The purpose of human life is not "feeling good", but being good, and as a leading philosopher recently wrote, "the beautiful is the way the good manifests itself to the rational creature."
I couldn't begin to count how many times students have lied to me over the years, and the lying is usually motivated by the desire to save an average that is threatened, for example, by an overdue assignment that is about to be handed in. You are all familiar with this sort of thing, and so it comes as no surprise. And neither am I particularly surprised or shocked at such things. It goes with the territory. But for the first time in my teaching career, one of my students took lying to a new level by claiming that I actually did something that I did not do, namely, hand back an assignment to her without a mark on it formerly, the lying never involved me directly. I knew that my memory was not as sharp as it used to be, but after examining the particular assignment in question, I knew that I had never laid eyes on the paper before. It was so well done that I would have easily remembered reading it and handing it back to her. And then I remembered that this student was one of two that received a zero for not handing it in. It also turned out that her work was entirely plagiarized, copied from the work of another student. In short, this student took advantage of my deteriorating memory, a deterioration that usually begins when a person hits forty.
But what struck me about the entire incident was the sudden change in the physical appearance of this particular student. From a physical point of view, she was quite pretty and could easily do well in a career in modeling. But her entire demeanor turned ugly. Her eyes changed in some way, and her countenance thinned out. And there is a reason for this. There is a real link between one's physical demeanor and one's character.
There is really nothing more important than one's character, for a person's character determines his eternal destiny. The choices that we make never simply disappear into the past, but they stay with us; for they shape, color, and form our character and personality. If a beautiful woman who had a promising career in modeling were to suddenly take a knife and begin cutting into her face, there is little doubt that she would immediately be committed to a psychiatric hospital. Clearly, such a person has no idea what she is doing to herself. But this is the sort of thing that happens when we mutilate our moral character by deliberately choosing to do evil, such as lie, for the sake of some temporary and fleeting good. The person simply does not understand the kind of damage she is doing to herself. And it is especially difficult to get people to see this. For it is true that your character is more "you" than your own complexion, and it is incomparably more valuable.
For there is a real relationship that exists between "doing" and "being", that is, between what I choose to do and what I become. If I choose to lie to you, I become a liar, or a person who cannot be trusted. That is what I am. If I choose to steal from you, I am a thief. If I choose to kill, I am a killer. Even though these choices might have been made in the past, and though nobody might know about them, nevertheless, I am still a person of a certain character on account of these choices. I remain untrustworthy, unless of course I repent of these decisions from the heart. Now some people simply don't care about what they are or have become by their choices, but are more concerned for how they feel. And yet such people rarely seem to discover why it is that they almost never really "feel good" in the sense of a profound and enduring happiness.
Most of us are familiar with Judge Judy. One of her favorite lines is "Beauty fades, but dumb is forever". And there is a tremendous amount of truth to what she says here, if looked upon from a particular angle. But I would like to look upon this statement from another angle. Consider the statement "Beauty fades, but character is forever". The second half of this statement is indeed true; for we determine our eternal destiny by the choices that we make (either eternal life with God, or eternal alienation from God), and it is our character that is shaped by our choices. But, as we said above, there is a real link between one's physical demeanor and one's character. It is the latter, namely character, that profoundly affects the former (physical demeanor), as was evident in the example of my student's lie. So, if character is forever, then in a very real sense it is possible to keep beauty from fading.
Recently I heard the story of a man who had his first marriage annulled by the Church. His wife was strikingly beautiful, from a physical point of view. But the marriage lasted no more than a year. Later, he married again, this time to a woman of much lesser beauty, at least from a purely physical point of view. But, he insists, "she is more beautiful than the first one." For she is more generous, more honest, less self-centered, more modest, in short, more virtuous. She has more character. Consequently, she has more beauty.
Aristotle provides a clue as to why this woman would come across as more beautiful than the previous, and why it is that dishonesty, for example, tends to render one's countenance unsightly. Moral philosophy is the study of good and evil in human action. It is the study of how to choose well. Aristotle's great work in the area of moral philosophy is his Nichomachean Ethics. Now the very word "ethics", from the Greek ethike, is derived from ethos, or habit. A good habit is a virtue, and a virtue is a characteristic for it characterizes a person. A morally good choice is one that determines good character. How do we determine, though, what constitutes a morally good choice? In short, the answer is choices that accord with right reason. According to Aristotle, the goodness that appeals to right reason is not pleasure or social standing, but what he refers to as the kalon. This is a difficult word to translate in English. The kalon is usually translated, in the context of aesthetics, as "the beautiful". We could translate it as "morally right", or as "morally good", but the sense of the glowing attractiveness of the kalon is missed when we do so. I'd like to settle for the "morally beautiful", which is meant to cover "morally good" and the obligation or duty of choosing what is morally right, which is all included in the kalon.
The purpose of the moral life is to pursue neither pleasure, nor social status, but the noble, the good, the morally beautiful. The purpose of human life is not "feeling good", but being good, and as a leading philosopher recently wrote, "the beautiful is the way the good manifests itself to the rational creature." A person of good moral character will be experienced by others as a beautiful person, as a very attractive person. But we do not become beautiful by feeling good. Rather, we become beautiful by choosing the good (kalon). One becomes good by possessing certain habits or positive qualities which are the moral virtues.
Later on in life you may meet someone who, at first glance, does not appeal to you, at least from the point of view of carrying on an intimate relationship. But if they have good character, something will begin to happen. They will become increasingly attractive. The Greek term kalon is derived from the verb kaleo, which means "to call" or "summon". The kalon, the morally beautiful, is attractive, for it draws or summons us. Conversely, you may meet someone who at first glance will take your breath away. As you begin to discover his or her lack of good character, though, his/her beauty will begin to fade, and any attraction that was there originally will have vanished.
What is the reason for this? The reason is that man is a unity of spirit and matter. Spirit and matter are not two separate substances within us, but two principles of the one substance that we are. In you, matter has been "spiritualized" so to speak. Looking at a person's face, we behold not a hunk of matter, but something intelligible, something spiritual, namely, intelligent expression. Spirit manifests itself in matter. And this is especially true of moral character.
What are some of the details of beautiful character? Let's begin with the cardinal virtues. These virtues shape the principal powers of the human person, namely the concupiscible appetite and the emotions that arise from it (perfected by temperance), the irascible appetite and its emotions (perfected by fortitude), the will (perfected by justice), and the intellect (perfected by prudence).
First, the least popular virtue, temperance. It moderates the pleasures of touch, in particular those pleasures associated with eating, drinking, and sexual activity. The hedonist is one who lives solely for pleasure, and so the hedonist sees no reason to moderate these pleasures. Pleasure is, in his eyes at least, the supreme good, for he sees himself as simply one animal alongside other animals. But man is more than a brute animal, and so there is far more to human life than pleasure. As the psalmist writes: "What is man that you should be mindful of him, or the son of man that you should care for him? Yet you have made him little less than the angels, and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him rule over the works of your hands, putting all things under his feet: All sheep and oxen, yes, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fishes of the sea, and whatever swims the paths of the seas" (Ps 8, 5-9). In this light, man is above beast, but below the angels. He is a composite of spirit and matter an angel, on the contrary, is pure spirit. Unlike man, an animal is not capable of spiritual beauty. Man's good results from the harmonization of spirit and matter, that is, a harmony between the demands of reason and the appetites of the body and the appetite of the will. But what is it that reason demands? It demands that we order our entire life towards our proper end or destiny, which is eternal life with God, or the beatific vision. For man is a creature of both intellect and will. His perfection consists above all in the perfection of these two powers. The proper act of the intellect is to know, and the proper act of the will is to love. And so man's perfection and chief purpose in life will be to come to know the highest and most intelligible being and love the greatest good. In other words, man's purpose is to come to know and love God. Excessive sensuality derails a person's return to his origin and prevents him from achieving his destiny. As Scripture says, "no one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon" (Mt, 6, 24). God cannot be the center of one's life if pleasure has become the center.
Temperance moderates the pleasures of touch according to the requirements of reason, and it is not reasonable to pursue pleasure for its own sake and without any reference to basic human goods, such as life and health or marital love. In fact, it is downright childish. Children are at the mercy of their pleasure appetite. A spoiled child is more interested in the satisfaction of his appetites than he is in the good of others, and we all know that there is nothing beautiful about a child who has been spoiled "rotten". So too, an intemperate man is more interested in feeling good than in justice and the good of others.
But temperance is difficult to acquire. The only way to do so, nonetheless, is to begin to practice it, which means to start choosing to moderate one's appetite for food. A person who lacks temperance in regard to food lives primarily to eat. And there are indeed many people who live primarily for the pleasures of food and drink, and these are not necessarily the overweight nor are the overweight necessarily intemperate. Their conversation usually centers upon little more than what it was they ate at this time or that place. This is a very inhuman way to be; for these people are not terribly interested in the more weighty matters, such as the homeless, the chronically hungry, or the plight of the poor, the common good, or even their own eternal destiny. And they more than likely will not be there for you in time of great need; for their primary concern is the satisfaction of their desire to feel pleasant, and they find it hard to forget themselves for long periods, which is necessary when dealing with one who is suffering.
Chastity is a very important part of temperance. The proper context of the sexual act is that of a committed marriage relationship. Any sexual activity outside of this context is simply unchaste. There is nothing beautiful about the sexually promiscuous person, to use an extreme case. But there is something very attractive about the chaste man or woman who is willing to commit his or her life to another until death severs the relationship, when that commitment is not based on the experience of the sexual act. For unselfish or disinterested love always appears to us as beautiful.
The pleasure of sex is especially vehement, and that is why it is especially important to gain control over one's sexual appetite for the tendency is to allow it to control us. The sexual act is an expression of a love that is entirely self giving, but more often than not it is reduced to a mutual exchange of pleasure in which each person uses the other as a means to an end, which is the experience of orgasm. The discovery that one has been used by another is a very painful one, for it involves the realization that one has not been treated as a person equal in dignity to the other, but has been reduced to an object that was loved only for what one could provide sexually.
The sexual act becomes fully "humanized" when it is made to serve the two human goods of married love and the procreation of new life. In fact, it is only in this context that the sex act becomes truly meaningful. Consider the poster published by Life Cycle Books that bears the legend: "For the best sex, slip on one of these". One expects to see a picture of a condom in its wrapper, but instead two wedding rings are depicted. There is a great truth hidden in this poster. For temperance does not suppress passion, but channels it in accordance with reason. The nature of emotion is such that when governed by reason, it has more power, and thus we become more passionate. And this is true of chastity. Let me attempt to explain. Consider the difference between pleasure and joy. As Thomas Merton once wrote: "Do not look for rest in any pleasure, because you were not created for pleasure: you were created for Joy. And if you do not know the difference between pleasure and joy you have not yet begun to live." Joy is a spiritual phenomenon, and it results from genuine and disinterested love, that is, the love that wills the good of the other for his or her own sake, not for the sake of what he or she does for me. When the sexual act occurs in the context of committed and disinterested married love, the joy of this love spills over into the body and actually increases the pleasure of the sex act. This is why the sexual activity of the unchaste is never truly satisfying, which is also why unchaste sex tends to become promiscuous.
Another part of the virtue of temperance is meekness, which restrains the onslaught of the emotion of anger. The intemperate tend to be rather cantankerous and capricious, for their hearts are set on convenience and ease, and yet life is full of inconveniences. Not disposed to restraining themselves, they are wont to allow their emotion of anger to go unchecked. As Walker Percy indicates in his novel The Second Coming, people are cruel because they love pleasure too much.
Humility moderates the love we have for our own excellence. The opposite of humility, namely pride, amounts to an inordinate or excessive love of one's excellence. Such a person wishes to be more excellent than he is capable of being, and he will try not to depend on others where it is reasonable to do so. The proud also wish to appear more excellent than they are and wish to be preferred to others. In the Old Testament it is frequently said that: "The Lord looks upon the haughty from afar".
Modesty of Movement and Modesty of Apparel (dress) are very important parts of temperance. The way a person dresses reveals a great deal about his or her character. The expression "You can't judge a book by its cover" is generally true of books, but it is not always true of people. A chaste girl, for example, will not dress in tight and provocative clothing that is more fitting for the street prostitute, and those who do often have a need to be made the object of others' attention. Nor does such apparel appear attractive to the young man who has a reasonable measure of self-respect. Civies day often provides an accurate indication of who it is among us that needs to grow up.
Fortitude is also an important virtue that contributes to the beauty of character. Fortitude enables us to curb our fears and moderate our daring. Love is beautiful, but a love that is conquered by fear of danger is weak and short lived. Courageous love is willing to die for the sake of truth and the good. Patience is a part of fortitude, and without it we are bound to be overcome by the hardships and sorrow that accompany the pursuit of difficult goods. Confidence, perseverance, and magnificence (the doing of great things at great expense) also contribute to noble character. Magnanimity is the virtue that is concerned with overcoming the difficulties connected with the doing of great things and acquiring great honors. The magnanimous person is not arrogant or even presumptuous. Rather, he is aware of his limits as well as his talents and abilities, and he employs these talents for great and honorable ends note that social status in itself is not a great and honorable end.
Justice is the virtue that above all beautifies the character; for justice perfects the will (the heart). In short, it is the perpetual and constant will to render what is due to another. The key word in this definition is "due", or "that which is owed", namely, the debt. In order to become a completely just person, one must first acquire certain virtues that are allied with justice, the first of which is thoughtfulness. I believe that one of the most serious mistakes that parents, for the most part, continue to make these days is that they fail to teach thoughtfulness to their children, and thoughtfulness can only be taught, for it does not come naturally. And although it may not be entirely their fault but the fault of parents many young people today simply lack a spirit of thoughtfulness. As an example, I've been teaching Confirmation classes for about five years now, to young people who do not attend Catholic school. I usually teach around twenty students each year, so in the past five years I have taught about one hundred kids. I've enjoyed the young people tremendously, but what I find particularly sad is that out of those one hundred students, it has occurred to only two of them to return to the parish with a thank you note and a gift in appreciation for taking time out of a busy schedule every week for four months to prepare them. I don't entirely blame them, because thoughtfulness is a habit and must be taught and role modeled, and in this regard the young people are only reflecting the thoughtlessness of their parents, who should know better.
But it is never too late to learn thoughtfulness and acquire the habit. Thoughtfulness is the beginning of holiness, said Mother Theresa. And it begins with the recognition of a debt. It is really a marvelous experience to consider how much we owe to the generosity of others. We are the beneficiaries of the hard work of millions and millions of people. Consider the very existence of Catholicism in North America, which was the result of the heroic sacrifices of the Martyrs, such as Saints Isaac Jogues, John de Brebeuf, and Charles Garnier, etc. They gave up a life of comfort in Europe and embraced a very uncomfortable, cold, tiring and dangerous life here in 17th century Canada, and their lives ended in extreme torment at the hands of the Iroquois. Or, consider the many social benefits that we receive in this country, all on account of a majority of Canadians who were willing to pay higher taxes so that everyone would have access to quality medical care and other social benefits. Our working conditions and minimum wage did not just fall on our laps without a difficult and painful struggle, one in which we were not involved. Consider the debt we owe to our parents who gave us life. It was only in my later university years that I began to realize the debt I owe to my teachers, especially my philosophy professors that I had in my first four years of study. It is marvelous to consider these things, for we begin to realize just how good life really is, and we become aware that we cannot hope to fully repay these people, many of whom we don't even know.
Thoughtfulness leads us outside of ourselves, for we are often overly preoccupied with our lives and the passing trivialities that fill up much of an ordinary day. This movement outside of ourselves is the necessary condition for acquiring the next very important part of justice, namely, gratitude. It is so important to learn to say "thank you" to others, to show gratitude where it is due. There are so many people, for example, that we neglect at Christmas time, but who should not be neglected, such as our teachers, our vice-principals and principal, school secretaries, our parents above all, and the local parish priest who is rarely left alone to enjoy an hour of peace and quiet. If we work on gratitude, our Christmas list will no doubt get larger, but our lives will become happier and our demeanor will become more beautiful.
Natural piety, another important part of justice, renders due honor to our parents and country. The person who fails to honor his parents and recognize the debt that he cannot fully repay is one who will forever remain incapable of recognizing the debt he owes the civil community, and so he will fail in that part of piety that is a love for one's country, or patriotism. He is the kind of person who has a right to expect anything from everyone, but has a duty to no one. Such a one is a threat to the common good if there ever was one, and if such a life has any benefit on the civil community, it will only be incidental.
And so piety is the condition for the possibility of genuine patriotism, for we cannot fully repay what we owe to the country as a whole, but we are required to try, and this means doing our part for future generations. It means directing our lives towards the common good (general justice). The person who lives primarily for himself, as opposed to the common good, is an unjust and ungrateful man who fails to recognize all the goods of which he has been made the beneficiary. Such a person will be unjust in all his other relations, for the unjust man is unwilling to maintain the proper equality between himself and others. Such a person is a "taker", one who readily takes from others, but gives little or nothing in return. Is this neglect on the part of parents to instill the habit of thoughtfulness and gratitude preparing the way for a generation of takers? If the neglect is widespread, then the future character of this nation is going to become something very different and much colder than that of a previous generation.
Part of the problem may very well have been the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, for this charter fails to call attention to what the entire civil community as a whole has a right to expect from its citizens. The Charter seems to limit itself to the outline of individual rights, but mentions nothing of the obligations that individual persons have towards the civil community as a whole.
Observance is a very important part of justice. This is the virtue by which we inwardly feel and outwardly express the respect that is due towards those persons who are distinguished by their office or by some dignity. No one can give adequate recompense to the ability of rightly administering an office. Each person again profits from the proper administration of public offices, such as that of the teacher, the court judge, or the holder of political office, etc. For it is through the proper administration of these offices that the common good is brought into existence. The holders of such offices cannot be fully acquitted by payment. Observance is the virtue that acknowledges this situation by the respect or reverence shown a person holding such an office of public responsibility. Even if the person holding the office does so irresponsibly (which seems to be the norm today), we are required to honor the office and the whole community in the person holding the office. Cultivating this virtue is very important if we are to develop a just character. Behavior such as booing a Vice Principal at an assembly or swearing at a teacher, or cursing a Member of Parliament, are examples of the vice that opposes observance.
Religion is also a part of justice. In fact, it is the most perfect part of justice. It is a fundamental duty for us to be religious, for it is to God that we are indebted above all. It is not possible to completely render to God what is due to Him, because in order to begin doing so, we have to be given the gift of existence. God's gifts are always prior to anything we can accomplish in the way of trying to do justice to Him. So there is a natural duty to be religious as there is a natural duty to be just. The non religious man is an unjust man and will likely remain unjust in his relations with his fellows and with the civil community as a whole, despite the fact that he will never admit to such a thing. For inasmuch as it is impossible to fully render to God what is due to Him, a person is required by the demands of justice to surrender his life to God, to make every attempt to order his life entirely in accordance with God's will, that is, to make God the very center of his moral existence. The love of God is to be the form of all his actions. In doing so, he still does not satisfy the debt, but he does all he can to do so.
Finally, it is a part of justice to tell the truth (honesty). For human beings have a right not to be lied to or deceived. To lie is to willingly violate due equality. Lying above all destroys a person and sets him on the road that quickly descends into the valley of personal disintegration. As Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky writes: "A man who lies to himself, and believes his own lies, becomes unable to recognize truth, either in himself or in anyone else, and he ends up losing respect for himself as well as for others. When he has no respect for anyone, he can no longer love and, in order to divert himself, having no love in him, he yields to his impulses, indulges in the lowest forms of pleasure, and behaves in the end like an animal, in satisfying his vices." The liar's countenance is particularly revealing. The eyes lack strong personality and tend to be somewhat vacant, and they lend the impression that this person is one who cannot be fully trusted.
These virtues shape human character into something noble, good, and beautiful, and on account of the intimate union between spirit and matter, such nobility and beauty is communicated to matter, that is, to the person's body, and in particular the person's countenance. Through these virtues the whole person becomes attractive (kaleo).
But we begin by choosing. So much in life depends upon the simple fact of making a choice, and so much good results from making a good choice. The mystery is that some people simply do not choose the road that leads to a beautiful life. They choose not to choose, which is a choice nevertheless. Why this happens may have something to do with the fact that vice contributes to a dulling of the intellect, especially the vice of intemperance, in particular unchastity. The more a person plunges headlong into the life of sensuality, the less able he is to discern that course of action which agrees with right reason and the less he cares to. What inevitably results in such cases is that the person gradually spirals down into deeper vice, until he is so lost in the darkness of the wilderness that he cannot hope to find his way back, and since the virtue of humility has been obliterated, he will refuse to allow anyone to direct him back into the light of day. Like cancer, it is of the nature of evil to spread until it engulfs and eventually destroys the person who has it. That is why the teenage years are critical. If a person does not choose rightly at this stage of his life, it will only be more difficult during the later years of adult life.
This is the punishment that results from choosing vice over virtue; not only does one miss out on a happy life and a beautiful demeanor, but one also sinks more and more deeply into darkness and vice until there is no turning back short of a miracle, of course. That is why some choose to settle for a purely temporal kind of existence that focuses on the goods of the body. They fail to see that life is very brief and that what survives the grave is a person's character and the virtues that define it. It is this character that gives final meaning to one's personal history. Consider the title of the film Life is Beautiful. Guido's life in particular was beautiful because it was characterized by virtue. He did not allow the sorrow of the situation in which he found himself to overcome him, and through him darken the life of his son. Rather, through heroic patience he was able to rise above the horror of a Nazi concentration camp, and in doing so was able to keep that horror from haunting his son for the rest of his life. Such a life is beautiful. But no one celebrates the life of a person who was committed simply to feeling good, or the life of a person devoted to social standing. There is nothing attractive about a life without genuine virtue. Such lives are dull, empty, and tragic. Your life may not ever be celebrated in film, but if you choose to live your life in accordance with the kalon, the Lord, in company with all the saints, will celebrate your life for eternity, for it will be a life that shares in the glory of the only Son of God, who came to impart that glory to all who choose to cloth themselves in it.
And I have given them the glory you gave me, Father, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you love them even as you loved me. (Jn 17, 22-23)
McManaman, Douglas. "The Secret to Looking Beautiful." Journal: A Publication of the Canadian Chapter of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars (Winter 2001/2002).
Reprinted with permission of Douglas McManaman.
Doug McManaman is a Deacon and a Religion and Philosophy teacher at Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, Ontario, Canada. He is the past president of the Canadian Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. Deacon Douglas studied Philosophy at St. Jerome's College in Waterloo, and Theology at the University of Montreal. He is the author of Christ Lives!, The Logic of Anger, Why Be Afraid?, Basic Catholicism, Introduction to Philosophy for Young People, and A Treatise on the Four Cardinal Virtues. Deacon McManaman is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center. Visit his website here.Copyright © 2002 Douglas McManaman
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