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Know Thyself: The Insolvable Puzzle


Though agape [i.e. selfless love] comes from God, it resides in our free will as human beings. Its home is not the body or the feelings, or even the intellect, but the will. True, the intellect has to work with it. But it is not the intellect that loves, any more than it is the light in the operating room that performs the surgery.Agape may be aided by seeing, accompanied by feeling, and accomplished by doing, but it is essentially an act of choosing, an act of free will.

If God exists, and God is love, then God must be that which loves, the will. God is not just being or the Force or Cosmic Consciousness, but a willer with a will. This is the distinctively biblical concept of God, which is missing in most Oriental religions.

Three other words for will in Scripture are "heart" (the center or core of the person), "spirit," and "I" (as in "I AM WHO AM"). All three mean the self. The source of agapeis not any function of the self but the self itself, that mysterious and non-objectifiable personal center which is the root and source of all our functions. Who is it that thinks and feels? Whose body and soul is this? Who am I? "Know thyself."

sense, think, know, feel, desire, long-there is an "I" behind everything do, inner or outer, spiritual or physical. This is God's image in me. Like God, it is hidden (Is 45:15). For like God, it is the subject rather than the object, the thinker rather than the thought, the feeler rather than the felt, the doer rather than the deed. "Know thyself," then, is the insolvable puzzle—the mystery that cannot be reduced to a problem. The self or I is the thing we are but cannot know, the thing that is not a thing.

The closest thing to it is willing. I can distance myself from my thoughts, hold them captive as an object and criticize them. I can do the same with my feelings. But not with my willing—at least not my present willing—for the very act of holding something before my consciousness is an act of willing.

I am not wholly free or responsible for my thoughts and feelings, which partly come to me from my heredity and my environment. But I am completely free and responsible for my will's choices, which come from me. I am not what I think or feel but I am what I will. I can distance myself from my thought. I can even distance myself from my feeling, for I can feel angry and yet refuse to be identified with that feeling. But I cannot distance myself from my willing. I cannot will and refuse at the same time because refusal is willing.

That is why it is not important whether temptations come to me, but it is important whether I consent to them. "Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man" (Mt 15:11). This is true not only of the mouth or the body, but also the soul. What comes into my soul is not necessarily what I will, but what comes out of my soul is precisely what I will.

The Greek philosophers did not clearly recognize this personal center. They were intellectualists; they thought the deepest thing in us was the mind. Thus Plato taught that whenever we really know the good, we do it. He thought that all evil is ultimately ignorance and curable by education. Aristotle too identified reason with the true self, that which distinguishes us from animals. He defined man as "a rational animal." But Scripture goes deeper. When asked how people could understand his teachings, Jesus replied, "My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me; if any man's will is to do his [the Father's] will, he shall know whether the teaching is from God" (Jn 7:16.17, emphasis added).

The will leads us to wisdom. The heart leads the head. Therefore Solomon says, "Keep your heart with all vigilance; for from it flow the springs of life" (Prov 4:23). In the natural sciences the head must lead. But in knowing persons—ourselves, others, or God—the heart must lead the head. "Deep calls to deep" (Ps 42:7), I to I. Thus Augustine declares that his Confessions cannot be understood by those who "do not have their ear to my heart, where I am what I am."

"Know thyself" was the first and greatest commandment for the Greeks. It was inscribed on every temple of Apollo. We can distinguish at least five levels of profundity in attempting to answer that fundamental question, What is the self? What am I? What is the human person? Only the key of love unlocks the deepest answer.

  • Answer #1: I am the social self. I am simply a social function, an ingredient in society. Society is the absolute. This old tribal view is coming back into modern consciousness. Many of my students use "Society" (always with a capital S, like "Science") exactly where theists would use "God" as the ultimate authority. De Tocqueville, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Ortega y Gasset, Huxley, Orwell, and Riesman all warned of this: xeroxed souls, standardized selves, mass conformity, "the lonely crowd."
  • Answer #2: I am the individual physical self. I am the thing that eats, diets, jogs, exercises, and dies. I am what I eat. This old pagan materialistic notion is also undergoing a great comeback in the modern yuppie world.
  • Answer #3: I am the feeling self. I am a mass of self-actualization, loneliness, positive and negative vibes, different strokes, complexes, libidinous urges, or other kinds of liberations of the psyche! This is another very popular view in the modern world. It is a little deeper and closer to the heights reached by classical paganism, which is the next deeper view.
  • Answer #4: I am the rational self. Unlike the animals, which include all the above answers, I can know truth. I stand in a light for which the animals have no receptor: the light of understanding, meaning, and intrinsic value. "Reason" meant this to the ancients: something immeasurably greater than what "reason" means to moderns. Namely, calculation, clever­ness, or logical correctness. To the ancients, it meant a divine attribute: wisdom.
  • Answer #5: I am the will, heart, soul, spirit, self, or I. I am that which chooses, commits, decides, and loves.

Why is the fifth answer the truest one? The will is central because love is central. Not the intellect—not quite. Plato is half right: evil does indeed come from ignorance, but not only from ignorance, for then it would be excusable. In fact, ignorance first comes from evil. We will, we choose, we create the moral ignorance in our souls the ignorance that Plato saw was a prerequisite to doing evil. We voluntarily turn off the light of truth.

For instance, we shut out the divine truth and justice of "thou shalt not steal" before we sin by stealing. The ignorance of the thief—by which he thinks that filling his pockets with stolen money will make him happier than filling his soul with proper virtue—is indeed, as Plato saw, a prerequisite for his act of theft. But that ignorance in turn has as its prerequisite the will's choice to turn the thief's attention away from the truth of the moral law. He wills to look instead at the pleasures he thinks will derive from his loot. His ignorance comes from his ignoring.
Excerpted from The God Who Loves You. Copyright 2004 by Ignatius Press, all rights reserved, used with permission. Text copied from PeterKreeft.com.
(image credit: Acqualokos)

Dr. Peter Kreeft

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Dr. Peter Kreeft is a professor of philosophy at Boston College and a noted Catholic apologist and philosopher. He is a convert to the Catholic Church from reformed Protestantism. He earned an A.B. degree from Calvin College, an M.A. and Ph.D. from Fordham University, followed by post-doctoral work at Yale University. He is a regular contributor to several Christian publications, is in wide demand as a speaker at conferences, and is the author of over 60 books including Making Sense Out of Suffering (Servant, 1986); Fundamentals of the Faith: Essays in Christian Apologetics (Ignatius, 1988); Catholic Christianity (Ignatius, 2001); The Unaborted Socrates: A Dramatic Debate on the Issues Surrounding Abortion (IVP, 2002); and The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings (Ignatius, 2005). Many of Peter's books are also integrated into the Logos software. Find dozens of audio talks, essays, and book excerpts at his website, PeterKreeft.com.

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