First Words

When goodness is also lovely

The New Testament has two words for “good.” Knowing the difference between them can help us build a better society.

When Primo Levi wrote about being an Auschwitz survivor, his thoughts went directly to the man who smuggled soup and bread to him every day. “I am alive today, not so much because of [Lorenzo’s] material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence, by his plain and gentle manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole.” Levi regularly pointed to two kinds of goodness that made his survival in Auschwitz possible. One was the food that allowed him to eke out an existence. The other was the warm and gentle spirit of Lorenzo.

In Greek, there are two words for good. Agathos defines the quality of something that is good in character, beneficial in effect, or useful in action. Edible bread and soup, for example, have goodness that’s precious to a hungry body. Kalos describes something that’s not only good in quality but also has an attractive or captivating character. Lorenzo’s humility in sharing from his own meager provisions struck Primo Levi as lovely. Kalos is the word reserved for something or someone that expresses goodness in a winsome or beautiful way.

Agathos and kalos each appear 102 times in the New Testament, with each of them showing up in 91 separate verses. It’s kalos, however, that has my attention when it comes to trying to build a society where people want to be more than doggedly correct all the time. People who feel a strong need to be scrupulously right on all manner of things often end up repelling more than attracting others. Their rightness may come with harshness, unloveliness, an absence of warmth. But when the moral goodness of a person gets shared with others in inviting and winsome ways, the person’s company becomes that much more desirable.