Thomas Aquinas on the Freedom of the Will

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Thomas Aquinas on the Freedom of the Will(Q10a2 and Q13a6)  Free will and predestination were issues that shook the early medieval world. By Thomas’ time at the High Middle Ages, the influence of St. Augustine was still paramount in western thought, and hence, the question of the will and its capacities remained critical.

For both thinkers, the will was moved by necessity, but this necessity was only considered the highest Good itself, God, and the eventual Beatific Vision, a vision from which the will can not, of its own nature, turn away. Of course, this was agreed upon widely, but did not address the issue of the will and its relation to created, as opposed to uncreated, objects. Nevertheless, since the re-translation of Aristotle’s ethical works by both the Muslims of Toledo and Albert the Great, the freedom of the will was again an important question, but now on a new basis. What makes Thomas different in this respect was that, as a theologian, he was dealing with the question of the will from a purely earthly and “scientific” point of view.

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And it is this Aristotelian idea that makes Thomas’ answers worth reading, for the will was now put on a new footing. The question hinges on the distinction between particular goods (whether rightly or wrongly seen as such) and the absolute Good. The latter is always an (the) end, which exists–it is not “chosen” per se–as an end a priori, while the earthly aspect of our existence concerns the search for appropriate means towards this end, or minimally, the end of happiness. This is the chief argument for the freedom of the will.

His imaginary interlocutor continues to make the claim, in differing forms, that: p1 The end of absolute goodness is never chosen, it acts upon the will necessarily (agreed to by all);p2 this is similar to the existence of a conclusion from its premises;p3 if one accepts the premises, one must accept the conclusion;p4 if one accepts the conclusion, one must accept the premises;c1 in a similar manner, the Goodness/Happiness pulls the will necessarily,c2 then the “premises,” or the means to reach that Good, must also act upon the will necessarily. (Qx, 2a, obj 3) It is not that Thomas rejects this argument from analogy, but merely that it does not follow. Thomas provides several replies to this common medieval argument. The chief counter argument comes in Qxii, a6, reply: p1 what is possible is not necessary;p2 reason tends to favor whatever it takes as good (rightly or wrongly);p3 man necessarily wills happiness (agreed to by all);p4 but willing concerns means, never ends;p5 means are not perfect goods, only particular goods;c1 there, hence, is no necessity.

There are several issues at work here. Thomas makes a clear distinction between intellect and will. The intellect synthesizes sense data, while the will is acted upon by the conclusions of the intellect, this semi-Aristotelian schema is well known. It is part of human nature that the will, as well as the intellect, is oriented towards perfect happiness, a happiness that can only be achieved by the acquisition of the perfect Good, which is God.

 Now, man lives in a world of multiform objects, he lives within a specific culture and theological context. Thomas, having debated with Muslim ideas in the past, is well aware of the theology of other parts of the world. Man lives, moreover, in a world where the passions can cloud the intellect, and hence, adversely affect the will. In good Platonic fashion, Thomas holds that such passions distort the normal functioning of the will, and poor means are chosen to that ever present perfect Good (or whatever is taken to be such).

It might also be the case that reason might also be adversely affected by the passions, presenting a false picture of the world to the will, a picture tainted by uncontrollable passion, which the very nature of sin itself. Given all these preconditions, held by most thinkers of the High Middle Ages, while the Good is always present, in some form, as the final end, there is a massive amount of room for both the intellect to proceed falsely, as well as the will to act upon tainted images presented to it by intellect. Hence, while Goodness moves the will necessarily, the means are purely contingent. If contingent, then they are not absolute; if not absolute, then they move the will relatively, hence, incompletely.

If incompletely, then there is room for free choice, since the attraction is not complete and total. Hence, it is the condition of our earthly existence that the will can move falsely, that is, chose poor means to the ever present end of happiness. Since man is surrounded by matter/potency, and matter moves the passions with necessity, passion, rather than reason, can manipulate the will. This, put differently, is the formal definition of sin.

 In Qxiii, a6, rep1, Thomas makes the argument that there must be something about end x, an ingredient, that makes it lead towards happiness. In a reality where all potential is actual, means y will be immediately and completely proportional to x, as may have existed in the world prior to the Fall. But this is never the case in our world. Hence, y can never be proportional to x.

Hence y is contingent, x might not be. X might move the will necessarily, but there is no necessity to y, since choice concerns means, not ends. But if x is a contingent good, it might as well be considered wrongly, as an object of passion/matter rather then absolute good. Then, it is a means in reality, just a means towards a more comprehensive end, and end not as encased in potential as x might be.

Hence, all of these are objects of freedom, since they all contain some lack, some potency that eliminates the perfect proportion necessary to move the will necessarily, to control it completely. Since man is earthbound, nothing is completely actual, hence, since potency remains the lot of man in the fallen world, the will moves freely since all objects that have been created partake in both good and evil (or lack/potency). Part of the existence of potency means that there is never a pure proportion between ends and means. Hence, freedom, because of the fallen nature of the world, is the normal lot of humankind.

A good choice is then based on a proper report of the intellect, and the proper response of the will. To make this more clear, the argument looks like this: p1 The will can be moved by necessity;p2 For something to do this, it must be habituated to its object in every respect, it must, in other words, be absolutely congruent to it;p3 there is never any guarantee that means y will lead to end xp4 this is because man is fallen and imperfect, and is surrounded by matter/potencyc1 hence, means are never perfectly proportional to the endc2 The will must be free in respect to mixed goods; p5 this lack of proportion (the “mixture”) is created by potency;c3 the will, therefore, cannot be moved by something not fully in act;c4 since God is the only Being fully in act, only He, the Good and the purest happiness, can move the will by necessity;c5 therefore, God, fully in act, can conform itself completely to the will, hence moving it by necessityc6 Hence, nothing, save God, can move the will by necessity. The understanding is that man does not stand face to face with God, hence, given the above argument, nothing on earth can move the will by necessity. One must consider object x as containing some ingredient y.

Y=goodness. But, given our earthly situation, x is not utterly and completely good, since only God is, that nature which is uncreated. Hence, x is always going to be deficient in y. Therefore, this deficiency can never move the will by necessity.

Thomas writes: “The intellect is necessarily moved by an object which is as such to be always and necessarily true, but not by that which could be true or false, that is, y what which is contingent. . .” (Qx, a3, rep 2).

The only argument Thomas provides is that absolute movement (i.e necessity) can only be moved by a proportionate mover, that is, an absolute Mover. As with the intellect, so the will. Nothing is absolutely true or false, good or bad.

All on earth is in a state of becoming, translating potency into act, matter into spirit. This permanent lack of proportion between intellect and truth, will and good, creates a vacuum, a vacuum that leaves room for freedom. This is the crux of the argument. Thus, there are two specific but related arguments at work here.

The first contains means and ends in an absolute sense. Our life is about creating happiness, ultimately to remain unchanging and unchangeable in the vision of God. Therefore, life is about means. The end is given and works on the will necessarily (though happiness can be ill-defined, it remains the end in itself).

Means on earth and imperfect, as everything on earth is. Therefore, ends are not absolutely congruent with the end of happiness, leading to freedom. Since there is no absolute proportion of means to ends, given our earthly existence, freedom is permitted to exist. Secondly, given relative ends on earth, they may be considered as ends themselves (though not the ultimate end), and because of this lack of ultimateness, it is a contingent good.

Hence, since it is contingent, and not fully in act (as God is) it contains potency, it contains things that are not good. If it contains things that are not good, the will is free with respect to these contingent ends.The argument, hence, becomes one: for x to be moved necessarily by y, y must be fully and absolutely conformed to x. Nothing on earth is fully and absolutely conformed to anything, since everything is in some state of becoming (or passing away).

Hence, x is always free relative to y. 

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Thomas Aquinas on the Freedom of the Will. (2017, Mar 03). Retrieved from

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