“That we may feel that our duty is ever our interest.”
Perhaps it was Father’s Day, but my mind went to an old book on my shelf. Written in 1834 from Battersea Rise, a home in London’s Clapham neighborhood, the author is Henry Thornton, a father himself. A remarkable collection of prayers and meditations for his family, the pages are stained, but are full of rich reflections on the good life for everyone everywhere. There are prayers for each day of the month, and meditations on mere Christianity. Pages are given to the Sermon on the Mount, for example, and he takes the words into his heart.
Thornton was a banker who understood his friendship with William Wilberforce as critical to the happiness of his own life. Their families lived in Battersea Rise at different points, and they were neighbors for most of life. If Wilberforce was a politician committed to the abolition of slavery and the renewal of the social fabric of English society, Thornton was a businessman with the same passion, and they worked together towards that end, for years and years.
He wrote, “That we may feel that our duty is ever our interest.” Vocation is a big word, a very complex word, in fact. It has to address the complexity of life, from the most personal to the most public, from family life to work life, from our most deeply-felt loves for those we live with to our most far-reaching hopes for society and the world. Thornton understood that vision, and captured that in these few words. It is not enough to know what we ought to do; to love what we ought to do is what the good life is always about. Simply said, it is to know in our very bones that our duty is our interest.
We choose against our own happiness as human beings when we choose against what is ours to be and do. But that of course begs the question: can we ever know? In a world of whatever, is it possible to ever really know what we ought to be, what we ought to do? That question seems so 21st-century, the modern-becoming-postmodern world that is ours. But what is surprising and sobering is to read Thornton, and find that he lived in a cultural moment that was much like our own. His reading of his world sounds like our reading of ours, so much so that it is almost eerie.
Along with Wilberforce and a community of friends, Thornton gave himself away for the sake of the world, viz. they understood that it was for England that they stood against England. And in and through their vocations they poured themselves out to that end, knowing that “our duty is ever our interest.” With great clarity, they knew that it was against the grain of the universe to imagine that slavery could make for a good life and a good society.
The truest truths are always the perennial truths– true again and again and again.