Saturday, January 24, 2015


N.B. There is a George Herbert poem at the end of this, and it is better than my reflections. 

When waiting, especially with children around, the words, "Be patient!" fall with a certain regularity. I remember one historic moment when my notoriously impatient grandmother, while feeding my cousin's infant, and when the child would not stop crying, exclaimed, "Why can't you learn to be patient!" But, he was an infant, so he could not. 

The curious thing about such anecdotes is not so much the absurdity of demanding virtue from an infant but the conception of virtue implied in the demand. When we say, "be patient," what we really mean is "Wait. What you want is coming." But, is the ability to delay gratification while being certain that gratification will come really being virtuous? My question is similar to Glaucon's in the Republic, can you defend justice if you take away pleasure from it? Is patience worthwhile if you're not guaranteed to get what you want, if you are waiting, but unsure of what you're waiting for? 

For the Christian, at least, patience is not merely waiting. Waiting means the ability to put up with something until you get what you want. Patience, on the other hand, means receptivity to the will of God. Or to phrase it ethically rather than theologically, patience is the denial of one's desires and steadfastness in adversity in the belief that ultimately virtue, whether or not it brings what you want, is better than its opposite. Penelope's "steadfast heart" perfectly exemplifies this constancy and patience. She hopes for the return of Odysseus, but she perseveres without any real proof that she will ever get what she wants. Penelope is not merely waiting; she endures, knowing that the instant gratification of a new mate would not bring her happiness. To be patient, to hope requires uncertainty. There is little virtue in "doing the right thing" when we feel guaranteed a reward. 

For this reason, prayer without real patience and hope is perhaps more dangerous than it is good. In Laws 688b-c, the Athenian stranger comments, "it is dangerous for one who lacks intelligence to pray, and the opposite of what he wishes comes to pass. If you want to take me seriously here, you may." What exactly the Athenian stranger's addendum signifies, I am unsure. But, the comment (and the discussion that precedes it) underscores the problem with prayer: we pray for what we want, not what is good for us. 

In his poem "Constancie", George Herbert asks who the honest man is, and as the poem develops, it becomes clear that no single virtue exists without the rest. 

   Who is the honest man?
He that doth still and strongly good pursue;
To God, his neighbor, and himself most true;
   Whom neither force nor fawning can
Unpinne, or wrench from giving all their due.

   Whose honestie is not
So loose or easie, that a ruffling winde
Can blow away, or glitt'ring look it blinde;
   Who rides his sure and even trot,
While the world now rides by, now lags behinde.

   Who, when great trials come,
Nor seeks nor shunnes them, but doth calmly stay,
Till he the thing and the example weigh:
   All being brought into a summe,
What place or person calls for he doth pay.

   Whom none can work or wooe
To use in any thing a trick or sleight,
For above all things he abhorres deceit;
   His words and works and fashion too
All of a piece, and all are cleare and straight.

   Who never melts or thaws 
At close tentations: when the day is done,
His goodnesse sets not, but in dark can runne:
   The sunne to others writeth laws,
And is their vertue, Vertue is his sunne.

   Who, when he is to treat
With sick folks, women, those whom passions sway,
Allows for that, and keeps his constant way;
   Whom others' faults do not defeat,
But though men fail him, yet his part doth play.

   Whom nothing can procure,
When the wide world runnes bias, from his will,
To writhe his limbs, and share, not mend, the ill.
   This is the Mark-man, safe and sure,
Who still is right, and prayes to be so still. 

I particularly love the lines, "The sunne to others writeth laws, / And is their vertue, Vertue is his sunne" because they very subtly hint at love poetry. While this poem may seem emotionless and overly stoic in its approach to virtue, these lines betray that the honest man does not merely act virtuously; he loves virtue. I also love the very last lines as well. The intelligent man prays not for particular things, but for the virtue and wisdom to know what things to pursue and to pursue them with a steadfast heart. As Thomas More once famously said, "The things, Good Lord, that I pray for, give me the grace to labor for." Amen. 

No comments:

Post a Comment