Paul Johnson

What is good, and how do we define goodness?

What is good, and how do we define goodness?

Text settings

The passing of a great pope promotes thoughts about goodness, and what constitutes it. What is goodness? And, for that matter, what is good itself? Joseph Addison was quite clear: ‘Music is the greatest good that mortals know.’ But among the greatest evils of our time, I would put pop music, its idols, its drugs and its diabolic possession of tender susceptible youth high on the list, certainly among the top ten. Edmund Burke was equally sure: ‘Good order is the foundation of all good things.’ That is arguable, anyway, though most dictators would support it ex officio. And all good things? Surely not. Most poetry, art and literature spring from disorder. Art is itself an ordering process. Of course, if you put the stress on ‘good’, then good order is an end in itself, not a foundation. But that is not what Burke said, and how could he, being a Whig and devoting his life to reform? It is of the essence of reform that it disturbs order, even good order.

Good, and goodness, are more easily illustrated than defined. Shelley thought the essence of good was powerlessness. In Prometheus Unbound he has a pregnant little triplet:

The good want power, but to weep barren tears.

The powerful goodness want: worse need for them.
The wise want love; and those who love want wisdom.

But to assert that the powerful can never be good is to eliminate all rulers, including popes, not least John Paul II, who in many ways disposed of considerable power, strove earnestly (and often successfully) to do good, and brought to that task both love and wisdom which, pace Shelley, are not incompatible but promote each other. It is true that power corrupts and, having corrupted, promotes evil; and where power becomes absolute, the evil becomes absolute too. The greatest evil of the entire 20th century, that age of evil, was the Soviet system — far more so than Nazism, for it lasted much longer, killed far more people, and spread itself infinitely wider; indeed, its imitation by-products still exist in parts of the world, notably China. Gigantic evils, the product of misused and absolute power, cannot be removed by the weak and impotent. It took a combination of three good rulers — Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and John Paul II — to destroy Soviet communism and its empire. Without them exercising their power wisely and with love of humanity, it would still be there, making the world a more terrible place than it still is.

The essence of Old Testament goodness is the avoidance of evil. Psalm xxxiv puts it plainly: ‘Eschew evil and do good; seek peace, and ensue it.’ It presents the depth of human depravity to be fostering confusion between good and evil, most notably denounced in the Book of Isaiah: ‘Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil.’ John Milton, who was saturated in the Bible and who probably thought more seriously about good and evil than any other poet, English or foreign, was adamant that the essence of Satan was his resolve that ‘Evil, be thou my good’. He found it easier to present evil, in the shape of Lucifer, as the antithesis of goodness, than to define good people themselves. He saw the spirit of goodness to be most commonly embodied in women. In that touching sonnet ‘On His Deceased Wife’, he says that:

Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin’d.

He tells how she appeared in a dream, and seemed enticingly real:

But O, as to embrace me she enclin’d,

I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.

Milton of course saw Almighty God as the one true entity wholly composed of good and perpetually and exclusively promoting goodness. But he knew this more as an intellectual concept than as a perceived, emotional truth he felt in his bones. Hence he did not know God in the way he knew Lucifer, and found it difficult to present Him. What he did grasp was the sheer terror of God’s goodness to an evil being:

Abash’d the Devil stood,

And felt how awful goodness is, and saw
Virtue in her shape how lovely.

It is of the nature of God’s goodness to inspire fear among those who reject it. Fear, indeed, is a positive force as well as a negative one. That is one reason why the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent letter to politicians on the forthcoming election, deploring any statements or arguments designed to inspire fear, was so peculiarly foolish, even by his standards. The Druid fails to see that fear plays an inevitable and necessary part in politics. It is the collapse of fear of the Labour party among countless people, produced by New Labour’s formal renunciation of socialism by the front door, which has made it possible to introduce it by the back, in increasing measure. It ought to be one of the prime objects of the Conservative election campaign to restore a strong, healthy and nutritious fear of what a new period of Labour government will undoubtedly produce.

One has only to look at wild animals — birds, for instance — to see how central a part fear plays in their lives. It is intermittent but necessary and never far away. It is the price they pay for their freedom. Domesticated animals, sheep, cattle, yard-fowl, have no such perpetual fear, but then they have no freedom or independence either, and are eaten at their owners’ leisure. Among human souls, as designed and animated by God, fear is necessary, natural and constructive. As Psalm cxi says, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.’ The power of God is, indeed, awesome, to use Milton’s word, but it is the awe it evokes in us which inspires our attempts, however evil, to do good ourselves, to be good, rational, awe-filled and fear-driven individuals. Without fear, free will is a formula for spiritual suicide. God gave us, in His infinite generosity, free will, but to save us from ourselves He filled us with fear of His wrath. When we opt for obedience fear is dissolved, a point Shakespeare perceives in Measure for Measure: ‘virtue is bold, and goodness never fearful’. What the Archbishop should have said, then, is that an honest and good politician has nothing to fear from his opponent’s scaremongering. But how many such exist?

I think if I were to define goodness in a phrase, I would call it ‘alignment with life’. It is here that John Paul II was seen to embody so completely the essence of goodness. He was on the side of life, always, everywhere and absolutely. A spiritual leader of the kind Isaiah had in mind when cursing — a monster like Osama bin Laden — is anti-life: from the second he awakes in the morning to the moment, each night, when he sinks into a troubled sleep, he thinks of nothing but how he and his agents can destroy life — including their own (but never his). His entire being is dedicated to human destruction as an end in itself and the measure of spiritual virtue and success. By contrast John Paul II set his face and his wits against the enemies of life, against the abortionists and the ‘mercy killers’, the executioners and the terrorists, and all those who, in whatever way, try to belittle, strangle, deform, degrade and inhibit life. He was a life-force in himself and, being so, a model of goodness for our times.