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On the Origin of (Good or Bad) Actions

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.

[1]
The Good and Evil Angels by William Blake, c. 1805 [Tate Britain, London] [2]
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., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.