Perspectives on Sin Throughout Philosophy

In his lecture for the Philosophy Lecture Series, Dennis Packard addressed the philosophical concept of sin.

PROVO, Utah (Oct. 6, 2016)—Since the beginning of Western philosophy there has been a fascination with the concept of sin, known by the Greeks as akrasia. Akrasia was defined as a lack of self-control.

Working Title/Artist: Adam and Eve Department: Drawings & Prints Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 08 Working Date: 1504 photography by mma 1997, transparency #1A scanned and retouched by film and media (jn) 1_9_03

“Sin isn’t just about breaking the rules. It’s about a lack of congruence between aspects of yourself,” explained Dennis Packard, a professor of philosophy at BYU. This incongruity, Packard continued, is often in “the way you live your life. It does not jive with what you profess to believe.”

For Plato and Aristotle, Packard said, akrasia essentially did not exist. Plato did not see how we  could go against what we thought was best. If their choice was somehow in error, it was the fault of ignorance rather than willful disobedience against our better judgment. Packard expounded on the Greek conception of akrasia through Aristotle who believed that our reason can be overpowered by passions so that we do not make a judgement of what is best. Aristotle’s concept is that “you never act contrary to what you think is best and so you never sin.”

For the medieval writers Augustine and Aquinas, akrasia did exist. Augustine believed we could sin because our will to do what we think is best is weak. Aquinas believed we can sin because our will can fantasize and rationalize what we think is best so that it agrees with what we want to do. In the modern period, Descartes also believed in akrasia but said that the way to avoid it was not by strengthening one’s will, but by limiting the intake of passions caused by the body.

Packard explained that others in the modern period took a different approach. Referring to the ideas of Baruch Spinoza, Packard said, “When you realize your oneness with God, you feel positive emotions that motivate you to do what you think is best.” This perspective of becoming one with God, explained Packard, is a new tool to overcoming sin. In the words of Spinoza, “You do not rejoice in God because you control your lusts, you control your lusts because you rejoice in God and you live and move in him.”

Hegel had yet another understanding of akrasia. Packard explained this as “false consciousness.” Hegel believed we are guilty of false consciousness when our actions are not moving with the spirit of the world which causes a disconnect between what we perceive as best from the way we are embodied and living in the world.

The idea of movement was also vital to the philosophy expressed by two existentialists that Packard discussed. Kierkegaard was a Christian who believed that sin is despair, an unwillingness to move forward in a leap of faith, beyond one’s current understanding towards what is offered to you at your level in love. Nietzsche believed in despair as a refusal to move forward and become stronger. Nietzsche  was not a Christian, and urged self-development in this life rather than a hope for redemption in the next.

The final philosopher Packard discussed on this survey of akrasia was Heidegger. Heidegger discussed inauthenticity, what Packard saw as a more contemporary version of sin.“Sinful inauthenticity, Packard said, “ is the lack of meaningfulness in what you are doing.” It is overcome by caringly drawing, moment by moment, on our world of experiences.

—Hannah Sandorf (BA Art History and Curatorial Studies ‘17)

Hannah covers events for the Philosophy Department for the College of Humanities. She is a junior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.

image: Abrecht Durer, Adam and Eve, 1504