O God, who are the light of the minds that know thee,
the warmth of the hearts that love thee and the strength of the wills that serve thee, help us so to know thee that we may perfectly love thee,
so to love thee that we may worthily serve thee, whose service is perfect freedom.
Saint Augustine, in the beautiful prayer given here, mentions the human will and says that God is ‘the strength of the will’. I would like to reflect on this notion of the human will in a few posts. The Church has always given the will an important place in her teaching on the dignity of the human person, but the human will isn’t an easy thing to define.
Perhaps we don’t think about our will very much or very deeply. We may think about our emotions, or our mind. But the will tends to be forgotten. So let’s start with a simple definition that may not be completely adequate, but at least is easy to understand. The will is the part of us that assists us in sticking with our good resolutions. But as anyone knows who has tried to stick to a diet, the will isn’t always very effective in its task. Just when I might want my will to give me some real backbone, it is nowhere to be found. What is going on?
I find Saint Augustine to be a great help in understanding this kind of problem. His Confessions, written in the late fourth century, show us that some things about human nature never change: Augustine, too, had plenty of experience with the weakness of his will. During the period in his life when he was exploring Christianity but had not yet become a Christian, Augustine felt that his will was not merely weak, but split in two. This is how he describes it:
The enemy had my power of willing in his clutches, and from it had forged a chain to bind me. The truth is that when [vice] is pandered to, a habit is formed; when habit is not checked, it hardens into compulsion. These were like interlinking rings forming what I have described as a chain, and my harsh servitude used it to keep me under duress.
A new will had begun to emerge in me, the will to worship you disinterestedly and enjoy you, O God,… but it was not yet capable of surmounting that earlier will strengthened by inveterate custom. And so the two wills fought it out – the old will and the new, the one carnal, the other spiritual – and in their struggle tore my soul apart.
Is our will really split in two? It can seem so, and certainly seemed so to Saint Augustine. What of these two wills, then? And what of Augustine’s declaration that ‘the enemy’ controlled his power of willing? Augustine gradually came to realise that his moral problems could not be blamed on an external ‘enemy’ of any sort. What he found when he felt that his will was split in two, was that conflicting desires within his soul led him in conflicting directions. But his insights were even deeper than that.
Here is what he says later in the Confessions
When I was making up my mind to serve the Lord my God at last, as I had long since purposed, I was the one who wanted to follow that course, and I was the one who wanted not to. I was the only one involved. I neither wanted it wholeheartedly nor turned from it wholeheartedly. I was at odds with myself, and fragmenting myself. This disintegration was occurring without my consent, but what it indicated was not the presence in me of a mind belonging to some alien nature but the punishment undergone by my own
Note the repeated use of the pronoun ‘I’ in that passage. Augustine takes personal responsibility here for all his actions. That no alien being could take the blame for Augustine’s weakness was a crucial realisation for him – and for us as we strive to understand what our will is like. Furthermore, Augustine sees a sort of ‘justice’ in his personal struggles, for he realises here that the weakness in his will that he deplored was the logical consequence of living a life in which he gave priority to the pursuit of selfish pleasures. A weak will was what he called ‘the punishment’ appropriate to and consequent upon the lifestyle he had chosen for so many years. No one was to blame but himself, and he finally realises that clearly. Now, all this may seems rather heavy and dreary. But, St. Augustine shows us that there is always the possibility of the will growing stronger as we grow in grace. In the next post, I hope to develop this idea further.