The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater
THE LIFE UPRIGHT
The last study but one by the Commission on Appraisal was one of their most interesting and one that essentially failed. It was an attempt to report on the theological center of our faith. They avoided an open admission that they had failed to discover one, and if you disregard that fact, most of their report was quite interesting and even useful. The church has a copy of it and so do I if you are interested in reading it. There was one chapter, though, in which I thought that they wholly missed the point of what people were saying to them. A large number of the respondents to their question about what the purpose of their religion was, and a preponderance of the clergy said that it was to serve the holy (God, the transcendent, the highest, the eternal, whatever). The chapter on that topic confined itself to issues of social justice. There are, I contend, many ways to serve the holy, appropriate to different temperaments and talents, but there is one way that is the obligation of everyone with any pretentions to religion of any sort which they did not even mention, and that is living an upright life.
There is a hymn in our old hymnal, one that I have never asked a congregation to sing, mostly because the tune didn’t especially appeal to me, called “The Man of Life Upright.” The lyrics were written around the year 1613 by Thomas Campian. It is the source of the title of this sermon, but of course I intend to extend the message to the other sex, since despite certain stereotypical notions, I think that women, too, need to consider uprightness as a goal for living. This is the poem, slightly, therefore, revised:
The one of life upright,
Whose cheerful mind is free
From weight of impious deeds
And yoke of vanity,
The one whose silent days
In useful works are spent,
Whom hopes cannot delude
Nor sorrows discontent:
Those ones need neither towers
Nor armor for defense,
Nor vaults their guild to shroud
From thunder’s violence.
They only can behold
With unaffrighted eyes
The horror of the deep
And terrors of the skies —
Good thoughts their surest friends,
Their wealth a well-spent age,
The earth their sober inn
And quiet pilgrimage.
Much has been written at various times and places, by many philosophers, poets, and religious leaders, about the value of the virtuous life. All have agreed that one should live virtuously, although there have been never-ending arguments over what constitutes it, and also what the rewards may be. The oldest argument that I know of on the subject, although I’m sure that there were many preceding that one, was between the Stoics and Epicureans of ancient
Epicureanism, on the other hand, has come to mean people who are interested only in fleshly pleasures, after the followers of Epicurus. Epicures concern themselves only with discriminating pleasures of the table, dress and bed. Actually, the Epicureans have gotten a bad rap. A true Epicurean is neither a glutton nor a dilettante, and the virtuous life is not that of the flesh alone, although it includes a concern for physical pleasure and wellbeing.
In fact, the Stoics and the Epicureans agreed on their basic world-view. They both believed that this world is all there is, and that it is therefore what we must deal with, as it is. The Stoics decided that it must be endured, the Epicureans that it should properly be enjoyed. I think they were both partly right. Whether or not this world is all there is, it’s the one we live in and have to make our judgments about today. Some of it is to be endured, and some of it is to be enjoyed, and some of it is to be changed, if possible. Change was an option that neither the Stoics nor Epicureans considered. Real changes in the way people lived or society was structured did not seem possible in those days in the same way that they have seemed to be to us. At that time the only thing an individual human really felt able to do anything much about was the inner self.
There has been some return to that point of view in our realization that progress is neither inevitable or definable in the modern world, that what seems at first to be progress may instead turn out to be dangerous even to the continued existence of the human race, and if not that, then it may perhaps cause more suffering than it alleviates. However, whether you believe in social progress or not, whether you are unappreciative of the navel-gazing of some of those who have turned from it or not, we never desert the ideal of the upright life as a goal to be attained. The argument between the Stoics and the Epicureans was simply the definition of the upright life, not whether that is what should be attempted.
Arguments with the same theme continue to this day. What is the upright life? That is a question that continues to be asked, discussed and disagreed upon. I think there’s an even more interesting question than that, however, which is whether we can agree with the seemingly universal notion among philosophers and theologians that it’s worth trying to live it. After all, the primrose path seems much easier and pleasanter to follow than the straight and narrow one, and sometimes the followers of it seem more pleasant, too. There is a certain rigidity in the sound of the word uprightness, and the prostitute with the heart of gold is a far more popular person in literature than the upright puritan who tries to change her ways.
There are a lot of words for good behavior — virtue, integrity and so on — but uprightness is perhaps the one with the best imagery, and there are other terms that evoke the same image: To be able to look anyone in the face, to be able to hold one’s head up, to hang one’s head in shame. If you are upright, you have nothing in your life to hide from public scrutiny, so you can stand up to it. However, it may also imply some unbending, unsympathetic quality.
And then look what Campian (and he is not alone) promises as a reward for uprightness. Is it really worth the effort to be good for that? Someone once said to me that the main thing he wanted in this life was peace of mind, and living the upright life promises to give you that. What’s more, Campian promises serenity, fearlessness, sobriety and quiet — all peaceful things. Well, for me at least, if the only reason for living uprightly is that you’ll gain peace of mind, I don’t think it’s good enough. Peace of mind is a good thing, I suppose, but it is by no means my ultimate goal. I do want a clear conscience — I desire most deeply to live the upright life as I understand it — but although that is certainly necessary for peace of mind, I’m not sure it’s sufficient. But that, or even all the things Campian promised as rewards of virtue, are not necessarily goals of mine or even desiderata. I wouldn’t bet the farm that I would ever look for serenity and quiet as opposed to creative turmoil and excitement.
However, the point is that rewards for uprightness even if only a good reputation or a clear conscience, are generally thought to be required to persuade people to virtue. It is not, it seems, something that people are expected to choose on their own. Clearly it seems that the primrose path is far more attractive to most human beings than is virtue or integrity. Secular philosophers, who concern themselves with this life only, can promise no more than that kind of mental and spiritual wellbeing, and even if the promise can be fulfilled, it would not be for me, at least, a sufficient lure. What is more, even seekers of uprightness are not necessarily blessed with a clear conscience. Some of them are very clear-sighted in regard to their own failings.
Some religions promise that virtue will be rewarded by success and happiness and that pain and sorrow are the consequence of bad behavior. God punishes or rewards in this life. Traditional religions that have been paying a little more attention to the world around them than that suggest that life being clearly unfair, rewards and punishments going in equal measure to the just and unjust, there must be rewards in heaven or a future life for uprightness, and punishment for its opposite.
Well, as I suppose you know by now, I am pretty skeptical about rewards and punishments for behavior either in this life or another one. Probably the only option is to be good for nothing. To choose goodness, uprightness, is what we should do, but not for any hope of good consequences. You may not get them. To choose the upright course is to fulfill your moral potential as a human being, and I would suggest that that is necessary and sufficient. If you receive, because you have so chosen, the state of mind that you desire, I congratulate you. It is not guaranteed, no matter what Campian may promise.
Uprightness is necessary and sufficient, but it may need a little more examination. Why is there the tendency in most of us to prefer the “sadder but wiser” to the unsullied person. Conventional wisdom suggests that it is because we don’t like to think that others are better than we are, and there are very few of us — no, there are none of us — who are completely without wrongdoing in our lives. However, although that explanation may be most enthusiastically adhered to by the consciously righteous, I don’t think it is necessarily the best one. There are, after all, many people who are perceived to be extremely upright who are also well loved. I suspect it is more likely to be because there is a danger in being consciously upright, and that is the possibility of becoming self-righteous. That is one sin the consciously sinful can seldom fall into.
Self-righteousness is truly one of the gravest of sins. Its consequences are terribly harsh. Self-righteousness carries judgmentalism in its train and precludes compassion and understanding of the frailties of others. Since compassion and understanding are among the greatest virtues, it seems to me that true virtue, true uprightness, would have to include them. If it does not, it can hardly be called virtue. People who are comparatively morally frail are often not only more attractive, but more truly virtuous because they can understand and forgive when others miss the mark because they remember that they have done it themselves.
It does not, of course, necessarily, or even often, follow, that the consciously upright are self-righteous and that the weak are compassionate. The reason that that may sometimes seem to be the case, giving rise to the prostitute-with-heart-of-gold syndrome, is that compassion does not arise without understanding and acceptance of one’s own weaknesses. Few lives can bear intense scrutiny throughout because we are all prone to err and even to do what may be considered evil. This is true even of those who try their hardest to be upright. Temptation is great and so is frailty, and both are universal. There is no one who will always, inevitably, do only what is right, no matter how hard we try. Some, of course, do better than others, but even that is not justification for self-righteousness.
That acceptance of our own weaknesses, which enables us to have compassion for the weakness of others, does not give us permission to stop trying to overcome them. Overcoming them does not give us the right to judge others who have not yet succeeded in the task. We can always find other sins in ourselves to work on. The effort to live the upright life is ongoing, difficult and never perfect. Sometimes one of the most difficult things about it is to know just what it is.