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In Notes from the Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky subjects the promises of the European Enlightenment to a withering critique. Among other "lies," he ridicules the notion that complete personal freedom leads not to wicked actions because of self-centeredness, but to a realization that it is in one's best interests to act righteously: "If only one's eyes were opened to his real, normal interests, he would at once cease doing vile things and would immediately become good and honorable, because being enlightened … he would indeed see his personal advantage in goodness."

As human history has repeatedly shown, however, letting humanity choose whatever works to its own advantage results in the primacy of self-interest and personal gain. Unless someone is obliged as well as enabled to see what is good, he will not freely choose it, because it will not immediately seem to be in his self interest.

Within the heart of Christian ethics, there lies the task of answering important questions about what the Christian should value the most, accept as the highest good, and cling to in love.

Paul said it best in Philippians 4:8: "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."

You wouldn't think this would be too hard, and many thinkers have said as much. For Epictetus, a Greek contemporary of Paul, human nature contained "a distinct portion of the essence of God." He reminded readers not to be "ignorant of your noble birth." Cicero wrote on this theme a century earlier, when he argued that there is a "spark" of deity in the human soul, enabling us to ascend eventually to ultimate goodness. These ...

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In the Magazine

September 2007

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