Flannery O’Connor had an ear for the vacuous in popular wisdom. The saying “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t” appears in two of her stories and, I suspect, particularly rankled her. But sometimes she also heard in the hollows of popular dicta the echo of real wisdom.
In “Good Country People,” the saying “It takes all kinds to make the world” expresses not only the complacent relativism of Mrs. Hopewell but also a notion found in St. Thomas Aquinas (whom O’Connor famously read): “Because God’s goodness could not be represented by one creature alone, He produced many and diverse creatures, that what was wanting to one . . . might be supplied by another” (ST I, 47, 1). And in “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” Julian’s oblivious mother solemnly insists on the importance of self-knowledge—like some kind of absurd Delphic Oracle.
What is maybe the best of these profound bromides O’Connor took for the title of one of her most famous stories: “A good man is hard to find.” She thought enough of the statement, too, to make it the title of her first collection of stories.
In the titular story, a group of people complain, “A good man is hard to find.” The initial irony is that the complaint issues from parties consisting largely of moral pygmies. So the state of affairs is worse than they know. The second irony concerns original sin. Everyone comes into the world estranged from God and, baptized or not, remains attracted to evil. St. John addresses the justified: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 Jn 1:8). That a good man is rare perhaps ought to be less surprising.
Having expanded the meaning of the statement, O’Connor goes on to follow its poetic logic. If a good man is hard to find, then a bad man must be easy to find. The plot corroborates the conclusion. It’s so easy to find a bad man that one can do it without even trying. It’s as easy as getting into a wreck.
Satan drew Adam and Eve into death by drawing them into sin. Posterity has followed the pattern ever since. This is why Jesus calls Satan “a murderer from the beginning” (Jn 8:44). And this is why O’Connor makes it clear that the moral failures of the story’s characters conspire to place them in their final predicament.
But even prior to personal sin, the sons of Adam are condemned to die and so can expect with certainty to meet one day the worst of “men,” Satan, by way of his proxy, Death. And what could be easier than dying?
Irony in extremis is typical of O’Connor’s satire, so one might wonder whether the lament, “a good man is hard to find,” is not only shallow but backward. In what sense is a good man easy to find?
To get straight to the point: it has never been easier to find Jesus. If the human race is 100,000 years old, 98% of human history qualifies as B.C. The Gospel has been preached to every continent, and it’s commonly estimated that nearly a third of the world’s population is Christian. In her first novel, Wise Blood, O’Connor suggests the ubiquity of Christ by noticing the frequency with which people who rarely think about Jesus use his name for a curse. Even the Misfit (“A Good Man”’s bad guy) feels haunted by Christ: “Jesus thrown everything off balance,” he complains.
Plus, “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor 5:10). If Satan is easy to encounter by way of death, then Jesus is even easier. The saved are spared direct contact with the evil one, but everyone gets his interview with the Judge. It turns out to be impossible for us not to find this good man.
Image: Odilon Redon, Day appears at last … and in the very disk of the sun shines face of Jesus Christ (plate 24)