that gifts to the Church or to charties can win us favor in the court of Heaven.

Nonsense.

The measure of a man before God is virtue and justice is more than paying our debts. What is justice? That will be the topic of the rest of Republic, but this much is obvious. Nobody, certainly not me, can look at our lives and only feel hope. Why? Justice is absolute and even our good inheritance may have been gained itself with injustice. We have not behaved as we should and no inheritance is umixed. Adam gave us the image of God, but in broken social structures.

As revelation avows and Plato demonstrates: we are none just, no not one. Somehow we must be saved from the evils we have inherited and learn to use the great goods we have received for virtue. And so we are led back, even here, to the need for Jesus, but that is a longer and different story!

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*I begin an informal summer reading of Republic using Scott/Sterling (a new translation for me). Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10.

**I have no idea how much of what I know is just Professor Al Geier filtered through my eccentricity. Here is to you Al!


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