Is Cleanliness Really next to Godliness?

cleanlinessThis may strike you as a rather existential question since the answer depends largely on your own definition of the terms “cleanliness” and “godliness”, not to mention your assessment of the relative value of these terms in relation to one another. Setting aside that this question is based on a rather trite (but enduring) expression, we can first examine what would prompt someone to make such a claim, followed by consideration of whether or not the claim holds any sort of practical value. And in this manner we may come to some conclusion pertaining to whether or not cleanliness is really next to godliness.

This phrase is rumored to have been in use since at least the middle ages, when it was first said to have been noted in literature, although some claim it was used in one form or another long before that. If you look at the saying from a purely practical perspective, it must be noted that organized religion has long been used as a method of societal control. Consider the Ten Commandments, for example, which provide Christians with a set of basic rules to live by, including moratoriums on criminal acts like theft, adultery, and murder. They sound more like tenets of a system of legal governance rather than religious observance. Throughout history, people have been compelled to follow religious rule where they may not have been so keen to bow to the whims of a hated political leader or regime. This is because people who believe in a god and an afterlife may be willing to do what they have to in the here and now to ensure a favorable outcome following death.

Now, how does this dynamic relate to cleanliness? It’s simple enough when you consider historical systems for water treatment and waste disposal. It is only within the last couple of centuries that clean water and waste disposal options have become widely available in homes. Prior to that, chamber pots, outhouses, and private wells were the norm, and people rarely bathed. This led to the rampant and rapid spread of disease, especially in densely populated areas. So finding ways to keep the populace clean and stop them from spreading germs to their neighbors was of the utmost importance. And yet, it’s not as though a municipal power would have the authority or manpower to enforce regulations pertaining to personal hygiene. But religion and peer pressure from the community could certainly do the trick.

And perhaps that is how the expression “cleanliness is next to godliness” was born. In any case, it’s easy to see from a historical perspective how such a phrase may have gained popularity. But is cleanliness truly next to godliness? You might as well ask what is god – you’ll get just as wide a variety of answers, most likely. In truth, caring for yourself and attending to your personal health is perhaps the highest pursuit if you think that god granted you life and made you in his image. And cleanliness of yourself and your environment is certainly an essential part of that equation. So in a manner of speaking, cleanliness could definitely be considered to be next to godliness. On the other hand, it could just be a clever turn of phrase.

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