Lovely thoughts came flying to meet me like birds. They weren’t my thoughts. I couldn’t think anything half so exquisite. They came from somewhere.
(Lucy Maud Montgomery, Emily Climbs)
…the war which the demons wage against us by means of thoughts is more severe than the war they wage by means of material things.
(St Maximos the Confessor, First Century on Love, 91)
Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unjust man his thoughts, and let him return to the Lord
I think a lot about thoughts which is not the same thing as having a lot of thoughts about thinking. The difference, as I see it, is this; thinking is a process, it is consecutive, beginning at a determinate point and building in a sequence from that point onwards, a thought is not a process it is an event. Thinking, moreover, is an internal process, it begins and ends in that part of the conscious mind capable of verbal formulation, thoughts, by contrast, although they may end in the same part of the mind as thinking do not always, or even perhaps often, start from there.
For literally thousands of years across a wide variety of cultures it was a truth universally acknowledged that everyone would have thoughts which were not generated by anything which could reasonably be termed their ‘self.’ That is, the person who conscientiously goes through life trying as best they can to fulfil the duties of the moment is not necessarily the being or thing which generates all the thoughts which cross their mind. From very ancient times it was thought in Greece, for example, that daemons, a kind of spiritual being which is midway between a human and a god, whispered suggestions into the minds of men (male and female.) Though subsequent popular lore modified the idea of ‘demons’ into purely malevolent creatures that was not the original idea and the Christians developed this Greek notion through the belief that good angels and fallen angels each accompanied humans and tried to lead them into virtue and vice respectively by means of thoughts which they, as it were, injected from outside.
A careful division was made, however, between the existence of a thought and a decision to act. Wherever an individual thought might come from the transition from that event to the further event of an action required an intermediate stage namely the self, the conscious mind, making a deliberate and considered decision to act upon that thought. Which is to say a person couldn’t legitimately blame daemons for what they did only for what they thought. Or, more precisely, only for some of the thoughts which flitted across the by no means blank screen of the mind.
This theoretical framework acted as a satisfactory explanation for so many centuries because it succeeded well in the task of describing a reality with which all people were familiar in their most intimate mental processes. Which is to say it was a story that explained to people something which they either already knew or were capable of knowing if they spent enough time reflecting introspectively on their own mental processes. However, this belief system began to break down in eighteenth century Europe as a result of the developments which we now refer to as the Enlightenment. Scientific and technological discoveries and innovations tended to elevate two principles, namely that of Materialism, everything without exception in the cosmos was composed of matter, and Reason, humans were rational, reason-governed creatures. Both of these ideas militated against the daemon theory.
The model which the new approach proposed was that humans made rational decisions to act and, provided that they were well informed, their decisions would be the optimal ones which most accorded with reason. Only ignorance or misinformation could explain poor decision making. Irrational passions certainly existed but only held sway where people deliberately chose to allow them to do so. So, for example, in the recent public discourse anent sexual harassment at work prompted by the #MeToo movement people on social media could accumulate credit and virtue points if they said ‘the quickest way to end sexual assault in the workplace is for men to stop behaving like jerks.’ This is undoubtedly true but unhelpful unless a path towards how to stop behaving like a jerk is indicated. But the current model denies the need for such a path because it supposes that the default norm for humans is reason-guided behaviour and that to depart from that model requires not only a conscious act-of-the-will by a person but a deliberate cultivation of perverse thought patterns. Not-abusing is, supposedly, the ‘natural’ state of man and abusing is an artificial, deliberate variation on nature.
Unlike the daemon model though the modern approach does not satisfactorily explain humans to themselves because we know that not all of our own thoughts are generated by our self-aware, verbalising consciousness. Some of them just appear, and often the ones we least desire persist in appearing in a wide variety of guises against our will and over long periods of time, sometimes a whole lifetime indeed. Because of the unsatisfactory nature of the materialist/rationalist approach it was found necessary to invent or, if you prefer, discover, the realm of the unconscious, which provides us with another story which seeks to describe us to ourselves. It is more satisfactory than the approach it seeks to supplant but because its proponents necessarily sought to frame it in purely rationalist purely materialist terms it lacks a metaphysical dimension, it still presupposes that ultimately the only tool capable of defeating unreason is consciously formulated reason. It acknowledges, that is, that to stop being a jerk can be a challenge but if one repeats the reasonable arguments against jerkness often enough then they will succeed and, moreover, if that doesn’t work then nothing else will.
The quote from Isaiah at the top of the page, however, suggests another possible strategy, namely a ‘return to the Lord.’ Or St Peter suggests this ‘Keep your minds calm and sober, for prayer. Above all, let your love for one another be sincere, for love covers a multitude of sins.’ (1 Peter 4:7-8) The thoughts which come into our mind will not be stopped by the use of reason alone because reason operates in one part of the mind and the thoughts originate from somewhere else. They need to be counterbalanced by something equal but opposite, insofar as we adjudge the thoughts to be harmful, or they need to be reinforced by something harmonious with them, insofar as we judge them to be beneficial. Love and faith are two such counterbalancing and reinforcing forces, mindfulness is another. Why is this so? Because these are things which also emerge from somewhere beyond the place where we do our deliberative thinking. That ‘somewhere’ may be the same place as our thoughts, the unconscious, or it may be another place, some non-material realm unknown to modern science, but the point is we do not generate love or faith or mindfulness we accept them and work with them (or reject them, or ignore them, or deny that they exist.)
The mind is not just the place where a process of reasoning occurs it is also a battlefield. Thoughts which appear within that mind from some otherwhere are not merely words or pictures they are impulses, that is more or less powerful forces, which are clothed in the form of sentences, phrases or images. They invite us to act and whether this invitation comes from malevolent demons or from our dark unconscious the action they invite us to is not always one which our reason would approve of, but it might be also that the power of the impulse is a stronger thing than the power of our naked reason. And so we act like jerks or worse.
The answer to uninvited power which comes into the domain of mind is not an ‘ourselves alone’ battle against it but rather an invitation to other powers to come into our mind to fight as allied forces alongside our reason. The pre-Enlightenment world found such powers in faith, love, hope, mindfulness and the post-Enlightenment world having abandoned these things has not found anything better to replace them. And so if we want to win the battles we fight against our own unhelpful demons (or assist the suggestions of our friendly daemons) then perhaps we could make good use of the pre-Enlightenment tools of prayer, meditation, contemplation, mindfulness and a close study of the lives and beliefs of the saints and sages who have preceded us and proven victorious in the battles which we have yet to successfully complete.
(NB some parallel points to this can be found in my earlier post Sex Abuse & Belief Systems)
thoughtfully detached has a Facebook page.
My *other* blog is thoughtfully catholic.
The picture is a detail from the reverse side of the Isenheim Altarpiece.