Angels of Our Nature

Abraham Lincoln, in his first inaugural address, coined the phrase “better angels of our nature,” which has a nice ring to it but suggests that we are also touched by angels of another sort.  In the cartoon version, our better angel is the cute one with the halo and wings perched on one shoulder, while the fallen angel with pitchfork and horns is perched on the other.  They are the twin goads that spur us on to good or ill.  When they decide to slug it out, we become a house divided against itself, to borrow another of Lincoln’s phrases.  Even the formidable St. Paul fretted that he was sometimes at war with himself.  He lamented that “I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.”

Robert Louis Stevenson explored the duality of human nature in his novella, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”  The story came to him in a nightmare while he was recuperating from a pulmonary hemorrhage.  (Stevenson eventually died of tuberculosis.)  To stop the bleeding in his lungs, he was given a derivative of the ergot fungus that produced convulsions and hallucinations in some patients.  The drug may have accounted for what his wife described as his “mad behavior” in the weeks before he put pen to paper.  Stevenson may also have been influenced by early case studies of multiple personalities. His story was written long before Freud put his stamp on the human psyche.  But Stevenson was certainly aware that the mind was prey to contrary impulses, and he had already addressed this theme in earlier works. 

For Dr. Henry Jekyll, a well-regarded London physician with a seamy side, the curse of life is that “man is not truly one, but truly two.”  The need of his darker self to be freed from the constraints of Victorian respectability is matched only by the desire of his better self to be rid of the shameful impulses of the other.  Jekyll resolves his dilemma by concocting a potion that enables him to distill the good and evil elements within himself into separate personalities that are so distinct they hardly seem to occupy the same body. 

In Freudian terms, Dr. Jekyll is all superego, while Mr. Hyde is pure id.  However, once freed from his better half, Hyde becomes progressively more uncontrollable and eventually commits a brutal murder.  And far from being rid of his shadow self, Jekyll now finds himself turning into Hyde even without benefit of his potion, which he must also take to reverse the process.  But the potion eventually runs out and he is unable to reconstitute it.  With this elixir, Jekyll had hoped to work a sort of spiritual alchemy in which precious metal could be refined from the alloy of his nature – but only by extracting base metals as well.  Too late he discovers that man is not truly two but truly one, and there is no way to separate good from evil without destroying both.  

Romans 7:21

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