Aristotle, in his Rhetoric, makes the point that pleasure is “a movement by which the soul as a whole is consciously brought into its normal state of being.” (Bk. I, ch. 11) The soul finds pleasant whatever leads it back to its normal state, which is a kind of rest from toil. Thus, Aristotle lays down the following rule: It must be pleasant to move towards a natural state of being.
This makes good sense and explains much of our common experience, like the fact that food is always more delicious to the more hungry man. The more drastically we move to a state of natural rest and away from the opposite, the more pleasant is that movement. This situation is complicated, however, by another bit of common experience. We often take great pleasure in things that are harmful to us objectively in that they do violence to our nature and destroy or severely impair our natural faculties. Think, for example, of an addict. For a soul in this state, it is very clear that a move back toward its natural state is painful rather than pleasant.
Some might at this point simply abandon Aristotle’s insight. This move would be premature. For Aristotle himself provides the key to understanding the above situation: “Habits also are pleasant; for as a thing has become habitual, it is virtually natural.” (ibid) We are used to calling habits “second nature.” When a person is habituated to a certain action, then to act in accord with the habit is akin to acting in accord with his nature. If a habit is itself contrary to nature, then it will be the case that acting in accord with nature is painful.
But how are such habits developed? Typically, habits develop from repeated action. Actions themselves are carried out with motives, among which is found pleasure. Man, as an animal, finds himself equipped with a sensible appetite that takes pleasure in the possession of all the goods of his survival, preservation, propagation, and assertion. As a rational animal, it falls to his faculty of reason, rather than instinct, to moderate these desires. When man acts upon these appetites for sensual pleasures without the voluntary moderation of reason, he develops habits which are un-ruled by reason; that is, habits of acting against his own rational nature.
This situation is exacerbated by the state of man after the fall and that unfortunate effect of original sin called concupiscence. Concupiscence is an inordinate disposition of the soul to prefer sensual pleasures to the rational goods. In other words, concupiscence is a kind of inborn bad habit. As Saint Thomas tells us, this habit is not the same as an acquired habit (Summa Theologiae, I-II, 82, 1), but one that results from our being born into a corrupt nature. This habit of original sin is thus not the disposition of any one power to a certain action, but rather the destruction of the natural harmony among the powers of the soul. Our passions in this state have a propensity to rebel against our reason, and our reason and will are weakened in their capacity to moderate the passions. Born into this state of tension, fallen man will often find it painful rather than pleasurable to do what is actually good for him. Concupiscence means man is born already with a kind of addiction to sensual pleasure which causes moderation by reason painful, even moving him to positively revolt against such moderation.
Given all this, the absolute necessity of discipline in the moral life comes to the forefront. For it is only through discipline that the soul will learn to take pleasure in what it ought to and be pained by what it ought to. Further, it is simply unreasonable to expect such discipline to be anything but painful for the soul. For discipline is to the powers and passions of the soul as surgery is to the body. Much must be cut, set, extracted, replaced in order that the body be set right again. In the same way, the soul born into concupiscence must undergo the painful process of repairing the destroyed harmony of its parts.
There are two points which follow from these considerations. First, it is simply absurd to use as a standard for what is morally acceptable what pleases us, even if we are born with a disposition to be pleased in that way. The truth is that we are all born with a disposition to be pleased by things that are not in perfect accord with the rational good, and we must all struggle to moderate such inordinate desires. This is simply the human condition.
Secondly, parents who do not discipline their child for fear of causing pain, or who have the tendency to allow children to freely indulge in what they find pleasurable just because they find it pleasurable are contributing to the corruption of the souls of their children. This is the case for two reasons. First, the child naturally lacks a fully developed rational capacity. Second, their natural capacities are further weakened and disordered by the effects of original sin, which remain even after original sin itself is remedied by baptism. This means that children rely completely upon the prudence of their parents to provide moderation of not only their action, but also their passions. Though parents cannot control directly such passions, they can provide the structure within which displays of inordinate passion are painful--that is, punished. Punishment, in this way, truly exists for the good the child. By making inordinate passions painful instead of pleasant, the soul of the child is guided away from reinforcing and inflaming the habit of concupiscence. On the other hand, when the child displays a willingness to follow the will of the parent, this ought to be rewarded with pleasant things. In this way, the child will be helped to restore to order his passions of pleasure and pain. Silence, regular and traditional prayer, manners in speech and dress, minding one’s place in and out of the home, all of these provide the structure for ordering the soul. All of the traditions of the hearth, the stability of routine, especially directed toward integration into the spiritual family of the Church, are invaluable in the moral development of the child. The child must feel as if he is part of a family which is much bigger than him, with traditions and values that existed before him and will continue to exist long after he is gone. He must be made to feel the healthy and optimistic expectations that fall to him by virtue of his being a part of this family. That he revolts against such things is only a sign that he needs them all the more. And the parent must trust that the stringency of these practices are providing the child with the only tools available to that vulnerable soul of making war against his own concupiscence.
These rules, these external habits, are not as superficial as they may sometimes seem. The only way to calm the native storm in our souls, the inheritance earned by the folly of our first parents, is to first provide the stability and strictures of the home. This is not raising your child in a bubble. Rather, it is holding back the disorder of the world long enough so that the soul of the child can gain a kind of order of its own before venturing out into the strong and swirling winds of the world. The parent is like the gardener, who would be stupid and irresponsible to expose his seedlings to the full force of the elements. Rather, the gardener tends with care, straightening where the young seedlings would grow crooked, even binding forcefully with tethers the tender stem to the strict rule of the stake.
“Cursed is the earth in thy work; with labor and toil thou shalt eat thereof all the days of thy life. Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herbs of the earth.” (Gen. 3:17-18) The earth, created for the purpose of bringing forth food for man, now shoots forth thorns against him. Man’s passions, created to serve the order of his reason, rebel in lust and wrath. Only by toil and the till can the rebellion be put down. In a paradox, the soul is nourished on the bitterness of such pain like the body is preserved by the bitter herb. In the fallen world, unfortunately, the restoration of order requires toil and pain. One look at a Crucifix reveals as much. Let us ensure as much as is possible, with the help of the grace of Christ’s own redemptive Passion, that the toil and pain of our children be all for their own ultimate good and the order of their souls toward happiness, lest we leave them exposed to the toil and pain that is the lot of the damned.
The authors of this blog are the tutors of Saint John of the Cross Academy: