“I sighed after such freedom, but was bound not by an iron imposed by anyone else but by the iron of my own choice. The enemy had a grip on my will and so made a chain for me to hold me prisoner.” -Augustine, Confessions VIII.v
My girlfriend and I have been slowly reading The Magician’s Nephew aloud to one another this summer, and yesterday as we read I was struck by Lewis’ narrative unfolding of the principle Augustine discusses above, in the agonizing pages immediately prior to his conversion. In The Magician’s Nephew, the main character, Digory Kirke, has an uncle who is a magician. Uncle Andrew is not a particularly great or wise magician--rather he is a petty, grasping man who manipulates others into doing what he wants. He is, as Lewis describes him, “terribly practical”: incapable of seeing people as anything other than means to his own ends.
The characters in the story--Digory, Uncle Andrew, a wicked Witch, and some others--travel by magic into the land of Narnia on the very day of its creation, and witness the Lion Aslan singing the world into Being. Digory and the other protagonists delight in the song of the lion, and watch in wonder as his song calls out the stars in the sky, shapes the hills, clothes them in greenery, and then calls into existence animals to fill the land. Uncle Andrew, by contrast, hates the song. “It made him think and feel things he did not want to think and feel.” When he realizes that the singer is in the form of a lion, Uncle Andrew does his very best to convince himself that the song does not exist. In an argument that makes a certain diabolical sense, he concludes that it cannot be a song, because lions do not sing--they only roar and snarl. And so in the end, Uncle Andrew is only able to hear a roaring and a snarling from the voice of the lion. Lewis concludes, “the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed. Uncle Andrew did.” By his own choice and habit of thought, Uncle Andrew succeeded in blinding himself to a reality standing right before him.
The parallels here with the noetic effects of sin outlined in Romans 1 are obvious: “for although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” Augustine and Lewis both draw on this to point to the fact that the will is in bondage, not to some external force but rather to the enslaving power of its own habitual inclination. Sarah Byers, an Augustine scholar at Boston College, phrases it this way: “It was an ancient commonplace that… habits of vice render one practically incapable of seeing that the moral good is good for oneself,” (emphasis hers).
Thus in order for us to choose what is good, we first need a change to the will (fundamentally, a change to our desires) that renders us once again capable of perceiving, entertaining, and delighting in goodness. Augustine argued that this change is the operation of grace: a miraculous change of perception in which the self is turned around to face itself--to perceive its ugliness in sin, its impermanence, and its need for divine salvation. In this state, one begins to want the desire for the good. That is, one “wants to want” the Triune God for his beauty and excellence. This is the first movement of a gracious affection--and the first step toward repentance and faith in Christ.