JMC : Four-Square / by Joseph Rickaby, S.J.


Not everything that a man does is a human act. A perfect idiot does no human acts, nor a child that has not come to the use of reason, nor a man asleep or under an anesthetic. Things that we do mechanically, automatically, without thinking, have little of the human act about them. The beating of the heart is not a human act, nor digestion, nor respiration for the most part. "Human act," then, is a technical term; and a thorough understanding and bearing in mind of this technicality is a wonderful encouragement under temptation, and a great safeguard against scruples. A human act is an act of which a man is master, to do or not to do: it is an act of free will. It is an expression of self. It is a man's own act, not of other agents about him. It is not an organic process going on in his body: it is an output of his soul and spirit. Man is responsible to God for all his human acts, and to his fellowman for many of them: and for none but his own human acts is any man responsible. What is not a human act can never be a sin. What is not a human act can never be an act of virtue, nor go towards the building up of a habit of virtue. Only through his own human act can a man ever come to the torment of hell-fire. When a man has sinned actually and grievously, some human act on his part is a necessary condition of divine forgiveness. No temptation, as such, is ever a human act on the part of the tempted. No temptation, therefore, whatever feeling it involves, however vehement and protracted, is ever a sin. Sin is a human act of consent to temptation, a consent whereof the man was master to give or refuse it, a consent which is no blind vehemence of appetite, but an act discerned by the understanding and conscience for its value and significance before God, and so sanctioned by the free will.

In man's mind and body, then, a vast number of things go on which are not human acts. The soul, philosophers say, is a simple substance; but, then, they are speaking of the soul as separate from the body, in which condition we know about it wondrous little. In the body the soul is the "form" of a highly complex organism, and in its operations, if not in its substance, it becomes as complex as the body which it informs. That accounts for certain facts of pathology, which to-day are receiving much attention -- I mean the resolution, in nervous disease, of one personality into three or four seeming personalities at variance with one another. This disintegration may perhaps be accounted for as a fact of ordinary experience abnormally magnified and exaggerated by disease. All men have their moods, often conflicting moods. We hear people saying such things as this: "I feel quite a different man on Sunday from what I am on a weekday." When we feel good (the "Dr. Jekyl" of Stephenson's story), we have to dread the return of the "other fellow" ("Mr. Hyde"), who feels anything but good. Not unfrequently both Jekyl and Hyde, both the good and the bad man in us, seem to be present together, or in quick succession, and there arises a fierce conflict. Alas for the "simple substance" of the philosophers! There seem to be two men in one struggling for the mastery. This situation may readily pass into sin through the weakness of the will. Or the will may stand firm, and the temptation remain a temptation, and nothing more, In the latter case you have what Aristotle calls enkrateia and St. Thomas continentia. Where there is sin, but as yet no habit of sin, you have akrasia. Aristotle says that akrasia is not wickedness, meaning that it is not a vice. There is much on this subject in the pages of St. Augustine. The classical passage on it is Romans vii, 5 sq. What fact shall make all the difference between temptation and sin? What remains to mark the unity of human nature under these divisions? If the man falls physically into two parts, or becomes wholly other than the man he was, his responsibility ceases. The original man can not be taxed with the doings of the man that has supplanted him, nor of the part that has asserted its independence and seceded from him. But it is not true that the man does fall physically into two parts, or becomes wholly other than the man he was. Unity remains, and the centre of unity, government. The act of government, decisive and authoritative, is the human act. That act emanates from one only of the conflicting elements within the man, his will. It is an act of will, it comes of will, not of blind passion and sense. For the nonce it is but ill obeyed: its voice is heard but in a narrow region, while rebellion rages all around; but the rebels will return to their duty if the will remains firm.

Meanwhile its utterance suffices in the ethical order to render all their proceedings nugatory and invalid -- racial, not personal; physical, not moral. Young and inexperienced souls are poorly alive to these distinctions: they little understand how narrow at times is the circle of will-power, the theatre of responsibility. Finding so much of their nature for the moment beyond their control, they draw the blind and cowardly inference that all control is impossible. They fancy that they have sinned, that they can not but sin, and seeking no further to restrain themselves they actually do sin. Taking temptation for sin, and finding no escape from temptation, they accept sin as inevitable. Christians though they be, with the light of Christian teaching at hand, and the strength of Christian Sacraments within them, yet they go with the pagan multitude: having their understandings darkened, through the ignorance that is in them, in despair they give themselves over to impurity, to the working of all uncleanness in unchecked lustful desire (Ephes. iv, 17-19, Greek text).

A number of small advantages gained, week by week, over an enemy in the field may, in the end, necessitate that enemy's entire surrender. A great "turn-over" in trade is made by an accumulation of small gains, so small that the particular transaction which brought in each seemed hardly a gain at all. And so it is with the training of appetite. The will in particular conflicts can do little; it fights what look like drawn battles. But in the long run the power of good will shows itself. Appetite, so blustering and domineering, by a series of steady resistances is brought low and tamed. This tamed condition of appetite, as we have so often found occasion to say, is the virtue of temperance. A medical man once wrote: "No appetite is really so amenable to reason as the sexual propensities." And generations of virtuous men have verified the observation.

Here, as so often, a thing that is called hard is done or not done, according as people go the right or the wrong way about the doing of it. The right way to go about resisting temptation is to behave well out of temptation and stand fore-armed against its assaults. Many things that are not free at the time they come upon us are said to be free in causa, "free in their cause," having been caused by some free act of ours, as a man may catch a fever by going into an infected room; if he knew what he was doing, his fever is "free in its cause," not in its actual access. And this doctrine carries us in sight of cases that frequently occur and are hard to settle. Their settlement must be sought at proper sources as they occur. A few general principles alone can be laid down here. Although temptations are often "free in their cause," yet we are not bound to avoid every cause that may bring on temptation. A rule like that would make life an intolerable burden. We have to consider whether the cause be naturally allied to the temptation, whether it be of itself as it were the beginning of the sin. That would be a cogent reason for avoidance. Again, the likelihood of our yielding to the temptation or withstanding it must be reckoned with in each case. We should fly from what brings on a temptation to which we are pretty certain to yield. Again, consider whether the exciting cause be an action which would be pronounced a "queer thing to do" for a person in our position, or whether it be a thing which good men, our equals, ordinarily and laudably do. As a rule, apart from special proneness to sin, what is laudable and lawful in our equals is lawful also in us, temptation or no temptation. But we should not do "queer" things. This rule, not to do "queer" things, is a rule of high practical value. A cause "naturally allied to temptation" would be the prolonged and curious study of nude figures with which we had no professional concern; the reading of a book whose whole good was its badness; the looking on at a play the point of which was the continual covert suggestion of evil. On the other hand, service in a smart cavalry regiment has its temptations, yet they are not "naturally allied" to such service, they are not part and parcel of it as such. Moreover, that service is entered by good men of your own standing, and none blames them for it. Some may foresee in the service certain temptations which, with their character, are pretty sure to be fatal. These we exhort to go elsewhere; or, if go to the army they must, we devise for them special spiritual aids and precautions. In the language of the Catechism this avoidance of temptations "free in their cause" is called the avoiding of "occasions of sin." Such occasions are distinguished as "remote" and "proximate." The latter only are we bound to avoid, when we can; or to fortify ourselves against by special precautions, when we can not. The will is free, as is supposed in the very definition of a "human act." At the same time the will is weak. It is weak against any strong motive presented from without, except it be armed by a strong habit of resistance, engendered by many acts of resistance, against such motive. Such a habit is a part of character. Character, then, which is something lasting, permanent, chronic, is a fortification against motive, impulsive, transient, acute. Any motive may be strong against an unformed character, that is, in the absence of character: but where character has been formed and exists, those motives alone are strong which fit the character. Those motives are strong which chime in with pre-existent habits. The issue of a battle, fought, say, on the second of February, depends immediately upon the skill of the commander and the valor of the soldiery that day. Remotely, however, and quite as effectively, it may depend upon some operations conducted the previous Christmas. The battle was half decided ere ever it was fought. So with human acts. Not in the fierce rush of temptation only, but in the quiet current of ordinary life, a man's fidelity is tried. Such as he is silently making himself, such he will come out, when proved.

To live habitually up to a high standard of holiness is the sole way of making oneself safe against a sudden access of temptation. Therein lies the meaning of Our Lord's injunction: Watch, and what I say to you, I say to all, watch (Mark xiii, 35-37). The reason why people sin so easily when they are tempted is because they are too easy-going in daily life and habitually aspire too low. Knowing that none is ever sent to hell except for great wickedness, they fancy they may safely indulge themselves in everything, great wickedness alone excepted. They forget that at times a great fight is needed to keep out of great wickedness. Temptation is sudden: the occasion for a great fight comes unexpectedly; and they are not ready. Many of us have lived through visitations of influenza. We are familiar with the process: influenza, pleuropneumonia, and then? Much depends on the violence of the attack, much on prompt retirement and careful nursing; ultimately all may turn on the vigour of the patient's constitution. Some constitutions seem bound to succumb to the first serious assault. Our character is our spiritual constitution. It is not made for us, as the Owenites said: it is daily being made and modified by us, by means of our daily human acts. Countless tiny shell-fish build up a coralreef, or a chalk cliff; and countless acts make in time a character. Little acts come and go unnoticed; the result endures; and in the end we are surprised at its magnitude and permanence. Our daily acts, then, must be well done, excellently well done, at least with such excellence as is within our reach; in this daily excellence lies our eternal salvation. The kingdom of heaven is like unto a grain of mustard seed, which indeed is the least of all seeds; but when it is grown up, it is greater than any herbs, and becometh a tree (Matt. xiii, 31, 32). And conversely, of the reign of Satan in the heart.

A strong character, for good or evil, is built up by the doing of many human acts. Weakness of character is the result of habitually neglecting to exercise the will, neglecting to energize and assert oneself, drifting down stream, passive when the current sets in to evil, listless even in lawful obedience when the stream happens to flow the right way. Self-assertion is not necessarily disobedience. The highest obedience is to assert yourself in the way commanded; to throw yourself, heart and soul, will and intelligence, into the work prescribed. St. Thomas says there may be sin in mere inaction, in simply not rising to the emergency when the hour has struck, without any positive determination not to rise. Inaction certainly prepares the way for sin, and for consent to all temptation. A good Christian is continually asserting himself, under God, against the world and the flesh and the devil. He is a man of many acts -- not so much of external, palpable, active achievements, "copy" for the newspaper correspondent, as of unregistered, ever-recurring determinations of thought and will to God.

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