O the Mind has Mountains


It would be easier to follow James Thurber’s advice to leave your mind alone if it could be mutual. Besides, you’d have to put your mind to it and that makes following Thurber’s advice a contradiction in terms. Mind-boggling, as it were. Of course one could fall asleep, but then Thurber would lose a reader. And what does the mind do when we’re asleep?

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The inner geography of the human animal is an irresistible subject. Behaviorists and some Wittgensteinians have tried to rule out the inner, reducing thought to word and gesture, but of course that won’t do. “You’re all right, how am I?” remains a joke. Speech and action presuppose thought but cannot be reduced to them. The character we acquire derives from thought as much as behavior and sometimes thought is simply that, a drama within.

John Updike’s marvelous short story “Harv is Plowing Now” employs a geological metaphor to get at the layers of memory. Beneath the present moment lie encrusted the significant eras of our past. If we could only dig down deep enough….

When Updike’s narrator reaches bedrock he remembers the man who lived across the road who plowed such perfect furrows as he went back and forth that the field came to look like a ruled page with justified margins. Harv stands for one who does what he should. He stands for the moral law. And Updike’s narrator, contemplating divorce, is put in judgment by the remembered Harv, and by his own recovered sense of what is right and what is wrong.

Innocence is overlaid by years of less than stellar performance. Ideals become obscure, one learns to prefer waffling to a Laurentian grill, nostalgia for a better time sets in. “Issued from the hand of God the simple soul.” Has Wordsworth forgotten Original Sin? But there is no actual sin to mar the record of the newborn babe or child. Their innocence is real. “Innocent as a baby” is a remark that needs no explanation.

Psychiatric theories use the metaphor of layers to dull rather than to stimulate the moral sense. Somewhere beneath consciousness is a mechanism that makes us do the things we do. How comforting. Augustine in the Confessions recalls a similar false consolation deriving from Manicheism: The devil made me do it.

Philosophers speak of parts of the soul, which in turn is part of what we are, form to body. Our mental powers include mind and will and imagination. There are mindless desires too, seemingly with a mind of their own, another law in our members. The moral drama consists of bringing these into alignment, becoming mindful, thought directing our desires and not being led around by them, in Plato’s phrase. The stage is chiefly an inner one. Thought is father to the deed. Even if the deed does not ensue the thought may have a moral bent. Betrayals and heroic acts begin within.


The poets and saints use other metaphors. Castles. Mountains. Mount Purgatory has seven stories named for the capital sins that must be purged from the soul if it is to be capable of seeing God. The mystic’s mountaineering does not wait for death but begins now. It is largely an inner thing. The spiritual life. We worldly ones can read what they have written and fail to understand a word. All those battles taking place across the landscape of the soul.

The Little Flower seems more accessible. We read of her struggle not to be irked by another sister when they did laundry together. She knew that she herself was irksome for the other. Somehow they got the laundry done and ended up in heaven. Such trials seem made to our scale, but they are no less chiefly inner. It is the how and the why and not just the scrubbing that make the act what it morally or spiritually is.

Thought is the activity of a soul that animates a body that needs clean clothes from time to time. Perhaps we should put our minds to ridding them of pop psychology, the tendency to look for other than responsible causes for our acts. Whenever a kid shoots half a dozen playmates or an adult abuses a child we witness the familiar hunt for “causes.” What made them do it? Come on. Let’s give ourselves and other sinners credit or blame for doing what we do. That’s our only hope for doing better before it’s too late.



This column originally appeared in the January 1998 issue of Crisis Magazine.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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