Instant Karma: Doin’ the Math

One of the great themes in religion is compensation for virtue (not to be confused with another great theme: compensation for misfortune).

The classical model of compensation for virtue, Heaven and Hell, is perhaps best attributed to Zoroaster. This model may not seem terribly enlightened, but we should recognize that it was probably conceived for the sake of virtue itself. This doctrine has dominated western religion over the last 2500 years or so, but the general idea of compensation is more universal. It is quite natural to expect, or at least hope for, some kind of payback.

But payback has its price.

In more reflective circles, there has been a long-running dissatisfaction with the concept of compensation. What is the good of virtue if one expects payment for it? Should not the virtue be the reward? Otherwise, what virtue is there in virtue?

Peter Mel at Mavericks, by Abraham Lustgarten

The idea goes back at least two millennia, and has taken several forms:

  1. Virtue is its own reward.
  2. The deed is its own reward.
  3. Worship is its own reward.
  4. Work is worship.

Perhaps it’s a stretch to bind these equations, but I believe they share a common thread that justifies the grouping. The link between (1) and (2) is obvious.

The oldest explicit reference to this idea that I am aware of occurred in the first century C.E.:

Virtue herself is her own fairest reward. – Silius Italicus

This sentiment probably owes a lot to Stoicism, but I am unaware of any Stoic making this specific statement of equivalence between virtue and reward.

This equation was restated brilliantly in a corollary by the famous Seventeenth Century fisherman Izaak Walton:

Doubt not but angling will prove to be so pleasant that it will prove to be, like virtue, a reward to itself.

The Talmud is known to have made a similar equivalence: the deed is its own reward. This form of the equation was also employed by William Shakespeare, amoung others.

In the seventh century, the Imam Ali, who is generally considered the patriarch of Shi’ih Islam, couched the concept in religious terms:

A group of people worship God for the sake of reward. That is the worship of merchants. A group of people worship God from the fear or punishment. That is the worship of slaves. But a group of God’s servants worship Him solely out of gratitude and thankfulness. And this kind of worship is special to free men.

Nahj al-balaghah, trans. by Fayd al-Islam, p. 1182

Merchants and slaves indeed! Quite an insightful statement. Here we see how equation (3) corresponds to (1) and (2). Worship has no rightful reward; it is its own reward.

It is peculiar that a religion that puts so much emphasis on fear of God, Heaven, and Hell has produced statements such as this.

Here, I think, is where equations (2) and (3) come together to produce (4): The deed is its own reward, and the same goes for worship; therefore, the deed is worship, or as St. Benedict put it, work is worship.

To put it inn more abstract form:

d = r ; w = r ; => d = w

This proves nothing, of course; but I think you might understand the point of the transitive logic: virtue, [virtuous] action, and worship are one and the same, and it follows that, to be an agent of virtue, that is, to love and worship the Good with ones whole being, is itself the ultimate reward.