In his Ethics, Aristotle tells us that not every action is a mean between two extremes — too much and too little. Some names indicate what is always base. He gives examples: “spite, shamelessness, envy, among feelings; adultery, theft, murder, among actions.” Such actions are unworthy. “Hence in doing these things we can never be correct, but must invariably be in error.”
To hear that language names things that are wrong is refreshing. When something is thus wrong, the law distinguishes between degrees of culpability. Passion, force, or ignorance can mitigate the heinousness of what we do. But we hate to hear someone say “never,” especially Aristotle, as he usually knew of what he spoke. It reminds us that we do not ourselves make all the rules of our living.
But what if we go ahead and do such base things anyhow? Where does that put us? Obviously, something happens in our souls. We always have a “reason,” of course, why we do something wrong. We concoct a rationale for our actions or feelings. They usually have a point.
No purely evil being exists, not even the devil. We develop a theory about why what we do is all right. We go to great lengths in making our own rules. We are free; we live as we want. Both of these statements are, in fact, correct. We are free. We can live as we want.
“Doing what we want,” however, can be read in two ways: 1) We do what we want, whatever it is; or 2) we want to do what is right to do.
In the second case, if we do not do what is right, we suspect that we should do it. Therefore, we seek to restore, if possible, whatever damage we did, either to ourselves, to others, or to the principle of right itself. If we do whatever it is we want, however, we have already accepted a theory of universal relativism. It is right because we do it. Thus it does not make much difference what we do.
In such a world, we acknowledge no consequences to any act that we do. What applies to us, then, also applies to everyone else. We no longer have any criterion to judge how we stand to others or even to ourselves. We can do nothing wrong, because whatever we do is right. In such logic, we no longer can blame (or praise) anyone else. Everyone does the same thing — namely, whatever he wants.
Such a world is quite improbable. We cannot shake Aristotle’s insistence that some named things are wrong.
What happens when we acknowledge Aristotle’s point? We wonder about the damage we have ourselves put into the world by our wrong deeds. Things do not become right because we think them right. Evil deeds continue to wreak the havoc of their wrongness. How can it be stopped?
We need to be both forgiven and to reestablish the law that we violated. We need to restore what our actions upset. In 1 Timothy, we read: “Watch yourself and watch your teaching.” To live rightly, it seems, we must think what is true.
What does forgiveness do? It does not make the evil of the action that we put into the world cease to be evil. That action goes on its way in the web of human living. Purely subjective repentance is not enough. It must be made “public,” even in the sacrament. This is what penance and punishment are about. They restore the integrity of the principle. We affirm that what can never be correct is not correct, even if we had a theory to justify our doing it.
We distinguish between notorious or public sinners and private ones. The reason for this distinction is not that ordinary people do not commit ordinary crimes and evils; they do. But they are not in a position to widely teach the wrongness in word and example. For great crimes, public penance, acknowledgement, and punishment are required to restore order.
Plato rightly said that the one who committed the crimes himself wanted to be punished as a sign of his recognition of the evil he did.
Plato also said that the worst thing we could do to great sinners was not to punish them. Let them glory in their evil deeds. This “non-punishment” was itself proposed out of spite. But it was based on the fact that each life is judged after death by its deeds and what they teach.
“Watch yourself and watch your teaching” turns out to be good advice. “Hence in doing these things we can never be correct, but must invariably be in error.”
In great crimes, private penance also requires public acknowledgement, lest aberrant actions continue to corrupt and teach.