The Greatest Treason?

In her essay about Gaudy Night in the book Titles To Fame, Dorothy L. Sayers talks about how Harriet had to come to Lord Peter in the fullness of understanding an not under any misapprehension. She says “he must prevent her from committing ‘the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason'”. This is an interesting idea which is explored in Gaudy Night. But is it true?

(It is worth noting that Ms. Sayers is intentionally misquoting T.S. Eliot from whose Murder in the Cathedral this is drawn. In that play, the character of Thomas of Beckett is visited by four tempters, and he is not talking about all possible temptations, but only the four temptations which were presented him, when he called the fourth “the greatest treason”. Thus I am addressing Ms. Sayers’ idea, not T.S. Eliot’s.)

The short answer to this is, “no.” There cannot be a right reason to do the wrong thing, so if we leave off the possibility of doing the right thing for the right reason, only two options remain:

  1. To do the right thing for the wrong reason.
  2. To do the wrong thing for the wrong reason.

Pretty clearly, option 1 is better than option 2. Either one harms the man doing them, but at least option 1 does not involve harming others, too.

There is the interesting question of what becomes of the man who has taken option #1? He can repent, but he cannot make amends, for there is no harm he has caused to repair. This leaves him in the curious position of not being able to take any actions which proves his repentance.

Or does it?

The case that Ms. Sayers had in mind, of Harriet Vane marrying Lord Peter under a misapprehension, does give some scope for active repentance—she can be a good wife.

Modern people do not understand decisions. Perhaps because of the pernicious influence of Martin Luther, moderns think of decisions solely as the work of a moment—their substance being that moment in which a resolution is formed and a word may be spoken which conveys that resolution. This is not the substance of a decision. That is merely a moment of resolution. The true substance of a decision is the action over time which is in accordance with this decision. Thus a person makes a vow in a moment to love, honor, and cherish a husband or a wife, but the actual act of this decision takes place during the entirety of the marriage. The words that take but a moment bind a person, but it is the action over the course of the marriage which is the substance of the bond. (This is, really, the same thing as good works being the substance of faith, and not something separate from faith, which is why I suspect Martin Luther.) If Harriet had married Lord Peter for the right reason, she could still fix this, over time, turning her marriage into what it should be by fixing her actions to one suited to the truth of her marriage and not to the misapprehension under which she bound herself to it.

Far from dooming a marriage, one or both of the people entering into it because of a mistake gives scope for the growth of fixing themselves and the marriage. Indeed, something like this is what in fact happened with Harriet and Lord Peter, and the fixing of this mistake is no small part of the substance of the final Lord Peter novel, Busman’s Honeymoon. This may also be why Busman’s Honeymoon is one of the few successful novels about a marriage. It’s certainly not perfect, but it works and isn’t merely using some form of reset to try to tell the story of people falling in love all over again.

Now, none of this means that it is not better for characters to do the right thing for the right reason, and Ms. Sayers certainly had the best idea in trying to have her characters avoid the mistake of coming together for the wrong reasons. I’m merely noting that there are worse things than doing the right thing for the wrong reason.

2 thoughts on “The Greatest Treason?

    1. It’s a good question, though I would think that repenting of the wrong reason for the good deed does not have the burden of public shame, which the evil deed would, making repentance easier in that circumstance. Switching from doing the right thing for the wrong reason to the right thing for the right reason would normally be entirely private, which would put up fewer impediments to the change.

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