In a piece for the The Imaginative Conservative, Bruce Frohnen bemoans our contemporary glorification of ‘niceness’ as an intellectual and cultural virtue. Niceness, he explains, is the “enemy of excellence” because it is:
A rather shallow set of habits and attitudes more concerned with comfort than engagement, ease than excellence, contentment than striving to do one’s best. It was and is the perfect complement to our contemporary liberal insistence on ‘tolerance’ as the chief virtue. … The result also is students, and graduates, who increasingly are immune to any call to excellence and virtue, more likely to take umbrage than to increase their efforts if called on to do better… [They are] spoiled by a cultural sensibility that values emotional comfort more highly than reality can support.
While I think Frohnen is absolutely right, the root of the problem goes much deeper, to a fundamental domestication of the definition of goodness. The goodness of niceness, it seems to me, is of an easy going and non-threatening kind. It is nothing more or less than moral tepidity writ large. Moreover, it is particularly human—in that there is no consideration for the transcendent—and it is altogether easy to achieve. Such expressions of goodness pale in comparison to that goodness which, as Thomas Aquinas wrote, “signifies … ultimate perfection.” The domestication of goodness can be seen in a conversation in Charles Williams’s novel Descent into Hell:
“Nature’s so terribly good. Don’t you think so, Mr. Stanhope?”
He [Stanhope] … answered, “That Nature is terribly good? Yes, Miss Fox. You do mean ‘terribly’?”
“Why, certainly,” Miss Fox said, “Terribly—dreadfully—very.”
“Yes,” Stanhope said again. “Very. Only—you must forgive me; it comes from doing so much writing, but when I say ‘terribly’ I think I mean ‘full of terror’. A dreadful goodness.”
“I don’t see how goodness can be dreadful,” Miss Fox said, … “If things are good they’re not terrifying, are they?”
“And if things are terrifying,” Pauline put in, … “can they be good?”
He looked down on her, “Yes, surely,” he said, with more energy. “Are our tremors to measure the Omnipotence?”
Certainly, goodness can present as something gentle, placid, and mild. However, we cannot allow our “tremors” to restrict the glory of goodness, simply because the sort of “dreadful goodness” that Williams refers to is uncomfortable, even terrifying.
If goodness is understood in the light of an absolute reality—what Williams refers to as “Omnipotence”—, goodness always displays some degree of glory and majesty, whether it is found in a vision of heaven, the eyes of the incarnate Son, a life of self-sacrifice, an act of human charity, or a mother’s enduring love. With this glory and majesty always comes something that is dreadful, awe-filled, and wondrous to behold. Before such goodness, the cult of niceness and emotional comfort dwindle into pitiful insignificance.
[A previous version of this piece appeared in Touchstone magazine’s blog Mere Comments]