Revised (original post)Years ago I spent time trying to understand what “goodness” meant. I knew Aristotle’s notion that “goods” where what people pursued–peace, wealth, more comfortable sandals–but I wanted something more vital and clear than that. What I eventually came to, after dozens of detours and cul-de-sacs, was that goodness was essentially a vision of life as we want it. Most importantly, it was the vision of life one can glimpse as through a glass darkly in sacred literature–the vision that deity has revealed and is revealing. We gather the light here a little and there a little, if we seek it with honest hearts and real intent.
When God finished creating the earth, he said that it was good. What did he mean by that? Teachers may confront that question, along with the question of how to talk intelligibly about it, because we sometimes meet young people who do not have any very useful understanding of what it means, who are not even sure it is something they should want.
They often confuse “goodness” with obeying a list of rules. This is understandable, since teaching an understanding of goodness often includes teaching rules.
But goodness is something larger and more important than a list of rules. Mainly, it is a vision of people living in all the little and big ways that support happiness. Fully realized, the vision is a vast and complex ecological order, quite beyond the comprehension of children. (Evil, of course, also has an ecology–it is a complex web of oppositions to the vision of goodness.)
I suppose the purpose of our life is to find our way back to a garden, where we are told we began. In the beginning, we did not need to care for the garden–it was gift. That meant that it wasn’t really ours, in a fundamental way. We were completely dependent on much that we could not see and did not understand. We couldn’t stay there, except at the cost of remaining forever children.
The way back to the garden, we have learned, is to re-create it around us. Then it will be ours, and we will be able to keep it because we understand it. We grow from creature to creator.
And so with children we teach little rules that both preserve the order and make visible its principles. Our rules are not meant to deprive our children of freedom. Quite the opposite–they are meant to be the stepping stones that keep us out of the cold, swirling forces we traverse moment by moment and that lead us to freedom.
When our children were small, exploring the world with hands and mouth, my wife and I kept a philodendron on the coffee table. For a time the poor plant got dumped on the floor or had its leaves torn off before we could intervene. Over and over we gently stopped little hands and said “No!” It would have been easier, no doubt, to simply to move the plant out of reach until the children were older, but that would be a controller’s strategy–to turn our home into a huge cocoon in which everything was either child-proof or out of.
Sure, we put cleaning solvents, prescription medicines, and other items that could cause genuine danger out of reach, but the philodendron was sacrificed to an ideal: it is better to awaken children than to pad the rooms where they are sleepwalking. And what we awaken them to is the order that surrounds them, which is the order of our lives, which is our best approximation so far of our vision of goodness.
So it was that we would sometimes encounter a gleeful daughter wildly shredding the leaves of our forlorn-looking philodendron. Such actions are teaching opportunities. So when a lightly slapped my daughter’s hand and said “No!” what did I want her to learn?
Obviously, I would have been disappointed if she had learned that plants are never to be touched, though from her child’s perspective that must at first have seemed to be my intent. In fact, I wanted her to learn things she could not then understand. “Thou shalt not touch the philodendron” was a little rule that didn’t express our final will. Rather, it was a means to a deeper law that might be expressed “Thou shalt respect living things,” or “Thou shalt live in a house of order.” And beyond these laws was a higher reality: “Thou shalt love plants.”
What we really wanted was for our children to learn to live in a garden, which is to say we wanted them to understand the earth and the processes of life, and we wanted them to care for the world in wise ways. We wanted them to recognize and desire goodness.
That’s quite a bit to learn. So let’s start with simple things: don’t touch the philodendron. We knew our daughter would question the rule, and we knew that as her questioning spirit became more mature, our answers, both implicit and explicit, would lead her toward understanding what we really wanted. Soon, we allowed her to help with such tasks as watering the plant. As she grew, we negotiated with her, gradually increasing her responsibilities and freedom to keep pace with her understanding.
In time the philodendron rule became irrelevant as she learned that plants not only could be touched, but they could be pruned, re-potted, fertilized and enjoyed. Beyond the philodendron rule lay profound principles, more difficult to understand but more liberating to live. Beyond the philodendron rule lay all the principles of wisdom, which are identical with the principles of goodness.
Wise traditions teach goodness by giving rules, because life is complicated in much the way ecosystems are complicated, and inexperienced people are likely to make decisions that damage or destroy their chances at happiness without understanding the long-term consequences of what they do. Good rules help keep people safe while they are still learning how life works.
As Wendell Berry has noted, the rules of morality are guidelines to long-term practicality. In many cases, they are summaries of centuries of experience about what sorts of actions tend toward misery, and of what sorts of actions contribute to happiness.
Goodness is closely related to wisdom, since happiness in this world will be fleeting unless our thoughts and actions are in harmony with the way things really are.
“Truth” is our name for such harmony.
A happy life is similar to a garden–it is a thing of beauty made out of the materials of this life, arranged in harmony with both the laws of science and the principles of beauty. It is an emblem of care, and an embodiment of joy. It includes a long history of things learned and remembered, and a long future of things desired and hoped.
It is here. It is now.