Pietro Pomponazzi (1462-1525)
My blood runs cold when I hear of acts that demonstrate a blatant disrespect for life. It sometimes comes in the form of small daily injustices, like the person who rushes to cut before a slower elderly person in the cashier’s line; or bolder acts such as the delinquent who tries to furtively force open a locked car door with the intent to steal what is on the seat, or worse yet, a hit and run driver who just keeps on going after plowing over an animal or human, whose body just seconds before was filled with life and vibrancy. What is going on?
Renaissance philosopher Pietro Pomponazzi wrestled with the notion of the soul’s immortality. Evident in his writing was a fearless tendency to change the course of his thoughts as his reasoning process spontaneously evolved. This cognitive flexibility, to me, was a sign of his great intellect. The big question, that he went back and forth on was the argument of the soul’s immortality. Pomponazzi , originally holding that the soul is mortal and inseparable from the body, later on reasoned that although we cannot conceive of an immortal soul in earthly terms, that does not mean it doesn’t exist. What emerged from this debate over the nature of the soul was the exploration of virtue, and whether humans are inclined to do virtuous acts only if external rewards and punishments are dangled before them , such as the expectation of Heaven or Hell that religion serves to remind us of; or is true virtue prompted by a sense of internal satisfaction when one does good and a guilty conscious when doing wrong. Pomponazzi believed that virtue should be its own reward.
I would agree.
The research on moral development (doing right, avoiding wrong) certainly indicates that many people never get beyond the stage of needing external rewards and punishments for them to do the right thing and avoid temptation to do wrong. While laws are indispensable for maintaining an orderly society, how can we as individuals, strengthen our internal sense of morality? By putting ourselves in the “shoes” of others the next time we are uncertain about what to do. This is called empathy. True virtue, in my opinion, has empathy as its foundation.
Fortunately, I see examples of true virtue much more often than I witness the dark side of human nature. The fire fighter who saves a child’s life; the soldiers who put their own lives on the line for fellow countrymen they have never even met; the neighbor who brings a fresh baked cake over to the sick; the teenager who finds a fallen sparrow and gently carries it home to nurture back to flight. These are exquisite examples of everyday heroes and heroines who do good deeds selflessly, without any expectation of praise or fear of criticism. While we can do little to force a moral code in others, we can continually make strides in being the person WE know we should be and could be. By asking ourselves how we would feel if we were the other person, we can align ourselves with Pomponazzi’s urging to let virtue be its own reward. After all virtue, is what truly makes humankind beautiful.