Personal conduct


-“Pray and work” (Benedict of Nurcia 354−430)
-“Ever tried? Ever failed? Never mind. Try again. Fail better.” (Samuel Beckett 1906−1989)


The core of democracy

A viable democracy calls for some connective tissue in the social coalition, a minimum of personal commitment which maintains fair play. Only by acts of faith can we ennoble the brutal Darwinian elimination game, where the triumphant are always right, and gain a lasting foothold for our joint venture.

The real struggle for power is decided not on the political platform but in people’s hearts and minds. There our values compete, there common cause is weighed against party politics, there the cynic and the progress dynamo fight for supremacy. A willingness to put aside personal priorities, a receptivity to the signals of a higher-order game – in short a troubled conscience – is the most important prerequisite of democracy.

We would surely like to take time off from the painful challenge of creativity, to rest on our laurels, silence our consciences, enjoy a little hard-earned vacation – isn’t this after all a duty to ourselves? One thing is clear: we are and remain in debt, we live off our forefathers, their accumulated capital, their material and intangible investment, their toil and sweat. The great inspirers, the founders and prophets of faiths, have certainly created crucial roles, but in this context ordinary people are the main actors. The unceasing re-creation of common values by voluntary everyday offerings sustains our internal truth, the means and ends of the cultural coalition.

Intrepid, independent yet loyal individuals constitute the gist, the moral fiber of every organization or society. Democracies, in particular, are dependent on this scarce resource. Like salt in the food or yeast in the dough, such self-motivated citizens are a vitalizing force, actuating the commitment of their compatriots to a common cause. We owe our freedom and prosperity to the moral investments of bygone generations. But what happens if the salt loses its savor – if the quest for individual self-realization is strangling civic responsibility and threatens the very existence of future generations?

Transcending death

To put the ego at the absolute center of the universe is both natural and rational but nevertheless a deeply unsatisfying notion. Lacking something to die for, there is no real reason for living. We should represent something more than our own comfort and lack of commitment, our fashionable lukewarm indifference. We should ask ourselves: “What makes life really worth living? What is more important than life itself?” The right response will release boundless scope for play, the proper heritage of Homo Sapiens.

Every genuine faith reflects some essential aspect of existence, and represents a partial solution to the existential equation. But a personal quest achieves permanent merit only when it becomes integrated in an overarching effort. Otherwise it collapses in vain self-assertion or takes refuge in the decrepit structures of conventional religion.

Our central values do not define detailed norms but express the sum total of a vague personal commitment. These meta-rules of the game are spontaneously applied in the daily round. The frame of reference is absorbed from the surroundings and our bad conscience is certainly socially conditioned. Even so we can interpret the rules of the game according to our own lights; every one can make a personal contribution to the common fund of moral capital. The precondition is that we untiringly look for a higher directive – how we do it is a private matter.

In strictly rational terms nothing can make up for my physical death which becomes an outrageous affront. In order to transcend human self-importance – the paralysie générale of our culture – we must defer our man-made measuring rods to supreme criteria. Only before God are all men equal in their shortcomings; only before God is humanism, our care for one another, reconciled with a higher mission.

A lord worth serving

In a democratic society we are blessed with the freedom to choose our own role, to play our own game and to stand up for our personal values. It is inevitable that we in practice largely work for the benefit of ourselves and our family, but the efforts should be compatible with superordinate interests. We are obliged to assume some responsibility for the common weal, according to our capabilities. This is a voluntary citizen tax which enriches life for the payer.

Why should I contribute? My response (in The Spirit of the Game) is as follows: “The burden of evidence lies with you – why not you? Every able body is privileged, standing in for all those countless souls who cannot take part. You are only called upon to do your best, struggling for self-control, resisting everything except challenges. Self-indulgence and self-deceit are cowardly concessions; the game gets its merit from all the unpleasant truths accepted and from all the tempting moves passed by.”

This somewhat lofty appeal may be naïve. At least it contradicts all worldly wisdom. But at bottom, a childish trust is the sole starting point for blessed play; genuine progress is always grounded in artless risk-taking, a kind of creative innocence and generosity. Only honest plus-sum play confers meaning and satisfaction, maybe even happiness to our life. The main point is not to succeed; failures build the bridges to the future. Samuel Beckett said it concisely: “Ever tried? Ever failed? Never mind. Try again. Fail better.”

How are we to overcome our stage fright, the fear of failing our part? A prompter is available if our contribution is at odds with the gist of the game. But the muted whisper forever insisting on fair play is easily drowned by the ingratiating rumblings of an inflated ego. Fortunately some measure of altruism is inscribed in our genetic code. Helping your neighbour is a source of satisfaction, even at some personal inconvenience. We long for a cause which deserves some self-sacrifice, but a hypertrophic rationality threatens to do away with our only fundamental freedom: to choose a lord worth serving, a mission worth pursuing, a game worth playing to the bitter end – the service of God.