Chapter 4.Self: Virtues of Character


Why We Should All Think of Ourselves as Sinners

One of the strangest ideas bequeathed to us by religion is the notion that it might be wise and socially beneficial to think of ourselves as being, every one of us, sinners.

This seems, at first glance, both patently untrue – and deeply unhelpful. The vast majority of us have committed no particularly egregious crime and might feel understandably targeted and shamed to have to carry such a dark and archaic title. Furthermore, a burden of non-specific guilt seems like a sure route to damaged morale and a hounded personality.

But the counter-argument runs like this. Simply stated: the only people who can count as good are those who are modestly and openly prepared to acknowledge their potential, and active tendencies, to be less than perfect. And the truly bad and dangerous among us are those who have never suspected they might such things.

It is, in other words, a sense of innocence and purity that renders people properly unpleasant and dangerous, for it removes their capacity for introspection, moderation, guilt and atonement, the ingredients upon which true goodness is founded. Nice people aren’t without flaws; they’re just unusually aware of them, and unusually committed to overcoming them. Only with an ongoing degree of self-doubt and self-reflection can we check our myriad tendencies to native arrogance and cruelty. The real monsters are those who feel they could never be anything but unblemished; who are in love with a sense of their own virtue.

We need to accept with grace that we’re geniuses at fixating on the wrongs of others and at eliding evidence of our own less than ideal natures. We can see the lies of others so clearly; our own mendacity is frankly always a very real surprise. The aggression, stupidity and sheer evil exhibited by them – the target group of our anger – renders us immediately incensed and impassioned. But that we have been less than perfect in another area, this remains truly puzzling and unfamiliar news.

The cardinal sin here is a feeling of righteousness. Being right and being righteous are painfully different concepts. When we are right, we are so within a specific context, on one occasion, but we have no guarantee of being so again. The moment of rightness has to be earned, never assumed. However, when we are righteous, we feel ourselves to be right not only on this occasion – but on all others too. We trust ourselves to be above being evil – and therefore become so with particular insidiousness.

A sense of purity is a particular error of the adolescent (and the adolescentally-minded) because they are as yet more likely not to have sinned yet – or only in ways that are hidden, incipient and tentative. They look only at the evidence of the sins of their elders and superiors. How normal to conclude then, that they must be good in and of themselves – and that it is the rest of the world that will always be corrupt and wicked. It is no coincidence that in revolutionary armies, it has traditionally been the youngest soldiers, that is, the soldiers most convinced of their own purity, who have shown the greatest ruthlessness to the enemy.

A good community isn’t one where there is a feeling that everyone can one day be pure, but rather one with a sense of how close everyone is to being bad, which breeds a group commitment to increasing the amount of self-observation, confession, productive guilt, tolerance, understanding, and kindness in circulation.

Good people know never to allow the rightness of a specific cause they’re involved with to function as an excuse to abandon manners, tolerance and modesty. People who think they are good are no so such thing: they just lack imagination and self-knowledge. The evidence would be there if there eyes were open enough to see it.

Far from demeaning us, the idea that we are all sinners is the surest guarantee of virtue.

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