A Mind Is a Slave of Passion
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While he may best be remembered for his classic autobiography Confessions, St. Augustine was also the author of The Problem of Free Choice, which raises many questions and provides answers for a plethora of questions regarding human life and the ability to think. He titles one of the sections of his book “A Mind is the Slave of Passion Through its Own Choice” (MS). In this section, he reveals many interesting thoughts on human nature through dialogue between two characters, Augustine and Evodious. (E. and A. ) St. Augustine looks to discuss reason, knowledge, the concept of mind and control over it, and passion.
The conclusion that is reached at the end of MSPOC by E. and A. is, not surprisingly, the point of the title itself. Throughout most of the dialogue A. seeks to show E. the error of his ways and to take him step-by-step to discover the power of the mind to govern itself. The first major point in the text is that living and being conscious of living, due to reason, is not the same. A. uses the following logic to show E. how humans possess the ability to differentiate between the two. Since humans are considered superior to beasts, something must obviously be present in humans that does not exist in beasts.
A. asks E, “Is it what we usually call reason or understanding? ” (7. 16) They agree on this and also on the logical assumption that a man who is alive therefore has reason. A. continues on to ask E. if he believes that living is better than knowing he is alive. E. answers that knowing he is alive is obviously the more “excellent” thing. A. replies that he believes that E. then prefers a “better life” as opposed to a “less perfect life. ” As they discuss this, St. Augustine’s second point is revealed. When A. asks E. if he “knows” what is better, he is questioning E’s knowledge.
Thus arises the issue, “Is knowledge a higher and purer form of life? ” A? ”s answer is yes and he explains it: “… no one can know unless he has understanding. What else is understanding than a life brighter and more perfect through the very light of the mind? ” (7. 17 ). This also ties into the first point in that the possession of reason can only allow a person to lead a deeper, more meaningful life. Knowledge is the highest form of living. A. goes on to further prove that knowledge can never be evil in the most proper and purest sense of the word because it is produced by reason and understanding.
Logically, then, a man is in “due order” when reason controls his soul and any other thing that makes him a man. But what happens when a man’s reason does not control his mind? Thus begins Augustine’s third point: the power of the mind and its control in wise and foolish men. He begins with the claim that a “man who possesses reason cannot lack mind” (9. 19). He explains to E. that while all men have minds, not all allow it to be in control. These men, therefore, are foolish, even though they do have a mind that can use reason. The
mind is only in control in wise men. A.proves this point with the example of shepherds and herdsmen. These men tame beasts, which have already shown to be inferior, yet not all these men are wise. However, because they are men, they must have a mind that is able to reason; it is simply their choice to not be governed by reason and that makes them foolish. As a result, E. reaches the following conclusion: “human wisdom consists in the control of the human mind, and that it is also possible for the mind to not be in control” (10. 20). As soon as E. says this, A. immediately questions if passion is more powerful than the mind. This is Augustine’s fourth and final point.
He believes it does not, since due order could not exist if the weak had power over the strong. Consequently, the mind must have more power than desire since it is the logical thing for the mind to control desire. A. then goes on to offer the hypothetical situation that if two people have “equal” minds and a sense of control over their mind, then one cannot corrupt the other because the same excellence exists in both. E. immediately agrees, but adds one’s mind will become wicked if corruption of another mind is attempted (10. 20). Later, the men agree that the only thing more excellent than a rational and wise mind is God.
Since God is excellent, He is therefore virtuous and just, and although He has the power to, He would never force a person’s mind to serve passion. Through this process of thinking, the men decide “nothing makes a mind give way to desire except its own will and free choice” (11. 20). In the text, Augustine provides definitions for several key terms that are essential to understanding his argument. Without a doubt, the most important word in the text is “reason” for if the meaning of this word is not clearly understood, then it is impossible to fully comprehend the full meaning of the text.
Reason is man’s ability to think and understand what goes on around him. That is, a man knows he is alive; he does not just live. Another vital word in the text is “knowledge” which Augustine defines as perception through reason (6. 16). He believes “to know is to understand,” and this concept applies to any and everything in life, the greater a person’s understanding of something, the greater his knowledge. Knowledge is synonymous with wisdom, another vital word used in MS. Additionally, the term “mind” is used at great length. Basically, the mind is the faculty in which a person utilizes reason and knowledge.
Lastly, Augustine seeks to identify the definition of “passion. ” This one is slightly harder to find because the meaning is implied. Passion can be described as the opposite of what is virtuous, just or excellent. When a person succumbs to passion, vice, rather than virtue, controls the mind. Simply, passion is the desire of choice and free will that turns away from reason. Augustine’s entire argument for MS mainly follows his four main points. He aims to show that since human beings possess reason, we are able to differentiate the difference between living and knowing we live.
Secondly, knowledge exists at the purest level of living, therefore it cannot be evil and produce evil things. Thirdly, the thing that determines whether a man is wise or not is whether he allows his mind to control him. If he does not, then he is a foolish man. He is foolish because then he is allowing himself to be ruled by passion, which is weaker than reason, in the virtuous sense. As a result, he reaches the conclusion that passion is not more powerful than the mind because the greatest punishment a man can receive for giving in to passion is all the pain he then experiences.
It is a punishment because the man believes his actions to be just and virtuous, while they are the exact opposite since he is acting on passion, rather than reason. The conclusion Augustine reaches by the end of MS is that the only thing that makes the mind give into desire and passion is its own choice. Augustine is successful in his argument and while his conclusion is not revealed at the very end of the text, it is instead implied in all his arguments. By the end of MS, the reader should understand that a man will always ultimately have control over himself, but it is his choice to be governed either by passion or reason.
I was faced with a serious decision that involved allowing myself to give in to passion or reason several months ago that is still affecting me today. I was in my school’s musical, Hello, Dolly! this past March. The shows were scheduled for March 1st-4th. A week and a half before the curtain went up, I found myself placed in an extremely difficult situation. For the first time since September, I had the opportunity to visit my boyfriend, Devin, who goes to Virginia Tech, which is an eight-hour drive from my hometown.
However, going to visit him meant skipping out on two of the final three rehearsals to be held for my musical. I would have to lie to my director about my whereabouts on the weekend, and invent some excuse why I missed two of the most important rehearsals held during our four-month-long commitment to the show. I had to choose between honoring my dedication not only to the show, but to the cast as well or staying the weekend with my boyfriend, whom I had not seen since he went back to school in January.
In the end, my mother convinced me the show was the more important thing, since there were only seven days left until opening night. Needless to say, I was miserable the whole weekend, but I could not have been happier the following Friday when Devin was in the audience to see the show. He came home to see me perform because he knew how upset I was that I could not go see him. Augustine would have been proud of me, since I fought giving into passion and allowed reason to control my mind and my decision. Remaining dedicated to the show in the final weekend of rehearsals was the virtuous and right thing to do.
By explaining logically step-by-step how human life is affected by reason, knowledge, the concept of mind and control over it, and passion, St. Augustine undoubtedly proves that the mind is indeed a slave of passion through it own choice. Each component ties into the next, so when they are all presented as a whole, the argument is solid and undeniably true. The ability of the human mind to govern itself is an incredibly powerful thing and Augustine shows that there are benefits that come from giving in to reason, and only non-virtuous actions such as avarice, self-indulgence, pride and envy are the result of acting on passion.