Thinking About Compromise

26 July 2011 One Comment

In this season of (political) compromise—or rather lack thereof—I find myself thinking about the word. Its root meaning is “promise together” and originated in the practice of agreeing in a dispute to accept the ruling of an arbitrator.

Compromise is, depending on its context, a healthy or an ugly word. Ugly when it suggests abandoning core values for short-term gain; healthy when used to describe a necessary degree of self sacrifice needed for human communities to get along. The healthy version requires recognizing that wisdom and goodness do not begin and end with you.

I think Tolkien and Bonhoeffer shed some light here. Tolkien says the following of his big-footed creations: “Hobbits . . . liked to have books filled with things that they already knew, set out fair and square with no contradictions” (LOTR p 17). This, I think, also describes people who are extremely reluctant to compromise. They know exactly what they believe and why it is best and they abhor contradictions—or even complexity.

More soberingly, Bonhoeffer writes the following from his prison cell: “Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than evil. . . . Evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction, as it make people, at the least, uncomfortable. Against folly we have no defence . . . A fool must therefore be treated more cautiously than a scoundrel.”

You could argue that folly is, itself, a form of evil, but I think B’s basic distinction is useful. There are more people who are openly and eagerly foolish than are openly and eagerly evil. Perhaps folly is initially less harmful than evil, but it is still dangerous because it prepares the way for evil. Folly is a Bizzaro John the Baptist (see Superman comic books). Folly straightens the path and prepares the way for its more deadly cousin, Evil.

The refusal to ever compromise in life is a form of folly. And it prepares a path for evil.

And if you have been thinking only of your ideological enemies in this discussion, and not yourself, that may be a form of folly as well.


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