January 2012 - Vol. 56

by Romano Guardini

Perhaps this title surprises the reader, for who is likely, at present, to consider disinterestedness a virtue; that is, an example of moral value? 

There is a proverb which comes from ancient China and which states that the fewer interests a man has, the more powerful he is; that the greatest power is complete disinterestedness. But that idea is foreign to us. The image of man which has become the standard since the middle of the past century is quite different. It presents the active man who moves with decision in dealing with the world and accomplishes his purposes. This man has many interests and considers himself perfect when everything that he does is subordinated to the goals that he sets up for himself. 

That such a man accomplishes much would not be denied even by the teachers of that ancient philosophy. But they would probably say that most of it is superficial and bypasses that which is really important. 

How, then, does the man live who is ruled by his interests? 

In his associations with others, such a man does not turn toward another person with simplicity and sincerity, but he always has ulterior motives. He wishes to make an impression, to be envied, to gain an advantage, or to get ahead. He praises in order to be praised. He renders a service in order to be able to exact one in return. Therefore he does not really see the other as a person; instead, he sees wealth or social position, and then there is always rivalry. 

With such a man we are not at ease. We must be cautious. We perceive his intentions and draw back. The free association in which true human relations are realized does not develop. Of course, our life with its many needs also has its rights. Many human relations are built upon dependence and aims. Consequently, it is not only right but absolutely necessary that we should seek to obtain what we need and should be conscious of doing this. But there are many other relations which rest upon a candid and sincere meeting of persons. If interests and ulterior motives determine our attitude in such cases, then everything becomes false and insincere. 

Wherever the essential relations of “I” and “thou” are to be realized, interests must give way. We must see the other as he is, deal simply with him, and live with him. We must adapt ourselves to the situation and its demands, whether it be a conversation, collaboration, joyfulness, or the enduring of misfortune, danger, or sorrow. 

Only in this way are true human values made possible, such as a real friendship, true love, sincere comradeship in working, and honest assistance in time of need. But if interests become dominant here, then everything atrophies. 

A man who keeps interests in their proper place acquires power over others, but it is a peculiar kind of power. Here we approach the ancient aphorism of which we spoke in the beginning. The more we seek to gain our own ends, the more the other person closes up and is put on the defensive. But the more clearly he perceives that we do not wish to drive him, but simply to be with him and live with him—that we do not want to gain something from him, but merely to serve the matter at hand—then the more quickly he discards his defenses and opens himself to the influence of our personality. 

The power of personality becomes stronger in proportion to the absence of interests. It is something quite different from that energy by which a man subordinates another to his will, and which is really a very external thing in spite of its dynamic quality. The power of personality stems from the genuineness of life, the truth of thought, the pure will to work, and the sincerity of one’s disposition. 

Something similar holds true of a man’s relation to his work. When a man who is dominated by his interests works, then his work lacks precisely that which gives it value; that is, a sincere service to the thing itself. For him the first and chief consideration is how he can get ahead and further his career. He knows very little of the freedom of work and the joy of creation. 

If he is a student, he works only with an eye to his vocation, and very frequently not even to that which really deserves the name of vocation, which is a man’s feeling that he is “called” to a certain task within the context of human society. Rather, he works with an eye to that which offers the most opportunities for financial gain and for prestige. He really works only for the examination; he learns what is required and what the professor in each case demands. We must not exaggerate; these things, too, have their rights. But if they are the sole motives, then the essential thing is lost. That kind of student never has the experience of living in the milieu of knowledge, of feeling its freedom and its greatness. He is never touched by wisdom and understanding; his interests isolate him.

What we have said of students also holds true of other forms of preparation for later life. 

Naturally, we repeat, these other things have their rights. A man must know what he wants; otherwise his actions disintegrate. He must have a goal and must orient his life to that goal. But the goal should lie mainly in the object to which be devotes himself. He will pay attention to remuneration and advancement, since his work gives him the means of which he and his family have need and gives him wealth and the esteem of others. But the real and essential consideration must always be what the work itself demands, that it be done well and in its entirety. 

The man who has this attitude will not let his actions be determined by considerations extrinsic to the task. In this sense, he is disinterested. He serves, in the fine sense of the word. He does the work which is important and timely; he is devoted to it and does it as it should be done. He lives in it and with it, without self-interest or side glances. 

[This article is excerpted from Learning the Virtues: That Lead You to God, by Romano Guardini, 1998 edition by  Sophia Institute Press (http://www.sophiainstitute.com/), Manchester, New Hampshire, USA. Used with permission.] 

Romano Guardini (1885-1968) was an influential Catholic philosopher, author, and priest in Germany. He was chaplain for a Catholic youth movement and chair of the Philosophy of Religion at the University of Berlin until the Nazis forced him to resign in 1939. He openly opposed the Nazi ideology. His books, lectures, and homilies influenced many Christian thinkers, especially in Central Europe, including Josef Pieper and Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI).

Guardini's book, Learning the Virtues That Lead You to God was originally published in 1963 by Werkbund-Verlag, Würzburg, Germany, under the title Tugenden: Meditationen über Gestalten Sittlichen Lebens. In 1967, Henry Regnery Company published an English translation by Stella Lange under the title The Virtues: On Forms of Moral Life. This 1998 edition by Sophia Institute Press uses the 1967 Regnery translation, with slight revisions throughout the text. Copyright © 1987 Publishing Partnership of Matthias-Grünewald, Mainz/Ferdinand Schöningh, Paderborn; fourth edition, 1992. All of the rights of the Author are vested in the Catholic Academy in Bavaria.

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