Bioethics Blogs

New Year resolutions and tripartite human nature

Written by Charles Foster

‘I do not understand my own actions’, grumbled St. Paul. ‘For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate….I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do….’1

That’s a fair summary of the evidence about the fate of New Year’s resolutions. The University of Hertfordshire psychologist, Richard Wiseman, found that only 10% of New Year’s resolutions succeed. Most of them are abandoned by 23 January.

When we fail in our resolutions, we rebuke ourselves in very Pauline language.2, 3, 4 The higher parts of ourselves, we say, are in a battle against the lower parts. We even give Pauline names to the parties in the battle: he distinguished clearly between ‘…spirit and soul and body…’5 So do we. ‘The spirit was willing’, we complain, after a losing battle with the body over the last of the mince pies, ‘but the flesh was weak’. These self-rebukes have distinct normative moral colour: we are not merely regretting the consequences of our failure.

This tripartite division of human nature was Christian orthodoxy until Augustine. He abandoned it, substituting a bipartite model (body and soul) because he wanted to insist on human fallenness, and the presence of a spirit (which presumably had a divine origin6) made it harder to emphasize human depravity. The Roman Catholic church has long been in thrall to Augustine: so, in this respect at least, were the Refomers (notably Calvin, and with the honourable exception of Luther).

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.