wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

John Passmore

The Perfectibility of Man

Virtue, it had come to be widely agreed, consists in 'doing good', even if that 'doing of good' flows from self-love rather than from the love of God. Provided the poor are clothed, does it really matter whether this is out of vanity or out of charity?

Naturally enough there were dissentients from this novel attitude. Traditional Augustinians—and even Christians of a less severe kind—continued to argue that actions not performed out of a love of God were worthless. But as the century wore on, the disfavour attaching to 'self-love' generally diminished. Pascal's 'God alone is to be loved, self alone to be hated' was generally condemned as what Dr. Johnson called 'monastic morality'. Bishop Butler, preaching in 1726, was prepared to maintain that 'self-love in its due degree is as just and morally good, as any affection whatever'.

The important thing, it was more and more commonly argued, is that a man shall so act, whatever his motive, as to bring happiness to his fellow-men. 'Charity' no longer had, as its principal meaning, 'the love of God'; it came to be identified, by clergy and laymen alike, with disinterested benevolence, good nature, usefulness to others. 'The highest merit which human nature is capable of attaining' is conveyed, Hume tells us, by such epithets as 'sociable, good-natured, humane, merciful, grateful, friendly, generous, beneficent'. The novels of Henry Fielding teach the same lesson, implicitly. In Joseph Andrews, Mr. Barnabas is depicted as telling Joseph that 'he must divest himself of all human passions', but Fielding makes it clear what he thinks of Mr. Barnabas. He greatly prefers Tom Jones, who is scarcely a model of Christian virtue. No doubt Tom Jones needs to reform, but his generosity and warm-heartedness make his 'sins' venial, not mortal.

The moral guide-books, such books as The Whole Duty of Man, gradually shift their emphasis. Man's primary duties for seventeenth-century moralists are directed towards God, for their eighteenth-century successors towards man. The very word 'bienfaisance' had to be invented in France to convey the new moral attitude. As for those who feared that self-love and the love of man might be in conflict, Pope, following Shaftesbury, had the answer: 'Thus God and nature linked the general frame, And bade self-love and social be the same.' Just as Augustine was convinced that 'true' self-love and the love of God would coincide, so Pope was convinced that 'true' self-love would coincide with 'true' benevolence.

To an intransigent Christian like Kierkegaard what happened was a tragedy. Morality, he says, was cut off from its roots in the infinite, in divine grace, reduced to what Kierkegaard calls 'finite good sense', to a 'flat, self-indulgent mediocrity'. Man said to God 'No thank you; I should prefer to have none of this help, and salvation, and grace'; he set out to perfect himself only by the criteria of the 'finite understanding' and in so doing he cut himself off from his 'natural tendency' towards the eternal. But by the end of the seventeenth century even churchmen were tired of disputes about grace and free will, and both tired of and frightened by fanaticism—or what they called 'enthusiasm'. Metaphysics had fallen into disrepute; Revelation had proved to be too controversial a guide. Only a few bold spirits went so far as to deny the existence of God—an act which still required physical as well as spiritual courage. It was sufficiently obvious, however, that a morality based on theology would be an endless source of wrangling. All men seemed to agree, in contrast, that benevolence was, at the secular level, the key virtue; the Scriptural injunction to 'love one's neighbour' made it possible for broad-minded Christians, forgetting for the nonce that this was no more than the second commandment, to feel themselves at one with Deists or secularists on this point.