A forum of Catholic Thought


Inclined toward oneself but not 'curved inward'

Help us expand our reach! Please share this article on social media

Submit a Letter to the Editor

... Adam and Eve were created good and were subject to none of these promptings. The devil took the form of a serpent indeed to tempt them. But why did they listen to him?


Samuel Beckett is reputed to have said, "God created the universe out of nothing, and it shows." I don't know whether he really said this. But the quip is theologically very deep, because it echoes the account of how our first parents fell, according to St. Augustine.
They were created good. Their minds, their will, their emotions, and the desires of their bodies were all good. But this creates a problem. How did they first sin? If everything about them was good, how did they go wrong?
It is a general problem about sin in a universe created good. The angels were created entirely good. But in the first moment of their existence, they needed to choose fixedly for or against God. If nothing about them was bad, how did some say, "I will not serve?"
For us, the problem seems sharp because of a contrast. In our experience as fallen creatures, we see that every sin we commit is preceded by something disordered. "The world, the flesh, or the devil" -- these are the three traditional sources.
The devil, already fallen, may tempt us; but his temptations, it seems, would have no purchase if we weren't inclined already to entertain them with pleasure. The flesh, we know, leads us to act badly spontaneously ("in anger" for instance) or to make bad decisions deliberately (the choice to place that bet or to take that drink). As for the world, it is obviously disordered with "structures of sin," which blinker us, lure us, or even coerce us.

However, Adam and Eve were created good and were subject to none of these promptings. The devil took the form of a serpent indeed to tempt them. But why did they listen to him? As St. Augustine says in book XIV of "The City of God," they would not have done anything in accordance with his temptations -- whether it be taking the fruit or simply pausing to think about what he said -- unless interiorly they had already fallen. But, then, how did that take place?
In the Catholic tradition, there is a teaching about an "order of love" ("order amoris" or "caritatis"), which is that we are supposed to love God first, our selves only for the sake of God, and our neighbor as ourselves.
As fallen creatures and sinners, we find ourselves obsessed with ourselves. We can hardly see that God exists. We can barely foster any affection for him. If we repent and ask forgiveness, and turn to him and ask for help -- and most importantly, if, through baptism, we receive grace -- we can begin to place God first in our lives. But doing so habitually for most of us requires prayer, asceticism, and works of alms. "Love of God to contempt of self," as the saints put it. The wise man builds his house upon the rock. We yearn to live constantly "in the presence of God."
And yet our first parents were born that way, putting God first in their will and affections. They were given ample graces to assist them. The analogy is not exact, because redeemed human nature is higher than nature as originally created, but it is as if our first parents lived by natural endowment what Christians in the state of grace now may live -- through repentance, asceticism, and the grace of the sacraments.
However, this natural condition of placing God above themselves depended, ipso facto, upon their continued cooperation in their will. What if the will were to defect? What if it were to weaken?
Consider as an analogy when someone "loses heart," as we say, or "gives up," or "simply does not want to do" something. He lacks desire. He lacks "ganas." That the human will should ever be open to being like this -- that it should contain within itself this risk of spontaneous giving out -- this would follow from its contingency, that, to exist for us is to be as if suspended in existence, in contrast to the nothingness from which we were created.
"Nature could not have been depraved by vice had it not been made out of nothing," St. Augustine says. The human will is a nature, indeed, because it is made by God, and its nature is good. But "that it falls away from Him, this is because it is made out of nothing." When our first parents fell, it is not that they fell back into non-existence. But rather "being turned towards themselves, their being became more contracted than it was when they cleaved to Him who supremely is."
To describe their fall, and this fallen state, St. Augustine says that man became "adclinatus ad se," "turned towards himself" rather than God, upsetting the "order of love." But by repentance and through grace the order may be restored.
Luther was to take St. Augustine's phrase and change it into "incurvatus in se." Man becomes "curved inward upon himself," Luther said, his nature suffering a "total depravity," such that afterward what he supposes is a desire for God is always implicitly a form of self-seeking. The only hope is that salvation be imposed from without and ever taken to be something exterior to us.
As Jacques Maritain explained in his masterwork, "Three Reformers," therein lies the difference between how Catholicism understands discipleship and a good society, and how "modernity" understands the self and liberation. But that is another story.

- Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD, with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His latest book is "Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John" available from Amazon.

Help us expand our reach! Please share this article on social media

Recent articles in the Spirituality section