Is it worth it to try to do great things in business or politics or art or education—or even the Church?

Recently, when I was reflecting on honor and fame as praiseworthy ambitions for our students, I ended with a famous quotation from Milton’s “Lycidas,” where Milton speaks of fame as the “spur” of the “clear spirit,” but also as “the last infirmity of noble mind.” In other words, love of fame is not only a motive for action, but a weakness. What kind of weakness? What does our curriculum at Wyoming Catholic College have to teach us about this matter?

When I read Milton’s phrase, I always think of Cicero, the orator, statesman, and philosopher who saved the Roman Republic from the Catilinarian conspiracy during his consulship in 63 B.C.—and then never stopped talking about it. According to Plutarch in his life of Cicero, the great man “was always excessively pleased with his own praise” and “intemperately fond of his own glory.” This perception on the part of others tainted the very glory he sought. “By his insatiable thirst for fame,” wrote the English poet John Dryden in 1675, “he has lessened his character with succeeding generations.”

In T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral, St. Thomas Becket confronts this “last infirmity” and overcomes it with great difficulty. Facing martyrdom from his former friend King Henry II, he realizes that he could go to his death seeking glory instead of serving God. The first three tempters approach him with offers of pleasure, secular power, and redress to the tyranny of the king; Becket dismisses these easily enough. But the Fourth Tempter finds the “last infirmity” in him. “Think, Thomas, think of glory after death,” he urges him. Imagine “pilgrims, standing in line” and miracles associated with his “glittering jeweled shrine.” Becket admits that he has indeed thought of these things, but the Tempter presses deeper still: “Seek the way of martyrdom, make yourself the lowest /On earth, to be high in heaven./And see far off below you, where the gulf is fixed,/Your persecutors, in timeless torment.” Thomas rejects the temptation to gloat over his enemies’ suffering (Tertullian famously did not), and he sees very clearly the trap being laid: “The last temptation is the greatest treason:/To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

Here’s the question, then, for our current students and our alumni: Is it worth it to try to do great things in business or politics or art or education—or even the Church? In Eliot’s play, Becket warns that, even as one advances in achievement, “Ambition comes behind and unobservable.” He means ambition, unquestionably, in the dark sense—not the “baptized” ambition I recently praised, but ambition centered in the sin of pride. “Sin grows with doing good,” Becket says. Does he mean that “where good abounds, sin more abounds”—a reversal of St. Paul in Romans? Surely not. He does mean, however, that the more good we do, the more we grow in our own estimation, and the more others praise us in the ways that Cicero so coveted. He means that conspicuous and publicly rewarded goodness is its own temptation.

Both the perennial philosophy and the teachings of Christ have much to say about the confusions that surround this desire for recognition. Jesus tells us to pray in secret; He tells not to look like we’re fasting (even when we are) because otherwise, we have our reward already: the dubious honor of being considered righteous by others who cannot see the heart. Should we not do good, then, because we might be honored for it? Hardly. Dante has a famous figure in the vestibule of Hell (Inferno III), Celestine V, who made “the Great Refusal” by resigning as Pope. Celestine did not want the temptations that came with the power of the office, but by vacating the papacy he cleared the way for Dante’s arch-enemy, Boniface VIII. Surely the point is not to avoid doing honorable good, but to avoid thinking that we ourselves are the good being honored.

Early in Plato’s Republic, Glaucon asks Socrates to suppose that there is a perfectly unjust man who, “while doing the most unjust acts,” has nevertheless acquired “the greatest reputation for justice.” As Glaucon imagines him, “he must be one who can speak with effect, if any of his deeds come to light”—we might think of contemporary examples—“and who can force his way, where force is required, with courage and strength, and command of money and friends.” Meanwhile, Glaucon goes on, “at his side let us place the just man in his nobleness and simplicity, wishing, as Aeschylus says, to be and not to seem good…. Let him be clothed in justice only, and have no other covering. Let him be the best of men, and let him be thought the worst. And let him continue thus to the hour of death; being just and seeming to be unjust.”

The real test is whether we do continue to good when honor and fame go to others, when no one sees us—or no one but God. His witness ought to be the whole ambition of a Christian. Knowing ourselves to be seen by God—“You discern my thoughts from afar./You search out my path and my lying down”—spurs on the aspiration that in every sphere ought to be directed toward the good that ultimately rests in Him alone. This ought to be every student’s burning desire: to be seen, to be known, to be tested. One does not retreat with pusillanimity toward fearful inaction, burying the given talent, as though the possibility of sin were greater than the promise of genuine glory. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize?” asks St. Paul. “They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.”

Republished with gracious permission from the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (September 2018).

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