What causes sin?

What causes sin?
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(Q. 75-78)

Nearly every good-natured unmarried brother has found himself, at some time or another, in the uncomfortable position of being left to mind an infant nephew or niece. It is a difficult position, for babies are mysterious creatures, particularly to unmarried brothers; if they could only speak up and ask for what they want instead of just sitting there howling! So the family comes home to find both the baby and its guardian exhausted. In front of the baby are piled up all the odds and ends a distracted mind could locate, like peace-offerings before the idol of an angry god; the guardian has sung songs, done tricks, made faces, poured out all his charm to no other end than the desperation of both the baby and himself. But two minutes after the family has returned, peace settles down on the house again.

Doctors are to be pitied on much the same grounds, though their difficulty does not come so much from the attempt to discover what the patient wants as from trying to uncover the things that he does not want. It must take a tremendous effort on the doctor’s part to look confident and undisturbed when he has not the remotest notion of what is wrong with the patient and yet evidently there is something very seriously wrong. Unless the doctor can find out what is wrong he is in as uncomfortable a position as the unmarried brother who could not find out what was right for the baby. And of course the patient is even more uncomfortable than the baby.

Watson, the founder of Behaviourism, once said: “Give me the baby”, meaning that he could then make the adult to order. Well he certainly got the baby. In fact all of modern philosophy has been left with the baby in its lap and the howls of discontent and unhappiness grow louder, more despairing, day by day. All the odds and ends that a distracted philosophic mind could think of have been piled in front of the baby, like peace-offerings before an angry god: philosophy has sung songs, dreamt dreams, done tricks, laughed and frowned, suggested and threatened, but still the baby is unhappy. We saw some of these philosophic antics earlier in this book: playing that men were machines, or that men were animals, that they were processes, or periods, or even commas; men have been offered riches, liberty, sensuality, oblivion, slavery, glory, power and despair. But still they are unhappy, still the howls of discontent make the walls of the world shudder. Modern philosophy cannot make men happy; it does not know where that happiness lies.

But the situation is much more desperate than this; it is not merely a question of humouring the baby. A patient is groaning in agony and the doctor has no notion of what is wrong with him; modern man is desperately unhappy, and his doctors do not know where to look for that unhappiness. All kinds of remedies have been tried. It was thought that inhibitions were at the root of the trouble, that religion was to blame, that men were not educated enough, amused enough, comfortable enough or healthy enough; one thing after another was amputated — the intellect, the will, then the sense appetites, but still the patient groans. And he will continue to groan. For just as modern philosophy is ignorant of the cause of man’s happiness, it is also tragically ignorant of the causes of his unhappiness.

Double root of modern discontent: Ignorance of cause of happiness

Our frowns at the clumsiness of modern philosophers are very much like the dagger-glances the mother throws at the worn-out guardian of her child. The answers seem so very simple to us. In the first chapter we saw what makes men happy, where alone happiness is to be found. In this chapter, beginning the investigation of the causes of man’s unhappiness, we will find the answers just as plain, as concrete, as solidly true as they were in that first chapter. Peace descends on the house again; or it would descend upon the house if these inexperienced guardians did not insist on pushing the knowing mother into a corner and continuing their attempts to placate the baby, utterly undiscouraged by the disastrous results so far achieved.

Ignorance of cause of unhappiness

The modern world never will discover where human happiness or unhappiness lies until it gives up the attempt to prove that men and women are not human. The unhappiness of human beings is not to be explained on the same grounds as is the wilting of a flower, or the misery of a shivering, half-starved puppy. There is vegetable life in man, there is animal life in man, and both of these can suffer adversity; but the whole point of human happiness is that there is human life in men and that human life can also suffer adversity. Of course that adversity is centred on the principles from which human ]life flows: it has to do with the intellect, the will, the soul of man. Quite simply, its name is sin .

An analysis of unhappiness — sin

This is the root of human unhappiness. Other things may make life unpleasant, uncomfortable, extraordinarily difficult, but not necessarily unhappy. We can find happi ness amidst the most abject poverty, in squalor, in sickness, in ignorance, in terrible physical fatigue, in back-breaking labour. But happiness is not to be found in the heart of a sinner. He may wear the mask of pleasure and carry an air of bravado about with him as a protection from the pity of others. But no one knows better than the priest that no great sinner needs to be urged to shame and remorse; that sinner has drunk deep of the cup of misery and knows well its bitterness.

Possible causes of sin

What brings this miserable unhappiness into being? What is the cause of sin? To answer this question is our work in this chapter, a work that will be completed in the following chapter. The answer is easy if we approach the problem in orderly fashion. In our first volume we learned something of God by looking closely at the world; we know that in our daily life we can get a good knowledge of a man by looking closely at his work. In the same way we can get a good idea of the cause of sin by looking closely at sin.

Proximate and immediate: intellect and will

The very first glance gives us an obvious clue. Sin is proper to man, and that means it is a distinctively human action. Here we are on familiar ground, for we have looked thoroughly into human action, particularly into human action’s principles of intellect and will and its all-important characteristic of control. Sin, like any other human action, is an act proceeding under a man’s controlled direction to a goal of his choosing. In this, sin is like every other human act: it belongs to the man producing it, it is his responsibility, his tool. But unlike every other human action, there is something the matter with sin, something wanting, some serious defect which places it below the level of other human acts. It is precisely this missing element, this defect, that is the formal constituent of sin; this is the real root of human unhappiness.

We might explain this defect of the act of sin by saying that sin is a human act going to the wrong goal; or by pointing out that it is an act which has strayed off the road mapped out by reason, it is a builder’s blunder as a result of disregarding the architect’s blue-print. What is lacking, then, is the direction to the right goal, the conformity to the rule, to the plans of reason.

A room might be nearly pitch dark at high noon simply because of unusually dirty windows. It would not be a complex matter to flood the room with sunlight by washing the windows, though it might not be an easy job. The room’s darkness is a defect, but not the same kind of defect as is found in sin. A room has no intrinsic claim to light, darkness is not a privation of something that belongs to a room by its very nature. It is a mere negation of light, a negation that can be corrected by simply removing the impediment of dirt from the windows. The defect of sin is more than a negation; the thing missing in sin actually should be there, it is a part of human action, without it sin stumbles along line a man deprived of his sight. We are not seeking here the cause of a negation, but the cause of a privation; no mere accident or impediment explains sin. There is something much more solid behind it.

Let us suppose a woman is in the flurry of last-minute preparation for a dinner. The guests are nearly due, so she takes ice cubes from the refrigerator and, in the confusion of giving three or four orders at once, she puts the ice cubes where they will not fall and can be easily found — on top of a hot oven. A few minutes later she turns to the ice cubes to discover in dismay that an essential element of ice cubes is missing; an ice cube should not be fluid. There is a real privation — not only for the ice cubes, but for the guests. What caused it? The fire of course. Still there have been fires burning for centuries before a single ice cube lost its solidity; certainly destruction of ice cubes is not the reason for the existence of fire. As far as the fire is concerned the result is entirely accidental. Fire has its own proper effect, but the accidental effect on the ice cubes is necessarily bound up with the natural action of fire, granted there are any ice cubes near the fire.

The same is universally true of the cause of privation as distinct from negation. Because a privation means the defect of what should be present, there must be some positive cause at the root of the privation; not that privation is directly produced by this cause, but rather this cause, producing its own effect, accidentally brings about the defect which is a privation of a due perfection. This is the case with sin. The defect of sin is not a mere negation, it is a privation of something that should be in a human act. It must be traced back to a positive cause, to the cause which in producing its own effect, brings about the inordinacy of sin. In other words, it must be traced back to the cause or causes producing the positive part of sin, the human action from which this ordination is missing; it must be traced back to the causes or principles of human action.

Remote: imagination and sense appetite

The causes of sin, then, are the causes of human action, causes with which we are thoroughly familiar whether they be the immediate and proximate principles from which these actions flow (intellect and will) or the more remote principles (senses, imagination and sense appetite). Putting it in another way will perhaps make clearer the part of each. In sin we have anapparent good inclining the appetite of man to action. The brick and mortar of this sin — the apparent good which is the motive of the whole action — is furnished by the senses and the imagination; the first inclination to this apparent good, by the sense appetite; the absence of regulation is due to the intellect where prudence should be alertly directing every action of man rightly. But so far we have nothing at all: an apparent good, an inclination that as yet has no morality, and no regulation or direction, for there is nothing to be directed. It is only when the will, the first principle of movement in man, gets in its work of motion to the positive act involved in sin that we have the sin present. As we have just said, the cause of the privation is the same as the cause of the positive side of the act of sin.

Sole sufficient cause: will

Right here enters the very human procedure of shifting responsibility to shoulders other than our own. If something goes wrong in a corporation, the investigators discharge the lowest clerk; if a battleship runs aground, the sailor with no one beneath him is cashiered. Adam started it by blaming Eve for his fall and she promptly laid the blame on the serpent. That is what our age has been trying to do with sin. We have passed the blame from intellect to sense appetite, to imagination, to the senses themselves; finally sin finds itself tossed into the lap of heredity, environment, or even the weather.

External: movers of senses

But it simply does not do in the case of sin. It did not do for Adam and Eve and it does not do for us. Actually we make ourselves a little ridiculous when we try to trace sin’s cause to the outside world. A glass of whisky does not ordinarily club a man into drinking it; it is only after he has taken it that it does any clubbing. In fact nothing necessarily moves the sense appetite unless that appetite is already disposed in that particular direction; a great deal of money and labour go into the making of a drunkard. Even if the senses were captivated immediately and necessarily, they are, after all, only the servants of reason and will, not giving the orders but taking them; and if they go to the impertinent heights of giving orders themselves, the humanity disappears from the action — neither the senses nor anything else is doing the steering, giving the orders, for there is no order, no direction, in the act.

Movers of reason

Much the same is true of the intellect. Unquestionably a man cannot tell himself the lawn does not need cutting when the evidence plainly says that it does, for the intellect cannot resist truth. But how often will such evidence result in the actual mowing of the lawn? No outside mover can force the intellect to the actual accomplishment of things. Of course the will, since it must be free to sin at all, free here and now, cannot be forced by anything external to itself to the action involved in sin. These are the principles from which sin flows: intellect, sense appetite and will. Any action brought to bear on them may be some inducement to sin, but only an inducement; the real cause of sin must be found within a man himself.

Other sins:

Such a conclusion immediately opens up the possibility of the cause of sin being sin itself. Certainly experience offers evidence enough that one sin leads to another, that once we start downhill the pace is rapidly accelerated; and sin is within man himself. What part does one sin play in causing another? It seems quite clear that by one sin we can and do remove the things that hold us back from other sins; the first murder is always the hardest, not because the next one is any easier but because the sinner himself is hardened through the diminishing of shame and the loss of grace. It is also true that sin, like any other human act, cuts a groove along which other sins of the same type run more easily, smoothly, pleasantly. One sin may act as the labourer bringing up the material necessary for other sins, as the miser prepares the material for sins of injustice. The swindler tells many a lie in order to accomplish his clever theft. But in none of these cases is a sin produced by a preceding sin; it is only made easier, more appealing. We are still left facing the unpleasant truth that sin must be traced back to the principles from which flow the acts that are wholly our own. Our task, then, is simple: which of these principles of a human act is the sole sufficient cause of the inordinacy which is sin — reason, sense appetite or will?


Intellect as a cause of and excuse for sin:
Ignorance as a cause of sin

The contribution of intellect to the perfection of human action is one of knowledge and intelligent direction based on that knowledge. Its part in sin, then, will be a part played by the contrary of knowledge, i.e. ignorance. Understand, of course, that not every lack of knowledge is ignorance; very few passengers on a transatlantic liner could navigate the ship, but they are not all ignorant, for ignorance is a lack of knowledge that should be had.

Not every kind of ignorance will do for sin; it must be that very particular kind of ignorance, an ignorance of that which, known in time, would prohibit the act of sin. A man might commit patricide either became he lacked the universal knowledge that patricide was wrong, or through lack of the particular knowledge that this man was his father; but in either ease, unless the ignorance entered into the act, the patricide would come about ignorantly but not from ignorance. Even when all the conditions are perfect for ignorance to get in its contribution to sin — where there is a defect of knowledge that should have been had, and this defect enters into the act itself — ignorance is still only an accidental cause of sin, a cause in the sense of removing the impediments to sin much as washing the dirt off the windows would be a cause of sunlight flooding a room. As a sufficient cause of sin, ignorance breaks down badly; we shall have to look to the senses and the will for the answer to the fundamental question with which we are dealing.

Ignorance as a sin

As long as we have granted ignorance this audition we might as well listen to its songs and see what it can do, even though we are already sure it cannot play the leading part. It cannot be the cause of sin, but perhaps it could be a sin; and here is a possibility that is positively intriguing. Submitting a sin to the powers of absolution, the Catholic has the sin completely destroyed; how convenient it would be if the ignorant Catholic could confess ignorance and by absolution have the ignorance destroyed, have knowledge poured into his head like water into a kettle! Nevertheless ignorance is a sin, but the absolution does not remove the ignorance but rather is directed against the negligence or malice which made this particular ignorance culpable. For patently not every ignorance is culpable; surely not that which cannot be overcome (invincible), nor even every ignorance that can be overcome, but only that which deprives us of a knowledge that we could and should have, like the lawyer’s ignorance of the law, or the doctor’s ignorance of medicine, or a professor’s ignorance of the subject he is teaching.

Ignorance as an excuse for sin: As a total excuse

As an excuse for sin, the capacities of ignorance are also limited. We could put this role of ignorance briefly by saying that ignorance excuses from sin in exact proportion as it destroys the voluntariness of the act of sin. So the man who shot his father thinking he was shooting a deer is certainly not guilty of patricide. If he did not know it was his father he was shooting but did know it was a man, he would be guilty of murder though not guilty of patricide. In both these cases the act of patricide was altogether involuntary. But if the hunter were a gangster who mistakenly shot a long-sought enemy thinking he was shooting a deer, then the ignorance would have nothing to do with the case at all; even if he knew better it would have made no difference in his action.

As a partial excuse, diminishing gravity

There are two rather distasteful conditions under which even the type of ignorance which renders an act involuntary does not excuse from sin. One is the case of affected or hypocritical ignorance, the kind of ignorance which makes us dodge knowledge for fear we will discover that this thing we are so in love with is sinful; the other is a lazy negligent ignorance by which a man does not know the very things he should, indeed must, know here and now. These are distasteful because they smack strongly of a cowardice that is totally unworthy of man, the cowardice that makes a man cringe from life, from the responsibilities of being human. It is a futile attempt to escape from reality into the world of make-believe and presence. And that is exactly why it does not excuse from sin; it does not really make this act involuntary, it just pretends to do so. Far back down the road up which this particular act travelled we will find the voluntariness trailing along, keeping far behind so as not to be identified with the act that here and now is begging pardon for itself on the grounds of ignorance. As a matter of fact the ignorance itself was willed .

A grasp of the validity of ignorance as an excuse for sin makes it easy to see the part ignorance plays in diminishing the gravity of sin. Evidently, the ignorance that totally excuses from sin, that totally destroys the voluntariness of the act of sin, also destroys the whole gravity of sin. Ignorance that is not the cause of the involuntary character of the act neither diminishes nor increases the gravity of sin. The ignorance that was willed directly in the voluntariness of the negligence which caused the ignorance does to some extent diminish the gravity of sin because it diminishes (though it does not destroy) the voluntariness and the contempt ordinarily involved in sin. But that hypocritical ignorance which is directly willed in order that we might sin more freely instead of diminishing the gravity of sin actually increases that gravity.

There is a point here worth noticing relative to the diminution of the gravity of sin through negligence. When we speak of the gravity of sin we are speaking of the evil of sin judged from the double viewpoint of the object of the sin and the malice of the sinner. Of course neither negligence nor anything else can change the objective, essential gravity which comes to a sin from its proper object; but the malice of the sinner can be affected, even though this lessening of malice results in an increased number of sins. So a motorist who has killed a person through negligence may not have committed as grave a sin as the assassin, but he may also have committed more sins in that one act than did the assassin.


Senses as a cause of and excuse for sin:
As a cause: Sense appetite as mover of the will; directly and indirectly

Coming back to our original. question of the cause of sin, we find there are only two candidates still claiming the dubious honour of principal cause of the unhappiness of man: the senses and the will. Of the two, the senses will lead in most popular balloting probably because of their vociferous demands for attention. Comparing the two, the senses seem to be in much the position of the unimportant cog in a political machine who struts about grandly informing his simple-minded constituents that he is dictating the policies of the governor. Really the comparison is quite exact; from the very nature of sin as a human action, an action proceeding from deliberate free will, it is self-evident that the senses cannot be the whole cause, in fact cannot be a cause at all except in so far as they influence the principles from which that deliberately free act flows. Like the petty politician’s influence on the governor, the influence of the senses on the intellect or will is decidedly indirect.

Certainly the senses cannot stroll up to the will and tell it what it must do; in fact nothing can do this. What they can do, all they can do, is indirectly to induce the will to follow their suggestion. It is a fact that when a man is intent on a problem good cooking is wasted on him; or when his energies are concentrated in one direction, his other powers are bound and gagged. As examples of this there are the injuries that go unnoticed in a football game; on a more heroic scale, the unperceived agonies of the martyr who is caught up in an ecstasy of love. It works as well the other way around: not only does a concentration of our mental powers dull the perception of the senses, but a concentration of the sense appetite, a vehement rush of passion, saps the strength of the will. More simply, our powers are rooted in the essence of the soul; when any one of them is vehemently pursuing its object the others have to wait their turn or take a minor part in whatever operations are going on at the time.

Indirectly, by impeding action of reason

This is one way the senses can influence the will. The other is by blocking the intellect thus leaving the will without intelligent protection, as putting a bandage over the eyes of a blind man’s dog leaves the blind man helpless, dependent on the leadership of anyone who comes along. In other words, the senses can sometimes impede the work of reason, and so influence the will. This impediment to reason may come about through the concentration of the powers of the soul in one direction, as we have explained about the distraction of the will; it may be a case of the soul being pulled in contrary directions by passion and reason; or it may be by a positive physical impediment to reason comparable to the impediment of sickness, sleep or drunkenness. It is almost literally true that a man in a violent fit of anger “sees red “, or at least that he is incapable of seeing anything else, perhaps of seeing anything at all.

The sinner’s syllogism

We can put this more concretely by saying that a man might know murder is wrong and even that his particular act is murder; but the rush of the sense appetite impedes him from using the knowledge he possesses. Commonly this impediment of the sense appetite hinders a man from applying this universal knowledge to a particular case. The sinner, like every other man proceeding to a human action, arrives at his decision to act in this particular way by a syllogism, or a train of reasoning following the rational form. But instead of arguing rationally from “revenge is wrong”, through “this act is revenge”, to the conclusion, “this act is wrong and to be avoided”, the sinner starts from a double principle. Side by side with the principle “revenge is wrong ” he has the principle “revenge is agreeable, a source of pleasure”. The rush of passion completely blocks the first; and the sinner goes on from the other to argue, “this act is revenge”, “therefore this act is agreeable and a source of pleasure, a thing to be done”. For it is always true that man must make all his acts wear the appearance of rationality, not only by way of protecting his own self-respect, but by way of protecting his own sanity.

This is the explanation of the pitiful cry of the sinner who says “I know I should not do this” but who nevertheless does it. He does know in an abstract, speculative way; but that knowledge is not allowed to proceed to the strict command or prohibition that would directly guide the action. In other words, the sense appetite swerving reason from its path is a sickness, a weakness that holds a man back: from producing results worthy of his manhood, as an infection in the eye would keep a man-from seeing with his usual clarity


The first principle of sin: inordinate love of self:
Conversion to creature

What is behind this rush of passion and its desperate attempt to cripple reason and sway the will, to rob the actions of a man of their humanity? The same thing that is behind every sin, the enthronement of ourselves. Here and now we want this desirable thing, we want it so badly that nothing else matters; that our desires be satisfied is more important than anything else, than any other consideration In other words, we have placed self-satisfaction at the top of our scale of values; we have loved ourselves above all else. Yet in effect we have thoroughly hated ourselves. For this is not the healthy self-love which leads a man to God and to happiness; but a self-love that involves contempt for God and by that very fact a contempt for ourselves, for it dedicates us to things beneath us, to trifling things that leave our hearts emptier than before.

Concupiscence of the eyes, of the flesh, and the pride of life

That is the root of sin, the ultimate to which all sins can be reduced. More immediate roots or sources of the sins flowing from the passions are given in St. John’s phrase “the concupiscence of the eyes, concupiscence of the flesh and the pride of life “: “of the flesh ” indicates sins of what we might call natural passion — gluttony, drunkenness, lust; “of the eyes” — those sins of passion following in the wake of sense knowledge, imagination, sins turning about money, clothes, glory; “pride of life” — sins flowing from the irascible or emergency passions, sins that have to do with fear, presumption, anger and the rest.


As an excuse for sin:
Partial excuse: antecedent and consequent passion

But whatever their immediate source, it is not hard to see what gravity the sins of passion have, to see how much of an excuse passion offers for sin. Evidently if I know some particular line of thought is going to make me very angry and I deliberately sit down and occupy myself with this train of thought, the flare of anger which follows does not offer an excuse for sin; it was itself deliberately willed, it is a sign of my complete willingness, and as a matter of fact by its intensity it sweeps aside all hindrances to that willingness. If I stamp on my own corn to arouse anger I have no excuse for what follows; but if someone else stamps on that corn very much against my will, I may have a very good excuse indeed. In fact there may be no sin at all if the rush of passion destroys my use of reason altogether, so that I am really blind with anger. But if it does not go so far as that, the sin is less grave in exact proportion as reason is deprived of its rightful command. As long as reason still has some command, it is possible to stem the flood of passion, diverting it, insisting on its obedience, refusing to give it the formal recognition of consent without which it cannot take its place within the august assembly of human acts.

Possibility of mortal sin of passion

Is it possible for a sin flowing from passion to be a mortal sin? Of course: of its very nature passion is not the enemy of reason and will but their servant; a servant that can also be sent on serious errands of sin.

The will as a cause of sin, never an excuse

Not reason, nor the senses are the sufficient cause of sin — there is only one possible answer remaining to the fundamental question we set ourselves to answer in this chapter; for there is only one other principle of human action to consider — the will of man. If we turn back to an earlier example we will find that the answer to that question was really contained in the question itself. The sufficient cause of the darkness in the room was the dirt of the windows — that was sufficient to account for a negation; but the fire was the sufficient, if accidental; cause of the melting of the fee cubes. This last was not a mere negation but a privation a defect of a perfection that should have been there. That is exactly the case in sin. It is not sufficient to point to ignorance or passion which might suffice to explain a mere negation; for the privation involved in sin we must go to a positive cause, a cause producing something directly, a cause whose effect accidentally causes this privation in sin. In other words, we must go to the cause of the positive element in sin, to the cause of the physical act of sin, to find the cause of the privation of sin. That cause is the will of man. If we are looking for the cause of the privation involved in theft, we must go to the cause responsible for the physical act of taking a wallet.

Sins of malice, ignorance, weakness

The will is the sufficient cause of sin, for it is the only direct positive cause involved in that human act of sinning. The malice of a sin, then, is directly traceable to the part played by the will in that sin; the sin is more malicious as the will plays the greater role. Where the intellect plays the greater part we have a sin of ignorance, for that is the intellect’s contribution to sin; where passion has most of the lines, we have a sin of weakness, for that is passion’s contribution to sin; but where the leading man is will we have a sin of malice — malice is the will’s contribution to sin. It is true enough that in most sins there is some ignorance, some weakness; always there is malice or there can be no sin. It is a question of which plays the leading part; to say that one or the other enters into the sin is no more than repeating the evident though shocking truth that sin is itself a corruption, its brightness, like the flush of fever, proceeding from corruption and leading to an even more serious corruption. For the very fact of sin presupposes corruption in the intellect, in the sense appetite, and always in the will.

Sins from will

Where the will chooses sin without the rush of passion or the fog of ignorance entering largely into the choice we have what is called a sin of malice; the same type of sinning is variously described as “sinning from industry”, “knowingly choosing evil”. Not that there is not choice in every sin, but rather that not every sin proceeds principally from the choice of the will. It may seem difficult to understand how the will, made to search out good and pursue it to the heights of divine good, can deliberately turn aside to evil; the answer is not so difficult though there must always be something obscure about sin — it always remains “the mystery of iniquity”. There are just two ways in which this mystery can be accomplished: by a corruption that makes the evil particularly appealing, even similar to the desires of the will, much as an eye infection will make light unpleasant and darkness agreeable; or by the removal of the things that keep us from sinning, the impediments to evil choice — hope of eternal reward, fear of hell, shame, etc.

Sins from habit

Doing away with the impediments is like taking the sign “explosive” from a box of dynamite, for those impediments make evil stand out in all its hideousness. The corruption involved in a sin of malice is a more subtle and therefore more dangerous thing. It may be a physical corruption, like sickness or positive physical inclination, that makes this evil thing appeal to us so much; or, as is more usual, it may be the corruption of habit. The work of habit is to make our actions easier, more pleasant, second nature to us; and if those habits be bad habits, they make evil actions easier, more pleasant, more a part of our nature, with something like the appeal that nature itself has; something like the spontaneous response of will to nature is found in will’s response to habit.

Comparison with sins of passion

All other things being equal, a sin of malice is much more grave than a sin of passion precisely because there is more of the will in it, and the formal gravity of sin is a matter of the deliberate will to sin. This is the fundamental explanation of the easy and deep remorse of the passionate sinner as contrasted with the stiff-necked stubbornness of the sinner from malice. The victim of passion has really sinned half-heartedly, his whole will was not in it and he comes stumbling breathless back to God as soon as passion has subsided. We might say the passionate sinner has really been interrupted in his pursuit of God and hurries to take up that pursuit after the unfortunate interruption. But the malicious sinner is a whole-hearted sinner, he does not find it easy to come back, he has not been interrupted in the pursuit of God but rather he has deliberately taken after another quarry. If that sin of malice be from the corruption of habit, it has a permanency about it that only the grace of God and a heroic human heart can prevent enduring through the eternity of hell.

Conclusion: Root cause of unhappiness — bad will

This, then, is the sole sufficient cause of sin, the bad will of man. This is the root of human unhappiness, as distinct from the adversity of the plant or the brute, the malicious will of man knowingly choosing a temporal good that brings with it spiritual ruin. This is what is the matter with the baby left in the lap of modern philosophy, this is the trouble with the patient groaning while helpless doctors look on and speculate. Remove this and you will find human happiness wherever you find human hearts: in the poor, in the ignorant, in the sick, in the wealthy, in the learned, in men, women and children. For human happiness is no surface decoration to be snatched away by any passing wind of illness, misfortune, poverty or wealth; it is a treasure buried deep, as deep as the soul of man. It is locked up in the human heart, a treasure-room inviolable against any attack of any agency, a strongroom where only the master of the house or those to whom he has given the key may enter. It can be plundered only by its owner, squandered only by the man to whom it belongs.

How far wide of the mark we have gone in our times searching for remedies for the unhappiness of man! We have piled up gifts before man like peace-offerings before the idol of an angry god, remotely hoping that some one or the other would please him. On the positive side we have talked of better housing, better food, more education, more culture, more leisure, more health — all of them good; but was it not evident from the first that thousands of men and women who had all of these things were desperately unhappy? So we went to the negative side, saying it was not something that men lacked, but something they already had which was making them unhappy. We took away the notion of sin, of God, of a soul, of a free will, even of an intellect; we took away all restraint from the passions, all responsibility from actions, all meaning from life. And was man more happy? God alone will ever know how much damage was done to humanity; only the men and women who were the victims can say what a bitter, despairing drink we made of unhappiness. We failed, utterly, miserably. And we will continue to fail until we are willing to face the awful but inspiring truth that the will of man is the sole sufficient cause of the unhappiness of man: awful because it puts the responsibility directly into our hands; inspiring because it puts the destruction of unhappiness within our power.

Modern remedies for unhappiness

The remedy for unhappiness is good will — not in the pietistic sense of a revival meeting; but in the solidly human sense of a will that is pursuing its proper goal, striding along the road of reason to the goal of reason and tasting at every step something of the invigorating happiness of the goal, as a man approaching the sea will smell and feel the tang of it while still miles away.

Norm of good will

This good will is not something mysterious, esoteric; it is not something about which we wonder whether or not we have it; it is not something that claps us on the head like a falling brick. Any man by a few moment’s thought can immediately determine whether or not he has good will; it takes only an examination of conscience, a perusal of the Ten Commandments and an application of than to our actions. For if our will be good, our actions will be good; and our actions are good or bad as they measure up or fail to measure up to the Ten Commandments. Or, in more philosophical language, our actions flow from our will and they are good or bad according as they move to our goal or away from it. The Ten Commandments express the minimum of goodness demanded for “good will”.

Means to good will

How is this priceless boon of good will, this foundation of human happiness, acquired? Again there is no hocuspocus. It is simply a case of living up to the demands of reason, to the demands of our humanity, living the life of virtue. It is brought about by just those means the Catholic uses to insure the observance of the Ten Commandments: by doing what he can in building up the good habits or virtues, attacking, rooting out, avoiding the bad habits or vices; and for what he cannot do, calling upon the One Who can give him what he lacks — by prayer, the sacraments and all the supernatural equipment God has so graciously put at our disposal.

Good will and happiness

It was most fitting that the message of the angels, “peace to men of good will”, should have been delivered to ignorant shepherds. It should have shocked us into the realization that good will is independent of the circumstances of life; that good will is the ultimate foundation for peace even in this life of ours For where can there be peace where there is no happiness; and where can there be happiness without the cause of happiness? Of course God would not put us at the mercy of circumstances which for the most part are out of our control; if human happiness was important enough to the divinity to warrant Calvary’s sacrifice, it was something intended for every man, put within the grasp of every man, independent of the world he lived in, independent of the activities of other men, of devils, even of angels. It was to flow from the good will of the individual man.


  • Reply July 28, 2019

    Varnel Watson

    asked and answered Isara Mo Joe Absher

  • Reply July 28, 2019

    Isara Mo

    I have glimpsed the reasons and havent a sound one…honestly.
    The author uses logic to try to explain causes for sin and am not convinced of his answers…

  • Reply July 28, 2019

    Varnel Watson

    Isara Mo I just read what Gerald R Smith said

    Excess is the root cause of sin–comes from within.

    and I disagree strongly Sin came to man kind from without Man was not created with sin or in sin by God That would have been absurd

  • Reply July 28, 2019

    Gerald R Smith

    Troy Day, consider: Sin first manifest itself in heaven. Since God cannot/will not condone sin, there would have been no outward source of sin to influence Satan to commit sin. I’d appreciate your input.

    • Reply July 29, 2019

      Varnel Watson

      desire? James 1:14

    • Reply July 30, 2019

      Isara Mo

      Gerald R Smith
      Scriptures say “Satan (Lucifer..?) said in his heart…I will.be like the Most High…”
      Troy says ” desire” and I concur because desire resides in the heart..
      So the original sinner or the first causative agent of sin kind of generated IT within himself….so it seems
      But If I study the scriptures closely I would conclude that sin had an OUTWARDLY generated source: if Satan was created blind and didnt see the glory of God he wouldnt have SEEN the glory of God and he wouldnt have DESIRED to be like the Most High..
      The Bible says when Eve SAW the tree was DESIRABLE….
      James speaks of desires as causative…
      John talks of the lust of the flesh..the lust of eyes(two different LUSTS..two different DESIRES..
      Desires are activated by senses…
      Troy can a blind man lust after a woman…
      The answer is possibly yes, the blind man doesnt have eyes to commit a sin but he has the flesh…the lust of the flesh..

  • Reply July 28, 2019

    Gerald R Smith

    Troy, part of what Satan promised Adam & Eve was the same thing that got him kicked out of heaven-pride and covetousness was in the mix–wanting to be, to have, and to be equal to God.

  • Reply July 30, 2019

    Varnel Watson

    did you figure it out yet Isara Mo ?

    • Reply July 30, 2019

      Isara Mo

      Troy Day
      Up to now I have more than 27 DIFFERENT ANSWERS to the question from people professing the same faith, same Bible, same Holy Spirit..
      Just shows you how complex sin is…

    • Reply July 30, 2019

      Varnel Watson

      Isara Mo 27 DIFFERENT ANSWERS ? DO SHARE – shoulnt there be just ONE?

    • Reply July 30, 2019

      Isara Mo

      Troy Day
      If we ask ALL who have attended class one what is the total sum of 1 plus 1 you will have an invariable answer of 2….from ALL unless one choses to be difficult like you Troy Day.

    • Reply July 31, 2019

      Varnel Watson

      Isara Mo so which one is your most valid answer ?

    • Reply August 1, 2019

      Isara Mo

      Troy Day
      Has the Teacher given an answer?..
      We are ALL disciples or we are supposed to be discples..of Jesus.
      We have been given a Teacher who has ALL the answers..
      The 27 answers shows the limitations of our understanding mine included….so the MOST VALID answer can be all but the most correct answer not yet given…

  • Reply July 31, 2019

    Varnel Watson

    whats yalls take Joe Absher Philip Williams

  • Reply August 1, 2019

    Joe Absher

    Sometimes a man is enticed.
    Sometimes he does the enticing.

    • Reply August 2, 2019

      Isara Mo

      Joe Absher
      When Cain became angry God told him ” sin is at the door DESIRING you…bit if you DO RIGHT….
      A few moments later he went on to kill his brother

  • Reply August 2, 2019

    Varnel Watson

    Joe Absher Isara Mo and sometimes a sin is just a sin

  • Reply August 6, 2019

    Charles Page

    isn’t the Bible clear with sin originating with the first Adam? Are there coflicting scriptures?

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