The life of man is his struggle with moral and philosophical problems. The art of living involves a thousand daily compromises, decisions, and judgments; we stumble through the darkness as best we can, our way illuminated by a lantern which burns with the fire of our uncertain convictions. What to do, what not to do, and how to go about doing it: are these not the primary concerns for the man of action?

And yet our powers of decision often seem so woefully inadequate. They often feel prolonged in effort, and meager in result. So often dashed on the rocks of temptation and delusion, we can rely only on ourselves has helmsmen and pilots.


T.S. Eliot

Moments of great decision in our lives are attended by two related questions: (1) What is the correct course of action; and (2) what are the temptations that may deflect us from the right path. I now believe that there is a third, deeper question that follows from the preceding two: does the motivation behind the right decision matter? Stated another way:  does it matter if the right thing is done for the wrong reason, or is it better that the right thing be done for the right reason?

This question is rarely asked. I never gave it much thought myself. But a recent reading of T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral has made me view these matters in a different light. The motive behind a momentous decision does indeed matter.

Murder in the Cathedral uses a historical incident—the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury in 1170 by knights of King Henry II—as a vehicle to explore the moral questions stated above. The political issues leading up to the assassination were complex, and need not detain us here; what matters in the play are ideas, not historical details. Were T.S. Eliot alive today, he could doubtless just as easily have chosen the murder of Archbishop Romero in a church in El Salvador in the early 1980s as his subject matter.


We are the sum total of the decisions we make in our lives

It is sufficient for our purposes to note that, before his murder, Thomas had been engaged in a protracted power struggle with Henry over the relative role of the Church and the crown in English affairs of state. In the figure of Thomas, then, we have an embodiment of the classic conflict between the secular and the spiritual authorities of a European nation; it is a drama that would be played out many times across the continent, and in England would not be resolved until Henry VIII firmly subordinated the Church in favor of royal prerogative.

But Eliot is not interested in historical details. What concerns him is the moral trial that a man must undergo in making a momentous decision. What temptations does he face?  How does he overcome them? And how does he make peace with himself? The answers to these questions unfold in Eliot’s unrivaled ability as a master of the poetic medium.

Thomas knows that he must die. He knows his life must be forfeit. He knows that his feud with Henry has brought him to the point where no further compromise could be reached. He must die, and yet he hesitates. And who would not hesitate? His internal conflict is dramatized by his interaction with four “tempters” in human form who seek to talk him out of doing what he knows to be right. These tempters follow him about, whispering sweet words in his ear, in an effort to seduce him or break his will. One tempter dissuades him by reminding him of the seeming futility of human actions; only “a fool, fixed in his folly” would stoop to die for a principle. Why bother fighting for anything, after all? And does anyone care about lofty ideals?

Men learn little from others’ experience.

But in the life of one man, never

The same time returns.  Sever

The cord, shed the scale.  Only

The fool, fixed in his folly, may think

He can turn the wheel on which he turns.

In a powerful ode to nihilism and futility, the tempters together argue that nothing really matters in life (How often do we hear some version of this sentiment in these nihilistic, atheistic times!). Moral statements, moral judgments, and ethical “principles” alike dissolve into nothingness. In what may be the most powerful ode to despair ever penned, the tempters mock Thomas:

Man’s life is a cheat and a disappointment;

All things are unreal,

Unreal or disappointing:

The Catherine wheel, the pantomime cat,

The prizes given at the children’s party,

The prize awarded for the English Essay,

The scholar’s degree, the statesman’s decoration.

All things become less real, man passes

From unreality to unreality.

Another tempter, taking a different approach, appeals to his rationality by suggesting that he, Thomas, would be throwing his life away by letting himself be slain by Henry’s knights. He, Thomas, could do more good as a living political figure than as a dead cleric:

The Chancellorship that you resigned

When you were made Archbishop—that was a mistake

On your part—still may be regained.  Think, my Lord,

Power obtained grows to glory,

Life lasting, a permanent possession.

A templed mob, monument of marble.

Rule over men reckon no madness.

In the most powerful and insidious temptation, one of the tempters suggests that he should proceed with his planned martyrdom, because of the glory that it will bring his memory:

Yes, Thomas, yes; you have thought of that too.

What can compare with glory of Saints

Dwelling forever in presence of God?

What earthly glory, of king or emperor,

What earthly pride, that is not poverty

Compared with richness of heavenly grandeur?

Seek the way of martyrdom, make yourself the lowest

On earth, to be high in heaven.

This appeal to Thomas’s vanity proves to be the most seductive temptation of all, because it played on his desire for glory and immortality as a martyr for a cause. But Thomas is able to shake off this temptation, and here delivers the key soliloquy of the play, in which he affirms his belief that our subjective intentions behind our actions really do matter:

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:

Temptation shall not come in this kind again.

The last temptation is the greatest treason:

To do the right thing for the wrong reason.

Doing the right thing (dying as a martyr) is not enough: for his action to be sanctified by God, it must be done in a spirit of true humility and submission to God, without thought of any personal benefit of glory. And in this sentiment, the key message of the play is made clear: it is not enough simply to do what is right. What is more important—what is more transcendent—is to do the right thing for the right reason. Our reasons must spring from our innermost convictions, from our souls that have sincerely and honestly submitted to the authority of divine law. Only this sanctification gives our deeds any moral significance.

In a sermon later in the play, Thomas states his views of what constitutes a true martyr:

 A Christian martyr is never an accident, for Saints are not made by accident.  Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a man’s will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men…It [martyrdom] is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, and who no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of being a martyr.

We are the sum total of the decisions we make in our lives. Our decisions, steadily accreting upon each other day after day, define us. Most of the time, it is clear to us what is the right thing to do. Yet why can it be do difficult to do what is so self-evidently necessary? It is difficult because we are hounded by tempters at every step in the road. They whisper inducements in our ears, beseeching us to relax, to slow down, or to go with the flow of the herd; they trouble us with sly appeals to the apparent futility of all actions; and they seek to distract us from the right path with appeals to our hunger for riches and seraglios of women.

And if we can overcome these enticements, we still must face our own reckonings with conscience: are we doing the right thing for the right reason, or for the wrong reason?  This is the critical question, one that T.S. Eliot so masterfully has explored for us. To do the right thing is not enough. It must be done for the right reason.

Sincerity purifies purpose. Sincerity sanctifies purpose. A good deed, unless it springs from such inner sanctified motive, remains only an empty gesture, an action as arid and meaningless as “rats’ feet over broken glass” (to use another phrase from Eliot).

It is often said that no good deed goes unpunished. Until now, I never understood the true meaning of that saying.

Read More:  The Golden Rule Works