On the Origin of (Good or Bad) Actions

Attention TCT readers in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania: Robert Royal will deliver the Third Annual Archbishop John J. Myers Lecture on Law, Society and Faith tonight at Seton Hall University in Orange, NJ. Dr. Royal’s talk, “The Grand Tradition of Faith and Reason,” will begin at 5:00 P.M. in Jubilee Hall Auditorium. All are welcome and admission is free, however guests are encouraged to R.S.V.P. online or via email to Gloria Aroneo: Gloria.Aroneo@shu.edu or (973) 275-2808.

In The Rambler for April 14, 1750, Samuel Johnson wrote: “My purpose (is) to consider the moral discipline of the mind, and to promote the increase of virtue rather than learning.” Two things are clear from this passage. First, some distinction exists between virtue and learning. We can be learned without being virtuous. Learned but dissolute characters are not uncommon. We also meet, more frequently, virtuous folks who are not learned.

Secondly, the mind itself requires “moral discipline.” Our very thoughts, however central to the kind of being we are, can be dangerous to us if we do not attend to their varied content. Scripture tells us that out of our inner soul come the vices. (Matthew 15:19) But we ought not to leave it at that. We can, on reflection, discipline even our minds. We can become habitually aware of the drift of our spontaneous thoughts. We can guide and classify them. That is, we can and should know ourselves. With good reason, we call many thoughts and feelings floating within us “temptations.”

We should remember “that all action has its origin in the mind. . . .Irregular desires will produce licentious practices; what men allow themselves to wish they will soon believe, and will be at last incited to execute what they please themselves with conceiving.” These are frank words, seldom heard. In a world in which limitless autonomy, plus Internet and media, can be occasions of so many enticing and troubling thoughts, Johnson’s eighteenth-century words strike us as doubly insightful.

Johnson goes on to explain where experience about what goes on within us is most clearly acquired: “The casuists of the Romish church, who gain, by confession, great opportunity of knowing human nature, have generally determined that what it is a crime to do, it is a crime to think.” This well-turned passage also recalls Christ’s admonitions about the intimate connection between thought and deed. (Matthew 5:28) Aquinas, in fact, held that it was well for revelation to reinforce what we could figure out by reason in this area. Hence, we are admonished not even to think of doing something evil.

The Good and Evil Angels by William Blake, c. 1805 [Tate Britain, London]
The Good and Evil Angels by William Blake, c. 1805 [Tate Britain, London]

Aquinas also tells us that civil law can only judge the exterior action, not directly the inner motivation or cause. But he does not deny that actions follow from what is inside, from thought and choice. Great insight into human nature occurs when we learn what people say of themselves when they are honest with themselves. Human nature includes an accurate knowledge of why and from whence things go wrong.

“No man has ever been drawn to crimes, by love or jealousy, by envy or hatred, but he can tell how easily he might at first have repelled the temptation, how readily his mind would have obeyed a call to any other object, and how weak his passion has been after some causal avocation, ‘till he has recalled it again to his heart, and recalled the viper by too warm a fondness.”

What a remarkably insightful passage! Here we are again reminded that, in dealing with choices that we ought not to have made, we are at the heart of the world’s great eschatological crossroad. The disordered choices we make for ourselves might well have been otherwise but for our not ruling ourselves in our thoughts.

Yet Johnson is aware that the presence of constant disordered thoughts in our souls is not as such an evil, but rather occasion for self-rule. Johnson cautions “pious and tender minds that are disturbed by the irruptions of wicked imaginations, against too great dejection, and too anxious alarms; for thoughts are only criminal, when they are first chosen, and then voluntarily continued.” Thus, we are not to murder or steal but not even to think of doing so. The control of action begins in the guidance of thought.

What may surprise us today is the very idea that we can and ought so to control ourselves according to a standard of what is good and ordered. What is even more surprising is that this record of our souls in ruling or not ruling ourselves is precisely what we, as individual human beings, are to be judged by.

“He therefore that would govern his actions by the laws of virtue, must regulate his thoughts by those of reason,” Johnson concludes. “He must keep guilt from the recesses of his heart, and remember that the pleasures of fancy, and the emotions of desire are more dangerous as they are more hidden, since they escape the awe of observation, and operate equally in every situation, without the concurrence of external opportunity.”

Our sins of thought remain hidden. When they become public through our action, we and the world can see them for what they are in their consequences, something we do not so easily see when they remain hidden.

James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, and, new from St. Augustine's Press, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught.

  • HeartwornHighways

    “Between the idea
    And the reality
    Between the motion
    And the act
    Falls the Shadow”

    T.S. Eliot
    The Hollow Men

  • teo

    ideas beget thoughts
    thoughts beget words
    our words beget actions
    actions become our character
    out character is our destiny.
    ummm…who is that attributed to?

    • HeartwornHighways

      Lao Tzu?…Sartre?…Kerouac?…Weaver?…You?

    • Fr. Peter Morello

      Could be anyone with a rational mind.

  • olhg1

    I am forever grateful for the Baltimore Catechism that laid out a livable morality. The teachings of Jesus in the Gospels can be interpreted in various ways even though though they seem straightforward, e.g., “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery…” Two educated Roman Catholics: A guy faithful to his wife-and would never screw around-admires the qualities of a good looking woman, is not in the same moral sphere as a guy-married-who is “looking for pussy.” The first guy is acting, subject to the powers he has as a man. The second guy is a sinner, disregarding his moral duties.

  • Charles Adams

    The control of guidance and thought must be taught and must be instilled in from the beginning of life. We are judged on earth and in earthly death by our earthly people but we forget after life.

  • Anzlyne

    Romans 12 starts out-
    “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters,* by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual* worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world,* but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.*
    And ends with “overcome evil with good”

  • Michael Dowd

    “We are what we think.

    All that we are arises with our thoughts.

    With our thoughts we make the world.

    Speak or act with an impure mind

    And trouble will follow you

    As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.

    We are what we think.

    All that we are arises with our thoughts.

    With our thoughts we make the world.

    Speak or act with a pure mind

    And happiness will follow you

    As your shadow, unshakable.

    “Look how he abused me and hurt me,

    How he threw me down and robbed me.”

    Live with such thoughts and you live in hate.

    “Look how he abused me and hurt me,

    How he threw me down and robbed me.”

    Abandon such thoughts, and live in love.

    In this world

    Hate never yet dispelled hate.

    Only love dispels hate.

    This is the law,

    Ancient and inexhaustible.”

    — The Dhammapada

    • HeartwornHighways

      “They never will love, where they ought to love
      who do not hate where they ought to hate.” -Edmund Burke

      I agree, only love can dispel hate; but I suggest that hating evil is not to be dispelled.

  • Fr. Peter Morello

    Somehow Fr Schall you regularly manage to address what has been a struggle for me. And you correctly admonish mental discipline regarding thoughts some of which are evil. Temptations? In some instances yes. Elicited by our own obsession with sensual pleasure? I say quite often by many including myself. That has been my experience. It’s a very difficult issue that has rendered some devout persons to become disabled by utter scrupulosity. I’ve counselled some who needed to be admonished to have greater confidence in God’s understanding. In my seminary days the wonderful author of many Catholic hymns in the breviary, my confessor Fr James Quinn SJ told me “Peter, you have to toughen up.” A vivid imagination has been my blessing and curse. Aquinas had taught somewhere at one time before he revised his opinion that the very attraction say to a woman if venal was sinful. Aquinas based his view on a source he believed was a Father of the Church. Later he revised it when he learned the source was from Peter Lombard’s Sententia. The modification is in the Summa where he treats Lust, which must clearly be a consciously willed venal desire not a momentary attraction. Perhaps the best advice besides Johnson is Saint John of the Cross who says the further we withdraw from attendance to sensual pleasure the greater command we have of the mind’s direction. He adds that for some, mainly contemplatives, even the initial movement of the mind toward sensuality is avoided. Speaking for myself I may have to wait for Heaven to be so disciplined, God willing if I get there.

    • RickWI

      Father, You are speaking for me too. Thanks for confessionals!

      • Fr. Peter Morello

        Tell me about it.

    • Bernadette Vella Wolff

      Practicing custody of the eyes, ears, tongue routinely is a wonderful tool to avert this propensity. At first, you will feel as though you are crucified. Once it is well established, you will feel completely free!

      • Fr. Peter Morello

        Thanks. I agree that crucifixion [Besides the Apostle Paul, I favor Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s to be crucified to oneself] Bernadette is the answer. I’m working on it in my own mediocre way. Since practicing silent prayer regularly I’ve come to realize that, if I wish to have a more intimate relationship with God.

    • JnD

      Father, I am glad you shared this. Scrupulosity is really possible, even a neurosis about sexuality.

      Is all direction of the mind toward sensuality wrong? What about the married man with sexual attraction toward his wife and his determination to do something about it? Or his standing desire, buttressed by the acquisition of skills, to create a more sensual relationship with his wife for a richer communion between them?

      • Fr. Peter Morello

        No. The senses, and the pleasure derived from the senses come from God, and are a vital part of human nature. Within the Christian moral framework venal sensual pleasure is intended exclusively between husband and wife, and is good and important in the expression of conjugal love. The attraction to the opposite sex is obviously placed there by God. Because of our fallen nature there are moments when venal sensation occurs that are not sinful when realized by us, and we reject it. Sensuality is a term meaning abandonment to sensual pleasure, when a person does not consider whether it is moral. Lust can be a synonym for this abandonment to sensual pleasure called sensuality. Insofar as relations with a spouse my advice is keep to what is natural and avoid devices.

  • RickWI

    My old priest (Fr. Norbert Wilger RIP) used to say, “Garbage in garbage out.”
    Don’t consume garbage! (In today’s world, not easy to do).

    He also said, “It is easier to stay out of trouble than to get out of trouble.”

  • Francis Miller

    Thank you Fr. Schall. This issue is at the center of a great deal of anxiety for many of us. “We should remember ‘that all action has its origin in the mind. . . .Irregular desires will produce licentious practices; what men allow themselves to wish they will soon believe, and will be at last incited to execute what they please themselves with conceiving.’” In the ’80s Franklin Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People identified that “mental creation precedes physical creation”. In a sense, saying the same thing.
    The message here is that what was real and consistent for Mother Church, Aquinas, Johnson, etc. is the same for all of us. Intellect must rule the thoughts as it must the will. No easy matter in light of our contemporary culture’s “follow your bliss, create the you want to be, don’t be defined by someone else or some antiquated concept of normalcy”. The effort to merely identify the subversive (intent?) content therein requires no little mental effort. Apart from the grace of Jesus, how can such effort be undertaken?

  • didymus46

    Thank you, Father! Dr. Johnson (and Chesterton, of course) constantly amaze me.

  • Fr. Peter Morello

    A Catholic commentator Elliot MIlco, Asst Ed at First Things, has this to say about discipline, conscience, and determining good and bad actions.
    “In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis seems so eager to emphasize the good in everything that he turns a blind eye to the evilness of evil. It is true that as Catholics we believe everything reflects the infinite goodness of God, but the church’s mission is to draw people to authentic happiness by teaching them what is ultimately good, and what stands in the way of human fulfillment. While we should have compassion for everyone, it is not compassionate to pretend that a sin is not a sin. He wants pastors to affirm everyone’s conscience, without worrying too much whether our consciences are confused or wrong.
    Most disturbing in Francis’s exhortation is his desire that priests affirm the situations of divorced Catholics who are living with a second spouse — even contemplating with them the possibility of communion while living in sin. The tradition of Catholic morality is firm and unequivocal: a Catholic marriage is dissolved only by death. To be in an illicit second marriage is a sin, and all of us need to repent of our sins before receiving communion. This is a hard truth — that much has been clear since the first century — but there are times when hard truths need to be spoken. Sometimes it’s necessary to correct people, for their own good and the good of everyone who might be led astray by them. Leading people astray is certainly not something Francis seems to worry about. He wants us to “make a mess.” He wants pastors to affirm everyone’s conscience, without worrying too much whether our consciences are confused or wrong. In the short run, this will make a lot of people in dubious moral situations feel better, and may make the church seem more welcoming and compassionate. But this short-term gain comes at the expense of long-term confusion about divine truth, right living and the requirements for human fulfillment. Since leading people to happiness in God is the mission of the church, this trade off seems devastatingly ill conceived.”

  • Dave

    I think one of the principle ways we discipline our minds is by submitting them to the discipline of the Word of God, through loving contemplation of Holy Scripture in lectio divina. We all know that our minds are all over the place all the time and that we are constantly being bombarded by images, thoughts, remembrances, etc. that would draw us from God and suggest that we are incapable of communion with Him. This communion is readily available however and he freely offers it to whoever seeks it by hearing the Word and then doing it. Only the Holy Spirit is greater than the spirit of the age, and the Holy Spirit eagerly seeks souls that would invite him and let him take up his sweet abode with them. Only the Holy Spirit can give us the mind of Christ, which is the mind we really need. Spiritual disciplines that allow us to “let go and let God” really do work, and they perfect our always imperfect attempts to do the right and avoid the wrong.

  • Anthony Cangemi

    I find it most interesting that the many things discussed here are the ideas and ideals I learned in Catholic grammar school and high school. However, we no longer hear of “bad example”, the “formation of a good” conscience” or so many of the simple exhortations taught by the good sisters, brothers and priests. Such things sound simple but assuredly are not. Perhaps the notion that they are simplistic is the reason they are not emphasized or perhaps even taught any longer. Or perhaps these things are no longer in vogue, as if that matters at all.

  • Bobo Fett

    Thank you, Father.

  • Vivian

    Father, these words are deeply profound. I thank you for your perfectly timed writing.



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