Long, boring, philosophical entry.
It took me 33 years, but I’m no longer a Socratic.
Socrates argued that everyone acts in accordance to what they think, that your actions reflect what you really, deep down, believe. He actually goes further, making the bold claim that anyone who truly knows what’s right can’t help but do it. Therefore, wrongdoing is a result of ignorance. People who do wrong either aren’t thinking, don’t know what’s right, or have the wrong understanding about what’s right.
For most of my life, I bought into this, in a Christian context. If people sinned, I believed that deep down, they didn’t truly understand heavenly rewards and how much they outshine the pleasures of sin. More personally, I believed that when I sinned, it must be because, deep down, I thought the benefits outweighed the consequences, especially for things other people are unlikely to find out about.
Since I thought action reflects belief, my solution was always to think more. I had to really understand heaven better. Or really believe in the negative consequences of sin. Or really know how good God is, that I would spend more time with Him. In every shortcoming, I believed that the solution was to understand better. I don’t think I’m alone in this; I hear Christians say stuff like this all the time. “If we only knew how [fill in the blank] God was, we would always/never [fill in the blank].” If we only knew.
I don’t believe that anymore. I’d say I’m now more a Platonist / Freudian. I don’t know if you’ve read Plato’s Republic, but in it, he describes the human soul as being divided into 3 parts – reason, desire, and spirit. These can conflict. For example, the reason in a man prone to drunkenness may believe he shouldn’t drink, while the desire in a man may crave it. If he ends up drinking, Socrates might say it’s because he doesn’t really believe that that one drink, and everything that follows, is bad. Somewhere inside, what he really thinks is that the pleasures of alcohol outweigh the consequences of possible drunkenness. Plato in the Republic might say that the desire part of his soul overruled the reason part. I used to think like Socrates; now I think like Plato.
When I reread the Republic a couple years ago, what struck me was how this idea of man being divided into three parts is a repeated theme in history. Most popularly, Freud also theorized that the human psyche had 3 parts, the id, ego and superego. The idea that man is divided is one that comes up again and again in history.
I buy that. I don’t think anymore that we fall short because we just don’t really believe the right things enough. I think we can believe plenty enough and still fall short. The problem is that we’re divided, and competing forces inside us jockey for control. Sometimes the worse ones win out. And it has nothing to do with believing.
I think Scripture reflects this, and that this is what Paul was talking about when he wrote in Romans 9:
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
He knows what’s right. He wants what’s right. But he still can’t do it. There’s more to his actions than what he believes.
I think my life experience reflects this as well. I’ve gotten down on myself a lot in the past when I couldn’t reconcile my sin or the neglect of my relationship with God with my beliefs. I always thought to myself, wow, I must not *really* know God’s love, or *really* know God, if I’m still doing / not doing whatever. In my worst moments, I questioned my salvation. But no matter how hard I tried to really believe in God’s goodness, I kept falling short. From a Platonic viewpoint, this makes more sense to me now, and I’m less troubled by it. It’s not that I didn’t know, it’s that there were other influences at work in me.
I also feel like this better reflects what I see in others. Like, I know the worst advice you can give someone who’s suffering from depression is to just be happy, or remind them of why they should be happy, or whatever. In my experience, the problem is almost never about knowledge. They usually know what they have to be happy about. But no amount of thinking or reflection is going to magically get them out of their blues. Because their behavior is not about their knowledge.
Now that I’ve rejected that action reflects belief, I’ve totally changed how I approach things. I now think the solution is not about knowing more, reflecting more, *really believing* more. Instead, it’s about not letting the worse aspects of ourselves take control. Via accountability, community, putting ourselves in good situations.
That might seem contradictory, since my actions are changing as a result of believing differently. But it’s not that I don’t think that changing my beliefs can’t change my actions; they often do. I just don’t think that my actions always necessarily reflect my beliefs. And that’s a groundbreaking revelation for me.