This week I was reading some Peter Abelard. For those of you who are not up on your medieval philosopher/theologians, he lived in the 12th century and was an incredibly smart guy, probably a little too smart for his own good. His story has fascinated many people over the centuries. He was a very gifted debater. It seems that in his early 20's he bested one of the top theologians of the day in a disputation and decided to start teaching himself, drawing a large number of students through his charisma and brilliance. His successes continued until romance intervened. He fell in love with (or seduced, depending on how you want to look at it) a woman named Heloise, the daughter of a nobleman- he was supposed to be her tutor. She ended up pregnant, but Abelard didn't want to marry her because as a theologian being married would have harmed his career. (His relationship with her was already widely known, so it is interesting what facts about a person would damage a career...) Finally they decided on a secret marriage, but her father was still not pleased and ordered some goons to seize Abelard in the middle of the night and perform some involuntary surgery on him to make sure his sin would not be repeated (let the reader understand). Both Abelard and Heloise then entered monasteries.
Given that back story, it was interesting to read Abelard's account of the nature of sin. He rejects the idea that to sin is simply to have an evil desire. Instead, he says that sin involves consent to evil. Abelard argues that we constantly have a battle of good and evil impulses inside of us, and that sin comes when we consent to the evil, committing ourselves to act on it if we get the chance. If I understand him right, some forms of "acting" might be mental, such as lust- an example he uses frequently. One gets the sense of a man vividly remembering his own battles with sin and trying to make sense of them. He seems to have been repentant in the end and regarded his mutilation as a just punishment for his own sin.
From that basis, he then argues that actually acting out the sin doesn't actually add to the wrongness once one has really committed oneself to the evil act. God sees the heart, and from God's perspective there is no different in heart between one who tries to do evil and fails to carry it out for reasons beyond his control and another who succeeds in carrying it out. What I found interesting about this was first the question of whether trying to change what we desire is part of righteousness, or if it is simply not giving in to the evil desires we have. Second, it seems to me an interesting precursor to contemporary philosophical debates about "moral luck." Two people have the same motive and may even perform the same action, but one is unlucky and things turn out badly. Is it right to judge that person more harshly? In Anselm's view, luck is beside the point because external events don't accurately reveal the heart, and God is able to see the heart perfectly.