“He helps those who help themselves.”

This title has been used as an explanation, a rationalization, and a taunt. We recognize that somehow, in spite of God’s ultimate power and unstoppable purpose, there is some sort of reason for Man to put forth effort. We have to reconcile the apparent contradiction between the insignificance of human action’s power over the universe (when compared to that of God, or fate, or “historical forces”) with the very practical fact that it matters whether we show up for work, whether we get the crops in before the rains, whether our rifles are ready when the wolves or bandits come.

At least, we have to reconcile it if we believe in God. If it’s all historical inevitability, then it’s not our actions at all producing those outcomes; it’s our inevitable actions playing out as inevitable consequences of forces unrelated to our intentions. In that case, the question is resolved very simply: Human action doesn’t exist, and the grand force determines all things, including our delusion that outcomes somehow “depend” on us. While whether or not we do some deed which forms part of a chain of causation, we are (in this view) in error in thinking there was ever any question of whether we would perform the act. Our distinction between successful and unsuccessful action would be false in this view, since all the parts of the machine only perform according to their own nature, neither exceeding nor falling short of their potential.

This view is not only implicit in the Marxist view of history (etc.) but also has an odd little foothold in Christian thought, in the form of the doctrine of the Total Depravity of Man. This view holds that an individual man, is incapable of a right action. This element of Calvinist and Lutheran teaching is tempered among laypeople and the more intellectually relaxed clergy, for the same reason that “He helps those who help themselves” is adopted in the first place: Because passivity is known to produce misery; ie human action is visibly required for human survival, confounding the intellect that believes it to be useless (under fatalism) or evil (under Calvinism). These doctrines hold generally that something else acts when a man does something worth doing. i can only answer back that the Universe seems to have an awful lot of trouble acting through a man when he does not behave exactly as he would if he himself were acting, making his own choices. The inevitable course of history keeps having to be revised to match what we thought were the products of choices, successes, and failures, but the fatalist assures us they were all just inevitable outcomes. Cannae was inevitable, and then Zama was inevitable, they say. Neither Hannibal nor Scipio succeeded or failed, for neither “chose” in the sense that the unwashed masses use the term. It was inevitable that Britain would endure then cease to endure the Corn Laws. It was inevitable that the Virginia legislature would defeat Jefferson on slavery, and then Gettysburg was of course, inevitable.

i fear i have little to offer in answer except laughter, and i know i should offer more, for minds are so, so different. The man who tells me there is no such thing as choice, sin, and consequence is like the man who tells me there is no sun. “You’ve got a lot of proving to do, buddy.” And so it is with the matter of choices as the threads that make up all history. i once heard it said on the radio (concerning some historical incident) “Well if you accept that one man in one place can change history, everything becomes meaningless!”. i believe the speaker was saying that if it were possible for the great rises and falls of empires and nations to be disrupted by say, lone assassins or immovable recalcitrants, history would lose its character of being made up of comprehensible trends (“The Age of Empires” “The Age of Industry” “The Information Age”…) and degenerates into an anarchy. Again, i can only offer laughter. The world is far more swiftly made meaningless by the proposition that one man in one place is incapable of changing history, because in that case, history no longer consists of human actions, and humanity (which, i might add, consists of humans) becomes a spectator to its own story. Only, i suspect, if all men were merely spectators, there would be no story.

And again, is the intellectual practice of organizing past events into “trends” and “Ages” not subject to the facts themselves? Are the trends and Ages not just as reasonably described as products of the individual, idiosyncratic actions of men, rather than some overriding force? Is not a study of history that ignores or denies the fact that events have been hugely influenced by “one man in one place” a truly ingenious and convoluted effort? How do such historians treat Thermopylae? The inevitable, unchangeable force of history makes a fool of itself when it leaps from one side of the war to the other. “Excuse me,” says the great, immutable History, “I have decided to change my mind. Previously, I have supported the inevitable victory of the Persian Empire. But for reasons incomprehensible to you tiny humans, I will now support and hold inevitable the victory of the Greeks. Do not question me! And be assured that this change has nothing to do with the exceptional valor of the Greek heroes! One man in one place can change nothing. It is merely a coincidence that the tide of my mighty power will reverse at the exact moment that one man in one place shocked the world and seemed to defy Me. Rest assured, he did not defy Me, but merely served Me.” It is hard to disprove the claim that everything has been inevitable, but it is also awfully hard to take it seriously.

In sum, it’s a very popular view among sane men, that choices matter. All assurances that “everything will turn out alright,” or “everything happens for a reason,” or “it’s all part of God’s plan,” are met with silent knowledge that those assurances don’t pay the rent; that the specific problems before us are ours to attack with our own specific powers, not to leave to cosmic forces to resolve. And so working to achieve what we want; using our OWN abilities according to our OWN intentions through our OWN choices, becomes a necessary practice, in spite of the doctrines that hold this process to be useless or immoral. The practical necessity of this is pressed upon living men, whether it forces them to adopt a compromise with heresy or revise their philosophy to admit the importance and efficacy of individual choices. Of course, if either Human Action or the book of Judges were foundational to your thinking, there is nothing to resolve; the practical knowledge only reinforces the intellectual teaching. But for those who have adopted some philosophy of the impotence or evil of the plans and acts of the human being, some refrain like “He helps those who help themselves” is necessary to bridge the gap between the manifest need for action and the intellectual belief that all we need is the great cosmic force, whichever force it is.

And again, this has been used as an indictment of Christianity itself, indicating that God is helpless to help people except where they had already done all the work themselves. “How convenient.” Of course this is in no way strikes against the unnamed view which i maintain, simply that God does not continually intervene, but instead provides Man with eyes, hands, mind, and strength…in short, far, far more than Man needs to overcome his problems, and it is only by error and mismanagement of these gifts that misery and misfortune grow, only through bad choices is Man prevented from achieving happiness. That God has already helped by making Man capable of helping himself, and so those who choose to help themselves and help others are the means by which God’s gifts become practical good. He has put us in charge of a vast power to help, and we use it well or poorly, as we choose.

One more thing; if we criticize the God of the Puritans for helping those who help themselves, there is another, far more cutting criticism we must also level, against a different defendant. If we say that it is cold for God to only offer His help to those who are capable and willing to take at least some care of themselves, then how much more strongly should we cry against the thing that hurts them? The power that sees the pioneer or the laborer or the entrepreneur, scratching some success out of the world and his weary hands, and says “That guy owes me!” Government is a satire of a satire; we can take a dark and incorrect vision of a cold indifferent God, and by making it a little colder, a little more indifferent, a little worse, make it the voice of every inspector and helpful official i have ever dealt with: “I hinder those who help themselves!”


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