Thoughts Versus Deeds

by on August 2nd, 2006

Yesterday, radio talk-show host Dennis Prager discussed the moral and religious differences between using thoughts versus deeds as our guide to a more meaningful spiritual life. He noted that Judaism emphasizes the notion that deeds are the ultimate arbiter of one’s behavior, that the most reliable calculus of moral certitude is action, not thought.

Although we ought to be careful not to criminalize thoughts, as has been our current wont with respect to the much vaunted “hate crimes” laws that have spawned up across the land, to paraphrase Shakespeare, thought is the parent of action. As such, although, as a measure of culpability, we must rely on deeds, Judaism’s exclusive focus on them to the exclusion of thoughts, is a myopic rendering of human nature and therefore a less than ideal metric for ensuring adherence to a moral code.

If the goal is not only a higher fidelity to moral and civilized behavior but a purer spiritual life, Catholicism’s insistence on thoughts as the veritable nano-mechanism of the human being is difficult to refute.

Indeed, a caller to Mr. Prager’s show began to make that very argument, suggesting that humans may be wired in such a way as to effectively preclude a purity of thought. That, in fact, some thoughts are spontaneous and thereby exonerate us from the charge of entertaining them.

Unfortunately, Mr. Prager didn’t pursue that line of reasoning, but it is quintessentially Catholic in its intellectual pedigree: I.e., that if we stipulate the existence of free will, the argument for fundamentally reconfiguring our own hard-wiring becomes not only more plausible, but more critical.

It’s curious, because although he has previously argued that 19th century notions of a deterministic universe lobby against free will, he is concurrently reticent to trace that line of thinking to its logical source–thought–as the most compelling place to begin to better control our actions.

The core of this argument recalls T.S. Eliot’s line from The Hollow Men:

Between the idea/And the reality/Between the motion/And the act/Falls the shadow

The shadow, to generously extrapolate, is the human intercession that we may bring to our actions, an expression of our free will that leads to either goodness or evil. But it’s the idea–the cousin of thought–that provides the psychic springboard that we can and ought to control.

Later in the day, a caller to Hugh Hewitt’s show–the gentleman he will accompany on an Alaskan trip–stated that he doesn’t believe in the validity of substance abuse disease models. This, apropos of Mel Gibson’s horrible alcoholic diatribe against Jews. In effect, he argued that there is far more free will involved in people who drink more than is good for them than our culture allows, and, indeed, that’s a persuasive argument.

To wit, it is only when we’ve invoked the assuaging comfort of Western notions of disease that we can, with impunity, excuse morally or civically noxious behavior.

There are no unchallenging routes to the higher moral or religious realms, but to begin at the inception of action is the most credible way to maximize the chances for success.

Mella is Founder and Editor of

Philip Mella