A central problem of our minds is that we know so much in theory about how we should behave but engage so little with our knowledge in our day-to-day conduct.
We know – in theory – about not eating too much, about being kind, about getting to bed early, about focusing on our opportunities before it is too late, about showing charity and remembering to be grateful. And yet in practice, our wise ideas have a notoriously weak ability to motivate our actual behaviour. Our knowledge is both embedded within us and yet is ineffective for us.
The Ancient Greeks were unusually alert to this phenomenon and gave it a helpfully resonant name: akrasia, commonly translated as ‘weakness of will’. It was, they proposed, because of akrasia that we have such a tragic proclivity for knowing what to do but not acting upon our own best principles.
There are two central solutions to akrasia, located in two unexpected quarters: in art and in ritual. The real purpose of art (which includes novels, movies, songs as well as photos, paintings and works of design and architecture) is to give sensuous and emotional lustre to a range of ideas that are most important to us – but also most under threat in the conditions of everyday life. Art shouldn’t be a matter of introducing us to, or challenging us with, a stream of new ideas so much as about lending the good ideas we already have compelling forms – so that they can more readily weigh upon our behaviour. A euphoric song should activate the reserves of tenderness and sympathy we already believe in in theory; a novel should move us to the forgiveness we are already invested in at an intellectual level. Art should help us to feel and then act upon the truths we already know.
Ritual is the second defence we have against akrasia. By ritual, one means the structured, often highly seductive or aesthetic, repetition of a thought or an action, with a view to making it at once convincing and habitual. Ritual rejects the notion that it can ever be sufficient to teach anything important once – an optimistic delusion which the modern education system has been fatefully marked by. Once might be enough to get us to admit an idea is right, but it won’t be anything like enough to convince us it should be acted upon. Our brains are leaky, and under-pressure of any kind, they will readily revert to customary patterns of thought and feeling. Ritual trains our cognitive muscles, it makes a sequence of appointments in our diaries to refresh our acquaintance with our most important ideas.
Our current culture tends to see ritual mainly as an antiquated infringement of individual freedom, a bossy command to turn our thoughts in particular directions at specific times. But the defenders of ritual would see it another way: we aren’t being told to think of something we don’t agree with, we are being returned with grace to what we always believed in at heart. We are being tugged by a collective force back to a more loyal and authentic version of ourselves.
The greatest human institutions to have tried to address the problem of akrasia have been religions. Religions have wanted to do something much more serious than simply promote abstract ideas, they have wanted to get people to behave in line with those ideas, a very different thing. They didn’t just want people to think kindness or forgiveness were nice (which generally we do already); they wanted us to be kind or forgiving most days of the year. That meant inventing a host of ingenious mechanisms for mobilising the will, which is why across much of the world, the finest art and buildings, the most seductive music, the most impressive and moving rituals have all been religious. Religion is a vast machine for addressing the problem of akrasia.
This has presented a big conundrum for a more secular era. Bad secularisation has lumped religious superstition and religion’s anti-akrasia strategies together. It has rejected both the supernatural ideas of the faiths and their wiser attitudes to the motivational roles of art and ritual.
A more discerning form of secularization makes a major distinction between (on the one hand) religion as a set of speculative claims about God and the afterlife – and (on the other hand) the always valid ambition to improve our social and psychological lives by combating our notoriously weak wills.
The challenge for the secular world is now to redevelop its own versions of purposeful art and ritual – so that we will cease so regularly to ignore our real commitments and might henceforth not only believe wise things but also, on a day to day basis, have a slightly higher chance of enacting wisdom in our lives.