Somerset Maugham on Love, Duty and Free Will

Two inspired passages from W. Somerset Maugham. The first comes from chapter 68 of his […]

Mockingbird / 11.10.10

Two inspired passages from W. Somerset Maugham. The first comes from chapter 68 of his 1925 novel The Painted Veil. The words are spoken by the Mother Superior of the French convent in the Chinese village where a young married woman begins to come to herself after being caught by her husband in an adulterous affair. These are words of farewell from the Mother Superior, who does not know the true situation of Kitty, the main character.

“Good-bye, God bless you, my dear child.” She held her a moment in her arms. “Remember that it is nothing to do your duty, that is demanded of you and is no more meritorious than to wash your hands when they are dirty; the only thing that counts is the love of duty; when love and duty are one, then grace is in you and you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding.” The convent door closed for the last time behind her.

I recommend this novel, though not so much the most recent film adaptation, which is good but not great. It doesn’t quite capture the powerful account of ‘backsliding’ (i.e., recidivism) and the relation of that to simul iustus et peccator, that is contained in the novel itself.

The second passage comes from at the end of chapter 67 of Maugham’s opus, Of Human Bondage and is a fitting and somewhat lyrical footnote to the recent post on the (f)Utility of Free Will, ht MZ:

At last Philip said: “Well, I can’t say anything about other people. I can only speak for myself. The illusion of free will is so strong in my mind that I can’t get away from it, but I believe it is only an illusion. But it is an illusion which is one of the of the strongest motives of my actions. Before I do anything I feel that I have choice, and that influences what I do; but afterwards, when the thing is done, I believe that it was inevitable from all eternity.”

“What do you deduce from that?” asked Hayward.

“Why, merely the futility of regret. It’s no good crying over spilt milk, because all the forces of the universe were bent on spilling it.”


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