Near the beginning of a spring semester I was reading Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. He recounts the story of a group of Russian soldiers who were sitting around a fire on the evening just prior to a particularly vicious battle in the Napoleonic wars of 1808. One of the soldiers, who was torn to pieces the next day by a French cannonball, was telling tales of "moral beauty."
I became captivated by the idea of moral beauty. I had never run across the phrase before, and at first wondered what it might be. It occurred to me that it probably was akin to physical beauty in some way. Or at least one's reaction to it was like our reaction to physical beauty. I remembered the time I had first seen Niagara Falls—I was instantly awed by its sheer magnitude. I recalled the moment I had gasped when I threw back the drapes of a motel room in Provo, Utah—a nearby mountain, which I had not known about, filled nearly the whole window. I recollected the occasion I had sat in a class on anatomy and physiology, utterly absorbed by the instructor's descriptions of the workings of the human brain.
If one has these reactions to physical beauty, why, I thought, might one not have similar reactions to moral beauty, instances, that is, of goodness that one encounters? I resolved to do an experiment. During the semester on ordinary work days, I would look for occurrences of kindness. I would be attuned to gentleness, both when it was exhibited toward me and toward others. At the end of the day I would go over these in my mind and see what my reactions to them were.
I did the experiment the whole semester. It worked. At the end of each work day, usually as I lay in bed waiting to fall asleep, I brought to mind the day's observances of kindness and gentleness. They nearly always prompted in me a sense of awe and sometimes amazement. I was rather astonished at this, for it had never occurred to me that everyday activities could provoke such exhilarating feelings. I had thought that that was reserved for distinctive events or objects—the wild beauty one has to travel long distances to in order to glimpse.
Kate's birthday came at the end of that semester. I said to her, "How about lunch in the cafeteria?" She said, "Okay," so we met there the next day. She asked, "What have you been thinking about?" My eyes lit up. I explained how I had been intrigued by the idea of moral beauty that I had encountered in War and Peace and how I had looked for it every day and had found cases of it, not just in what I had read, but in people around me. It had been an enlivening set of experiences.
Kate listened, but without much animation. After I had finished talking, she said, "Isn't there evil in everyone? How can we see beauty in people?" She was not asking a question, I sensed, for her face was blank with incomprehension.
I didn't know how to respond. Later I thought of lots of things I could have said. But then it felt as if she had thrown up an impenetrable barricade. I looked at her with the same blank incomprehension that she was directing toward me.
Summer came, and the memory of the conversation began to fade.
On the first day of classes in the fall, Kate stopped by my office. "How was your summer?" she asked. "Nice," I said. "How was yours?" "Good," she replied. She hesitated, as if wondering what to say next. Then she said, "I almost killed myself."
"Oh!" I said.
"How were you going to do it?" I asked, not knowing what else to say.
"I decided earlier this year that if things didn't get better, I would drown myself in Lake Michigan. I'm not a very good swimmer, so it would have looked like an accident," she replied.
"I see," I said.
Then, "What saved you?"
"It was what you said about moral beauty."
I was stunned, then astonished. Her reaction had been so negative at first that it was hard to imagine a turn around. And it seemed impossible that simply observing goodness could have kept her from killing herself.
But it had, for here she was right in front of me saying that it had. I got a big smile on my face and looked into Kate's eyes for a moment.
We talked about everyday stuff for a bit more. Then, as I walked Kate out the office and into the hallway, I said, "I'm glad you're alive." Her eyes shone as she turned to me and said, "Thanks."