Sense and Nonsense: Responsibility for Our Souls

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In The Solzhenitsyn Reader, there is a 1974 essay titled “Repentance and Self-Limitation in the Life of Nations.” In it, the Russian philosopher remarks: “Man’s hope, salvation, and punishment lie in this, that we are capable of change, and that we ourselves, not our birth or our environment, are responsible for our souls!” Solzhenitsyn here identifies himself with the Platonic and Christian notion of free will. Rejected is the idea from at least the time of Rousseau that our environment or our civilization establishes what we call good and evil.

If we say that our hope, salvation, and punishment are rooted in our wills, as St. Augustine taught, we do not intend thereby to deny our need for grace. Our wills do not themselves formulate what is hope, salvation, or punishment. Rather, having insight into what they are, as already given from outside of ourselves, we choose to accept them or not. In such choices lies the drama of our existence, occurring in all souls regardless of time or place, of polity or economic condition; of whether we are male or female, Jew or Gentile, learned or dull.

What is striking in Solzhenitsyn’s sentence is the juxtaposing of hope, salvation, and punishment. None of these, evidently, is achieved without the participation of our own souls. Elaborate philosophic and psychological screens work to prevent us from properly locating responsibility in ourselves. Oftentimes, forces seem to be at work in the world whose main purpose is to prevent us from understanding ourselves and our destiny.

But what does hope have to do with our free will? If we acknowledge no transcendent purpose open to us, we take the first step in locking ourselves solely within our own concepts of good and evil. Thinking there can be no other source, we end up claiming our own omnipotence.


What is the relation of salvation to our free will? The latter is the very condition of the former. Salvation—what we would really want if we could have it—has many proposals put before us. The only one that really makes sense is the one that includes a free-will component in its very description. We are made for a transcendent good that is given to us. We do not constitute it. We are offered it but only on the condition that we trust in what is given to us.

Punishment follows from our freedom. The main punishment that we receive both in this life and in eternity is that we permanently live with our choices. Volumes have been written chastising God for “threatening” us with punishment if we do not, say, obey the commandments. Yet, what the Ten Commandments and the two great commandments really do is not punish us, but prevent us from being self-punished. Obedience to commandments is not a punishment, but a freedom to do what we would want to do—if we only look at what is at stake in their observance and in their violation. No more terrible punishment can be imagined than the one we give ourselves when we concoct and choose a definition of the world that is not that which caused us to be in the first place.

We are capable of change.” “We ourselves are responsible for our souls.” Imagine the opposite: We are not capable of change; we are not responsible for our souls. Change is determined. What happens to us is always someone (or something) else’s fault or responsibility. Punishment is always unjust because we are never responsible for what we do.

We do not ourselves cause what is to be. We are not the objects of our own hope, but we are its subjects. We do not establish what our destiny is, but we do receive it.

The glory of the universe is that free beings exist within it. Without these latter, without their responsibility for their own choices, there would be no universe in the first place.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).

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