“Our deeds determine us as much as we determine our deeds.” This mind-boggling thought was penned down by Mary Ann Evans, more popularly known under her pen name as George Eliot. She was an English author, poetess, journalist, translator and one of the leading writers of the Victorian era. She included this quote in her first book, Adam Bede.
Another striking and relevant quote of hers is, “Our deeds still travel with us from afar, and what we have been makes us what we are.”
It is simply a more theatrical and flowery proverb than ‘actions speak louder than words’. However, there’s a catch: not louder than, but simply as loud as. Mary Ann Evans was an author. She wouldn’t try to undermine the influence of words!
Words aren’t merely defined, but they have symbolic meanings. Mary Ann Evans is trying to tell us the power of both words and deeds on our personality, and its reversal: the influence of our personality on our words and deeds.
In the twenty-ninth chapter, where this proverb is mentioned, Eliot, or rather Evans goes on to illustrate and explain the remark, which serves as a great example to understand what she means better. One of the main characters, who is named Arthur Donnithorne, spends a sleepless night contemplating his actions.
At the beginning of the book, he is a character described to have ‘freshness of feeling’ and ‘delicate honour’. But then he commits certain evil acts, secretly having an affair with the love of his friend’s life, which causes both, his person and personality to go downhill from there.
Here is an excerpt from chapter twenty-nine that leads to a further understanding of this remark. “There is a terrible coercion in our deeds, which may first turn the honest man into a deceiver and then reconcile him to the change, for this reason – that the second wrong presents itself to him in the guise of the only practicable right.”
And so the cycle continues! This moral philosophy dispensed in Adam Bede is known as “Ethical Determinism”. This pattern explains much of all human behaviour.
The Cycle of Morality
What we do, explains who we are. Yet, who we are, influences what we do. A man is known for his deeds. But the reverse is also true, seeing as the man decides and is responsible for his deeds. I assume that from the phrase, she is generalising actions, words and thoughts together as ‘deeds’.
Our actions are always an expression of our thought, no matter how conscious it is. We, as people, are impacted upon by our past as well as our present. And in this manner, we impact our future.
We make choices based on our present values, the choices that determine who we become in the future. What we have done, in other words, determines what we are going to do. So in fact, what we do makes us who we are, and who we are enables us to choose our actions.
Put in layman’s terms, it simply means that good deeds make us good people while bad deeds make us bad people. When we become better people, we are prompted to act well and hence do better deeds. By becoming good, we ensure that our future deeds are also good, and the circle takes a big round, ready to start its next rotation.
This is commonly known as a feedback loop. In fact, there is a certain psychology behind it. As the controversial spokesperson of behaviourism, B. F. Skinner, had explained, behaviour can be developed and sustained by external events called reinforcements.
For example, on doing a good deed, one might receive a smile or a reward of this sort in return. This increases the likelihood of repeating that action, hence reinforcing the behaviour that preceded it.
Theory of Karma
Think about the things that people do. A friend who constantly backstabs another isn’t considered a very nice person. The things we do define us in the eyes of others, regardless of how we see ourselves. If our actions and deeds are good, we are held in high regard, and we are prompted to respond in a positive manner.
However, if your deeds are similar to the backstabbing friend we just spoke about, you aren’t portrayed in the best light and similarly, your responsive attitude will be snappy to people who consider you bad.
It is all about morality. A person with nice manners immediately falls under the category of good people. On the other hand, if you are inclined to steal, lie, or bully, you yourself can figure out that you fall into the bad category. We make conscious choices about what we do hence we are determining our deeds. We decide to do things just as well as those things determine our character.
An essay about the deeds of mankind will never be complete without brushing upon Karma as a topic. Some believe that it is the root of all physical, mental and emotional actions. It is a stream of consciousness created by our inner beliefs, attitudes and behaviours.
The theory of karma is very similar to, and is based off the same logic, as Newton’s Third Law of Motion. In fact, it has even earned the title of being the metaphysical version of it. The law states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
This is similar to the very famous cliché, “As you sow, so shall you reap.” The concept implies that our actions are a result of us and we are a result of our actions. So in fact, what we do shall come back to us. This basically boils down to the fact that our deeds determine us as much as we determine our deeds.
Turning over a New Leaf
This proverb explains why it is so difficult to change one’s behaviours and attitude, but not impossible either. Seeing as our deeds determine us, and we let them determine us too, we get categorised and defined as people also.
It’s not just others who see us in those categories, but we recognise ourselves with certain characteristics. And once you see yourself as a bad person, it gets very difficult to make an alteration. It is difficult, but not impossible.
Here’s why it is very much possible. If you do even one good deed, it might come as a surprise to you and the people observing you. But it makes all the difference to your soul, mind and personality. The one small good deed is the first step in completely changing your attitude.
Once that is achieved, you feel encouraged to repeat that action, or do some better deed, which in turn makes you a slightly better person. And there starts our feedback loop!
The famous French philosopher Rene Descartes quoted, “Cogito ergo sum,” which translates to “I think, therefore, I am.” However, thoughts, being at an abstract level, are not tangible enough to be taken notice of. Hence, we are judged by the expression of our thoughts: our words and deeds.
A kind person is known by his consideration, helpfulness and politeness to fellow human beings. Then again, a kind person is also expected to be considerate, helpful and polite.
The converse is equally true. A mean, rude and selfish person is immediately classified as a bad person, and a bad person is expected to behave rudely and selfishly. Our behaviour, good or bad, definitely defines our persona and our personality.
In conclusion, our deeds and our personas are inexplicably linked; they are determined and governed by one another. Our deeds and our self are two sides of the same coin. Truly there is an essential interrelationship between our self and our deeds. Our deeds determine us, and we decide upon our choices. So what choice are you going to make?