Originally posted on A Wider Sunrise:
The most brilliant and illuminating discussion of the human self that I have ever read is in a a book by Denys Turner, The Darkness of God:Negativity in Christian Mysticism.* He draws from Aristotle and adds a bit of his own humor to explain St. John of the Cross on the subject. I want to share highlights of that discussion here.
We begin the spiritual life by building up our “ascetical self.” The beginner works hard at fasting, keeping vigil, works of charity, and all his various labors for Christ. This is a necessary step. He learns self-control, self-denial, and gains strength of will. But this is not the end of the journey. As the beginner builds up his ascetic self, he is still unable to conquer the ego. He creates an ever more spiritual egoism, but can not overcome pride through his ascetic labors. He is caught: trapped in a precarious selfhood defined by three moral stereotypes that Turner has (delightfully) nicknamed “Feeble”, “Shameless”, and “Prig.” (Aristotle called them akrates, akolastos, and enkrates if any readers want to refer to Nichomachean Ethics– you know, just for fun.)
Feeble is the name for a person who knows what he ought to do, but does not do it. He feels shame and guilt for his failures to resist temptation.