Some people believe that sin isn’t so bad if it is done with a good intention. “After all, he meant well.” The problem with this view is that every sin is done with a good intention. Nobody loves evil just because for being evil; the only way an evil can be attractive in the first place is that is good in some respect.
For example, the thief does not love thievery for its own sake but because it gets him something he wanted, or enables him to give his friends gifts, or even because it gives him the pleasure of sharpening his skills. Even Milton’s Satan, who says “Evil, be thou my good,” loves evil not for its own sake, but because it seems a way to outwit his Divine foe.
Just as some people fall into the fallacy of good intentions, some thinkers fall into the fallacy of the grain of truth. They think errors aren’t so bad if a grain of truth is wrapped up with them. A case in point is a recent book by a Christian thinker which argues that antirealist philosophies such as relativism and pragmatism are good because they recognize the “contingency” and “dependency” of life.
Life certainly is contingent and dependent. But not in the way that antirealists think. The problem with the grain of truth fallacy is much like the problem with the good intentions fallacy. A grain of truth is entangled with all believable error; that’s what makes it believable. But the grain is only a grain, and it is mixed up with a lot of indigestible chaff.
Buddhists are right that we fall prey to illusions. Socialists are right that we should use our goods for the good of others. Pessimists are right that many evils are incidental to life. But Buddhists are wrong to draw the conclusion that life itself is illusion, socialists to draw the conclusion that private property is theft, and pessimists to draw the conclusion that life is not worth living.
Every bunko artist knows that what isn’t true depends on what is. He folds into his frauds all the truth they will hold, the better to take in the suckers. The wise man makes use of the same fact, but in the opposite way. In order to extricate his neighbors from what isn’t true, he seeks out the bits of truth tangled up with it, commends them, but then shows where they actually lead. St. Paul followed this approach when he was speaking to the Athenians. “As even some of your poets have said, 'For we are indeed his offspring.' Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man.”*
The Patristic writers called the technique “spoiling the Egyptians.” This expression alludes to an incident in Exodus, wherein God instructs the Israelites that before leaving Egypt, their former house of bondage, they should ask their pagan neighbors for adornments of silver, gold, and fine cloth. According to the Fathers, this could be used as a metaphor for learning the commendable logical methods of the pagan thinkers, but putting them to better purposes than the pagans did themselves.
Why to better uses? Because learning the logical methods of the pagans is one thing; repeating their errors is another. As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger has remarked, when the pagans, who knew that Christians prayed to only one god, used to ask which one of their gods it was, the Christians answered, “None of them.” The God to whom they prayed was the God of whom the pagan thinkers spoke but to whom they did not pray. Why didn’t they? Because for them the divine Logos wasn’t the sort of god to whom one could pray; the Thought which thought itself could not be troubled to take thought for man. Christians knew Him better, as the Word made flesh and come among us.**
So if you are going to take spoils from the Egyptians, don’t forget to get out of Dodge. Gather up those precious things, and then vamoose. It is surprising how often Christian thinkers forget the vamoosing part. In order to caress those precious things, they stick around and fall back into bondage.
* Acts 17:28-29 (RSV-CE).
** Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity (1970), Chapter 3.