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By Benedict Augustine
“But thanks be to God that, although you were once slaves of sin,
you have become obedient from the heart
to the pattern of teaching to which you were entrusted.
Freed from sin, you have become slaves of righteousness.”
Some people like to confess that they suffer from an “addictive personality.” Like their forefathers, they often find themselves lost in some pleasure like gambling, or alcohol, or drugs. Calling an otherwise pedestrian vice some kind of hereditary holdover or some psychological determinant might take away some of the badness, but it unfortunately does not remove it. Whatever his personality might be, an addict is still an addict.
Of course, in an age that fosters so many pleasures, quite a few of which are innocuously deemed “guiltless,” one might ask, “What is so bad about addiction?” Pretty much everyone is an addict in some way, but for many, it is the law or biology that determines which addictions are acceptable or not. This means that drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol are obviously bad since they often do harm to the body. The evils of other addictions do not stand out so easily. Do they even count?
What does one make of addictions to pornography, videogames, Netflix, social media, smartphones, or shopping? Something might be said about the psychological or relational damage they might inflict, but people smooth this over by preaching simple moderation. However, these pleasures hardly admit any kind of moderation, as any person who has tried to kick the habit can attest. Looking at pornography might seem moderate enough, except when a man tries quit it completely. A woman may not look at her phone “all the time” like her other friends, but she would feel utterly helpless if she left her phone at home one day. A teenager might binge on Netflix in the lazy days of summer, thinking little of it, until they find themselves academically handicapped when they return to school. If one is not careful, these addictions fasten themselves into a person’s consciousness and worm their way into the daily routine.
Besides preaching a hopeful gospel of the Resurrection to the rich and poor alike, the Christian apostles made inroads with their audiences through the abundance of common sense, particularly about addiction, that could sometimes make the great Greek philosophers look downright silly. Plato and Aristotle spoke a great deal of morality and ethics, along with the Stoics and Epicureans who followed,and would develop complex theories of balancing the passions, perfecting virtues, moderating the appetite, and developing a disciplined routine through the application of a purified intellect. While the early Christians politely acknowledged these contributions, they could cut to the problem quite easily. They knew people could only serve one master, and if this master was not the Creator, it had to be some kind of creature, which in turn made the people slaves.
In other words, Paul and other disciples understood that people suffer helplessly from one addiction or another. They do not appreciate thingsdisinterestedly; they fall headlong into a vice and become consumed with it. And, contrary to the wise words of Plotinus, Zeno, or Lucretius, they cannot simply pull themselves out of it with a thorough course in philosophy. Rather, they need the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Nothing less will do.
For this reason, even the best of the philosophers could not shake off an addiction. They simply traded away a carnal addiction for a spiritual one, but it was an addiction all the same. Socrates could easily pass on the drinking and carousing of his young pupils—in most cases, anyway—but he could not pass on exalting himself, his mode of life. In all of Plato’s dialogue, Socrates proves that he is addicted to himself, or more properly, the idea of himself. For all his false humility, he is a slave to his ego, a slave to his ideas. Most intellectuals suffer from this. If one were to ask this type of person to give up preaching their ideas, as they asked Socrates to do, they would, like Socrates, rather choose death.
St. Augustine knew this truth well. In his Confessions, he recounts his plunge into all levels of addictions: first, carnal ones; second, social ones; and third, spiritual ones. After some soul-searching and some miserable experiences teaching—it seems that Roman and Carthaginian teachers dealt with many of the same problems as those of teachers today—he rid himself of the spiritual and social addictions. However, he struggled badly with the carnal addictions up until his conversion.
Oddly enough, it was a passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans that led to his conversion. He heard a voice in the forest crying “Tolle lege! (take and read!)”and opened up the Bible to the verse that condemned fornication. He broke down and cried at this moment because he realized that all his reasons—and, being the genius that he was, he had many—signified absolutely nothing. He was a slave, and he needed the good master.
It is telling that when modern people read St. Augustine’s work today, many find him unnecessarilyharsh about sin and addictions. The devil’s monotonous temptation, “you will be like gods!” continues unabated as human beings, Christian and non-Christian, wrestle with the allures of the Information Age. I even remember an issue of TheAtlantic declaring that the iPhone has effectively defeated temptation by providing so many apps that can regulate a person’s behavior. Curiously, the world remains entranced by addiction despite such innovations.
Only one master exists that can save man from the addiction: Jesus Christ. One may still choose to be slave, foolishly hoping the thing that enslaves them might someday liberate them. Or one might come to their senses, take up Paul’s words (tolle lege!), and serve a new master who will make him a son, not a slave.