Goodness Tainted


Photo by Romualdas Rakauskas (1941), Lithuanian

In August 1854, Henry David Thoreau published his, now, widely known and dearly read, "Walden". The book described many details of the life in a cabin near Walden Pond, but it was not just a descriptive journal of the place and survival skills Thoreau needed in order to live those two years, two months and two days in the wilderness. It is also a testemony of self-reliance and spiritual discovery, carrying within its pages reflections and thoughts about humanity, nature and life that only aloneness in the wild could offer. Thoreau's tone travels from a mildly teasing, satirical to one that is deeply reflective and echoes seriousness of a solitary monk. At one point, he mentions his irritability and one could say, disgust at the philanthropic prophets. "Men say, practically, Begin where you are and such as you are, without aiming mainly to become of more worth, and with kindness aforethought go about doing good. If I were to preach at all in this strain, I should say rather, Set about being good. As if the sun should stop when he had kindled his fires up to the splendor of a moon or a star of the sixth magnitude, and go about like a Robin Goodfellow, peeping in at every cottage window, inspiring lunatics, and tainting meats, and making darkness visible, instead of steadily increasing his genial heat and beneficence till he is of such brightness that no mortal can look him in the face, and then, and in the mean while too, going about the world in his own orbit, doing it good, or rather, as a truer philosophy has discovered, the world going about him getting good. When Phaeton, wishing to prove his heavenly birth by his beneficence, had the sun’s chariot but one day, and drove out of the beaten track, he burned several blocks of houses in the lower streets of heaven, and scorched the surface of the earth, and dried up every spring, and made the great desert of Sahara, till at length Jupiter hurled him headlong to the earth with a thunderbolt, and the sun, through grief at his death, did not shine for a year. There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted. It is human, it is divine, carrion. If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life, as from that dry and parching wind of the African deserts called the simoom, which fills the mouth and nose and ears and eyes with dust till you are suffocated, for fear that I should get some of his good done to me,—some of its virus mingled with my blood. No,—in this case I would rather suffer evil the natural way. A man is not a good man to me because he will feed me if I should be starving, or warm me if I should be freezing, or pull me out of a ditch if I should ever fall into one. I can find you a Newfoundland dog that will do as much. Philanthropy is not love for one’s fellow-man in the broadest sense." - "Walden", Henry David Thoreau

The Vanity of Good

Five Angels, Crispijn van de Passe (1574 - 1637), Dutch

Few are the human cultures or societies in which the archetype of malicious clergyman does not appear. This clergyman is often amazingly, inhumanely disciplined and careful when it comes to his duties. A compassionate word is not foreign to him, an open hand for the needy either. He fears not sacrifice, on the contrary, he is probably the most ready for it of all - ready to whip himself for his sins and fast for days, weeks and months. And yet, despite all of that, his fellows, be it other clergymen or priests, or citizens in his community or parish, are wary of him. Very often, the said clergyman is not the standard, predictable and corrupted one who believes that giving is a transaction and makes it very clear that his good comes with a price tag. The clergyman spoken of here often asks for nothing and yet, so often, he brings greater unease than the letter. Behind the exterior of piety, discipline, sacrifice and compassion, the wary people around him, some sense, some clearly see, pride, anger, and need for affirmation and recognition. The good that he does is not a transaction, it is a steady, slow and clear construction of his own reputation, image, a legacy founded on artificiality and pretension - the poor fellow who is at the other side of his good cannot help but feel but a mere tool, an instrument in the pursuit of this image. The thing that comes at even more disturbing is that such a clergyman, often becomes so attached to that which he had created that he truly identifies with it and cannot see the black stain within him - actually if anyone is to point it out, our clergyman would be willing to have them hang or burn. Archdeacon Claude Frollo, in Victor Hugo's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is a very good and very well-known, embodiment of the above described archetype. Ours is not the age of Frollos and their absolute power and moralising wrath, and yet it is not a rare occurrence to see somebody make a usually critical statement about the online "virtue signaling". Chasing around the homeless, poor. and filming one's own good deeds towards them, changing profile pictures to show that you are standing with, feeling for the latest global tragedy, countless quotes about being an empath and many other forms of online code of goodness are not always met with amazement and praise. It would also be naive to assert that anyone critical of the above mentioned phenomena is not a good person. The irritability, the repulsiveness from it, although different, is similar to being repulsed by the clergyman - the fact that behind it, so often, people sense vanity, instinctive inclinations, artificiality lacking in any substance and depth beyond sentimentality and emotional manipulation.

Phaeton and Suffocating Sands

"The Fall of Phaeton", James Ward (1769 - 1859), British

Thoreau in the excerpt above mentions the myth of Phaeton, a handsome and brave youth, son of Helios and Oceanid Clymene, and his fall. In order to prove that he is truly the son of the Sun and that he can also, bring the great benefits that sun grants to the Earth, he asked for permission to use a sun chariot for a day. Some versions of the myth claim that Helios was at first against it, as nobody but Helios and Apollo, not even Zeus, was so strong to steer the horses and control the reins of the sun chariot. The youth's desire was eventually heard. There are many versions of how it ends, but it is always fatal and with great damage to the Earth and great grief for the Heaven. Phaeton, young and unaware, in his pride and desire to prove himself good, brought about great tragedy. The dry sands and dust of vain, self-centered goodness, Thoreau mentions again: "If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life, as from that dry and parching wind of the African deserts called the simoom, which fills the mouth and nose and ears and eyes with dust till you are suffocated, for fear that I should get some of his good done to me," The above is the method of preachers, those always ready to convert anyone to their mindset and who say no word without an intent of making someone else their ideological, religious or philosophical companion. When they do good, they do not do service to a human being, individual, not even God, but a service to their deep attachment to their beliefs, pride or image. Very few humans feel sorry or remorse for shutting the door to a preacher or walking away from one on a street. Just like Thoreau, we run away from the suffocating dust they bring. The true philanthropy and virtue is not about shallow, vain acts of good, even when they come from the most distorted interior, but being good and living virtue.

Links "Walden", Henry David Thoreau "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", Victor Hugo

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