Praise is cheap. How many times at Princeton have I been introduced to a “good dude”? Get-along good humor of course isn’t goodness, and to be “sweet” so often means simply to be unthreatening, comfortable to chitchat in smiling equilibrium. Do I know how to recognize goodness? That friend of mine I love for his bighearted charm and plainspoken boldness, a twenty-two-year-old in whom nothing is forced, unnatural, or strained, and who, despite his resources of infinite wit, is quiet in his curiosity, patient to hear out what is best in me and then exuberant to inspire it: he’s good, in the only sense I can trust. He is happy to me. Virtue, I think, should be happy. I can take oppressive lessons on someone else’s authority, but only pleasurable lessons from myself. The movie critic Roger Ebert once wrote, “I hardly ever cry at sad films, but I sometimes do, just a little, at films about good people.” Why do you think that is the case? Perhaps there is a clue toward the pleasure of goodness here, a better pleasure than the others I know, because it is more reliable, less shallow, and free of the anxious aftertaste over wasted time.
And yet that is a pathetic comment for the subject at hand. We know the heights of life. We know goodness not as the golden rule, not as the categorical imperative or as any secondhand maxim, but as that pulse of loving assurance that comes to us when we do something dear to the universe. The moral laws exist today as they have always existed, in all their beauty. No sentimentality needs to enter here. Hurricane floods send an 80-year-old smashing backward through a window, a schizophrenic is found crying on a tree stump with the ten-pound weight used to beat his mother, but an opposite force is always equally true. The fault would only be ours if we did not enjoy the thousand pleasures of a summer afternoon. When a young couple is seen walking early on a Saturday morning, smiling at the fact of the whole weekend ahead, we know what is good. There will always be those couples, just as there will always be girls like the 12-year-old who insisted that her older brother was the smartest person she had ever known: he could identify all kinds of insects and he won the state championship for World of Warcraft. She clawed and kicked manically at the boys who bullied him; she met meanness with immediate and violent defiance; she knew that meanness was banality that needed to be vanquished to smithereens, never respected with even a moment’s thought. It was six years later that she drove an hour with her mom to a concert in the nearest city. As they were dancing together in the dark, a pair of men approached them, each with two beers. They were yelling over the noise.
“I’m sorry,” mom said into one of their ears. She was smiling. “That’s my daughter.”
“What?” they yelled.
“That’s my amazing daughter,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
What the students of Socrates sensed as they walked behind their teacher at a wondering distance, what caused the followers of Jesus set down their fishing nets and leave their lives behind, exists today as it always existed. The moral laws want to have their way through me, if only I have the humility to let them, closing my door on the babble of song recommendations and competing op-eds, withdrawing to listen to the promptings sensed in my loneliest self.
In any moment, I can hold almost nothing in mind. An adolescence of awkwardness found me always uncertain of whether I would know what next to say, always falling back on well-rehearsed laugh lines, anecdotes, and voices. All that I possessed in any second were those few wrong words rising in me to be spoken with immediate regret. I learned what self-trust was eventually, trust in the instincts of my personality, which is the slightest imitation of the moral trust that I am trying now to learn. Will I know what to do tomorrow? I want to show faith in people, faith in the fact that they are more than their few wrong words and actions. I’ve been prideful; I’ve lied; I’ve been unavailable to the people who depend on me for comfort and advice. Will I be better tomorrow? I am always falling back on hidden resources, usually the instincts of my personality, but, at my best, I think, on the promptings of the moral laws. They want to have their way through me, if only I have the humility to let them.