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What Makes Men Good?

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | January 28, 2012

"One of the most striking facts of the world is the fact of moral difference. Men differ from one another in a thousand ways, but all other differences fade into relative insignificance in comparison with differences in goodness."
D. Elton Trueblood

The writings of D. Elton Trueblood have had a profound influence on me. His books grew out of his deep, disciplined scholarship and the rich spirituality of his Quaker background. 

Before he died at age 94 in 1994, I wrote to him to express my admiration and I will always treasure his written reply. In addition to writing 33 books, he was Chaplain and professor at Haverford College, Harvard University, Stanford University, and Earlham College. He was just as popular as a speaker as he was an author. 

How excited I was recently to come across a sermon he delivered at Stanford University around 1959 titled, "What Makes Men Good?" He quotes a Biblical text in I Thessalonians, "Hold fast what is good." (RSV) 

I found his insights on goodness extremely helpful because we seem to have lost our way on this character trait. Of course no one is perfect, including me, but how many of our role models demonstrate great feats of accomplishment as actors, politicians, athletes, builders, lawyers, teachers and even preachers but, at their core, they just don't seem to be very good people. 

Trueblood says goodness is difficult to define but "it is wonderfully easy to recognize." And since it is such an important quality, we should do everything we can to learn how it is achieved or produced. Before he gives two suggestions, he describes "the conditions which are not sufficient, either separately or together, to produce moral excellence." 

The first one is wealth. "Money does not make men good and neither does poverty".Rare beauty of character sometimes flourishes in city slums but it is also found in homes of millionaires." 

Education does not guarantee goodness. "Some moral giants are rude, unlettered people" and some of the most educated can be the worst. "Goodness is clearly much deeper than mere learning." 

Even a person's profession is not a sufficient condition for moral excellence. "There seem to be good men in every kind of work and disgusting men in every kind of work." 

Some might even suggest that physical surroundings will produce goodness but goodness can be found in the darkest places and yet lacking in the most pristine places. 

Trueblood then addresses what he feels are the two prime conditions for goodness. The first one he calls the contagion of goodness. "...goodness is like a disease which must be caught from another who has it." We don't even need to come in direct contact for as he says, "Goodness can be contagious at long range.The soul grows by what it touches." And for Trueblood, he finds ultimate goodness in God. 

Secondly, he sees discipline as a way to enhance goodness. "When men do not respond to goodness it is because they are not sufficiently sensitive themselves to be helped by it. We need discipline to break down the barriers which hinder the contagion." 

He does conclude that "goodness is difficult, and there is no royal road to character." 

Ever since I read Trueblood's sermon I have been thinking about goodness. I have looked around at people in my world who have it. It is very easy to find. And, since it is the football season I have looked a bit more closely at the athletes we admire. Unfortunately, too few of them seem to be contagious with goodness. 

But every now and then one stands out. We now know Tim Tebow, quarterback of the Denver Broncos, will not be going to the Super Bowl this year, but the more I watch him and the more I read about him the more I find myself impressed by his goodness. I would take goodness over the Vince Lombardi trophy any day. 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
Responses can be mailed to president@vfcc.edu