Tyranny of the Perverse Will
April 2016By Mitchell Kalpakgian
Mitchell Kalpakgian, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, who has been a visiting professor of literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts and at Northeast Catholic College, teaches at Mount Royal Academy in Sunapee, New Hampshire. He is the author of numerous books, including The Marvelous in Fieldings Novels, The Mysteries of Life in Childrens Literature, and, most recently, The Virtues We Need Again: 21 Life Lessons from the Great Books of the West. He writes weekly articles for setonmagazine.com and truthandcharityforum.org.
In his Confessions St. Augustine recounts an episode from his childhood in which he and a group of other boys try to outdo each other in performing dangerous and forbidden acts. Augustine and his companions steal pears from an orchard and throw them away, motivated neither by hunger nor by retaliation against the owner of the orchard. The deed itself is utterly senseless: I stole something of which I had plenty myself, and much better than what I stole. I had no wish to enjoy what I tried to get by theft; all my enjoyment was in the theft itself and in the sin. At a loss to justify his irrational behavior, Augustine comments, I became evil for nothing, with no reason for wrongdoing except the wrongdoing itself. This is an example of the perverse will that chooses evil for its own sake not even an evil that has assumed the appearance of the good a consequence of original sin in which mans will rebels against his reason. Could I enjoy what was forbidden for no other reason except that it was forbidden? Augustine asks.
When driven by a perverse will, a person acts against his own best interests and leads a life of contradictions. Augustine confesses that as a youth he dreaded corporal punishment in school as the penalty for sloth, and yet he acknowledges that without the fear of pain he would not have studied diligently: In this period of my boyhood I did not enjoy my lessons, and I hated being forced to do them for I would never learn unless under compulsion. On the one hand, Augustine loathes the infliction of physical punishment for laxness in his studies; on the other hand, he does not exert himself unless threatened by the rod.
In another scene from his childhood, Augustine recalls his disgust when his companions cheated at games, but he admits that he himself resorted to the same measures: In these games too I often used to try to overcome my rivals by cheating, all the time overcome myself by the empty desire to be thought the best. But if I caught someone else cheating me, I simply could not abide it and would attack him in the most savage language for doing just what I had been doing to others.
These examples illustrate that man does not easily follow the light of reason. He does not always act in pursuit of the good, or even the false good that he often mistakes for the real what Boethius in The Consolation of Philosophy identifies as the great temptations or images of false happiness: money, honor, power, and pleasure. Mans arbitrary, willful choices often act against his true happiness because, as Shakespeare famously put it in Troilus and Cressida, reason panders will that is, instead of the will being subordinate and obedient to reason, reason functions as a slave at the command of the passions. To seek evil only for the sake of evil, or because it is forbidden, Augustine writes, is the mark of a perverse will with no self-control, a will bent upon the lowest objects.
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