The Good Woman of Setzuan The Good Woman of Setzuan discussion

What Does it Mean to be Good?

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Joey Gerber I just finished reading The Good Woman of Setzuan by Bertolt Brecht. It is a play about a woman named Shen Te who opens a tobacco shop in the impoverished city of Setzuan after three gods in search of just one good person in the world overpay her for letting them stay at her place. Before the gods stayed with her Shen Te was a prostitute. The gods hope that with some extra money she will be able to stop living such an amoral life and be the one good person they are looking for in order to prove that all of humanity has not fallen to the temptations of greed, lust, and power.

What the play dramatizes is the paradox of morality: We are driven to be good people, to do good deeds, to act selflessly. But this often is at our detriment. Shen Te gives all she has to help others. Despite barely making the rent for her Tobacco shop she houses every poor, homeless person who comes into her shop looking for shelter. She gives rice to the hungry and is willing to give away her rent money so that others may start careers. But all of this lends her in debt, in trouble with the law, and at the mercy of a thousand hungry beggars nagging her for food and shelter like baby birds at their mother with a mouthful of worms.

So, the question is: what does it mean to be good? Does being good mean sacrifice? But if you sacrifice yourself to do good then you aren't alive anymore to do any good. Is that our purpose in life--to do only enough good deeds for others so that we die at our own hand, as a result of our own selflessness? It seems that if you force morality on our existence that this is the only outcome?

It has slowly become a steady belief of mine that at the end of the day the greatest and the only responsibility you have is to yourself. For a lot of people that is hard to deal with: mothers, priests, and people with no backbone. The simple scenario is such: a killer hands you a gun and tells you to kill your best friend or he will kill you. And the simple solution is that you should kill your friend. There is no rationale that will hold you accountable for the death of your friend. There is no creed of morality that makes shooting your friend unjustifiable.

The problem here is that The Good Woman of Setzuan poses good actions as ones that are always in opposition to your own well-being. But that is obviously not the case. Rich people donate to charities so that they can get a larger tax return: everybody wins! But when it comes to a morality that requires you to always do good--even in the face of your demise--you have to ask what's more important: your life or your made up ideas about goodness.

Of course, whether your life is important at all, or at least any more than a speck of dust, is still up for debate.

message 2: by Irene (new)

Irene Hollimon Oh my gawd it's been so long since I've read this- I completely forgot about it.
I have no answers
just thanks for bring it up.

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