7 March, Human Will III: The Will and the Emotions.

 

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Let’s explore St. Augustine’s ideas a bit more.  We are trying to understand the will.  In the late fourth and early fifth century, when Augustine lived, the issue at stake with regard to the understanding of the human person would have been a question about the locus of the true self.  Is the true self in the mind, the intellect, the soul’s rational power?  At that time, the answer to this question would probably have been yes.  The self that knows, believes, speculates, reasons would have been considered the self’s core.  But, we have Augustine to thank for shifting this emphasis.  With Augustine, it becomes the morally responsible ‘I’, who loves, fears, struggles and chooses – in other words, the will – that is the centre of the personality and the true self.*  This means that for Augustine, the emotional life is an aspect of the will.

The emotions, however, must be rightly ordered, and not running away with us, helter-skelter, all over the place.  What do I mean?  Perhaps a two-year-old is the best example of emotions that run all over the place.  Whatever the two-year-old wants is what she intends to get, even if it means grabbing a toy from her playmate one minute, with a fierce, ‘Mine!  Gimme!’, and throwing it down the next moment in disgust, ‘Don’t want it!’ and proceeding to an operatic-style tantrum the next moment, and so on.  Although adults usually acquire social skills that cover such emotional chaos, we can often become aware that our emotional life has only become more sophisticated with time, but its two-year-old tendencies are still alive and well within us.

For Augustine, the good news is that the will and the emotions can work not in opposition to each other, but as one.  But there is a requirement here: St. Augustine saw that the will is not able to be healthy, choose rightly or be strong without God.  On the first day of these postings I quoted a prayer attributed to St. Augustine.  In this prayer, he testifies that God is the strength of our will, and the unifier of our emotional life.  If our will is able to be strong, if our emotional life is able to be rightly ordered, it is because we have allowed God into our life – indeed, into our very soul.

*These ideas are explored in a beautiful article by Bonnie Kent, ‘Augustine’s Ethics’, in The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, edited by Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

SJC

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