Recently we dipped into Peter Geach’s book . Let’s do so again, looking this time at what he has to say about the doctrine of original sin. Geach says that the doctrine holds that human beings have “inherited… [a] flawed nature,” and indeed that:
The traditional doctrine is that since the sin of our first parents, men have been conceived and born different in nature from what they would have been had our first parents stood firm under trial. As C. S. Lewis puts it, a new species, not made by God, sinned itself into existence. (pp. 89-90)
Needless to say, this is a very arresting way of putting things, but (as Geach would no doubt agree) it is hardly precise and it is potentially misleading. Human beings are (as we Thomists would say) by nature rational animals. What does it mean, then, to say that a “new species” existed after the sin of our first parents? Does that entail that they were rational animals by nature but we are not? Or that we are rational animals by nature but they were not? Neither of those things is true, so that it cannot literally be the case that a “new species” existed after the Fall. That remark is best understood as just a colorful way of saying that while we have the same nature that our first parents had prior to original sin (namely a human nature, the nature of a rational animal), there is now a flaw in that nature that did not then exist.
So far so good. But what exactly does it mean to speak of a “flawed nature”? Consider a triangle, which is a closed plane figure with three straight sides. That is its nature; it is what makes it a thing of the kind it is. Suppose I draw a triangle, but badly, so that the sides are not perfectly straight. Have I somehow changed the nature of triangles? No. Does the particular triangle I have drawn have a “flawed nature”? It seems more correct to say that the triangle is flawed than that its nature is.
Similarly, if a dog suffers a serious permanent injury to one of its legs, it would not be correct to say that the dog has a different nature from a dog that has four healthy legs. They have the same nature – they would not both be dogs otherwise – but the injured dog does not manifest all the properties that would ordinarily flow from that nature (in the Scholastic sense of “properties”). But it would also be a bit odd to speak of the injured dog as having a “flawed nature.” Here too, it isn’t the nature that is flawed; rather, it is the individual that has the nature that is flawed.
Having said that, there is a loose sense in which you might say that such a dog has a flawed nature. After all, unless the deformation is somehow remedied, the dog will never again walk as well as a dog with four healthy legs can. It will develop an unusual gait, and this will become “second nature” to it. Indeed, it may get so used to walking and running in this unusual way that if you were suddenly to restore the injured leg to perfect health, the dog might be at least temporarily disoriented and still not be able to walk normally.
Now, we are all familiar from everyday experience with the way in which a habit of action can become “second nature.” This could involve something innocuous or even good, such as the ability to play a musical instrument or to speak a new language. You might get so good at such things that you are able to do them without thinking about it. It is as if they were part of your very nature, even though in fact they are not (since you still would have existed, and thus had the same nature, if you’d never acquired these abilities).
Of course, something that we do by “second nature” in this sense could also be bad, such as a neurotic habitual way of thinking, feeling, or acting, or a habitual sin. Such a habit or tendency would in an obvious sense be contrary to our nature, which is precisely why we judge it to be bad. For example, people sometimes have odd addictions, such as eating kitchen cleanser, which can damage the teeth and the lining of the throat. Obviously, people also often become addicted to drugs or to excessive alcohol use, with the familiar bad consequences. It is in one sense hardly natural to human beings to do these things, precisely because our nature makes it bad for us to do them. But these tendencies can nevertheless become so deeply habituated that they become something like a “second nature” superimposed on our nature and frustrating its fulfillment.
One way to interpret the notion of the “flawed nature” entailed by original sin, then, is as a “second nature” that is superimposed on and frustrates the fulfilment of human nature – but, in this case, a “second nature” that is in some sense inherited from our first parents rather than acquired after birth. (I add that this is not what Geach himself says, but rather one possible way of interpreting what Geach says.)
In the case of original sin, Geach says, the defect in our nature concerns the will. He writes:
Will is not simply, and not primitively, a matter of choice. There is, presupposed to all choosing, a movement of the will towards some things that are wanted naturally; to live, to think, and the like, in short to be a man. If man were as he ought to be, there would be nothing wrong with this natural willing, voluntas ut natura as the scholastics called it. But if the nature a man has inherited is flawed, then a will that acquiesces in this flawed nature is perverse from the start; and from this perverse start actual wrong choices will certainly proceed, given time. (p. 90)
Go back to my analogy of natural versus acquired habits. Every normal human being has a natural inclination to drink water. You might say that the human will aims at doing so even before a particular conscious choice to drink it. Similarly, the person who has developed a strange addiction to eating kitchen cleanser thereby has, by “second nature” as it were, a will that is aimed at eating it, even before a particular conscious choice to eat it. The person’s will has to that extent been deformed.
Original sin, as Geach (as I am interpreting him) expounds it, can be seen as a matter of having in some sense inherited a “second nature” that aims one’s will at the wrong things, even before one makes particular conscious choices to pursue those things.
Geach opines that Schopenhauer (who The Eastern religions that influenced Schopenhauer, says Geach, locate the source of our misery in ignorance, and prescribe enlightenment as the cure. But for Christianity, the true source is sin or evil will, and the remedy is conversion. Schopenhauer, with his emphasis on malign will as the source of human suffering, was in Geach’s estimation at least approximating the doctrine of original sin.), despite his hostility to Christianity, was closer to the Christian view about this particular matter than most other non-Christians are, and closer than he himself realized.
Geach says that the disordered orientation of the will that has become our second nature after the Fall “holds… in particular for two sorts of desire: erotic and combative” (p. 96). In both cases, fallen man has a tendency to indulge desire to excess, and to aim it at the wrong things, thereby becoming lecherous, perverse, quarrelsome, violent, and vengeful. People often characterize such human beings as beastly or animal-like, but as Geach notes, this is not quite right:
The great apes, our alleged cousins, rarely kill one another; war, as opposed to individual fights, is an unknown thing for them; and men are enormously more lustful than apes. It is not that desires shared with lower animals corrupt man’s will; his already corrupt will corrupts his animal instincts, and makes them assume forms of monstrous excess and perversity unknown in the animal world. (pp. 96-97)
We might in this connection recall the old saying that the corruption of the best is the worst. The same rationality and free choice that make possible marriage and family, religion and morality, science and philosophy, the arts and literature, sports, etc. also make possible the extreme sexual depravity into which the Western world has now sunk, the mass slaughter of our own children via abortion, endless and pointless wars, mass apostasy, vapid consumerism, gluttony and drug addiction, etc. Non-human animals are not capable of the former, but neither are they capable of the latter.
In an important insight, Geach says the following about the disorder in our desires that has become second nature after the Fall:
For our first parents, this rebellion in the house of life will have been unspeakably grievous. To find a hand striking in anger, or legs running away in fear, before the rational mind had time to act; to learn by painful self-discipline to restrain these irregular movements; this will have seemed to them no less pathological than when (as occasionally happens) a mental patient’s hand ceases to be under his conscious voluntary control but, for example, writes automatically words for which he is not consciously responsible. To us, their fallen posterity, such irregular motions are all too natural. For the root of evil is not in the disorderly passions, but in the will, perverse from our infancy up, that readily accepts the way we are as the way we ought to be. The will does not merely yield in the struggle or get taken by surprise: it positively identifies itself with perverse desires, and thereby makes them still more perverse. (pp. 95-96)
Suppose you are not an alcoholic and indeed have never been all that interested in drinking, but that you wake up one day with a sudden, irresistible and insatiable craving for whisky, and that this craving persists indefinitely and becomes the focus of everyday attention. What had once been easy (resisting the impulse to imbibe) now becomes so difficult that resistance is exhausting and routinely ends in failure. You would no doubt find this extremely disorienting and upsetting. This, as Geach’s remarks suggest, is analogous to the condition of our first parents after the Fall, when what I have called the “second nature” of disordered will immediately became superimposed on and began frustrating human nature.
But suppose instead that your parents had from your childhood onward encouraged you to drink, and that by young adulthood you had gotten so used to a general background buzz and regular episodes of outright drunkenness that you could not imagine any other way of living. The idea of not drinking has become unthinkable, or at least seemingly hopelessly unrealistic. “This is just the way I naturally am!” you think, and you might even enjoy being that way. Precisely because you do, though, your alcoholism is worse than that of the alcoholic who struggles with his addiction, not better. This, Geach’s remarks suggest, is our condition many generations after the sin of our first parents. We identify ourselves with our disordered desires, taking them to be natural to us rather than reflective of damage to our nature.
For this reason, says Geach, “there was some truth in the insulting description used by Pagan Romans for Christians, ‘enemies of the human race’” (p. 99). For Christianity is indeed the enemy of what human beings have become as a result of original sin. Christianity opposes what people falsely assume is “natural” to them, but which is in fact only a corrupt “second nature” that has gotten superimposed on, and frustrates the realization of, their true nature. As a result, says Geach, “authentic Christianity must then at bottom be odious to the worldly man” (p. 100). Geach contrasts this “authentic Christianity” with the false kind that “urges[s] Christians to work loyally” for, and indeed to “advance,” the ideals of the worldly man – namely, the modernist Christianity that we saw Geach attack .
(As I’ve discussed in posts like In I discussed the similar effects of the sin of wrath. Part of Geach’s point is that these particular kinds of disconnect with reality are not merely the result of actual sin, but have their roots in original sin.) and , Aquinas has a lot to say about the self-deception, irrationality, and general breakdown in moral understanding to which those in thrall to sins of the flesh are especially prone.
No collective salvation
Geach emphasizes that the doctrine of original sin is not a thesis of collective responsibility for individual sins, and that Christianity in fact rejects the idea of such collective responsibility. You and I and everyone else may have together inherited from our first parents a tendency toward disordered desire, but if I act on such desire in a particular case, I alone am guilty of that action and I alone must answer for it. But by the same token, says Geach:
It must always be remembered that salvation is individual. Just as there is a fashionable doctrine of collective guilt, so there is a doctrine that men have been collectively redeemed. But that is equally false with the other doctrine. (p. 100)
If the human race descended from our first parents is like a tree, then there is, Geach says, “no hope at all” for that tree as a whole. There is hope only for whatever individual branches from that tree can be grafted onto the new tree that begins with Christ. Switching to another biblical metaphor, that of the narrow gate to eternal life, Geach writes:
Though entering the gate leads you to the glorious company of Christ and the Saints and Angels, you must enter alone. If you want the pleasures of following a leader in a crowd, there is a broad and easy road for you, but it leads to destruction; solidarity with mankind at large is something a Christian must renounce once for all. (p. 101)
This suggests the following analogy (mine, not Geach’s). We are by nature social animals, and have a duty to assist each other in acquiring the material necessities of life. But that does not entail that anyone is entitled to be provided for by others utterly regardless of desert or willingness to make an effort. “If any man will not work, neither let him eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Similarly, the counsel and prayers of fellow Christians and the saints’ treasury of merit assist us in finding salvation, but they do not guarantee that we will find it. There will be no spiritual freeloaders in heaven, no one who squeaks by because someone else repented for him. “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3).