Caborca is the dusty town in the Sonoran desert where I grew up. My mother was a God-fearing woman devoted to her children and husband. My father, too, was dedicated and hard-working. The town had its problems: poverty, crime, abuse of children and women, and other unjust conditions surely existed. But there were also many good, law-abiding citizens like my parents, and people were friendly. Cars and homes were often left unlocked; the Tellez children were often walking into the neighbors’ unannounced and were warmly received. There was no loneliness that I recall.
Today, Caborca is ten times larger and the seat of the Sonora Cartel. Recently, my father’s old assistant, Juan, contacted me. Long ago, I had been Juan’s sidekick during my time off from school. We had not spoken in fifty-five years, and he was eager to catch up, so we Zoomed for an hour.
Juan is now father of four, and grandfather of six. My father had gotten him out of raising chicken and pigs and started him in the insurance business. As we spoke, Juan was all smiles, full of gratitude: “Thank you, Tellez family! Come and visit! My home is your home.”
I asked about the safety in town. Smile gone, Juan told me terrifying stories about the drug gangs warring with each other and killing innocent people along the way. Evidently, the police, armed to their teeth, wait until the gang members kill each other and then pick up the bodies. But, he added, “If you are in your home by 8:00 PM, you are fine.” His smile returned, and he renewed his invitation to visit: “Mi casa es tu casa!”
Regrettably, there is nothing extraordinary about Caborca’s transformation. Nathan Pinkoski has written here at Public Discourse about what is going on in rural France, with its similarities to the experiences recorded in J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. Across the globe, we face significant social disintegration, evidenced by rising rates of crime, suicide, depression, and anxiety about the future.
Can you and I do anything about these problems? What choices are within our control, and how do we go about making them well?
The Intellect, the Will, and the Passions
To answer these questions, we must first understand what it means to act as a moral agent. Human agency is the process whereby a person gets an idea, decides whether it is worth pursuing, and chooses the means to pursue it. Thus, there are three basic constituents of human agency: the intellect, the will, and the passions. To live a good life, all three of these aspects must be aligned with one another and with the nature of God. We must know what good we pursue, how we pursue that good, and what—or Whom—we love.
The intellect is where knowledge is formed and resides. The intellect stores ideas and proposes ends to be pursued by the will, which decides to act. Deeply shaped by our parents and educators, the intellect allows us to grapple with questions about our identities, our purpose in life, what constitutes a life worth living, whether there is a God, and—if so—what we should expect from Him and He from us.
The will is another constitutive element of human agency. It is the home of the person’s decisions, which are then turned into actions. The idea of having an ice cream comes to my intellect. I desire the ice cream, and by an act of the will, I have the ice cream.
The movement of the passions is specified not only by the idea impressed by the intellect, and the will’s commitment to act, but also by our fundamental instincts—such as the drives toward procreation and the preservation of the species. Other desires include sex, food or drink, and the avoidance of harm. These are integral to the passions, and they influence how or whether the good as presented by the intellect will be actualized by the will.
Training Our Passions
Just as the intellect is formed by the rational evaluation of ideas, the passions are trained by the repetition of acts, whether good or evil. Learning “the good to be pursued” is the intellect’s aim. Helping us move toward that good, even when it is difficult, is the objective of the passions. As Julio Dieguez writes:
Formation in the virtues requires struggle, overcoming one’s own inclination when this is opposed to good acts. But virtue doesn’t consist in the capacity to oppose inclinations, but rather in the formation of our inclinations. The goal, then, is not that we should be capable of habitually setting our feelings aside so as to let ourselves be guided by an external rule, but rather to form those feelings in such a way that we are capable of rejoicing in the good achieved.
Repetition of good acts facilitates their performance, and although it does not eliminate the difficulty, it makes for habits that one eventually comes to perform with joy. While the good is apprehended by our intellect, it is our passions that will drive us to the pursuit of the good. This is not a new teaching, as any student of Aristotle can attest. Unfortunately, we live in an age when we are increasingly at the mercy of our impulses.
The circumstances of modern man present some unique challenges that can test our resolve to train our passions. First, the extraordinary development in access to information stimulates impulsive emotional responses. Second, widespread relief from physical pain and access to material comfort have made us fear pain to an unprecedented degree. Advances in modern medicine and standards of living make the idea that suffering can and should be totally eliminated seem plausible to many. This quest has misled many and fails to make sense of suffering within the framework of love.
Human beings all strive for happiness. Yet, in time, we come to learn that some of the goals we pursue turn out to make life miserable. Here at Public Discourse, R. J. Snell has observed: “Many of our fellow citizens do not appear to know what life is for. They have never learned the pathways or prescription for a meaningful, worthy life.”
The Love of God
Ultimately, we all seek to understand and experience love. Love takes different forms, and they each have a role to play in the good life. In C. S. Lewis’s The Four Loves, it is agape—God’s gift—that aids us in the pursuit of the good. Friendship (philia), Affection (storge), and Romantic love (eros) are perfected by God’s gift of the virtue of Caritas (agape).
These forms of love must exist in proper relationship with one another. When agape and eros are pitted against each other—whether by those who deny worthy forms of eros or those who deny the claims of agape to rule and shape eros—we fail to do justice to both. Love is a gift—first before the passions—to amplify and strengthen the movement of the passions toward their end. While it is expressed in the natural order through human relations, love with a lowercase “l” depends on Love with a capital “L.” Our passions work at their best when they’re aligned with contemplating the love God offers us.
Christian revelation gives us a limited but real understanding of how God extends His Love to each and every one of us. And literature, philosophy, and popular culture tell us about various forms of love as encountered in the natural order. These human perspectives can give us a small window through which to peek into the immensity of His care. Scripture tells us that “We love because he first loved us,” (1 John 4:19) and “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “Sinners” means everyone, not just Christians. Through Christ’s death on the Cross, God offers a unique and extraordinary love, in which all may partake. Those who accept His Church avail themselves more effectively of such Love than those who do not, but no one is excluded.
God knows we need His Love. Only He can fully satisfy the longing of the heart that forms the dynamism of human agency. Our personal and social wounds and our desire for happiness all point us to accept God’s call to union with Him.
Where to Start
I end as I began, in Caborca with Juan. How is it possible that he could be all smiles as he invites me to visit him in this poor, drug-riddled town? I draw attention to three elements of the good life. If you wish to improve your own life, these are my suggestions for where to start.
Care for people. We should seek to encounter others through friendship, which must be grounded on the conviction that every human being deserves our respect. Dear Reader, if your hope is to overcome systemic injustice in our society, here is the answer: a radical commitment to love every human being. Nothing else will come close.
Believe that hardship must be tackled with a can-overcome attitude. When we fight to overcome hardship, we improve. When we avoid the pursuit of the difficult good, we become soft. This “can-overcome” attitude has both natural and supernatural aspects. On the one hand, there’s optimism or natural hope, which gives us the strength to continue working hard to remedy evils and pursue goods even in the face of great difficulty. And there is more: for those whose outlook and passions have been shaped by grace, there’s also strength and peace found in union with God, as one continues to labor to remove hardships.
Approach God in awe and a spirit of humility, never in fear. One discovers His loving hand in a world that is much harder to journey through without him. This brings humility to our life: to respect that which comes from God that we might not understand, to love others because they are His children, and to recognize that God’s laws are for our good.
We will never do this perfectly, but that is the Good Life, my friend.
It does not get better than that.