Desire, freedom, goodness

Students, overheard arguing about Gorgias, articulate a universal human fear*: 

A: He’s saying that tyrants are not free.

B: Because they don’t do what’s good?

A: Because they don’t do what they want.

B: Because they don’t do what they really** want?

Socrates’s tendency to see virtue as a skill illuminates the problem: Since we immediately stop desiring things as soon as we recognize them as apparent goods, desire has the same relation to good as surgery has to health. That some patients die from surgery doesn’t make some surgeries for death, nor does it mean that health is a restriction on the freedom of the surgeon. Health is the precondition of having surgery at all, as goodness is the precondition of desiring anything at all.

Human*** moral evil always involves ignorance, even where the choice brings guilt (while it is hard for us to “stop thinking about a white bear” it is easy for us to stop thinking about, say, the pain we are causing others, or the real-life consequences of short term pleasures.)


*Sc. that goodness is a restriction on freedom and desire. The other two deep metaphysical fears – which students suffer from in special ways – are that beauty is not real and that all loves are selfish.

**The stress on the word “really” is crucial and indicates complete confusion. The correlative qualification of “really” is “sorta”, which students can add to the verb in any proposition – no, seriously, to any proposition – to make it true.)

*** While human evil requires ignorance, the absence of ignorance in a knower still allows for evil. This is one element in the mysterium iniquitatis of angelic sin.


  1. socraticum said,

    October 11, 2015 at 6:43 pm

    I don’t think human moral evil always requires ignorance: consider when Paul says “Adam was not deceived.” Similarly, Augustine’s account of the pears in the beginning of the Confessions seems to be aimed at contradicting that notion.

    • October 12, 2015 at 11:04 am

      Paul says “Adam was not deceived.”

      Yes, but not all ignorance is deception. If we broaden “deception” this far, then it ceases to be what Paul is talking about, sc. that Adam was not tricked (convinced?) by the serpent while Eve was.

      Augustine’s account of the pears in the beginning of the Confessions seems to be aimed at contradicting that notion.

      I haven’t made a careful study of the pear tree passage, but I should since this is the third time in three weeks that I’ve found myself in a controversy about it!

      Going from memory, I think A’s point is that sin is not just being overcome by some desire, like a desire to eat or a desire to impress others, but a desire to prove one’s dominion by proving that he stands in judgment of the moral law. IOW we break a moral rule, not qua evil (which is impossible) or qua seeking a lower good (as St. Thomas might say), but qua asserting our power or dominion over good and evil. If we could really do this we would have a very lofty nature indeed, but as it stands this always involves a willful and culpable (and usually self-induced) ignorance of our own obvious status as creatures. In this sense all sin is a re-capitulation of the fall, and so I think your two arguments find a deep unity in the idea of sin as willful, self-induced ignorance.

      • thenyssan said,

        October 12, 2015 at 3:31 pm

        I have taken the pears tale to express St. Augustine’s horror at realizing that Plato was wrong–that not every sin is done by ignorance, but that some are done by pure malice.

        This does not rule out a role for ignorance in every sin, but it does require some reworking to account for it. I think your response, James, it essentially how St. Thomas does account for it.

        But I’m drinking and not an Augustinian scholar, so on two counts I should be taken less seriously.

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