Beware the self-anointed saint, be he a global icon (such as Dr. Albert Schweitzer or Dr. Tom Dooley) acclaimed and venerated for his charitable works or a relatively unknown local figure who “lives to serve others.”
Whenever I hear of accolades heaped upon a so-called exemplar of “public service,” what I always want to know is this: how does he treat his family and the people close to him?
Although a public figure’s private behavior is usually obscured from public view, it is the private acts that define the person’s character.
Some of history’s most prominent public benefactors – Theodore Roosevelt leaps to mind – have been driven by personal demons to make grandiose compensatory public gestures at the expense of those to whom they owe primary responsibility. The brilliant German novelist Hermann Hesse (1877 – 1962) illuminated this phenomenon in his Treatise on the Steppenwolf, a groundbreaking essay in which he asserted that some men with genius-level intelligence feel socially isolated and compelled or obliged, as “natural superiors,” to work for the improvement of society.
If a person generally regarded as a walking saint is unkind to his wife or neglects his children, his public “good deeds,” such as they may be, not only pale into insignificance but also, by contrast with his private failings, become grotesque parodies of true goodness.
One notable recent example of the self-anointed saint was an American physician who, having already donated his right kidney, sought publically to donate his left.
So far as I know, his family’s understandable outrage ultimately prevented him from sacrificing their well-being as well as his life. (Reductio ad absurdum.)
As I mentioned in my recent essay ‘“Paying it Forward” is a Logical Impossibility,’ contemporary Western culture assigns charity toward strangers greater importance than it accords the proper treatment of one’s own family. One can see this in the relatively new community-service requirements high school students must satisfy in order to qualify for honor societies. Such requirements penalize good students who have family obligations – whether for the care of relatives or for contributions to work in a family farm or business – and explicitly reward students who neglect their families in favor of strangers.
I think it would be better to give young people a timeless, empowering, and socially constructive message: take care of yourself and your family first.
Charity begins at home.
Quotes for Today
“But how shall we expect charity towards others, when we are uncharitable to ourselves?” – Sir Thomas Browne, 1642
This is the fourth in a series of posts on seasonal philosophical themes. My first post in the series was ‘Giving “Giving Back” Back to the Propagandists of Newspeak.’ The second was ‘“Paying it Forward” is a Logical Impossibility.‘ The third was “Reflections on Apology, Forgiveness, and Clarity of Thought.”