Is any mind stronger than yours?

In his book On Free Choice of the Will, St. Augustine considers the question of whether something outside of man could cause him to mentally give in to evil, to make his mind a “companion of cupidity.”

He quickly rules out “material objects” as possible causes of our evil actions. (“I had to eat that donut. I had no choice. It just looked so good.”). A thing can never mentally force a person to do anything, since persons are obviously rationally stronger than non-rational beings.

Michelangelo's painting of the sin of Adam and...

Michelangelo’s painting of the sin of Adam and Eve (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He also rules out a “vicious spirit,” probably meaning a demon or another bad person. (“The devil made me do it. I had no choice but to eat that donut.” Or, if you want a more classical example, consider Genesis 3:12: “The woman you put here with me–she gave me some of the fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”) According to St. Augustine, the moral reasoning abilities of bad persons are weaker than those possessed by morally good people–to be weaker, after all, is what is indicated by the terms “bad” or “vicious”–and the truly weaker cannot overcome the stronger.

(This is intriguing, given that St. Augustine belongs to a religious tradition that recognizes demonic possession, but the salient point there is that demonic possession indicates physical control of the body, not control of the mind of those possessed–that is part of what makes it such a painful situation: the possessed are aware of what goes on, but cannot stop it. No, even there, the mind remains free.)

Augustine slows down just a tad, though, when he ponders the question of whether one could be overcome by a “just spirit,” which presumably means by another good person, by an angel, or by God. (“The Lord made me eat that donut.”) Here again, the answer is no–not even these sorts of persons could cause you to give in to evil. Here, however, St. Augustine offers a two-fold justification for his answer.

The second part is rather definitional: since they are “just,” trying to force you to give in to evil isn’t the sort of thing they would do anyway. But his first answer is far more intriguing: it is not just that they wouldn’t do it–they can’t do it. Why? Because “each mind possesses the same degree of excellence.” In other words, no one has a stronger mind than anyone else.

Is that true? While flattering, it nevertheless sounds wrong. On the one hand, I am clearly smarter than all the other drivers on the road here in the DC metro area, to give but one example. But on the other hand, St. Augustine was no dummy. (You heard it here first.) So what would possess him to make a statement like that?

My guess is that at the bottom of this is a particular sense of what the mind is. By the “mind,” perhaps St. Augustine includes both the intellect (the power to grasp things, to “take them in,” to understand them), and also the will, a rational appetite and a power to command both actions and intellectual judgments. Modern people, by contrast, tend to think of the will as blind desire, anything but rational. But if we understand things in St. Augustine’s way, then his answer makes sense.

Now in terms of intellectual power, some people just aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed, ifyouknowwhatimean. Or to put that more properly, it is possible for people to have different intellectual virtues, as Aristotle would have it. Some people are great at calculus, some are not. Some people can grasp points quickly, while others have to think about stuff for a looooong time–and then still get the answer wrong. So in terms of the intellect, each mind does not seem to possess the same degree of excellence.

But in terms of the will, we all seem to be on equal footing, we all seem to be equally powerful. No one can mentally force you to accept anything. As the philosopher Robert Spaemann has noted in his book Persons, this freedom applies even to rational argument (yes, like this exceedingly rational and well-written blog post that you are currently enjoying). As he writes:

“Nothing can compel this recognition, and if we are determined enough, we can refuse to recognize even the most ‘compelling’ arguments.” (Persons, p. 237, trans. Oliver O’Donovan)

That is, if you are stubborn and petty and not a good dancer, then you don’t have to agree with everything that I write. Our wills, our rational appetites, are equally powerful in that way.

In his Meditations, the philosopher Descartes makes this point even more boldly: in terms of the will, we are in a surprising way on equal footing even with God:

“For although the faculty of will is incomparably greater in God than in myself, as well in respect of the knowledge and power that are conjoined with it, and that render it stronger and more efficacious, as in respect of the object, since in him it extends to a greater number of things, it does not, nevertheless, appear to me greater, considered in itself formally and precisely: for the power of will consists only in this, that we are able to do or not to do the same thing (that is, to affirm or deny, to pursue or shun it), or rather in this alone, that in affirming or denying, pursuing or shunning, what is proposed to us by the understanding, we so act that we are not conscious of being determined to a particular action by any external force.” (trans. John Veitch)

Think of it this way: because of my powerful physique (a damned lie), I could pick you up and carry you into Dunkin’ Donuts, and there is nothing you would be able to do about it. Bodies are not equal in terms of strength. But try as I might, I could never force you to mentally accept that Boston Cremes have less salt than Blueberry Cake Donuts. I could give you great arguments. I could show you nutritional charts. I could conduct dangerous scientific experiments. I could eat 50 of each and die. You would still be mentally free to take it or leave it. It would simply fall short of the power of my mind to be able to compel you–I could only try to influence you or convince you. As the Good Book puts it, “Whoever has ears ought to hear”–not will hear or must hear.

So in that sense St. Augustine is right–minds are generally equal. And that is really the most fundamental and proper sense of freedom: mental freedom. So when it comes to evil, there are indeed excuses, but nothing can completely exonerate you. Somewhere in you is the ability to reject evil; no thing and no other mind is stronger than yours. And this also means that nothing can hold you back from goodness, if you decide to make it your goal.

As legend has it, when someone asked St. Thomas Aquinas what was necessary for becoming a saint, he replied only: “Will it.”

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One Response to Is any mind stronger than yours?

  1. Laura says:

    What a fantastic post! Very informative and entertaining, and such a great reminder that we can always withstand temptation. Thank you. 🙂

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