Augustine points out—and this seems especially relevant to your dilemma—that the most insidious temptations are those that we cannot completely banish from our lives. We need food, of course, for our health and survival. But there is a fine line between nourishment and gluttony, and our weaker nature can exploit this ambiguity. In the face of these uncertain cases, “the wretched soul cheers up and marshals excuses in its own defense,” he writes. The internet is yet another gray zone where virtue bleeds seamlessly into vice. We need it to do our work, perform our duties, and stay informed, and it is all too easy to rationalize our addictive impulses with these more noble motivations.
But to return to the main question: What, ultimately, is the point of such struggles? For Augustine and Paul, temptation belonged to the moral drama of the Christian life; their trials were opportunities to grow closer to God and reap rewards in the afterlife. For those of us, on the other hand, who are simply trying to do our jobs and get through the day, self-opposition seems entirely worthless. It’s even hard to understand, from our modern point of view, what it means to have conflicting desires.For those of us who are strict materialists, it makes little sense to speak in dualistic terms—and yet, in daily life, it often feels as though the body escapes the control of the mind, that the flesh is at war with the spirit.
Contemporary philosophers tend to account for warring impulses in terms of first- and second-order desires. First-order desires are motivated by impulse, appetite, and instinct, whereas second-order desires involve something quite different: the desire to want to desire something different, or to be rid of a given desire. As the philosopher Harry Frankfurt argues, second-order desires are a uniquely human phenomenon. Other animals are moved by instinct and impulse, but they do not reflect on their desires or wish they could change them. (Nor, I might add, do machines. The app that is designed to stop you from accessing Twitter might be said to have certain “goals” or “objectives,” but it does not trouble itself with whether these are worthwhile. It does what it’s programmed to do.)
One might conclude, with this in mind, that we are at our most human when we struggle against ourselves. Perhaps battles of the will do have intrinsic value, in that they are the fullest expression of our essential nature. They belong to a distinctly human song, echoing down through the ages, a chorus that includes Paul and Augustine and all the other divided souls who have lamented their self-alienation. One might further conclude that our very capacity to form higher-order desires means we have the ability to control our destiny, that we can perfect ourselves through discipline. But I would actually caution against this second conclusion.
Much of Augustine’s writing was intended to dramatize the futility of perfecting the will. He was writing during a time when Christianity was divided over what is now called the “Pelagian controversy,” named after a sect who believed in the unqualified power of the will and taught that it was possible to live a morally blameless life. According to the Pelagians, if you found yourself struggling with temptation, you needed to toughen up, draw on your inner resources, and try harder. It is a recognizable impulse, and indeed, many Pelagian-like doctrines still abound today—in corporate self-help books that warn against “limiting beliefs,” for example, or the resurgent Stoicism that has driven Silicon Valley CEOs to submit themselves to ice baths, silent retreats, and weeklong fasts to prove their inner fortitude.
Augustine did not believe such perfection was within humanity’s power. He is, after all, the theologian who solidified the doctrine of Original Sin, the notion that humans cannot, despite their best efforts, attain the self-mastery they desire. Contra the Pelagians, he insisted that humans were completely dependent upon God to remove the feeling of temptation. It was only through the free gift of divine grace that we could obtain the strength to overcome such vices, which required not the exercise of the will, but the willingness to surrender it.