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Tuesday, March 1, A.D. 2011
Before Choice

Forgiveness Sunday approaches, when we commemorate the exile of our race from paradise. It is timely, then, to consider the fall. Several posts from the past two weeks have examined this unfortunate marring of creation, and I am grateful to Kristor for his offered insight. Indeed, Arimathea has been having its own Kristorfest, which sounds like a real tradition. Imagine pious, young women dancing on the midsummer feast of Saint John in a Scandinavian village. That does sound appealing. Anyway, Kristor holds that the fall can be traced to ignorance (“Kristor on the Fall”), and I object to his thesis by arguing that all attempts to give an account of evil are mistaken; for evil is unintelligible because it has no being of its own (“Unde Malum”). Evil is a parasite of being, and there is no reason for it. To provide an account for evil is to make it intelligible, which is to make it good and therefore not evil. Kristor responds by noting that creatures of limited understanding could not know the wages of sin before sinning, and thus the fall was a result of ignorance (“Kristor Promotes Ignorance” and “Kristor Elucidates the Darkness”). He moreover argues that one cannot sincerely assert as true that which one knows is false, which would have been the case in the fall if we do not attribute it to ignorance. If I follow Kristor’s argument, I think that he means that Adam’s act of disobedience in choosing another good beside God had to be the result of ignorance. For unfallen Adam could not have intentionally asserted a metaphysical falsehood–that is, that the self is to be preferred over God.

Kristor freely gives many gems. I already mentioned my joy at his connecting God’s redemption of fallen creatures to God’s creation of the world ex nihilo. I also found Kristor’s analysis of sin quite useful:

But I don’t think that this sort of understanding amounts to comprehension of evil in its essence, there being no such thing out there to comprehend. It amounts only to recognition of a shared misadventure. In that sense, only, do we “understand a mistake due to ignorance.”

“A shared misadventure”–perspicacious! Kristor’s explanation of the Platonic doctrine of recollection is one of the best summary descriptions that I have seen. Like a true disciple, he exhibits that synoptic vision of the master. Furthermore, Kristor’s connecting recollection with the discursive nature of human reason is very insightful.

Nonetheless, I still reject his overall thesis for the same reasons that I presented in “Unde Malum.” Evil is unintelligible, and efforts to uncover the causes of evil cannot succeed. I do not dismiss Kristor’s arguments, but I think that they apply on a level epiphenomenal to the inscrutable moment of evil. I do not like the term epiphenomenal here, but I do not know how to describe it better. Let me lay some preliminary stonework to the explicative outhouse that I wish to build.

I agree with Nietzsche’s observation that there is no “self,” but rather a multitude of selves populate our psyche. We see the same insight in the Platonic dialogues, where Socrates describes the soul as a complex structure of rational, thumotic, and appetitive forces. I think that such comports with experience. One of my favorite images in the Republic depicts the soul as the little, rational man, the thumotic lion, and the many headed beast, each head of which represents a different appetite. Our experience of our soul is not of a simple unity but of an often tumultuous crowd, the various elements of which pull us in different directions. One of our goals in life is to cultivate virtue and harmony of soul such that the little rational man is able to rule the entire soul. We ought to subject our passions to our nobler, rational selves. This multiplicity of the soul relates to one of the great insights of the Republic–that man, or at least fallen man, has a contradictory nature such that earthly fulfillment is impossible. To satisfy one part of the soul is to starve or to cripple another part of the soul. As such, we must prioritize and regulate ourselves accordingly.

I was discussing this multitudinous aspect of the soul recently with my friend Andrew, which then led to a discussion of the will. Andrew stated that the Western conception of the will as its own unified faculty originates in Augustine’s writings. For the pre-Augustinian ancients, the will is a complexity of deliberative and appetitive drives, the strongest of which wins and determines our choices. Nietzsche makes similar points when he notes that what we call the self is that strongest or most dominant part of the soul with which we identify ourselves. That favored part becomes the “real me,” though this ego changes as we develop, and we are rarely aware of this transition. I think that this makes sense, and it reflects my own experience, as well.

I find this complex understanding of the self and consequently of the will a superior alternative to the commonplace understanding of the will as an absolute, independent, undetermined faculty of choice. Such a view makes the will unintelligible and creates moral difficulties that appear unresolvable. For if the will is so absolutely independent, then whether it chooses one thing or another seems utterly arbitrary. If it is truly arbitrary, then the actions of agents–who are normally seen as moral agents–become unintelligible. There is no rational account for why such a disconnected will would choose this rather than that. When a religious tradition makes God such a disconnected will, then good and evil and all of reality become unintelligible–the undecipherable product of unintelligent and unintelligible caprice. More modest problems result from seeing men in such a way. For how are certain choices “good” and praiseworthy while other choices are “bad” and blameworthy if the act of choosing itself is separate from other considerations. These choices become good or bad after the fact, which appears to me to be an oddly basic form of consequentialism.

In contrast, let us see the human soul as a multitude of forces that aim for various objects according to their nature. In a virtuous, good soul, there is an order where, in Socratic terms, each element does its proper job and where the internal rule of the soul follows the true hierarchy of goods. In such a soul, there is no unintelligible choosing. Rather, the soul, as a collective of ends and desires, is ruled by its highest deliberative faculties that choose based upon knowledge of the good and, as we exist in a particular time and place, of circumstances. Such a virtuous soul could still be mistaken, given limited knowledge, but the mistakes would not be moral errors.

This model of the soul and of the will is also useful for understanding human freedom. We are not blank slates that create our own goods. Rather, rational souls differ from subrational souls due to the presence of the rational faculty in them. Both men and beasts seek the good by nature, but for men, the seeking of the good occurs through reason. Some people commonly think that freedom of the will means that we can choose whatever in the sense of the unconditioned, undetermined will previously mentioned. Were that true, then evil choosing would only be evil in its consequences; the act of choice itself would be morally neutral. I find such unacceptable. Instead, man is determined by reason just as a bee is determined by instinct. Both men and bees sometimes err, however. Men fail in their reason, and bees fail through a corruption of instinct. The rational aspect of the failure in the former we consider a moral failing, whereas we attribute no such sin to the latter. Why? If we judge so because we “chose” not to follow reason, then why did we choose so? It seems that such bad choices follow from a disorder in the soul. We can see how such disorder occurs in the life of man. Aristotle’s ethical observations aptly detail the formation of virtue and deformation of vice in the human soul, where upbringing and choices have enormous consequences for our characters. Such failings ultimately follow from the fall. I fully agree with Kristor when he notes that evil anywhere taints everything. We participate in each other’s sin locally and cosmically, further distorting the order of the world and of our souls. Man is the microcosm, and our sinful soul mirrors the tarnished creation.

If we look at the original act of the fall, we cannot trace back to any problematic moral dominoes that serve to corrupt Adam (to say nothing of the angels, the psychic order of which is unknown to us–unless we attribute Adam’s fall to that malevolent influence). It is concerning this moment that Kristor writes of evil:

. . . if a thing is absolutely unintelligible to us, is it not metaphysically impossible for us to know anything about it? And does not that metaphysical ignorance suffice to provide for the possibility that we might turn toward it, without knowing what we were doing?

According to Kristor’s argument, unfallen man, in his state of ignorance, blindly chose B instead of A, thereby condemning our race to perdition. I disagree, and I would like to explain better my earlier statement,

That any unfallen creature would turn away from its source and prefer the lower to the higher seems to follow another trajectory than trying the unknown because it is unknown. For the choice is not an arbitrary one, as between unknown paths. Rather, it is the deliberate rejection of the source of being for nothingness.

The various parts of our soul have their objects by nature. They are not undetermined or unconditioned; as I previously noted, I reject that conception of human freedom. I do not think that we are wills wandering blind in the darkness of an unknown world. Rather, to use a geeky image, I think that we are “programmed” souls, though our code becomes increasingly corrupt as a result of bad input and the consequent processing mistakes. It is impious to hold that Adam would originally have had bad code. For his malfunctioning and corrupted code could be attributed to bad design (God’s fault as the initial code writer), viral input (Satan’s fault), or, my position, nothing . . . the fall is unintelligible.

Furthermore, though evil is corrosive and worsens the disorder in the human soul, we still see men at times revert to their proper functioning. This is perhaps related to Kristor’s observation, “Now notice that at its very inception from God, every occasion of existence is innocent.” We should expect such; the soul by nature seeks its ends. It is the disorder that should trouble us. For man is not an independent fact of existence; he relies on God for everything. Our choosing is not free in the sense that we write our own stories. Rather, we are like schoolboys who write with the Lord’s hand on ours, unable to move the pen on our own. God animates our hand so that we write. It is truly God’s writing, and it is truly our own writing, though in a derivative sense. Mysteriously, however, we have the power, though it is not a positive but a negative power, to thwart our master’s guidance, which then distorts our orthography. We continue to leave a line of ink only because God continues to move our hand, but the inelegant scribbles are the unintelligible results of our unintelligible uncooperation.

I think that this image helps to resolve the Augustinian and Pelagian knots that other models of human nature make. We are because God is (or rather because God manifests being). We do because God does. We are free in the sense that God provides us with reason so that we allow him to move us. That we may prove recalcitrant creatures is unanswerable. It is not that we inexplicably choose B (to disobey God) instead of A (to obey God). Rather, there is no choice at all. There is no assertion, metaphysical or otherwise. What we perceive as sinful choice, along with all the profound moral insight and analysis relevant to that choice, from Socrates to MacIntyre, is epiphenomenal to this prior mystery of the soul. Such is what I meant when I wrote that the choice to turn from the source of being to nothingness is not arbitrary. We are by nature oriented toward being. To direct ourselves in any other direction defies our own nature. Lucifer’s rebellion would have been an unintelligible act of violence, and so for every subsequent act of affirming nihilism. The regularity of it and our familiarity with it dull the shock, but evil still horrifies and disorients us. It is the blackness that cannot be seen.

Here are the previous posts for this thread:

“Orthodoxy and Evolution”

“Kristor on the Fall”

“Evil Christians”

“Unde Malum”

“Kristor Promotes Ignorance”

“Kristor Elucidates the Darkness”

Update: My interlocutor responds in “Kristor Poses Evil Problems.”

Posted by Joseph on Tuesday, March 1, Anno Domini 2011
Religion | OrthodoxyPatristicsScriptureNon-ChalcedonianismProtestantismRoman CatholicismComments
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