Augustine on the divided or defective will

Augustine’s struggle with the Manicheans forced him to confront the question whether good and evil are homogeneous or ontologically equal; that is, with whether good and evil were both beings which, like all beings, reduced to some first principle of being (hence to a good and evil God). Though we’re no longer forced to take the Manichean opinion seriously, we frequently believe things that logically entail it. It is Manichean, for example, to think that the free choice of the will stands to good and evil as to two homogeneous objects, that is, that choice is just as perfect in the decision for a good as a decision for an evil. Plato saw that this couldn’t be the case, but he went too far in arguing that evil could not be chosen at all; and while Aristotle proved how evil could be chosen, he did not reduce this choice to the will as will, but imply to the fact that we can appeal to different major premises in a practical syllogism. It is with Augustine that we get the doctrine that an evil will follows its division, and this division is the failure to will totally.

A perverse will is a partial will, i.e. it is incomplete/ defective / wounded. Because of this, the choice for good and evil are not like the difference between walking or running, but like the difference between walking on healthy legs or injured ones. For one with healthy legs, walking perfects ones ability to walk; but the one who tries to walk on injured legs makes injures his power to walk and so becomes less and less able to walk – especially if he walks in the very way that causes his injury. In the same way, the one who chooses good things becomes better and better at choosing while the one who chooses evils becomes less and less able to choose. The choice of evil is always therefore for slavery (cf. Jn. 8:34). As Augustine puts it:

My will was the enemy master of, and so had made a chain for me and bound me. Because of a perverse will was lust made; and lust indulged in became custom; and custom not resisted became necessity. By which links, as it were, joined together (whence I term it a chain), did a hard bondage hold me enthralled.

This chain is a division of the will in the necessity of vice, when fully explicated is:

[The will] wills not entirely; therefore it commands not entirely. For so far forth it commands, as it wills; and so far forth is the thing commanded not done, as it wills not… It is, therefore, no monstrous thing partly to will, partly to be unwilling, but an infirmity of the mind, that it does not wholly rise, sustained by truth, pressed down by custom. And so there are two wills, because one of them is not entire; and the one is supplied with what the other needs.

The habits of virtue and vice are not equally habit: vice is a binding habit whose character is most pronounced in addiction, where the self feels subject to some other; virtue is freedom from this necessity that the will can be subject to. The self is subject to its vices but is simply a self by its virtues.


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