I regard myself as a sort of postmodern Neoplatonist (::blam!:: that’s the sound of heads exploding as they try to reconcile the two — just roll with it, man, just roll with it). As such, I also admire the Stoics, who are some of the wisest and most practical philosophers ever to apply stylus to tablet. One of my favorites — because, like me, he found his own authority troubling and often woke up feeling like nothing he did was ever good enough — is Marcus Aurelius, who in between being emperor of Rome and leading campaigns against northern barbarians (who were, of course, my ancestors) also wrote a few notes to himself about how to be a good person. I read one passage over and over regularly, often on first waking up. It goes like this:
Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.
I believe, then — or try to — in humanity. I believe that we are good and trying our best, more or less. We do stupid things out of ignorance, and often those stupid things are just horrid, absolutely and undeniably reprehensible. But that fact that we can be repulsed by them is evidence that we’re not bad. We’re made to work together.
I think the good can often be described as the prosocial. I don’t mean that we have to get along with everyone or hang out with lots of people and go to lots of parties. For that matter, we can lock ourselves in our house all winter, much as I have this season, and still be prosocial. I just mean that the good is what allows us to live together and contribute to each of our welfare.
Society is a non-zero-sum game. If we learn that, we can create a civilization worthy of the name. Unfortunately, many people are ignorant, so I have to also believe in the power of education and reason to teach people how to live.
I don’t think that goodness comes from the gods — or rather, it does, but it’s not delivered by them in a little package of thou-shalt-nots. I get that many religions do believe that, and that’s fine. But I don’t. I think we’re human and we must determine the good for ourselves, but that it’s clear that we survive best by being with each other. And so that’s a place to start looking.
I live in a suburb of a city of six million people. If you were to take six million monkeys and cram them into the same amount of space, you would very quickly have a bloody soup of monkey fur. But we manage pretty well. Yes, there is violence and murder, but really not that much of it. It’s a miracle that there aren’t more murders, thefts, and so on.
There is an instinct for the good that drives most people, and I think that’s simply to be kind to other people, because we recognize on some level that they are we.