Reflections on Ethics 18
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The Charity of King Wenceslas
Finally, Christmas is past and we can look forward to ten months without Christmas music intruding upon us whenever we turn on the radio or go to the mall. But, perhaps due to overexposure, I have been considering the underlying meaning of "Good King Wenceslas."
On the surface, the meaning is contained in the final quatrain:
Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor,
Shall yourself find blessing.
But is this really what is going on here? Is King Wenceslas really blessing the poor? Is he showing true charity? Or is it all a sham, a facade?
Consider the poor man, the object of the king's charity. He shows up in front of the king's castle gathering winter fuel. What fuel is he gathering? Wood from the ground? Not likely - the snow covers the ground "deep and crisp and even." Perhaps he is gathering animal droppings for fuel - but dung must be dried to burn, fresh and frozen will not work. And he lives "right against the forest fence." All the fuel he needs is available right out his back door. So, why has he travelled three miles from his home to gather fuel? Either he is putting on a show hoping to attract the king's charity, or his act has been prearranged so the king can publicly put on an act of charity.
As for the king, what does he do? After identifying where the poor man was from, he calls for meat, wine, and logs. Logs! After seeing him gathering fuel, after learning he lives next to the forest, the king somehow decides pine logs are what the man needs. Surely, if the peasant is somehow not allowed to collect wood from the forest, the king has the power to authorize it. But no! The king decides that carrying pine logs three miles would be of assistance. Then there's the meat. Again, the peasant lives next to the forest. Surely, game is readily available. If hunting is forbidden to peasants, a royal decree would solve that problem. But no! Carry logs and meat three miles to a place that these things are easily obtainable. Then there's the wine. Perhaps it will dull the senses, but it does not alleviate poverty.
Really, if you truly wanted to help a poor man, you would take some effort to determine his needs. Perhaps clothing, money, or even changing the laws that keep him poor. But, apparently the king knows best without asking - meat, logs, and wine, irrespective of actual need.
Now how does the king get the gifts to the peasant. Does he call him to the castle (he's right outside) and give them to him? No - he wants to see him dine. Then does he invite him into the castle and sit him down to a hearty meal? No - that would be too easy. He waits till the man is out of sight, and sets off with his page to make the delivery himself.
Does he ride off on his horse to deliver the goodies? Or does he load up a wagon or sleigh (perhaps with extra food to deliver to other poor homes en route?) Of course not. He takes his ill-considered bounty and heads off ... walking across the deep and crusty snow. He chooses the hardest possible method of transportation.
What is going on here is a public display of piety. He might as well be wearing a hair shirt and flagellating himself as he proceeds. He is deliberately making this gesture as difficult as possible. He is not "blessing the poor." He is just trying to make himself look that way, to the general populace, and to his god. There is no sign he has given the slightest consideration to the needs of the one he is pretending to help.
I have nothing against charity. Helping the less fortunate is a moral thing to do. But they should be helped with what they need, and helped simply and unobstrusively. The aim is not to put on a show and collect afterlife blessings, but to make this world, the one we all live in, a better place to live in for all of us.