I would not be a good monk.
(Wording Times: monk, if you follow its etymology far enough back, just means ‘solitary’, which raises some questions about the degree to which it’s even possible to have an entire monastery full of monks, but I mean it here in a general sense of ‘person who separates themselves from others in order to focus on religious or philosophical matters centred on themselves’. Earthly diversity being what it is, I’m sure that there are many monks for whom this is implicitly or explicitly not the point of monkhood. Statements not intended to reflect or comment upon all monks.)
I would not be a good monk because I really just don’t care that much about personal purity. Seeking enlightenment for the sake of enlightenment seems like an interesting pastime but does not entice me as a career choice. Seeking to purge oneself of all vices is perhaps admirable but, independent of other actions, not likely to make the world a better or more fascinating place for anyone else. Real monks, of course, aren’t solely focused on themselves and how pure they are, but valuing inner purity does seem like a common mandatory qualification. I just can’t get enthusiastic about it. And really, most people aren’t that enthusiastic about it (that’s why monks are considered exceptional) but most people do at least think that it’s a virtuous pursuit (that’s why monks are revered) and I’m just not really sold on the latter bit.
Purity is, in point of fact, fetishised in our culture. Far too many people are far too invested in the virginal status of others. Far too many people will take ‘I’m a vegetarian’ or ‘I don’t drink’ as a personal insult – what, are you saying that I’m a bad person; you think you’re better than me? And it seems to me like far too many people think that ‘being pure’ is its own purpose, its own end, and its own reward. Mostly it seems to me like it leads to derails and angst.
If you have never read it before, I recommend going now to read the excellent “Intent! It’s Fucking Magic!” by Kinsey Hope, but if for some reason you can’t do that (perhaps you are an eagle and find it difficult to perform multiple-key operations), I will summarise: not setting out with intent to hurt someone does not guarantee not hurting them, whether it’s by tripping and dropping a Yuan vase on their foot, or by saying something that is totally hilarious which they inexplicably find offensive instead of insightful because they obviously have no sense of humour. This is an important concept, and it relies on the same point I’m aiming for here, which is: no one knows what’s going on inside someone else’s head, and there are a limited number of reasons that they should care. We will never get to know most people we meet on anything but the most superficial level. Thus what’s going on inside our heads has vastly less impact on the world and the people in it than the stuff we do.
Purity of character is all on the inside, which is why I mostly don’t care about it – I can’t afford to. How busy would I be if I were constantly trying to make sure everyone had Correct Thoughts? By Zod, I can’t even make myself have Correct Thoughts all the time. I have misanthropic thoughts, gender-essentialist thoughts, kneejerk racial prejudices, class elitism – which is a wordy way of saying that I have spent the majority of my life so far living in the actual world with our super-bigoted cultural kyriarchy, and none of us goes through this stuff clean. The best I can hope to be is a person who could reasonably be confused for a person without prejudice.
Let’s consider the case of a hypothetical person called Leslie. Leslie is everyone’s best friend. Leslie always has a spare van and a free day when you need to move house. Leslie volunteers at the children’s hospital and the animal shelter. Leslie is intensely involved in local politics and championed the new school lunch program last year. Leslie is always super-attentive when you want to talk about your life crises and doesn’t interrupt to complain about an irritating co-worker. Leslie runs a charity so vast and effective that malaria spontaneously developed the ability to speak just so it could curse Leslie’s name.
Also, Leslie hates everyone. I mean raw, powerful hatred: a marrow-deep revulsion at the sight of every face, from the kindliest grandparent to the most curious child. Animals, too. Leslie especially hates corgis. Leslie thinks you personally are a narcissistic, vile, stupid waste of carbon and would feel only the sheerest delight if you were condemned to eternal, inescapable torment. But for whatever reason, Leslie has chosen to act like none of these things are true. Leslie’s façade is flawless and disciplined. No one in Leslie’s entire life knows any of these inner thoughts. When Leslie goes for a walk, cardinals flutter from the trees to settle upon their benefactor’s shoulders, and are treated only with the deepest kindness, unaware of the roiling disgust within.
Is Leslie good or evil?
(Try not to get distracted by the utter improbability of such a person ever existing. It’s also very unlikely that anyone will ever throw a harp seal and the entire city of Grenoble off a cliff* to compare their falling speeds, but that doesn’t change the existence of the gravitational constant.)
It’s a subjective question that depends on what you think defines a person and what is valuable about them. M’self, I’m going to go with ‘good’. In this hypothetical situation, the only person who has the slightest awareness of Leslie’s suffusion of animosity is Leslie. If I don’t think I can judge someone by the way they act, but only by who they are on the inside, then I can never really claim to know anyone. Anyone might just be hiding the worst bits of themselves, for which they deserve recrimination. We’d end up in an environment where people are constantly proclaiming their credentials of purity, and, well, the easiest way to do that is to point out how awful all those Other People are. This comes up so much in Fred Clark’s discussions of his own American Christian culture that I don’t even know which post to point you to; most of those under the Satanic baby-killers tag are probably relevant. Or there’s Sady Doyle’s amazing “With Dim Lights”, on how obsession with being the most purest and rightest of ideologues distracts from whether you’re actually doing anything to help anyone or just trying to make yourself feel better.
There’s a common phrase, ‘who you are in the dark’, which is about learning what someone’s true character is by finding out how they act when they think no one is watching. That can be important, sometimes. But the other question, vastly more relevant in a lot of cases, is about what kind of character someone shows when they are seen, and when their shame and disgrace are on the line. If they have a choice between trying to learn to act better (and implicitly admitting their past fault) or insisting that their actions shouldn’t reflect on them because they personally are pure (or at least well-intentioned), which way do they go? Are they trying to be a good person for the sake of being a good person, or to appear to be a good person? Do they act by moral compulsion or for the sake of vanity?
The conclusion here isn’t to just ignore your flaws and biases, because they will creep in anyway. I’m not arguing for that, or saying that a criminal whose crime goes unnoticed isn’t a criminal. But guilting yourself for not being perfect on the inside isn’t going to help anything. Trying to win arguments by insisting that you have the greatest moral standing is useless, and getting into fights about who’s purest is actively stupid. And trying to pretend that bad actions are harmless because the person doing them is somehow abstractly better than that is a great way to make sure you only hurt the people with the least power to defend themselves.
*The harp seal in question is a known thrillseeker and was fully equipped with safety gear.