My high school teachers liked to offer aphorisms to initiate discussion—“Your reputation is your most valuable possession” was a popular one, and another, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” That one in particular caught my attention because it sounded clever but not entirely true; and, like an unresolved chord, it begged for a sweeter-sounding conclusion.
To be sure, the intuitive sense of the saying was clear: There’s more to doing well than having good intentions, and you have to do what you intend. But it struck me that it took only a hint of cynicism or naivete to fixate on one logical sense of the saying: its apparent recommendation against good intentions. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the logic runs, avoiding good intentions means avoiding the road to hell. This is nonsense, but that doesn’t prevent the aphorism from leaving a bitter taste for good intentions. What the saying truly means is hardly as important as what is meant by saying it.
This logical but unguided mind might similarly conclude from the aphorism “No good deed goes unpunished” that good deeds should be avoided because they are costly. If any such guileless logician were present at the Council of Nicea, we can only imagine his interpretation of St. Athanasius’ warning, “The floor of hell is paved with the skulls of bishops.” Some of them might suppose he meant all bishops were destined for perdition, while others would conclude that they can skirt Hades by avoiding miters and crosiers—depending on which interpretation they like more.
Some people will argue that such popular aphorisms merely boil down truths everyone knows. But even if this is true, the sayings also transform ideas into habits of mind, quickly deployed in speech, tempting us to substitute them for arguments—and to use their authority to argue for bad ideas.
For example, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” but that doesn’t mean a wealth of knowledge is without its risks. Today’s secular virtues of tolerance and diversity are often mentioned in the same breath as “awareness,” the opposite of humankind’s worst vice: ignorance. Knowing that influencing the minds of children is the most efficient way to change a culture’s values, modern social engineers cite “awareness” in the absolute to justify everything from graphic sex education for kindergarteners to the banal endorsement of deviant practices which many universities feature as part of freshman orientation.
“Boys will be boys” is another cop-out aphorism, being about as useful a phrase in the abstract as “Bachelors will be unmarried.” After all, if boys will not be boys, their alternatives are limited. Few still resort to the intuitive sense of the phrase, probably meant as a consolation to weary parents: “Boys will be unruly.” Instead, they exploit the phrase’s more useful facets. “Boys will be boys” is a fine expression of fatalism about male nature, and not just the likelihood of future misbehavior.
In the minds of some of its utterers, it’s sufficient rationalization for bad behavior, appealing to its inevitability—because boys will be bad boys. It is difficult not to see the phrase’s fatalism expressed in, for instance, the justification of abortion or the mass dispensing of condoms to high-schoolers by appealing to the allegedly inevitable sexual irresponsibility of teens.
When their efforts lead not to rewards but to further trials, Good Samaritans of all stripes take consolation knowing that “no good deed goes unpunished.” Yet as consoling as it can be, the saying can be used by a convincing cynic as a rationale for abandoning good deeds altogether. The person who was considering only his duty suddenly feels he must conduct a cost-benefit analysis. Conservative participants in culture wars can suffer slurs of bigotry and ignorance more often than fair articulations of disagreement. This kind of punishment in return for the attempt at honest debate can leave one wondering whether speaking up is worthwhile, and the aphorism can be understood as justifying avoiding punishment by avoiding good deeds.
When St. Athanasius warned the Arian bishops that hell’s passages would be lined with their skulls, he clearly meant not to make a threat or even a prediction, but instead to draw attention to the fact heresy is graver and more consequential for a bishop than for a layman. And yet the phrase has been deployed, sometimes cynically, to assign corporate guilt to bishops when only some in their ranks prove unfaithful. It has been used to justify rejection of the bishops' authority to teach or rule because, after all, they're heading in the wrong direction, and Athanasius said so.
The “road to hell” aphorism also gives a plausible rationale for cynically slighting good intentions. Many regard the motives of corporations with low esteem, since delivering profit to shareholders is the corporation’s principal aim, though many corporations do, in fact, donate unselfishly to charity. The unquestioned truth of the aphorism makes it all too easy to sneer at corporate motives without so much as an argument.
Call it abuse of logic or lack of a hermeneutic. The aphorisms we deploy in conversation are poor substitutes for argumentation, and mean little more than what we intend them to mean. And yet, because they are popular and presume the authority of popular wisdom, and because their very familiarity dulls our critical ability, the cynical can use them to win our assent to ideas we would otherwise reject. People who would usually reject sexual liberalism shrug and give in when someone says "Boys will be boys" or its more common variant, "Be realistic, teenagers are going to have sex."
The “road to hell” aphorism reveals why we exploit so many other sayings like it to bad ends, and why these apparently innocuous sayings, which strike us as truisms, can be so dangerous. Just as aphorisms can mislead by capitalizing on what the user means, so can well-intentioned, cavalier use of them lead down the aphoristic road to hell.
We know that we progress on the road to heaven only by good intentions. The road to heaven is certainly not paved with bad intentions, though some good may mercifully come of them. On the other hand, the road to hell is paved with good and bad intentions alike. Just as the aphorism argues that intentions don’t tell the whole story of one’s moral trajectory, it also points out that we can end up in hell much more easily than we can ascend to heaven, since intentions of both kinds can bring us there.
As C.S. Lewis explained in The Screwtape Letters, “The safest road to hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” We have some good goal in mind, like the desire to make others happy or to avoid anxiety, but we ignore the moral signposts that reveal when those desires will only lead us down and not up. We encourage people to do something wrong or fail to warn them against doing it because we want to comfort or encourage them, and tell ourselves that we mean well. The aphorism, properly understood, warns us where this leads.
Kevin Staley-Joyce is an assistant editor at First Things. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.