January 04, 2015

Source: Shutterstock

Recently I went from Paris to London for lunch, returning for dinner. This is made easy nowadays, though not necessarily cheap, by the Eurostar train. 

I am not usually given to such extravagances, always seeing personal penury just around the corner if I indulge in them, but my favorite cousin was over from America and this was the only way I could get to see her. She is one of those rare persons whose company always lifts the spirits by her whole manner of being. She has irrepressible laughter in her voice, you know it from the first words she utters; it is not that nothing bad has ever happened to her or that she has known no sorrow, but rather that the enjoyment of life is written into her temperament, as it were.

Perhaps it is genetic, for her father, my uncle, was of the same type. Alas, he died very early (as it now seems to me though it did not then) of a heart attack, in his mid-forties. I can conjure his face in my mind’s eye even now, as if he were in the room. It was round, with lively, shining eyes. His pate was bald but he had sleek black hair brilliantined smoothly down his temples. It was a face appropriate to his dapper way of dressing, and he could have played Hercule Poirot. There was always enjoyment in his voice.

“€œHuman malignity, then, is for us more of a puzzle than human goodness, which suggests to me that we have absorbed only too deeply the notion that man is born good and has to become bad.”€

I remember his speech at the party for his wife’s 40th birthday. I suppose I must have been about 10. He said that he had thought of exchanging her for two 20-year-olds. Did I laugh because I understood the joke, or did I laugh because I heard my elders and betters laughing? I don”€™t know; but in fact he was the most uxorious of husbands, so good and incomparable in fact that she, who outlived him by nearly half a century, never thought of remarrying. She would not find his like again; I think she wanted to remain true to his memory.

My cousin inherited his temperament, at least in her disposition to find much of life funny, which makes for easy company. But the fact that she inherited her temperament raises a question that is usually raised in another context: is it any merit in her to be as she is, if in fact she cannot be different? 

Usually this question is asked of undesirable rather than of desirable qualities of character. Among the many thousands of my patients, I do not recall one who demanded to know the source of the good aspects of his character. This might be because virtue does not know, or at least proclaim, itself. And, indeed, if someone were to ask the origins of his own good character, we should suspect him of being a Tartuffe or a Pecksniff. 

This is not all there is to it, however. We are not inclined to demand an explanation of other people’s goodness, either. For every such enquiry, we ask a thousand times about the origins of other people’s malignity. Our enquiries about the origins of our own malignity are perhaps less frequent, but they are incomparably more frequent, even infinitely more so, than our enquiries about the origins of our own goodness. 

Human malignity, then, is for us more of a puzzle than human goodness, which suggests to me that we have absorbed only too deeply the notion that man is born good and has to become bad, usually by the operation of something damaging in the social environment, which spreads like mold on bread and turns us rancid (to alter slightly the gastronomic analogy). The question boils down to this, I suppose: does goodness have to be beaten into children or badness out of them? (I use the word beaten metaphorically, as shorthand for all the pedagogic methods known to man and woman. Children should not be literally beaten, except when necessary.)

The boring, though no doubt correct, answer to the conundrum is something between the two. Left to themselves, children would almost certainly go to the bad, Ã  la Lord of the Flies, but this is not so much because they are intrinsically evil as because the bad is so much easier, and so much more varied, than the good.


Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!