Thursday, January 21, 2010

Shoulds and Wants

"For the apparent good is the object of appetite, and the real good is the primary object of rational wish" Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book 7
I've been reading the Vulgate alongside the Ignatius NIV -- very slowly. Usually I read Luke but the other day I read Psalms 1 and was struck by verse 2

sed in lege Domini voluntas ejus, et in lege ejus meditabitur die ac nocte.
The first part of this can be translated "but his WILL is in the law of the Lord." Of course, I'm much more used to reading "The law of the Lord is his DELIGHT" which is the way most modern translations render it.

I am completely ignorant about Hebrew word choice. But I love words, and since St Jerome apparently thought "voluntas" could be parallel to "delight" in some way, it made me wonder whether the word "will" from "voluntas" has been corrupted a bit in our post-Kantian times. Kant, of course, thought that things were only good if they were hard, that the goodness consisted in the difficulty. Aquinas maintained, previously and in opposition, that the essence of virtue was the good, not the difficult. The worth of the subjective difficulty is that it shows more clearly the verity and value of the good. (One might think here of something analogous to the "pearl of great price" where someone is willing to sell all they have and dig around until they find it -- but the value of the pearl is in itself, and the sacrifice only testifies to the immense value, it doesn't MAKE the pearl valuable -- a subtle distinction, perhaps, but with powerful consequences in how you look at things).

I thought of where St Paul says in Romans 7:

"For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me."

“For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members.”
Our will, according to Aquinas, is a rational appetite. It makes us want to do, by definition, what seems good to us. When we say we "should" do something or "ought" to do something we are expressing a desire for the good (though it's possible to have a mistaken idea of what is good, of course, because of misinformation).

However, just knowing what would be good and "delighting in it" or "willing it" does not mean necessarily doing it, which is what St Paul seems to be saying and certainly what I tend to recognize in myself. Our ability to do what we know is good is affected by our sinful nature. Aquinas in his commentary on Romans says:

But since the inclination to sin is a punishment for sin, it has a twofold cause: one cause is sin, which has taken mastery over the sinner and imposed its law on him, i.e., the inclination to sin, just as a master imposes his law on a vanquished slave.
(The other cause, he says, is the justice of God, who permitted this to happen as a consequence for sin -- of course, both causes are allowed by God).

So getting back to St Jerome and the relation of "voluntas" to "delight" I think of words like "voluntary" and "volunteer" that imply WANTING to do something and choosing it freely.

For some reason, this is helpful to me because I think that growing up in the Cartesian philosophical climate as most of us do, we think subjectively and imagine that what we REALLY want to do is stuff our faces, buy things, take the easy way out, teach our enemies a lesson, etc. But we do the right thing because we SHOULD, but we don't really want to. And of course, in some sense we do want these things because the law of our members wars with our reason. But reason, of course, knows that these things aren't good, and reason is perfectly expressed beyond our human understanding by the "law of the Lord", which as St Paul also says "is written upon our hearts" in some way. And what is good and true is the object of our reason. So the SHOULDS are really want-tos in a deeper sense than what our "members" want us to do.

So David's remedy to his sinful inclinations is to ponder on the law of the Lord and let it soak into his heart and St Paul's remedy, complementary but also an apostolic fulfillment of the Old Law, is to abide in faith, hope and love which are gifts from God (as indeed everything we have is, but the supernatural gifts particularly are given from above and go beyond our natural powers).

Pope John Paul II spoke of "freedom for excellence" and possibly this is another way of saying something similar -- our faith removes us from the captivity to ourselves and our appetites and frees us for something beyond that.


  1. interesting look at the language - thought I would mention that the Orthodox Study Bible which is based on the septuagint translation translates it "his will is in the law of the Lord." I do think Orthodox theology would agree with your point that it is not a matter of doing the "should do's" in a struggle against our nature, but a matter of growing into a likeness of God to where our whole heart desires the good - that is, bringing our selves and our members back into alignment with our original nature and intended purpose.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Anna! It is interesting to hear the Orthodox translation. I suppose the Vulgate also is based on the Septuagint.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!