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Having regained some of my equilibrium over the last couple of weeks, I’m back to reading the kind of thing that makes some of you claim that I read the way people eat spinach–because it’s good for me, not because I enjoy it.

But I do enjoy the stuff I read.  It makes me very happy, often, and even better it sets off series of thoughts in my head that sometimes make me happier, and that’s in spite of the fact that I never seem to come to any firm conclusions.

Today, though, I’ve been thinking about the nature of the detective story, as we were talking about it before–and specifically about the fact that the detective story assumes a world in which people are in control of their actions and responsible for what they do.

That is, a world in which people are fully capable of choosing to do evil or choosing to do good.

The reason this has stuck in my head at the moment is that I decided to follow a long month of reading my way through various novels by  Martha Grimes by pulling a thing called Renaissance Thought and the Arts off my TBR pile.  Renaissance Thought and the  Arts is an old book, published originally in the early 1960s, by a famous and widely respected intellectual historian named Paul Oskar Kristeller.

The book is actually a compilation of several scholarly papers published elsewhere, including a two new to the edition released in 1990, and it’s one of those things I have lying around without any clear idea of how it got here.  Sometimes I buy books I don’t read for years.  Sometimes people send them to me.  Who knows?   A couple of years ago, I went through a phase of reading a lot about Florence, Italy, including a couple of really nice histories that show that the Mafia wasn’t invented in Sicily in modern times.

Except, of course, they didn’t call it the Mafia, they called it the government of Renaissance  Florence.

Whatever.  Somehow, I ended up with this book, which is almost entirely about the Italian Renaissance, and yesterday I decided it would make a nice change from  Melrose Plant, Richard Jury and Sergeant Wiggins.

This morning, I reached the essay about the moral thought of the Italian Renaissance, and what struck me was this:

One of the biggest controversies of the time was that between those who believed that the will was the tool of the reason (or the passions) as the individual willed it, and those who thought that the will, having been corrupted by the Fall, could not do good without the grace of  God.

The first thing that struck me is that the roles of changed–if we had a modern discussion of this issue, the people defending the idea that people can choose to do good or evil would include most contemporary  Western Christians, while the people defending the idea that man is not capable of so choosing, that his “decisions” are actually determined by forces outside his control, would be largely composed of people who do not believe, or whose religious commitments are at least not traditionally Christian.

In our modern day argument, the deciding-isn’t-definitive people would cite things like poverty, or child abuse, or the influence of the media instead of the devil to explain why the individual can’t make the choice, but the agents of helplessness matter less here than the assumptions of helplessness. 

In the Renaissance, though, the battle lines were clear.  It was the pagan philosophers who insisted on the primacy of reason over will, who believed that once we know what is right, we are fully capable of acting on that knowledge.   It was the  Christian Church and its philosophers and theologians who insisted, with St. Paul, that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.  Man can know the right and find himself incapable of acting on that knowledge.  He can know what that an act is wrong and still find himself compelled to commit it.

I’ve always thought that the Christian account of the relationship between reason and will made a lot more sense, and was in a lot more agreement with the world as I’ve seen it, than the pagan one did–but it’s the pagan one that gives us the  Enlightenment, and it’s the pagan one that underlies the classic detective story.

The classic detective story assumes that the murder knows that murder is wrong and can stop himself from committing it, but gives in to his irratoinal passions (greed, lust, pride) instead.  The narrative arc precludes any acceptance or assumption that the perpetrator needed help from outside himself in order to control himself.  If he needed that, then his culpability for the crime is diminished, and it would not be justice to send him to jail for life or see him hanged. 

I know a fair number of detective novels at least nominally based on Christian principles–their detectives are priests or nuns, for instance–and yet, in none of them, even the explicitly Christian ones published by  Christian publishing houses, is this matter of the weakness of the will after the Fall even approached.  

What’s more, I know that a fair number of the people on this blog who defend the idea that men and women can be held accountable for their actions because they are capable of controlling them are committed Christians, too, and none of them has ever brought up the problem of the Fall for any such assumption.

I’m not saying that an acceptance of the idea of Original Sin, literal or metaphorical, requires you to absolve men and women of rape, murder and embezzlement, only that it seems odd to me that the modern positions are where they are.  

It does seem true to me that there is a kind of mind body problem going on within each and every one of us all the time–that Paul was right, and so was Augustine, when they cautioned that even the strictest and most serious resolve to do good and not evil might not be enough to compel our actions all the time.

I’m also sure that a society that assumes that people can control themselves and a moral system that makes the same assumptions is more likely to produce people who control themselves most of the time than a society that assumes the opposites of these things–but then, that, too, is an indication of the effect of outside forces on internal decisions.

In case you’re wondering, I have no idea where to go from here, or what any of this is supposed to mean.   It just feels to me like an interesting problem, and one of the ones we’re in the middle of trying to solve while pretending we’re not.

If civilization is not something we have, but something we do–than  I’m having a hard time figuring out what we should be doing.

Written by janeh

March 21st, 2009 at 12:04 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Motives'

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  1. That’s a very interesting point. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that the will might be made incapable of action as a result of the Fall – although I can certainly identify with St. Paul’s famous statement on the subject.

    I think I’ve always assumed that any flaws in the operation of the will – that is, that people do things they know (through the operation of reason) are wrong – is due not to a defect in the will itself, but in other personal flaws ulimately traceable back to the Fall. To use the old categories – pride, which tells you that you are so important that what you want is more important than whether it is right or wrong. Anger, which causes you to act before you apply reason to the situation. And so on. All internal things, really, that put the responsibility for the bad behaviour back with the individual and internal not external forces. External forces – the way you were raised, the customs of the local culture – might make it easier or harder for you to overcome your tendency to lash out in rage rather than think about the right thing to do and then do it, but the rage is ultimately yours, and your responsibility. Failure to do the right thing should result in the individual identifying the fault, repenting, and taking active steps to prevent a recurrence – a interior cycle that can be encouraged by outside forces ranging from the advice of a priest or other spiritual director to the more secular approach of a period of incarceration.

    Of course, there are billions of Christians out there, and they don’t all agree. There are some who probably don’t believe there was a Fall, although I think their version of Christianity would have been pretty scarce in Renaissance Italy.


    21 Mar 09 at 1:54 pm

  2. The main point first: it’s easy to build a Christian theology around unaided will being insufficient and tricky–though perhaps not impossible–to do the reverse. But central to Christianity is the notion that the moral help we seek IS available–which is why despair is a sin. At its core, despair is the belief that God cannot or will not provide the help I need. To believe that someone who prayed sincerely for it would not be given the strength of will to avoid killing someone–well, we’re not talking theological superstructure here. You’d have to throw out all four Gospels and start fresh–including repeated statements by Christ himself that we will be held accountable for our actions.

    But as for Civilization being what we do, perhaps the Theraputic Culture is the answer. Our Theraputic Cultists don’t seem any happier with reason than they do with Christian theology. If you reject the Christian view that everyone can be saved and has the potential to do good, but only with God’s help, and you reject the classical and Enlightenment belief that people are rational beings capable of doing good or avoiding evil by the power of reason, you’re left with misconduct as disease–and you need some really serious disease control and prevention system in place. Of course, how one does this when rationality and objectivity come and go like inertia in Doc Smith’s physics…

    Last I heard Florida also has a few people in prison as a result of the “day care child abuse” witch hunts. It will be intersting to see how long we go before anyone writes a “Crucible” for that episode.


    22 Mar 09 at 12:01 pm

  3. I don’t feel like writing anything long or intellectual. But this topic seems to be related to the clain “That is the fault of society.” I’ve always thought that was circular. We are society. How did society get started if everything is caused by society?


    22 Mar 09 at 8:29 pm

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