All Men Desire What is Good

“All men, indeed, desire what is good, and strive for what is good in their words and deeds. For this reason the appearance of good deceives many.”—Thomas à Kempis

This ancient truth, which goes back to Aristotle, is very perceptive. Vice is not due to the pursuit of evil for its own sake but for the apparent good or pleasure that is derived from it. Things like sex, wealth or honor, for example, are good in themselves. But we can err in our actions. All of our pursuits take place in the context of many other considerations, and evil occurs when we treat them in isolation, heedless of the consequences.

The counsel of the Imitation of Christ reminds us of another famous phrase: “The path to hell is paved with good intentions.” It has been attributed to Samuel Johnson, who did in fact say that “Hell is paved with good intentions.” But it appears that the adage originated with Bernard of Clairvaux who said “Hell is full of good wishes and desires.” This is typically taken to mean that naive but well-intentioned plans lead to unforeseen bad results. Actually what St. Bernard and Johnson meant was that there were plenty of souls who procrastinated over their good resolutions until it was too late. However, I think the current rendering of that phrase fits in perfectly with Thomas à Kempis’ point.

Intentions can be bad because they are pursued for their own sake and to excess. We talk of granting freedoms to certain activities without considering what impact this will have on other activities. We want to economically subsidize some projects without admitting that it will come at the expense of other things. Pitfalls are deliberately overlooked; advantages are carelessly exaggerated.

When you dig a little deeper you often find that behind this “appearance of good” are motives like arrogance, envy or greed. It is something that Thomas à Kempis understood very well. But I imagine the media outlets which purvey “good intentions” have more readers than the Imitation of Christ.

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