Smoking is a perfect metaphor for sin – reason tells us to quit but it isn’t so easy

Wanting to allow the whole giving up thing the best possible chance, I decided to start a few days early. It felt like I was getting a bit of a run up on the big day – preparing even. But in the end, all this strategy meant was that I managed to fail in my new year’s resolution before the new year actually began. The Greeks called it akrasia: weakness of will. And since the Greeks, it has regularly been puzzled over as a philosophical problem. How is it possible to genuinely want to do something and then end up not doing it? Why do I chose A over B when, all things considered, I know B is a much better course of action? “No one,” said Socrates, “who either knows or believes that there is another possible course of action, better than the one he is following, will ever continue on his present course.”

Socrates obviously wasn’t a smoker. But Sigmund Freud was. And it may not be unconnected that the father of psychoanalysis was such an enthusiast for a habit that commonly pits our conscious expressed desire (ie to give up) against forces that seem, at times, beyond our control. Smoking is evidence that we are not masters in our own house. Conscious reason only takes us so far.

One possible strategy of outsmarting my own akrasia is to try and bind my future options, thus pre-committing myself to some desirable course of action. Thus, for instance, when I ran the London Marathon last year and lost loads of weight, I bought a deliberately expensive suit, tailored to fit the then me. Going further, I chucked out bags of my old clothes that fitted the bigger me I didn’t want to be. Odysseus bound himself to the mast of his ship so that when he heard the call of the Sirens he wouldn’t get lured by them on to the rocks. The problem is that most of us don’t bind ourselves tightly enough and we can undo our own knots.

My own Sirens sing of a night out at some fancy restaurant rather than sweating buckets down at the gym. And the attempt to control my future decision-making by throwing out my big clothes or committing money to a gym membership is rarely enough of a self-binding to ward off the immediate temptations of the à la carte. Thus I now have a wardrobe full of clothes that don’t fit me. And this makes me feel even fatter than I did before. It’s pretty hard to outsmart yourself.

St Paul had a line on this: “For I do not do that good that I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do, this I keep on doing.” His explanation for the human propensity to sin is that it is like a form of addiction, a word my own psychotherapist frequently challenges me for using as it feels (to her) too deterministic – as if I am already admitting that I have insufficient agency to overcome it, thus preparing for failure in advance.

And I hesitate to mention the former accountant and smoking guru Allen Carr alongside such intellectual luminaries as Socrates, Freud and St Paul, but his important point about giving up smoking the “easy way” is that it is not about willpower but rather about seeing through what he calls the “brainwashing” generated by addiction – a part of which is the very idea of addiction.

This is all very well. But what better way is there of illustrating the foolishness of reason than the fact that, as I peruse this column in draft form, I sit back and reach for another fag. Smoking is a perfect metaphor for sin, which is a moral version of the means by which our conscious and publicly expressed desires are frequently sabotaged by another part of ourselves whose power we give insufficient credit to. – By Giles Fraser © Guardian News and Media 2014

Image – AFP