The secret strategy

“Live by the gun, die by the gun,” I imagine the second-best gunslinger thinking, as he relaxes into the dust of an imagined Wild West town. This is an image, not an argument; for anyway he will not have the time for further philosophical reflections; or perhaps even for remembering Hamlet’s observation, that death is a fell sergeant. Nor comes it up in the Spaghetti Westerns, nor the Macaroni Westerns of Japan, where by some happy coincidence, the superior moral agent is invariably the quicker draw.

Or let us adapt this to a more Christian theatrical experience. “Live as a Saint, die as a Martyr,” we might say. In this scene, the missionary is being prepared for the cannibals’ stew. With luck, he has been saying his prayers beforehand, and has thus had time to consider the matter in its philosophical implications.

The priest, whose penitent I was, said that we imagine a cheering section. But if there is one, it is more likely to be back home in the cinema. God, said Father, often lets us die alone, friendless and in pain. The faithful shouldn’t feel surprised, or disappointed. This is the world, and it is the way of the world. “Suck it up,” as the more annoying sort of Catholics like to advise.

Yet in the least edifying circumstances, we find a moral written, into the dusty texture of the universe. He who seeks the credit, and the bragging rights, for his little accomplishments, generally does not get them, even from the world. Rather they go to one’s rivals, or to people who have accomplished nothing, that was not manifoldly counter-productive. They are the ones whose overheated egos needed to be made “cool,” and if Christ’s analysis can be trusted, “They have their reward.” (I am partial to Christ’s analyses in these Idleposts.)

The converse of this is also interesting. Not only in the Bible, but in the Tao Te Ching, he who does not seek the credit can accomplish more. He can do quite miraculous things, if he is adept; such as write out all the secrets of success in five thousand Chinese characters, and let another man sign it.

It is a brilliant tactic, if you think of it, and makes a brilliant strategy, if you stay the course. By avoiding the applause, we do not excite envy, or mark out an existential position that the Devil’s henchmen are bound to oppose. Our clever tricks, on behalf of goodness, are likelier to come off. The chiefmost trick is when they are not tricks.

And if no one is watching, who is not supernatural, it is not even necessary to disguise one’s virtue. We can rely on it to stay invisible. For sometimes, in the days when I was “following the politics,” I would notice a politician trying to do some good thing, but having to mask it as a bad thing, in order to get it through. He gets the applause, but for the wrong reason. This is because the public usually prefer the wrong thing. They are all descended from Adam, after all.

Doing good, secretly, would seem to be indicated. Or doing it publicly is fine, too: but only if you are prepared to accept the consequences.