Can We Be Good?

Is it within human capacity to be good?

Judging from a lyric fragment on the subject, Simonides (c.556-468 BC) thought goodness was possible (however hard), while Pittacus (c.640-568 BC), whom he references, held the opposing view.

We’ll let Martin Luther (1483-1546), the Reformer, decide between the two positions.

Simonides Fr. 542 (PMG)

It’s hard for a man to be truly good
in hands, feet, and mind,
a square, as it were, drawn without blemish . . .

Yet Pittacus’ maxim does not suit me,
though it was spoken by a wise man:
it’s hard, he said, to be good,
an honor only a god could enjoy . . .

Martin Luther. On Christian Liberty (ed.1521).

The Commandments teach us what is good but we do not straightaway follow their teachings. That is because the Commandments point out what we ought to do, but they do not give us the strength to do it. The Commandments were put in place to reveal an individual to himself: through them he discovers his inability to do good, and he despairs of his own strength . . .

For example, through the Commandment ”You must not covet” we are all heaped together as sinners, for there’s no one who does not have strong desires, whatever his efforts to the contrary. The consequence is this: in order not to be covetous and to satisfy the commandment, an individual learns to despair of himself and looks elsewhere for help.

What this one Commandment accomplishes all the others accomplish too, for all of them are equally impossible for us.

Simonides. Fr. 542 (PMG).

ἄνδρ᾿ ἀγαθὸν μὲν ἀλαθέως γενέσθαι
χαλεπὸν χερσίν τε καὶ ποσὶ καὶ νόῳ
τετράγωνον ἄνευ ψόγου τετυγμένον.
οὐδέ μοι ἐμμελέως τὸ Πιττάκειον
νέμεται, καίτοι σοφοῦ παρὰ φωτὸς εἰρημένον·
χαλεπὸν φάτ᾿ ἐσθλὸν ἔμμεναι.
θεὸς ἂν μόνος τοῦτ᾿ ἔχοι γέρας . . .

Luther. De Libertate Christiana.

Praecepta docent quidem bona, sed non statim fiunt, quae docta sunt, ostendunt enim, quid facere nos oporteat, sed uirtutem faciendi non donant, in hoc autem sunt ordinata ut hominem sibi ipsi ostendant, per quae suam impotentiam ad bonum cognoscat,et de suis viribus desperet . . . Exempli causa: Non concupisces, praeceptum est, quo nos omnes esse peccatores coniungimur cum nemo possit non concupiscere, quicquid contra molitus fuerit, ut ergo, non concupiscat et praeceptum impleat, cogitur de sese desperare, et alibi ac per alium quarere auxilium, quod in se non invenit . . . Quod autem hoc uno praecepto agitur, idem omnibus agitur, aeque enim sunt impossibila nobis omnia.

Color photograph of oil painting of bust of Martin Luther
Luther, not Simonides.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at