Neatness and Morality

Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Volume I: Greece and Rome (Westminster: Newman, 1959) 433.

Epictetus was a Stoic philosopher who lived in the first-second centuries C.E. Copleston states regarding Epictetus’ views on bodily and moral cleanliness:

Duties towards oneself must begin with cleanliness of the body. “I indeed would rather that a young man, when first moved to philosophy, should come to me with his hair carefully trimmed, than with it dirty and rough.” That is to say, if a man has a feeling for natural cleanliness and beauty there is more hope of elevating him to the perception of moral beauty.

Is there a relationship between being neat and being moral? Four things come to my mind:

1. A person on my Christian dating site once remarked that demon-possessed people have really messy rooms, since a spirit of chaos and disorder is inside of them.

2. When I was at DePauw University, my professor in my Christianity class taught us about St. Thomas Aquinas. To illustrate Aquinas’ view of human nature, she drew a bunch of disordered marks on one side of the blackboard, which represented human nature apart from Jesus Christ: disordered, things are not in their right place, etc. On the other side of the board, she drew the marks in an orderly procession, underneath the word “God.” That was supposed to be human nature transformed by Jesus Christ: orderly, things in their correct place and under a government, etc.

3. My Grandpa likes to make the point that Jesus folded his garment at his resurrection. “When the disciples came to the empty tomb, did they find Jesus’ garment randomly tossed on the floor?,” he asked. “No, they found it neatly folded.” For my Grandpa, Jesus was a neat person.

4. Being conscientious in one area (bodily neatness, neat room) can condition a person to be conscientious in another area (morality). Yet, being a neat-freak can also lead to perfectionism, influencing one to judge and condemn others for not following his high standards. Remember the movie Sleeping with the Enemy, in which Julia Roberts was married to an abusive neat-freak?

Personally-speaking, my apartment can be quite messy. My living room is a lot neater now, since I try to keep things in order. But my computer room is starting to revert back to its usual chaos, with books scattered on the floor. Still, there is more order to the chaos than existed a few months ago, since I’ve categorized my books by topic.

Keeping a neat apartment can be pretty daunting. I can clean it up, but it becomes messy before you know it. Dust accumulates. There are so many things to keep track of. Entropy continues to rear its ugly head.

Does that parallel my spiritual and moral life in any way? I don’t know. I know that I’m not demon possessed, but there are many times when I feel as if I’m ruled by my emotions and appetites, and I’m not sure how to put them in order, under the power of reason (for Plato), or God (for Aquinas), or whatever.

I try to be disciplined in my spiritual life, however, since I spend time in prayer and spiritual reading each day. So I do have some propensity towards order.

I think of something my therapist once told me. I was getting lazy about my social skills development, as I slacked off about introducing myself to people at my AA meetings. My therapist told me that I needed to keep the ground that I gained for there to be progress. That’s similar to keeping my apartment clean: I need to be conscientious about keeping things in order. In the case of my social skills development, the “order” is the principle of me introducing myself to others and trying to be friendly, even if I receive a negative (or no) response.

Indeed, being a neat-freak (morally or physically) can lead me to look down on people who are not as conscientious. But maybe it can also influence me to have a deeper recognition of the flaws that I try to correct, allowing me to be charitable towards those who have the same human foibles. See xHWA’s C.S. Lewis quote under my post, Can God Be Virtuous?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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