In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus recounts all of his exploits to the Phaeacians before his final journey home. One of the more memorable moments from this part of the epic is when Odysseus speaks of his time on Calypso’s island. He says that Calypso showered upon him all kinds of pleasures including physical intimacy. She even enticed him with the promise of making him immortal. However, Odysseus says, “She never won the heart inside of me, never” (Book 7 lines 280 – 300). The implication here is that one can bifurcate their inner feelings and desires from outward expressions of love and affection. The question I want to explore is whether this bifurcation is indeed feasible. And if it is feasible, is it advisable?
Possibility of Division
As we saw in a previous column, the Church teaches that the human person is an essential unity of body and soul. We are not souls in body-like machines and we are not pure mechanisms devoid of immaterial powers. Therefore, the body and soul exhibit a psychosomatic unity. The actions of one will affect the other and vice versa. It seems, then, that given the normal course of things our actions will not exhibit division but rather, unity. This is due to the fact that the body and soul comprise one person, not two entities. And the parts, therefore, work together (or at least ought to) for the benefit of the whole person.
However, it does seem possible that in at least some instances, the actions of one aspect of our nature will not affect the other aspect. Martyrs provide an extreme and clear example of this. No matter how difficult and painful their captors make their lives, martyrs will refuse to give up their beliefs. Here we see how the agony and experiences of the body do not move the soul in a like manner. The soul remains firm and stoic amid the raging fire around it. Lying and deception are examples of the reverse kind of disjointedness that we are capable of. Obviously, in an act of lying, one’s outward actions and words do not really match one’s inward desires and intentions. In this case the soul does not play the part of the stoic but of the snake.
If we now return to the story of Odysseus, it seems that we have our answer. It is possible for outward expressions to be disconnected from a person’s true inward desires. But the conclusion is a rather difficult one to maintain. Odysseus’ ostensible justification for having intimacy with Calypso, even though he is married to Penelope, is that Calypso never won his heart. However, if that were the case then any outward act or expression of intimacy with anyone other than one’s partner becomes in principle defensible and permissible. The result of this type of philosophy is potentially very damaging. We are familiar with the ubiquitous refrains of unfaithful partners e.g. “I made a mistake” or “I didn’t really love the other person” etc. Such excuses are usually shrugged off as obviously unworthy of consideration, and inadequate. However, it seems possible to divide one’s inner self from outward expressions as we’ve seen above. Therefore, these excuses seem to carry some weight. So, can we give an answer to the unfaithful partner in light of these facts? I think we can.
Consider again the case of the martyr. It appears obvious to all that the body and soul are tending towards two different goals – the one towards survival and the absence of pain and the other towards maintaining belief at all costs. Despite all of this, I would maintain that the body and soul are not actually bifurcated here but acting in unity. The body, in obedience to the soul, is enduring the pain for the sake of clinging to belief. Indeed, it is the very object of captors to try and break this unity with torture and pain. I would argue that the same sort of unity is also operative in a case of lying.
With lying, it seems that the bifurcation between body and soul is very clear and undeniable. A person believes one thing with their mind (which is part of the soul) and says and/or does another thing incongruous with that belief. However, if we look a little deeper into the particulars surrounding an instance of lying, the unity of the person emerges again. Say, for example, someone asks you if the $20 bill they found on the street is yours. You know it’s not yours but you say yes because then you can buy a nice meal you’ve been craving. On a surface level analysis there seems to be clear division between inward knowledge and outward action – you know the money isn’t yours but you say that it is. However, there is, at bottom, unity between inward desire and outward expression here because your outward expression of lying is actually in sync with your deeper inner desire for food. So, while there is a seeming surface-level division here, the division is just that i.e. a mere seeming. I would argue that the same kind of dynamic is operative in all cases of lying.
So, we’ve seen that one can’t really achieve a substantive bifurcation between one’s inner desires and outward expressions. At most we can engage in what seems to be a split between the two but cannot actually make the break. So, what happens when we choose to engage in such duplicitous behavior? As Christ said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand” (Mat 12:25). Such acts will destroy our relationships with others and our own ability to discern and tell the truth.
The only means we have to relate to the world and others is through our actions. And the only mode of expression for our inner desires and feelings is through the body. So, we must choose how we are going to act in the world and if we are going to strength or weaken the bond between body and soul. If we try and sever the bond, then no one will be able to win the heart within us because we will have destroyed its ability to have any meaningful connection with another. If we strengthen the bond, then we can have love that will always be true and life that will be utterly fulfilled no matter what may befall us.