by Kolby Atchison, Middle School Coordinator
“How seldom, friend! A good great man inherits honor or wealth with all his worth and pains.”
“It sounds like stories from the land of spirits if any man obtains that which he merits or any merit that which he obtains."
The excerpt above, taken from Coleridge’s “The Good, Great Man” reflects a perennial question of the human experience, one that casts doubt on the very presence of justice and goodness in the world: Why is it that good men and women so rarely enjoy the blessings of their labor, while those that are less deserving appear to be flourishing?
Where is justice in the fact that some of the most successful people in the world have acquired their wealth through deceptive, greedy means while those who live virtuously and meritoriously are often deprived of earthly gains and rewards?
On the surface, it would seem, there is no justice in these circumstances. Until our Lord returns, the world will continue to spiral out of control and leave a noticeable wake of thriving vice and diminishing virtue. After all, the world is inhabited by humans, and, as Scripture tells us, the human heart is desperately wicked. We should therefore expect that a world like ours will increasingly reward the laggard and marginalize the meritorious.
While this may be the common answer to this question, should we be satisfied with it? Are there really no earthly rewards for the good great man? Throughout western civilization, many Christian thinkers have held that there are in fact earthly rewards for the good man, albeit ones that may be difficult to see.
While it is true that one can achieve “success” in this life irrespective of merit, thinkers such as Plato, Augustine, and Boethius believed that while outwardly the wicked may be flourishing, spiritually they are wasting away. As creatures made in the Image of God, we were created to be good: to live righteously in the eyes of God, to dwell peacefully alongside our earthly neighbors, and to diligently cultivate the earth according to the divine creation mandate. To pursue this vision of human flourishing is to exist as God intended us to and to “succeed” in the most meaningful sense.
On the contrary, to neglect this vision is to rebel against humanity’s telos and set off in a completely different direction: a life void of divine blessing, one that ends in complete ruin. Through this vision, it may appear that the undeserved are flourishing when they receive various earthly rewards, but spiritually, there is a counter narrative being told. Simply put, sloth has spiritual and moral consequences. While many wicked deeds may appear to be let off the hook, internally they are not. The three philosophers mentioned above would say that each vicious action slightly diminishes one’s soul. In this way, there is no escaping destruction for the wicked man. It is part and parcel to that way of life. On the contrary, for those that choose to live the meritorious life, spiritual wholeness is in store.
How can this be? Here we must return to Coleridge. He writes later in the poem, “Greatness and goodness are not means, but ends!” In other words, the rewards of the virtuous life cannot be assessed in terms of material earthly reward. Rather, to be good is its own reward. Not because we dwell in a moralistic universe that systematically renders justice to each circumstance, but because we were created by a personal, loving God who designed us to live in accord with His triune nature. Thus, to participate in the good and virtuous life is to actually cultivate one’s soul. When one lives meritoriously, the soul is rightly aligned with the Creator and, consequently, earthly rewards of a completely unexpected nature are inherited. These rewards won’t be characterized by great wealth, power, or fame. Rather these rewards will be immaterial, yet earthly nonetheless: a peaceful conscience, loving relationships, and divine blessing.
God, help us, as we seek to cultivate your truth, goodness, and beauty in this world, and, in doing, so, merit earthly rewards that nurture our very souls.