Short story: “While We Were Yet Sinners,” part 2

This is the second part of a short story that I first wrote several years ago. Part 1 can be found here.

The next day, Joha returned to the marketplace once again. This time he had no intention of stealing anything; it would be foolish to do so again so soon, since the trader from yesterday would still be suspicious and watchful for thieves. This time, Joha came simply to spend some of his well-earned fortune from the day before. He browsed around the various stalls set up, searching for nice things to buy.

Look at that, he said to himself. A large, plump pig for twenty-six denarii—that could be enough to cover each meal for a day or two. He turned his head in another direction and saw a trader of linen and fine clothes. A very fancy robe, richly adorned and beautifully woven, for thirty-three denarii. Both of them were very fine items. But as Joha looked around at all the activities around him, he noticed something that caught his eye even more.

A man was paying for his trade with a cup. Not just any cup, it would appear, but a fine golden chalice, laced with silver and studded with jewels on the outside. What a nice and valuable cup—surely it was worth much more than Joha had right now, even more than what the trader was selling it for.

Joha wanted it.

Golden Chalice
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.


He quickly forgot all of his logic about how foolish it would be to steal at a time like this. From a distance, Joha carefully watched the trader, an elderly and somewhat frail man, handling the fortune he had just received. The man polished it, seemed to admire it visually, and then tucked it away inside his cloak so he could resume business. Perfect—he was no longer keeping an eye on it. This would be an excellent opportunity for Joha.

Carefully, the thief snuck up behind the trader, preparing to make his move. Fortunately for him, another customer had come already, turning the trader’s attention away from the recently acquired chalice. Joha waited patiently. He watched and waited constantly, searching for the right moment. And then, moving on instinct, his stealing reflexes kicking in, his arm shot out and he grabbed the cup. Then, also almost automatically, his legs started running, carrying him far, far away.”Stop!” Joha heard. “Thief! He stole my cup! Somebody stop him!”

Joha paid these distressed cries no attention. He never did. All he did was to continue running, making his escape as quickly as possible—

“Aha!” came a cry from in front of him. Joha suddenly stopped moving, noticing that his path was obstructed by a large, muscular, familiar-looking man. It was the same livestock trader whom he had stolen from yesterday.

“You!” the trader shouted, grabbing Joha on the arm and holding him with a firm grip. “You’re the same thief who stole from me yesterday, aren’t you?” A mixture of victory and vengeance covered the trader’s face to produce a satisfied grin. He raised his voice and called out to all the citizens around, “Somebody summon the Roman guards!”

Then he turned back to Joha. Joha noticed that the other trader, the one whom the cup had belonged to, had now come up behind him as well. He felt fear well up inside him. He had always escaped before—would he be able to this time? If the Roman guards were being summoned, would he be jailed—or even executed?

His thoughts were interrupted by the livestock trader, still with a firm grip on his arm, speaking once again. “Now, as long as you’re not going anywhere, I’d like you to return that cup to the man standing behind you.” His words were gentle, as a mere suggestion, but the tone of his voice and the strength of his arm left no doubt in Joha’s mind that it was a command. “And while you’re at it, why not hand over the money you swiped from me yesterday.”

Joha had a plan. It was a very rash plan, one that he had just thought of on the spur of the moment, but it was perhaps his only chance at escape. Slowly, he raised his arm, as if he were going to return the cup. The trader’s grip on his arm loosened. Then, acting quickly, Joha reared his arm and flung it forward, thrusting the golden cup into the trader’s head. The large man let out a cry of pain, and instinctively let go of Joha’s arm. The thief took off running once again.

His initial feeling was relief. His plan had worked. He hadn’t been sure if it would work—he didn’t know how heavy or hard the cup actually was—but apparently it was enough to hurt. Joha looked behind him as he ran. Just as he expected, the livestock trader was once again pursuing him, with the other trader following close behind.

They were getting closer. Joha looked behind him and saw that they were probably only a few cubits away. Normally he was a good runner. He had to be, since he always needed to make quick escapes. But from what had already happened, his legs were getting tired, and he was losing strength. Within a few moments he was forced to slow down, and his pursuers caught up to him. The large man came up in front of him, and the older man to his side.

“Now I’ve got you!” said the large man. “You’re tired now—don’t try to escape! And don’t think you can pull that same trick again!”

Joha wasn’t listening, and he didn’t say anything back. He desperately needed to escape, and quickly. Even though the trick had already been used, he once again raised the cup to strike with it—but this time, he struck the older man, who happened to be closer to him. The old man let out a gasp of pain and fell to the ground. Joha once again tried to run away—

“Stop!” shouted a loud, commanding voice from not far away. Joha looked up. Two tall, muscular, stern-faced men stood in front of him, wearing armor and brandishing weapons. Hadn’t someone called for the Roman guards? Obviously, they had come. Joha didn’t know what he would do.

“What is the trouble here?” one of the guards inquired. The large man pointed to Joha and angrily spoke up. “This vile thief has stolen from our marketplace two days in a row now! And just a moment ago, he slew this innocent man!”

“Slew?” Joha repeated incredulously. “What? No, he can’t be dead!”

“He was old and weak,” the large man commented, bending down toward the other man’s limp body. “His heart beats no longer.”

Joha felt a chill rise up inside of him. What had he done? He had only wanted to get rich and get away. He never meant to kill anyone. Despite the ethical codes that he had justified his way around bending or breaking, he knew that murder was most certainly wrong. Wasn’t that a Commandment as well?

Roman soldiers
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

One of the guards looked at him, studied him over, and scowled with contempt. “A dirty little Hebrew, causing trouble in the city. Why am I not surprised?” This vile man shall be brought before the judge, and punished for his crimes!” the other guard shouted, coming closer to Joha. He gestured to the golden cup and asked, “Is this what he stole?”

The large trader confirmed it.

Before he knew it, the golden cup was being torn from Joha’s hand by the strong grip of the Roman soldier. Crestfallen, not so much for the loss of the cup as for the fact that he had been caught, Joha saw the chalice being handed back to the livestock trader. Then the Roman soldiers quite forcefully took hold of Joha. With his mind racing, his heart pounding, and his soul overwhelmed with a sinking feeling, Joha was brought away.

Only a few hours later, Joha stood in a large courtroom, in front of a judge. The Roman guards on either side of the room still eyed him menacingly.

“Joha the Hebrew,” the judge addressed him scornfully. “You have committed theft and murder. Is this true?”

Joha knew that there was no point in trying to escape any more. There had been several people to witness the scene, and any possible routes of exit from the courtroom were blocked by the hostile guards. He was no longer trying to deceive himself, either about escaping or about right and wrong. He knew that his crimes had been wrong and, though he still felt fear gnawing away inside him, he was trying his best to be brave and face the consequences boldly. Feeling irrepressible guilt and shame rise up in his soul, he spoke three simple words. “It is true.”

“Then, Joha, you will be punished,” the judge announced. “Such crimes are certainly worthy of death. Based on the many things you have probably stolen over time, as well as requests from the murdered man’s family and the witnesses of the act, the court has ruled that no punishment less than crucifixion will be acceptable.”

Crucifixion? This was terrible! That was the very worst possible way one could die! Though he knew he deserved to be punished, he had fervently hoped that his sentence might be a light one, at least lighter than this. Only in his darkest imaginings and fears had he envisioned himself being crucified for his crimes. He had heard all the horrible stories about criminals who had been sentenced to such a death, and how they were often allowed to hang on the cross for hours in agony until the last trickle of life faded quietly out of their bodies. The thought of such a thing happening to him made Joha unbearably fearful and nauseous. But what was he to do about it? He had already established that there was no possible escape. And somehow, even though crucifixion was such a terrible experience, he felt that he deserved to die for what he had done. No, he would not try to escape. He would have to endure it, with whatever modicum of dignity and nobility might still be left within him, however terrible it might be.

The judge made one final comment. “The crucifixion is to be held tomorrow, during the Passover feast. Guards, I trust you to keep Joha in prison until then.”

To be concluded…

Short story: “While We Were Yet Sinners,” part 1

Hello, readers! This week I’m filling in for another contributor who is ill and not able to post right now. As such, I’ve dug up an old story from my younger years that I’d like to share with you this time around. It looks like I first published this story on my old Fictionpress account way back in 2009, and I haven’t really done much with it in a long time, but it’s nice to revisit artifacts from the past every now and again and see how one’s writing has changed and grown over time. In any case, this story is called “While We Were Yet Sinners,” and I think it’s fitting to post around Easter week, for those who observe the holiday. I’ll post the story in three installments throughout this week. I hope you enjoy it.

He was running away, ignoring whoever sought him and making every effort to avoid being found.

In fact, it seemed that he was having to do that a lot these days. Every time Joha stole something, the original owner and any other people who happened to be there at the time came running after him to try to bring him to justice. And that was exactly what was happening now; he had just been at the marketplace and helped himself to a handful of gold coins from the livestock trader. It probably wasn’t all that much—Joha hadn’t had time yet to sit down and count it—but it was something, hopefully enough to support him for another week or two.

Roman forum
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

He looked behind him and saw the livestock trader, a large and burly man, close on his trail, his rage fueling his body and giving way to furious shouts. Joha was inclined to snicker to himself; the trader probably thought that he actually had a chance of catching the thief. But Joha knew that he was the best at what he did; he had never been caught, and as far as he was concerned, he never would be.

Still running past the various obstacles that stood in his way, Joha ignored the oncoming opposition and looked ahead. The sight he saw brought him gladness: a large crowd. It wouldn’t be hard to lose his pursuers inside it. Neither his physique nor his face were particularly out of the ordinary, and he was fairly sure that none of them had gotten a good look at him, so once he was among everyone else, they would be hard-pressed to recognize him. He tucked the small bag of coins inside his cloak, and then, running on the last leg of his journey toward safety, he ducked into the crowd of people standing around and seeking to trade their items. As soon as he was among them, he stopped running—running would make it obvious that he had something to hide. Joha smiled slightly to himself. He should be safe now.

Carefully, making sure to be inconspicuous, he peeked above the heads of those gathered and looked in the direction he had just come from. He saw the livestock trader, still standing there, but confused, not sure of where the thief had gone, and no longer able to chase him. In a moment, the trader ran off in another direction—whether to continue the search or to give up and go back to his post, Joha didn’t know.

But he didn’t care. Joha had not been found. He had won.

Now that the immediate threat was gone, Joha slowly and cautiously made his way out of the crowd, trying to blend in and act natural. Acting natural wasn’t too difficult for him, because stealing had become natural for Joha. He carefully pushed past people, throwing out various pleasantries and requests for pardons to make himself seem like a normal, respectable citizen. Once he was out, he continued at a steady pace back to his home on the other side of the city. He mentally congratulated himself at another job well done.

At that point, while he was still walking, Joha had a strange thought, one that rarely occurred to him, and thus was all the more puzzling. For the first time in quite a while, he considered what he had just done. A part of him almost seemed to say that it was not right to steal—but no, that was irrelevant to him. He had done it many, many times now; that was how he had come to be so good at it. There was nothing wrong with stealing. Granted, it put whoever he stole from in an unhappy position, but Joha never thought about them—he needed to steal in order to live, and so it must be all right.

And yet, he still couldn’t shake the feeling. Why did he have this moral sense all of a sudden? He hadn’t followed anything of that sort since—he thought back—since he had been a mere youth. Joha was a Hebrew both by birth and upbringing, and his mother and father had always taken him to the temple on the Sabbath, to worship and sacrifice to the LORD. His mind flashed to the Ten Commandments. They had been recorded in the Scriptures, in the book of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt, and had often been recited and referred to by the priests. Though he couldn’t remember all of the Ten Commandments, he was fairly sure that one of them specifically forbade stealing.

But it didn’t matter now, he told himself. He hadn’t been to a temple on the Sabbath for years, since he was a child. He wasn’t even sure anymore if he even believed in the LORD. Growing up, Joha had read and studied the Scriptures under his parents’ instruction. He remembered being a young boy, full of childlike faith, whose heart would swell with hope and excitement whenever he read the prophecies about the restoration of the nation of Israel and, even better, about the coming Messiah. As he grew older, a part of Joha still hoped for these things, but he had begun to realize what a cruel and bleak place the world really was. His people were looked down upon by most everyone else, and he himself had failed in every attempt to make an honest profession, which was why he eventually resorted to stealing. His parents had shunned him for such evil things and for no longer practicing the faith on his own, but he maintained that stealing was a necessity and that the LORD had all but abandoned them. He had had a hard life, and he hadn’t seen any of the blessings that the Scriptures had promised to his people. If the LORD really was so good and so powerful, then where had He been all this time?

Since he had taken up the life of a thief, Joha had almost completely ignored all thoughts of the LORD and memories of his religious upbringing. Yet today, for some reason, the thoughts and feelings had come to him out of nowhere, as if someone out there wanted him to remember and had the power to reach out to his soul. Joha still was not certain that the LORD existed, but after pondering the subject briefly, Joha determined that if He did exist, then He must no longer care for Joha. The LORD hadn’t done any good for Joha in his life, and now that Joha had become a thief, the LORD must care for him even less because of all the evil things he had done. Yes, this had to be true.

Joha sighed to himself. What had caused him to think of this all of a sudden? Even after reaching this conclusion, Joha couldn’t quite bring himself to shake the thoughts. Things had been so simple in those days; his mother and father had always taken him to worship. They had diligently followed all the ceremonious instructions of the Law (in fact, if he remembered correctly, the Passover celebration was to be held just a few days from now, though it certainly didn’t matter to him anymore). He had basically believed that he was a good person, one of the LORD’s chosen people, and would be going to heaven when he died. But now he hardly knew what to believe.

Things had become especially complicated in recent months, with the appearance of this Jesus person. Joha hadn’t seen him in person, but he had heard of the man’s teachings and doings—who in Rome hadn’t heard of him? The things he had heard about Jesus were very strange, and half of it was probably gossip and lies. After all, nobody had the power to walk on water or to heal sick people simply by touching them, and nobody thinking logically would believe those things for even a minute. But was it true that the man had the audacity to claim himself as the very son of God? Did he really have the boldness to criticize the religious leaders, and the authority to preach salvation and forgiveness of sin?

Forgiveness of sin…

Roman coins
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

Joha looked up. His feet had carried him to his home. Upon realizing this, all thoughts of religious conundrums dropped from his mind, as he made his way inside to count up his new fortune.
Pulling the small bag out from his coat, he spilled the contents out onto his table. Several small metallic shapes, each imprinted with Caesar’s likeness, fell out of the bag and were counted accordingly. When Joha had finished counting, the total came to seventy-three denarii. Seventy-three! It was certainly more than he had expected, more than he usually got. He smiled and mentally congratulated himself on making another week’s wages.

To be continued…

Everyone’s an Antihero

Most of us have heard that the hero of a story can reflect or embody the values of the author or the culture. But sometimes we don’t give antiheroes–those ambiguous, mysterious characters who blur the lines between good and evil–enough credit to do the same.

I touched on antiheroes somewhat in my last post, talking about how even “heroes” and “good guys” in fiction can become antiheroes or villains if the writer invents a story or motivation that will change them enough. Today I’d like to talk more about the trend of antiheroes in fiction, and about what it means for us as writers–and as humans. And, as before, I’ll draw largely from one area of pop culture that I know a lot about: comic book superheroes.

PunisherWarZone1It seems like the ’80s and the ’90s were the era of the gritty antihero, in comics as well as perhaps in film and other areas of culture. Gruff, grim, leather-wearin’, gun-totin’ characters like Deadpool, Cable, and Lobo began to emerge. But, more than that, other characters who were previously either heroes or villains began to cross the line. Characters like Catwoman and Venom, villains up to that point, got their own titles where they were ambiguous protagonists. Batman was temporarily replaced by a more savage version of himself, and even Superman grew his hair out and wore black for a while to make him seem more dark and edgy.

But, in some ways, it seems like this trend has never really stopped. Because what got me thinking about antiheroes so much was a recent Marvel Comics event called Axis. In this story, several heroes and villains teamed up to try to stop the Red Skull, Captain America‘s Nazi nemesis. But, because of a magic plot device–er, magic spell–everyone’s personality was (temporarily) inverted on its moral axis. Thus, the good guys present suddenly had the desire to be bad–and the bad guys actually wanted to be good.

14904391768_66a2aeb0f8My reaction to this event was also mixed. Part of me wanted to complain. “Really? More antiheroes?” Maybe I read too much into this, but to me, so much blurring of the lines between good and evil seems like it might perpetuate more moral ambiguity. Call me old-fashioned, but sometimes I miss the days when good guys were good, bad guys were bad, and both held uncompromisingly to their values. With the trend I’ve mentioned of making more and more characters antiheroic, sometimes it seems that those clear lines of good and evil are shifting and fading faster and faster.

My last post mentioned several Marvel heroes who have acted as antiheroes or villains in the recent past. Also, even before Axis, a number of Marvel’s major villains were being portrayed as less “evil” and more “misunderstood,” including Magneto, Doctor Doom, Apocalypse, and Loki. For various complicated plot reasons, the latter two had both been reborn into young, teenage versions of themselves (yeah, I know, comics are weird–just roll with it) who want to do good but who may or may not be destined to return to villainy once more. Then, in Axis, the change got even more extreme. Villains like Sabertooth and Carnage, who previously were violent killers for the fun of it, suddenly valued life and made it their quest to do right. On some level I found it a little hard to believe.

And yet, even when I get a little tired of the antihero craze, I have to admit a few things to myself. The first is that antiheroes show us our own values and that of our culture–just as much as heroes do, if not more so. Like, sure, you’ll root for Captain America for being all good and noble and patriotic. But will you also root for the Punisher for bringing violent vigilante vengeance to the scum of the streets? And, if you do, then what does that say about your  values? How far can a good guy go and still be considered a “good guy”? How bad does a bad guy have to be for us to think they’re truly irredeemable? Antiheroes ask us to think through questions like these.

One interesting thing to note in the Axis event is that the Red Skull (although briefly shown to be affected by the spell) was never really featured as a hero or as having heroic intentions, even temporarily. Personally, I think that also says a lot about our culture. We can believe that most villains, even a psychopath like Carnage, can turn over a new leaf. But not the Red Skull, a Nazi who embodies absolute hatred, racism, and intolerance. Even with a magic spell in place, we can never bring ourselves to root for him as a hero. What this says to me is that such hatred and bigotry are the worst of evils in the eyes of our culture, utterly irredeemable beyond even senseless murder for fun. The levels of moral ambiguity that we will–and won’t–tolerate say a lot about who we are and what we value.

The other thing I’ve had to admit to myself is this: antiheroes are realistic. Even if they sometimes seem overdone and contrived, they do make for much more complex characters, and often more interesting ones, which is how ordinary human beings really are. None of us is completely good and nice and noble all the time. And neither is any of us completely cruel, heartless, and evil. As Nathaniel Hawthorne strove to show us in stories like The Scarlet Letter and “Young Goodman Brown,” we are ambiguous, imperfect beings with a capacity to do either right or wrong. No matter how good we might think we are, we’re all antiheroes too in a very real sense, with conflicting desires, motives, and morals constantly shifting around within us. And maybe that’s why we can so often still relate to and root for those characters who seem to straddle the moral line.

As writers, I’d like to issue you a challenge. Take a hero or a villain you’ve previously written into a story. Now write a short scene, episode, alternate universe, or whatever in which this character’s morality has changed drastically. Your hero is now more villainous, and your villain must be more heroic. What cataclysmic circumstances could have motivated such a shift in behavior? How much influence does morality have on your character’s personality, and what will that personality be like when it’s divorced from the values it had previously held to? What will happen if your hero-turned-villain has a sudden confrontation with your villain-turned-hero?

Happy writing, my fellow antiheroes.

Villainize Yourself

I know. Villainize isn’t a word. Stay with me on this.

The other day I was conjuring a story based on my own wishes to find a woman. A very specific woman. You haven’t done wish fulfillment in your writing? Stop judging. It started with the prince dismissing all the other women in court and longingly looking over the horizon, where she was coming up the path. He made all the arrangements for a happily-ever-after and the couple got married. She was soon after locked up and the prince became a tyrant, keeping an eye on all she did.

What? Prince Charming doesn’t lock away Sleeping Beauty! I was horrified. I would never do that. But it’s amazing what those feelings of fear, loss, despair, and even desperation bring to the forefront when thinking up a neat (fantasy) story that went from romantic wedding to domestic abuse. I had become a villain in my story and it made me very uncomfortable.

These people exist in the world, the ones who actually go through it. Stories are all over about the guy who is charming, gets his wife to marry him, and then is the slob on the couch that smacks her around in front of the kids. Sometimes you’ll think that or some other horrible plot. You won’t act on it (I hope), but you might imagine it. I had a friend who wanted to rip out a guy’s nipple piercings and gouge his eyes out with it. He would never do it, and if you ever met him he’s the nicest guy in the world.

And when you think it, that’s one thing. But when you write it, you’re making it real. You’re making an alternate you real, and that can be very disconcerting because it’s so personal, instead of far flung and fictional.

Who wouldn't use their peasants as a footrest? Fable 3 concept art.
Who wouldn’t use their peasants as a footrest? Fable 3 concept art.

Backtracking to my story, once I was beyond the initial revulsion, I realized something about that inner thought, about my dark garden blossoming forbidden (and felony level) fruit. It’s okay to write about it. It’s okay to portray me in that manner. Because we are all gray, neither good nor bad, and we will write best what we understand and feel. We will write best when it’s something we desire, whether or not our morals and societal norms stop us. It’s okay for you to conjure up your dark thoughts. It is much easier emotionally to pick up a newspaper and hit the freakish things others do in those pages than to reflect on what we would do if our conscious didn’t get in the way, but it won’t be nearly as true when you commit words to paper.

What I’m trying to tell you is delve into your inner bad guy. Release your Hyde, and let him roam the streets. Would she sleep around? Would he urinate on pets as they walked by? Would she do experiments on people to see what it takes to break bone? Would he become a serial killer, curious how long he can remain ahead of the police? Maybe I’m just exposing my psyche for all of you to judge, but I’m fairly confident we all have our dark thoughts. Those thoughts we hide deep in the shadows of our mind, hoping we don’t have to face them. Well face them and profit off them. Writing is from your brain, so use it all.

That got dark. I need a shower. And I’m going to write a story about a man urinating on pets being walked in the park. Have you had characters make you squeamish because they hit close to your less than flattering attributes? How do you use yourself in your stories? Do you think I’m entirely wrong on this, and why?

Philosophical Story Challenge

This certainly looks enjoyable!
This certainly looks enjoyable!

Well, it’s Sunday again, and that means that I’m giving you another philosophical problem to solve. I don’t think I’ve given this as a philosophical problem before, though I have provided some things related to it, and I’ve written a couple of articles on the subject. In Utilitarian ethics the goal is to create the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’. In other words that which is good for the majority is good. However, the greatest good is generally defined as ‘that which brings the greatest pleasure’ or ‘that which brings the greatest happiness’. I’ve written a couple of articles on the problem I see with this, and on the relationship between ‘good’ and ‘pleasure’, but I present this problem to you: What relationship, if any, exists between ‘the good’ and ‘the pleasurable’ or ‘the enjoyable’? You know the rules: write a story of between 100 and 1000 words that presents and defends your answer to the question.

Philosophical Challenge Post

This image was found here.
This image was found here.

I’ve gotten kind of used to doing these philosophical challenge posts on Sundays, and people seem to like them pretty well. However, I think that I put more work into them than any of the other challenge posts except the Plot Challenges. That being said, I don’t think I’ve presented today’s challenge before, but I honestly might have. One of the most important debates in Chinese philosophy is the question of whether man is inherently good or evil. This question is of interest, though somewhat minor interest, in western philosophy, but in Chinese philosophy it is one of the questions of primary importance. Confucius appears to present both sides of the argument in the Analects, and Mencius (a fourth century B.C.E. Confucian) presented the complete argument for man’s goodness. In the third century B.C.E. the scholar Hsun-Tzu (supposedly following in the steps of Tseng Tzu, an actual disciple of Confucius) presented a counter argument that man was innately evil. So, this is your question today (feel free to consider both Mencius and Hsun-Tzu before responding): Is man innately good or innately evil? You all know the rules. Write a story that presents and defends your position on the question.

The Promise of Pain

Pain promises great benefits.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post on the problem of pleasure, and I promised this follow-up post.  Obviously I didn’t get it written last week, but I have it for you today.  If you remember from the last post modern American culture generally defines pleasure as ‘good’ and pain as ‘evil’.  We tend to think that anything we like must be good (if it feels good do it), and anything that we don’t like must be evil.  My central point in the last post was the while pleasure can sometimes be good, the concept that pleasure is ‘the good’ is nonsensical because sometimes pleasure can have extremely negative, destructive results.  However, the opposite is also true.  We cannot define ‘the good’ as pleasurable because sometimes that which is good is not enjoyable.  Anyone who has ever taken Codliver oil can attest to this.  While it is ‘good’, it is not enjoyable.

However, this goes beyond simple ‘take your medicine’ metaphors.  The truth is that pain is, in many cases, man’s primary impetus to personal growth.  Human beings do not seek to better themselves when everything is going well.  There is no need, happiness is often the enemy of betterment.  On the other hand, constant misery is equally as destructive to personal growth, because the impetus to growth that pain provides rides upon a foundational assumption that things can get better.  It this assumption is removed, then the impetus to growth is stalled and no matter how much pain is applied, the person will not move.  This same dynamic can be seen in the application of a cattle prod.  The efficacy of the prod lies in the animals ability to escape it.  When a cattle prod is applied the animal desires to move, in order to escape the uncomfortable electric current.  If the animal cannot by any amount of movement escape the current, then the prod loses its effectiveness and the animal will not move.

Man is, in many ways, similar to cattle.  It is a rare man that will seek out personal growth without any discomfort to motivate him.  Generally we are motivated by one of two things.  The first is the pain of not having the things that we desire.  Imagine a man who is in love with a woman, but who has no means by which to woo her.  This man will seek to improve himself.  He will exercise regularly, seek more gainful employment, learn the skills of charm and romance – as much as is necessary to win her heart and no further.  If he were to go further, then he would be a rare and wonderful man, and if he were not to go far enough then he would not win the lady’s heart.  Similarly, imagine a man who desired more than anything to hold a million dollars in his hands.  This man would push himself to learn and improve in some means (whether legal or illegal) by which he could attain a million dollars.  Lesser men would choose a base and vile path, while greater men would choose a nobler path, but both kinds of men would set themselves on this path.

The second type of impetus to improvement common to the human race is having things that we do not want to have.  Consider for a moment a man who is significantly overweight, and the pain of this wears on him every day.  This man will try every means that he can find to lose this extra weight, because it is significantly painful to him.  Now if this overweight man is happy in his indulgence, and is not burdened by his extra mass, then he will not seek to change – until that mass becomes a significantly painful factor in his life.  At this time, again, the man will seek to escape it.  Consider also a man that is plagued by some manner of pest in his housing.  This man will see in many ways to change his situation, whether this is by finding a way to remove the pest, or by finding new housing, and in this manner will inevitably improve himself.  Both types of impetus have one thing in common, pain is required.

It matters less that you hurt, and more what you do with it.

Beyond even this, there are three primary responses to pain.  First a man might try to improve himself, to move away from the pain, and in this way grow.  Second, a man might fight back against, or choose to endure the pain, waiting for a chance to defeat or escape it – and in this way grow.  Third, a man might give up, growing bitter and angry at his loss, and convince himself that the world is against him and that he can by no means escape his pain.  Needless to say, this does not often lead to growth.

If we define that which is ‘good’ as that which makes one ‘better’, then we can see that pain can be, and often is, good.  More than this, we can see that pain is necessary for good to take place.  If a man never encounters any kind of pain, then he will never grow, mature, or become a man.  He will remain a child all of his life, and his caretakers will be forced to see to his every need even through old age.  While hope in pain is a necessity, and one that modern culture all too often denies, pain is absolutely necessary for the betterment of mankind.

The Problem of Pleasure

A bust of Epicurus

The philosophical connection between pleasure and good has existed in some form for most of human history.  It can be traced back to India with Carvaka; to Greece with Democritus, Aristippus, and Epicurus; and to China with Mozi/Mo Di.  In modern thought it is found most prominently in Utilitarianism, and Christian Hedonism (a philosophy promoted by John Piper in Desiring God).  Much as I have great respect for Piper, I have to completely reject his philosophy, but that is an issue for another time.  However, the American obsession with pleasure isn’t directly connected to any philosophical system.

Simply put, due to the influence of multiple, different philosophies, we generally connect ‘good’ with pleasure, and ‘evil’ with pain.  The most common form of the argument goes something like this: Such and such makes me hurt, and I don’t like hurting, therefore it must be bad.  However, such and such makes me feel good, and I like feeling good, therefore it must be good.  This is obviously a simplistic version of the argument for pleasure, and some may consider this a Strawman argument.  However, the goal here is to address the common, simple, everyday connection between good and pleasure, not the highly developed philosophical arguments.  The danger of this argument is not the concept that pleasure is good, but the concept that pleasure is the only good, and that pain is entirely evil.  Both pleasure and pain can be good, and both can be evil.  Thus, this will be a two part post.  So, for this first half, let us say that pleasure cannot be entirely good, because pleasure can at times bring evil results – both because of its pursuit and because of its results.

Probably a good description of America.

Pleasure, on its own, is a drug not dissimilar to morphine.  Like morphine, it is not inherently good or bad, but it can lead to either good or bad results.  Think for a moment about a man who is taken in for surgery and given morphine as an anesthetic.  This man may take his morphine during the surgery, and during his recovery, and then put it off as his doctors tell him he should.  If the man does this, then the morphine has done exactly as was intended, and it was a good thing.  However, the man may decided that he likes the way that morphine makes him feel too much to give up.  He will make up excuses to obtain more from his doctor, and when his doctor begins to refuse him, then the man will go elsewhere to buy morphine.  His entire life will be consumed in the search for morphine, he will lose his belongings, his home, his family, all in the pursuit of morphine.

Similarly, think of a man who has grown up knowing nothing but pleasure.  This man will be weak and without ability.  He has never been tested, never been tried, never been forced to learn, to grow, to mature, or to examine his inner being.  In other words, because he has known nothing but pleasure he has never become a man.  He is a child, and, as long as he continues in this path of pleasure, he will remain a child.

Similarly, if a man who has known a normal life suddenly decides that pleasure is the highest good and that he must pursue pleasure at all costs.  Then, like the morphine addict, he will forget all that he has learned and pursue this pleasure in all things.  Again, he will lose his belongings, his home, his family, all in the pursuit of pleasure.  For this man, pleasure is significantly not good.

On top of all of this, this concept is predicated entirely on the individual.  If something is good because I like it, and something is bad because I don’t like it, then I have made myself the ultimate arbiter of good and bad.  If good and bad is so arbitrary that it revolves wholly around my likes and dislikes (which most of us would probably not say, but support with our actions on a daily basis) then they are meaningless concepts worth exactly as much as my personal likes and dislikes.  Pleasure cannot be the ultimate good, or as we treat it, the definition of good, because what is pleasurable is not the same for every person.  While pleasure can be a tool for good, it can also be a tool for evil.  If it can result in either good or evil, then we cannot consider pleasure to be the definition of good.  It is enjoyable, but again, this does not make it good.  There are many people in the world who enjoying causing pain, and few people would argue that causing pain is good.

What makes you a better person?

Now the attentive reader will notice that I have placed much emphasis on what is not good, but that I have not offered an alternative definition of ‘good’.  ‘Good’ in the sense of events and circumstances (i.e. not the actions of an individual) is that which serves to make me better.  Nietzsche has famously been quoted as claiming, ‘that which does not kill me makes me stronger.’ In Nietzsche’s thought strength, that is strength of will or strength of being, is the highest good.  However, this is not what the only thing that I mean when I say ‘better’.  That which makes me a stronger person is certainly good, after a fashion, but strength is not any more acceptable as a highest good than pleasure.  In fact, I do not think that there is any one facet of the being that could be considered a highest good.  Instead, that which makes me a better person (in my mind I mean to say that which makes me more like Christ, but I know that this is not a thought with which all of my readers will agree) is the highest good.  Pleasure can certainly play a part in this, for it can at times serve to make me a better person.  However, pleasure on it’s own will not make me better, and so cannot be considered the definition of ‘good’.