St. Augustine and Free Will

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The infamous question brought up in Augustine’s On the Free Choice of the Will consists in this: If God foreknows the future, and I will x in the future, then my will not free, since, in God’s mind, x has already happened. Something that is foreordained, in other words, cannot be the subject of free choice. There can be no freedom, it is concluded, if x is already an accomplished fact in God’s mind. The basic problem is that between God’s foreknowledge on the one hand, and the known action in the future.

St. Augustine’s first response concerns the point of view of the questioner. The familiar argument against free will rests on humanity’s appropriating God’s point of view relative to human actions. Yet, we have no idea of Gods “point of view,” and hence, it can have no philosophical use. We only have knowledge of actions from our own point of view, that of the human being making choices in a specific context. If anything, it is God that functions by necessity, since his will is known relative to any human action, for good or ill, and this will is known because of God’s perfect justice, and this justice is based on omniscience. Nevertheless, God’s will towards human beings is known only from the human point of view, not the Divine. For humanity, our will in the future is a completely unknown quantity (Augustine, Choice, 74-75).

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This response is only preliminary, and makes certain that any discussion on this topic will begin from the same place: from the point of view of human action first, rather than God’s knowledge of it. Once this is established, the stage for Augustine’s famous rebuttal to the query is set. Augustine writes:

class=WordSection2>Simply because God foreknows your future happiness [for example]–and nothing can happen except as God foreknows it, since otherwise it would not be foreknowledge–it does not follow you will be happy against your will (Augustine, Choice, 76)

By this statement (using happiness as an example), the conclusion can only be that God must foreknow future actions that were not, in fact, willed. As a result, such an idea results in a contradiction, namely, that what is willed is not willed.

Again, these are preliminary points. The argument on page 77 is something that takes a bit longer to fully digest. The structure looks like this:

1. Something is in our power if it is present to the will

2. It is impossible that we do not will when we will

3. The will is present when we will (Augustine considers this a tautology, and hence, needing no further argument)

4. The will is in our power

5. We are free, since the will is in our power

The concept of “presence” in proposition 1 is problematic. It may simply be that “present” means “in our power,” which would then be redundant and question begging. The argument hangs on the word “present” meaning something other than “in our power.” There, however, is a second argument that may clear this up (Augustine, Choice, 77):

1. God foreknows our will

2. It is a will that God foreknows

3. God foreknows our power to will

4. This knowledge does not negate the power to will which is foreknown

5. God foreknows our free choice

The issue here now concerns not the “event” which is foreknown, not the “fact” of it, but rather the human power to bring it about. Hence, God knows two things about the future: the events that will occur, and the power that human beings have to bring about these events. By removing the question from “event” to “power,” everything has changed. What is significant from the strictly human point of view is that the will assumes willing, which in turn, assumes freedom (hence, it is not a tautology). The argument, therefore, leads to quibbles over definitions and words.

Gilbert Ryle, in his Concept of Mind, deals with precisely these sorts of arguments, and he deals with them on purely human terms, in other words, the power to will, rather than the nature of the future event. It is not only a problem with definition (e.g. that will means freedom by definition) but one much deeper, that of the nature of causality.

St. Augustine assumes that willing refers to an entity–the will–that is free and is a causal actor. The argument, prima facie, is simple: one may think of will as causal, but this does not prove causal effect (Ryle, 66). The argument against St. Augustine’s position rests on a very familiar mind/body problem that modern philosophy has really never solved. The assumption that willing means free willing rests on the idea that the will is a tremendous metaphysical entity: that it is a bridge, in some sense, between the mind and the body (Ryle, 66); a translator between a strictly mental construct, the will, and a physical action brought about by physical motion. This must be the assumption of anyone who believes in the freedom of the will in Augustine’s sense. Radical idealism (e.g. Fichte or Nietzsche) can attribute all to will, while materialists (e.g. Hobbes) can attribute all to matter, but those who believe in free will without the baggage of German idealism (i.e. that all “external” reality is a function of will) are caught in a serious problem, that of the relation between a function of mind (will) and a reaction of the body (action, consequent).

Much like Augustine, this initial approach is able to set the stage for the main argument that is means to stymy the Augustinian. After making the all-important distinction between mind and body that makes Augustine’s vision seem inadequate, the main argument (Ryle, 67) is laid out:

1. I hold that it is in my power to do x

2. I hold that, because of 1, I have freedom in relation to the will to do x

3. If I hold, then, that I have freedom in relation to x, I have a reason to do x

4. Reasons do not come from nowhere, they are, in turn, based on other reasons that permit the first reason to make sense

5. If I have a reason that makes sense, that reason must be based on anther reason

6. If 5 is true, then that itself has another reason, ad infinitum.

The Augustinian argument is led to absurdity, unless one is willing to argue that a reason can exist that, itself, is based on nothing. If that is true, then the free will is not free, but arbitrary, and the Augustinian argument collapses. Ryle concludes: “In short, then, the doctrine of volitions is a causal hypothesis, adopted because it was wrongly supposed that the question ‘what makes a bodily movement voluntary?’ was a causal question” (Ryle, 67).

St. Augustine holds that the will has an end, and that end is happiness. He holds, famously, that the will cannot be happy until it rests in God. Hence, the will has at least two intrinsic ends, happiness, and that happiness must be based on the vision of God, incomplete on earth, complete in heaven. It is the final end because all specific ends have this as the object, perfect peace, perfect fulfillment. To a certain extent, this vitiates Augustine’s first and major argument for free will. At the very least, the argument must be modified to take into account its intrinsic end. For Augustine, the argument becomes a question, already mentioned, between freedom and arbitrariness. It is logically possible to hold the following two propositions:

1. The will is intrinsically oriented towards happiness

2. The will is free

The coherence, given St. Augustine’s assumptions about the human condition, between those two statements can be explained y saying that the will moves towards what will satisfy it, i.e. make it happy, but, given the human condition, the will itself is tarnished, and hence, often mistakes one good for another or even the evil, which masquerades as something good. Therefore, any question of the will’s freedom must take into account the question of sin, or the fact that the will can mistake the means to its end. The will is free, then, in relation to means, but never in relation to ends. The will is free, but never arbitrary.

Is it possible to hold that the will, in Augustine’s sense, is free precisely because it is “damaged goods?” In other words, that freedom, defined as arbitrary choice, exists precisely because the will usually mistakes the means of attaining its end of happiness in natural or social objects, things that pass away and contain pain and evil? That the will is sometimes deceived is a truism. But if the final destination of the truly free will were to be known in its fulness, choice would not be relevant, it would have no role. But the final end of all willing is not made obvious, as the world is saturated with the possibility of moral choice. Hence, if this is true, then true freedom consists not in arbitrary choice, but in the fulfillment of its end. Choice would rest in the means, but this choice is problematic because the “natural,” or intrinsic, nature of the will seeks fulfillment in irrational objects–the world–which pass away and can never fulfil the will except only temporarily.

The result is the redefinition of two terms in Augustine’s schema: “freedom” and “happiness.” To be free is to chose the best means towards one’s end, that is the vision of God, which also is perfect peace. Happiness consists in this vision. Nevertheless, these ends are not to be found within the will naturally, they must be discovered through philosophy, rational investigation and revelation, that which is beyond immediate cognition. Choice comes into existence precisely when this final end is either not understood, or known only incompletely (such as in Cicero’s or Plato’s philosophy).

While Augustine posits that the true social end of man is peace (cf. City of God, book XIX), and this is the ultimate reason behind all human social action (mistaken or not), he also points to the obvious that the world is never at peace. This strongly suggests that, while the will is determined to the ends of happiness and peace, the damaged nature of the will–in fact, the entire human personality–creates choices between earthly means of peace, such as ideology or institutions, or heavenly, such as submission to the church’s doctrinal teachings and ascetic regimen, the will is drawn to the highly imperfect and purely human measures at achieving the goal of peace. Thus, determinism in terms of general ends does not speak to the freedom of the will concerning specific means. Because of this struggle, the will is free to pick between the earthly and heavenly realms. In other words, if God and the spirit world did not exist, only material goods could be had. Choice is then determined. If God, as the supreme good, and manifested himself completely to man, then only spiritual goals could be had, and choice would make little sense, unless one can hold htat man can specifically choose what he knows to be evil, which Augustine does not. But in this present world. Both worlds exist, demanding the allegiance of man, and hence, force man into a schizophrenic state where he is suspended between two worlds, and hence, forced to choose.

Works Cited

Augustine, St. On the Free Choice of the Will. Trans. Thomas Williams. Hackett, 1993

Augustine, St. The City of God. Trans. Henry Bettenson. Penguin, 2003.

Ryle, Gilbert. The Concept of Mind University of Chicago Press, 2000.

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St. Augustine and Free Will. (2016, Aug 06). Retrieved from

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