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How to Help People Change, Part I

What Plato and Augustine Have to Say About How Change Happens

Heraclitus (in)famously claimed that all is flux; that change is the only constant. Excluding the Triune, Infinite Being, there is plausibility to the more limited claim that all finite beings are flux, that change is a constant. The frail, clumsy body of a child grows into the strong, supple one of an adult. Even the soul of man grows out of infancy into maturity, out of frailty into fortitude, graced by wisdom and virtue. It would seem that, granting this constancy of change is true and has been since Creation, people would have a good idea of how change happens, what makes for good change or bad, and would have produced a structure of change adequate to the task of shaping man into his full measure. As universal as change is, universal too is the realization that man has a problem with change. Change is as unwieldy as the wind; as unstable as the stormy sea; as fearsome as a raging fire.

Plato believed that men fail to change for the Good because of an abiding ignorance of what is the Good. Augustine agreed with Plato, to a point. All teachers do, for otherwise we wouldn’t labor to discover and dispose truth. At the same time, Augustine argued that philosophers like Plato missed a more fundamental problem; the problem of the will. Plato thought that if men knew the truth, they would want to be in conformity with it, for its beauty would draw them inevitably to its Goodness. In his inability to understand the personality of truth, however, Plato could not adequately acknowledge man’s willful resistance to the beauty and goodness of truth.

Augustine not only recognized that truth is dispensed personally, imparted to the soul of man by the Son of God, but that men could desire what is ugly and evil rather than the beauty and goodness given by Jesus Christ. Additionally, though men could desire the ugly and the evil rather than the beautiful and the good, they could not escape their own ontology—they are fashioned beautiful and good according to an eternal design, that they must live by transcendent truth even in those moments when their desires are for a passing lie.

What man loves, what he wants, what he wills after — this is what orients man’s change. The recognition that man’s love is what orients him to change (whether good or bad, beautiful or ugly) does not complete the circle of Augustine’s position, however. Isn’t it true, one might say, that there are as many different loves as there are persons? In a sense this assertion is correct, since tastes vary indefinitely according to person, place, time, and circumstance.

But the assertion misses the forest for the trees.

At the root of the manifold branches of man’s desire is his teleology, or final purpose. All of the multitudinous desires one may pursue are sought upon some basic purpose, some inherently structured end for which the desire serves. The end need not be complex; indeed, it usually (maybe always) isn’t. “Why do you go out to the beach at sunset?” does not require an answer like, “because the refractions of light produced by the sun’s position and the atmospheric conditions of the earth produce colors that are specially complimentary to an oceanic horizon.” One could as easily say, “I think it is beautiful,” or even, more simply, “It pleases me well.” The point is that desires aim at something, even when the something isn’t conscious to the mind; desires are imbued with the quality of “being-for”.

Herein lies the arc that completes Augustine’s circle.

Man is a creature, made by a Maker greater than he. The maker of a made thing determines the end for which it is made, so the Maker of man determines his end. Augustine’s famous opening claim from Confessions perfectly exhibits the Christian idea the purposiveness of man’s desire: God made man for Himself, and man’s heart is restless until it finds repose in God. Given this singularity of purpose, there is a true dilemma in the structure of desire, and therefore in the structure of change. Whereas man’s given purpose is being-for-God, his will chooses “yea and amen” or “may it never be” with respect to that end.

Proverbs 8:36 underscores the ontology and ethics of this fundamental desire: He who sins against Wisdom wrongs his own soul, and all who hate Wisdom, love death. “Hate” and “love” here are not bodily emotions, but the orientation of fundamental desire. To love God is to be what man is made to be, but to hate God (and love one’s own end) is to love death (for Augustine, non-being itself!).

In order for anyone to change from the way of death to the way of life, then, requires more than an understanding of what is declared true, good, or beautiful according to God (whether from Revelation, or from Plato, or from Augustine, or any other mouthpiece of the transcendentals of God’s personality). It requires a change of heart, a reorientation of the will, a conversion of desire.

As teachers who seek to orient students toward the true, the good, and the beautiful, we do well to remember the necessity of such a conversion in the lives of our students, even where we may disagree about how best to serve in bringing about that conversion. For those students whose desires have been converted, who are oriented toward God (however shakily or firmly), there is change that results from conversion that is ongoing, and can be fostered in wisdom or foolishness.

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