Fake And Real Virtue

Fake And Real Virtue May 28, 2020

Anonymous: Allegory of Man   /Wikimedia Commons

“The virtuous may appear to be bad, but essentially they are good; superficially, the self-important and pleasure-loving may appear to be good, but they are evil.”[1] We must never judge someone by mere appearances (cf. Jn. 7:24). Many people seem to be good and holy. They put on a show making us think they are. And yet, in reality, they are anything but holy. They are manipulative and seek some inordinate gain by pretending to be something they are not. On the other hand, there are others, who might seem simple and uncouth, who seem to follow no social conventions, whose holiness transcends what they seem to be. They do not put on a show for others. Because they are humble, they do what is right without concern of what others think of them. For this reason, since they have not made people know of themselves and what they have accomplished, many do not think of them as holy, but they really are.

It is important for us to realize that the pursuit of holiness is good, but we can be easily diverted from it. When we begin to believe we have attained our goal, we sustain ourselves as we are instead of allowing ourselves to continue to develop as we should. Or, we might receive some sort of temporal reward for what we have done, enjoy it, and begin to pursue such rewards instead of the virtue itself.

Many begin their spiritual journey correctly but lose their way.  They take to heart the rewards they receive, such as the praise of others, and do whatever it takes to continue to receive what pleases them. Some will convince themselves this is all for the good because what they do is for the good, but they neglect the greater, holistic good. Slowly, even the good which they intend can be lost, and they excuse such a loss through sophistry. This can be seen, for example, in the way the so-called pro-life movement has become so focused on one aspect of life that all other forms of life are seen as negligible, if not outright ignored. Once this became the case, life itself was no longer their concern. Its value has become relativized. This is why so many who call themselves pro-life have no interest in defending the dignity of others. They only consider certain forms of life as worthy of being defended, and even then, their relativism begins show itself so that even among those forms of life they claim to be interested in defending, they end up showing little to no interest in them when it becomes inconvenient. This can be seen in the way many pro-lifers, who claim that developing life in the womb should be protected, promote policies which discriminate and harm immigrants. When it is shown such policies are shown to cause pregnant women lose their babies, as has happened in ICE detention centers, these so-called pro-lifers find all kinds of excuses to ignore the plight of the child.

What we see, then, is that some particular good becomes the excuse to ignore the greater good. And once the greater good is neglected, even that particular good becomes lessened as the focus becomes less about the good itself and rather the pleasure which one receives by appearing to follow that good. It ends up being all about appearances, without any concern for reality.

Those who are truly good, those who seek the good rather than the apparent good, are not so in love with themselves that they lose sight of the good which they seek. Indeed, the more they do what is right, the humbler they become. They lose sight of themselves and all the good which they do because their focus remains with the greater good which always lies beyond themselves.  Thus, as Ilias explains, there are two types of ignorance, that which comes out of pride, making people ignore their faults, and that of humility, which makes people ignore their own virtues:

A haughty person is not aware of his faults, or a humble person of his good qualities. An evil ignorance blinds the first, an ignorance pleasing to God blinds the second. [2]

This follows with what Jesus himself told us when he said:

But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Mat.  6:3-4 RSV).

Giving alms is one of the many ways we can become virtuous. But we can give alms for the wrong reason, and so lose out of the potential virtue associated with almsgiving.  This is especially a problem with those who begin to believe themselves to be great philanthropists for what they give to others, seeking the acclaim of being a philanthropist more than actually being one. This is not to say those who they helped are not truly helped. However, the person who gives in this way gets the limited reward they desire, the acclaim of others. But what is such acclaim? It is fleeting and will come to naught. This is why Paul says if we give to the poor without love, it means nothing (cf. 1 Cor. 13:3). Jesus, therefore, tells us to give alms so that we do not keep hold of our deeds in our thoughts, which is what he means by telling us not to let the left hand know what the right hand is doing. We should act out of love, not any consideration for reward.

We should seek virtue without being attached to the temporal rewards of virtue. This is not easy. Most of us will receive some pleasure for doing what is good, and pursue the good because of that pleasure. That means, most of us have mixed motives behind our actions. Nonetheless, so long as our motives are mixed, there is still some part of us desiring the greater good, meaning, we have not yet entirely fell into the trap which leads us astray. This is why we should not be discouraged when we realize how mixed our motives are. The fact that we recognize such an imperfection and understand how it hinders us means we can seek to overcome it instead of letting it overcome us. But once we turn a blind eye to it, then it can get the best of us, turning us into mere actors instead of people who truly seek and desire what is good and holy.


[1] Ilias the Presbyter, “Gnomic Anthology I,” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume Three. trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), 35 [#12].

[2] Ilias the Presbyter, “Gnomic Anthology I,” 38 [#37].

 

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