Neglected word of the day: Unmercenary

We all know, from the movies or wherever, what a mercenary is – someone who does something – usually soldiering – for money and only that; usually he isn’t a citizen of the place he’s fighting for, or is fighting for someone other than the legitimate rulers. Actually, though, that’s only the most common usage of mercenary; really, a mercenary activity is anything that takes as its’ reward something other than the reward natural to itself (C S Lewis has written somewhere about this better than I – I think perhaps Abolition of Man, if you’re interested). In our society we usually expect both a mercenary and an unmercenary reward for our activities – in school we expect to learn beautiful and interesting things (unmercenary), and we also expect to earn grades (mercenary) so that we can go on and learn more interesting and beautiful things in college (unmercenary) and make more money (mercenary). In education we tend to talk about internal vs. external motivation, but that’s not quite right, because something can be external and unmercenary – like cooking so as to have some good food to eat and the pleasure of providing enjoyment to yourself and others – and it’s probable that motivation can be internal and mercenary – like learning poetry in order to feel superior, rather than because the poetry itself is beautiful. Sometimes we also talk about intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, which is better. The Holy Unmercenary Saints are usually people who heal and refuse payment, because the natural reward for medicine is healing, not money.

The reason why I consider the unmercinary to be neglected is twofold: first, in our society we tend to put a (monetary) price on everything, even things like “emotional trauma,” and especially things like time. As a result nearly all our work is mercenary, with the unmercenary as an added bonus – it would be nice to do work with worthwhile effects, but it’s necessary to do work that earns money. Josef Piper in his book on leisure talks about the difference between a wage and an honararium; with the wage it’s implied that the work you’re doing is actually equivalent to the value of the wage, whereas with the honorarium it’s implied that whatever your work may or may not be worth pragmatically, it’s good that you’re doing it, so you should have some money to provide for your needs as you do it. And while I’m not for abolishing mercenary labor, it would be better if we also pursued some more unmercenary activities, like growing or making things not to sell but to use or appreciate or eat.

The other reason I brought it up is because as Christians I think we often suggest to people that Christianity is a mercenary religion, when really it’s not. Like life is a courtroom where you make the coffee hot without warning anyone, and now owe three million dollars, but, wait, it’s alright because somebody else had his hand chopped off, but in gratitude you should try to stop drinking hot coffee. As Fr. John would say, it’s crazy. I don’t know what Roman justice was like, but to Plato it was everybody doing what they ought and minding their own affairs, and Aristotle defined geometric and arithmetic justice, where in matters of money justice was reparation of the value of the thing stolen or destroyed, and in honor it was proportionate to the gravity of the person offended. Perhaps then Roman justice was geometric, and since God is infinite the proportionate difference between a man and God are infinite. But what if Christian just were more like Plato’s than Aristotle’s – that justice in a city is for each man to do that to which he is most suited, with some people rulers and others ruled – but it would be unjust for the ruler to look to his own interests above those of his people – and justice in a man is that his higher faculties rule and order his lower (thus Plato has the intelligence ruling the incisive (spirited), which is in turn over the passions; Christians might have the noetic faculty, which is in touch with God, rulingand ordering everything else) – thus correcting justice is much more a matter of restoring proper order and functions than it is people getting punished or fined, though that might happen in the process of restoring proper order.

That was a tangent – but anyway, Plato was an idealist, and I don’t suppose it’s possible for any human society except perhaps a small voluntary commune of good people to be entirely unmercinary – but the Kingdom of God can be. And as beginning to know God is the proper reward of prayer, perhaps it’s so with the other disciplines as well; the proper reward of sobriety is being in no danger of becoming a drunkard; the proper reward of good deeds is love, joy, peace, and so on; the proper reward of fasting is being able to rely more fully on the providence of God; the proper reward of doing what one ought is to begin to enjoy to do what one ought, which I’m sure comes in handy in Heaven, where nobody does anything else. Because one of the things that is not true in Christianity is that God is a magician who upon death suddenly works a spell that makes us immediately enjoy what we ought, and dislike what we ought; and I don’t see any reason to suppose that when on earth we prefer many things to God, we will automatically change upon death, without any effort or difficulty for ourselves.

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One thought on “Neglected word of the day: Unmercenary

  1. Because one of the things that is not true in Christianity is that God is a magician who upon death suddenly works a spell that makes us immediately enjoy what we ought, and dislike what we ought; and I don’t see any reason to suppose that when on earth we prefer many things to God, we will automatically change upon death, without any effort or difficulty for ourselves.

    This is what we were talking about on Sunday, what Lewis describes in The Great Divorce. This makes having a soul, having a nous, altogether a more serious thing: as if we were supposed to, whether we had to or not, take our lives seriously even after we are saved, to use some Protestant language. Maybe that is why that language can be misleading even though theologians like Jonathan Edwards were not proponents of cheap grace by any means.
    Maybe we ought not to speculate too much on what the afterlife is like? Because anything we may think is liable to seem magical. What does it mean to say that some people will have rewards in Heaven? That is a theme that Charles Stanley likes to talk about, but even so, he does not have anything like a picture. It is as if: if my Father, God, has a gift, it must be good and I will like it as he is Good and loves me. Maybe that means we have to be deveoloped a certain amount in our moral or spiritual life or we won’t get gifts or treasures in Heaven because we wouldn’t be able to apprecita them anyhow. This is indeed speculation, but not silly I think. Or are we not to speculate about what we can’t know but have read about in the Bible? Perhaps it can be edifying.

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