Sense and Nonsense: Responsibility for Our Souls

Voiced by Amazon Polly

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.

By

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).

Crisis Magazine Comments Policy

This is a Catholic forum. As such:

  1. All comments must directly address the article. “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter.” (Matthew 12:36)
  2. No profanity, ad hominems, hot tempers, or racial or religious invectives. “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
  3. We will not tolerate heresy, calumny, or attacks upon our Holy Mother Church or Holy Father. “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
  4. Keep it brief. No lengthy rants or block quotes. “For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)
  5. If you see a comment that doesn’t meet our standards, please flag it so a moderator may remove it. “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” (Galatians 6:1)
  6. All comments may be removed at the moderators’ discretion. “But of that day and hour no one knows…” (Matthew 24:36)
  7. Crisis isn’t responsible for the content of the comments box. Comments do not represent the views of Crisis magazine, its editors, authors, or publishers. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God… So each of us shall give account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:10, 12)
MENU