We are trying to understand what our will is, and are enlisting the help of St. Augustine. Yesterday we were looking at St. Augustine’s notion of the ‘divided’ will. In Confessions he admits that he was enamoured of this idea for a while, because in allowing himself the emotional “leeway” which the idea of a divided will gave him, he found himself in the emotionally comfortable position that comes of blaming something else for his sins and failures. But Augustine ultimately rejected this idea. His relentless pursuit of truth just would not allow him to rest in an untruth. Eventually, he admits that his will was one and that it was whole.
This kind of will – single and undivided – demanded that Augustine take full responsibility for all his actions. In one way, this was a much less comfortable position for Augustine. But by this time, he had found that, paradoxically, a certain kind emotional discomfort is no bad thing, if it enables one to come to a deeper level of personal truth. His words in the Confessions that we looked at yesterday have a modern sound to them. ‘I was the only one involved,’ Augustine declares, in describing his moral wrong-headedness. He is saying here that the desire to blame his wrongdoing on a flawed will is simply a dishonest cop-out. His words also ring with a kind of healthy, joyful spiritual freedom, as anyone will know who has begun the process of accepting the truth about himself and of undergoing a deep interior change. Augustine lived in the fourth century, but his words and experiences are timeless.
I recall the words of a teenage boy I knew when I was a teenager – a boy who had been caught stealing on a rather grand scale. When he finally began to turn his life around he admitted frankly, ‘I stole. I did it because I wanted to and because I was greedy. I deserved the punishment I received.’ The acceptance of personal responsibility for his actions, the complete absence of blaming anyone or anything else for his decision to steal, the honest naming of the greed that impelled him, paradoxically, strengthened him on the level of his will and of his true self. This boy really did turn his life around.
So, what kind of light does this shed on the concept of the human will? The boy’s very conversion of heart was inseparable from something that originated in his will: the act of taking personal responsibility for his behaviour and attitudes. This resulted in giving him a sense of himself not as a thief, but as an honest person, allied to truth and goodness. For this teenage boy, as for Augustine so many centuries before, the will was both the instrument of change and the locus of a new sense of self. Our will, then, is quite an important endowment.