instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Yes, yes, I know. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Dionysius the Aeropagite*, among others, teaches that, for all things that exist, "whatever they do, they do for the sake of that which seems good."

A lot of people might regard that as a perfect example of why no one takes philosophers seriously. Once normal people understand that he means that the most evil man who ever lived always and only did what he did for the sake of some good, they'll put Dionysius firmly on the "Utter Guff Totally Contrary to the Actual World" shelf, next to Parmenides and his "change is impossible" grift.

To dismiss Dionysius's teaching in this way, as either outright hogwash or as irrelevant to everyday life, is regrettable. Thinking philosophically about what goodness is -- rather than not thinking about goodness at all, say, or thinking of goodness only in terms of a list of Things Determined to be Good -- is a good thing to do. And if we don't realize that people who do evil are still choosing to do "that which seems good," then we won't really understand people who do evil.

But who are these "people who do evil"? All of us, right? Sometimes I do evil. Sometimes you do evil. If we don't understand goodness -- and, I submit, if we don't agree with Dionysius on this point then we don't understand goodness -- then we certainly don't understand evil.

And it doesn't stop with not understanding ourselves when we do evil -- when, that is, we do evil and realize it. Because if in doing evil people are still choosing to do that which seems good, it follows that, sometimes, when people choose to do that which seems good, they are still doing evil.

And I always choose to do that which seems good.

If everything I choose, I choose because it seems good, and if some things I choose to do are nevertheless not good, then "it seems good" is not proof that it is good.

How often do I look for stronger proof that my choice is good than "it seems good"?

* Not, that is to say, Dionysius the Areopagite, but another man of the same name.