Some Notes on Free Will

Aquinas uses the Latin liberum arbitrium,  meaning “free judgment” when he talks about free will in the Prima Pars (the first part of the Summa Theologica), henceforth referenced by the Roman numeral I).  The idea of “judgment” is important for his parsing out what he means by free will.

He says in I, Q. 83, art. I that some things act without judgments, like a stone moving downward when dropped.  Other things move with judgment but without knowledge like animals who judge a something like a steak to be good, but judge according to instinct, not reason.  Humans, however, act from judgment with knowledge, meaning that humans reason that something should be sought or avoided, not on instinct, but according to reason.

One advantage of acting according to judgment with knowledge is that human beings can be inclined to various “good” things like studying for comps or blogging, but not to any particular good.  Now, that does not mean that the will is not moved of necessity.  In Q. 82, art. 2, Aquinas says that the will must of necessity tend towards the good.  This means that the will has to will anything that it wills because it sees it as a good.  The reason that free will is still possible in light of this is that the will is not bound to any particular good.  Blogging and studying for comprehensive exams are both goods, and my will can choose either one of them because it judges one to be a particular good worthy of pursuit over the other (which is why I am blogging at midnight rather than studying or sleeping, other, perhaps better goods).

The idea of free will got a little distorted in the 14th c. in what is known as the Nominalist movement.  Figures like Duns Scotus and William Occam read that the will was bound by necessity to the good (that it must will the good) and assumed that this undermined human freedom.  Occam posited instead the freedom of indifference for the will, meaning that the will was not bound by anything.  It could choose evil if it wanted to, or it could choose good.  For Occam and others during this time, this was the only conception of freedom that made sense.

For Aquinas, freedom is not the capacity to choose between contraries.  The will is created to be inclined towards the good and so it simply cannot choose evil.  To understand this, let’s think of the stone falling to the ground.  The stone has to fall towards the ground.  This is simply the way God created the universe and the natural laws according to which the universe operate says that a stone dropped on earth will fall to the ground.  In a similar way, the will has to move towards the good.  The difference is that, whereas there is only one place for the stone to go, namely down, there are many places the will can go.  There are many different goods it can choose.  But just because God created it to tend towards the good does not mean that it isn’t free:

Free-will is the cause of its own movement because by his free-will, man moves himself to act.  But it does not of necessity belong to liberty that what is free should be the first cause of itself. . .God, therefore, is the first cause, Who moves causes both natural and voluntary.  And just as by moving natural causes He does not prevent their acts being natural, so by moving voluntary causes He does not deprive their actions of being voluntary: but rather is He the cause of this very thing in them; for He operates in each thing according to its own nature (I, Q. 83, art. 1).

What I think is so interesting about Aquinas’ treatment of free will is the extent to which he emphasizes how the exercise of the free will depends on the help of God.  In the reply to 83.1, Obj. 2, he says that free-will is not sufficient, “unless it be moved and helped by God.”  In the reply to Obj. 4 of the same article, he says “man’s way is said no be his in the execution of his choice, wherein he may be impeded, whether he will or not.  The choice itself, however, is in us, but presupposes the help of God.”  In the next article, he says that “free will is the subject of grace, by the help of which it chooses what is good.”

The reformer Martin Luther is famous for saying that there is no such thing as free will.  What he means is that  human beings are incapable of doing good unless helped by grace.  To illustrate this point in a work called The Bondage of the Will, he borrows an image from Augustine of the will being ridden (enslaved) by Satan, unless it be justified, whereby it is then ridden or “enslaved” to God.

The tendency in moral theology has been to place Aquinas and Luther on opposite sides of the spectrum, with Aquinas emphasizing the good that human beings are capable of, and Luther emphasizing the complete and utter dependence on grace.  I am not so sure this is fair to Aquinas.  In I, Q. 83, art.2, ad. 3, Aquinas says “man is said to have lost free will by falling into sin, not as to natural liberty, which is freedom from coercion, but as regards freedom from fault and unhappiness.”

It seems to me that Luther and Aquinas are closer than they are thought to be.  Luther thinks that with grace, and only with grace, can the will do what it is supposed to do.  He uses the metaphor of enslavement to God to illustrate the point.  Aquinas agrees that only with grace can the will do what it is supposed to do (not just in its fallen state but in its natural state as well).  Rather than enslavement, however, Aquinas talks about necessity to clarify the sense in which the will is free.  In Q. 82, art. 2, he says that the will can freely choose among various goods that are not necessary for happiness, “but there are some things that have a necessary connection with happiness, by means of which things man adheres to God, in Whom alone true happiness consists.  Nevertheless, until through the certitude of the Divine Vision the necessity of such connection be shown, the will does not adhere to God of necessity, nor to those things which are of God.  But the will of the man who sees God in His essence of necessity adheres to God, just as now we desire of necessity to be happy” (emphasis mine).  What Aquinas is saying here is really very similar to Luther–the will needs grace to do what it is supposed to do as a will, and to do what a will is supposed to do is the only meaning of “freedom” that makes any sense.


12 comments so far

  1. everydaythomist on

    Thanks for the dose of Lonergan. I have not read much of him though I am trying to slowly integrate him into my repertoire. He does a good job in this link you sent talking about the development of operating vs. cooperating grace (which are one and the same grace, because grace is one, but having different effects.) The first, operating grace or gratia operans, is when the will is made good by God’s act and given the ability to will the good. The second, cooperating grace or gratia cooperans, is when the the will and grace operate together to actually bring about good action. The idea of free will is maintained in such a system because grace alone cannot be the sole principle of good action, only the sole principle of a good will (which is, of course, necessary for good action).

    So Aquinas has the pleasant image of the will working with grace, cooperating with grace, leaning on grace while Luther has the image of the will being almost coerced by grace as a slave to a master. I am still convinced they mean basically the same thing, only Luther wants to make his views radically different from the Semi-Pelagianism around him and avoid any inclination that human beings can do good action on their own.

  2. daviddelaney on

    Beth – I will provide some comments back on the thread we began on my blog (C-L-S) as I will probably forget to check back here for any possible responses from you. Sorry for that.

  3. WiND05 on


    I agree with you that it is important, in understanding Thomas Aquinas, to know that freedom is not the freedom to choose an objective good or objective evil, but rather the ability to choose the good. I agree with the strong statement that the will cannot choose evil – in fact, that the will choose the good is one of the two foundations of Thomism (the first being the principle of non-contradiction).

    But that alone gives an overly optimistic presentation of Thomas. The Thomist tradition also speaks of “apparent good,” and the fallen will chooses the “apparent good” rather than the “real good.” An apparent good is a lesser good given priority over a greater good — the good of Snickers bars chosen to the detriment of good health — or an objective evil which is thought to be good, such as the prideful grasp for autonomy which was the Fall.

    Thus, without grace, the human will does not choose the true good but tends towards the apparent good. The fact that the will tends towards what is or at least appears to be good is a testament against total depravity, but also means that the natural (fallen) state of the soul is still fallen and sinful.

    It was interesting to read your comparison of grace in Luther and Aquinas, and how it allows both to do what is good. They do differ on grace insofar as Aquinas believes that grace can be a habitus possessed by the soul, whereas Luther flatly rejects any notion of grace as a habitus, insisting that grace is the continuing action of the Holy Spirit in the soul (rather than of the Christian’s own soul), insofar as I understand it.

  4. everydaythomist on

    WiNDO5, thanks for your comments. I do not think that we can talk about an objective evil. When Aquinas refers to “apparent goods,” he is referring to them relatively. They are not evil in and of themselves, but choosing them may be an act lacking in goodness (an evil act, if you will) because of circumstances.

    Aquinas says that for an act to be good, the object must be good, the intent must be good, and the circumstances must be appropriate. If I choose a Snicker’s bar as my lunch, even though I am diabetic, the act is inordinate and therefore not good according to circumstances. The Snicker bar itself, however, is not an evil. So I don’t think Aquinas would agree that we can will an evil qua evil but only under the aspect of good. The fact that the will tends toward apparent goods in light of the Fall means that the will tends toward lesser goods, usually in obedience to disordered passions, does not mean that these lesser goods are not still good, but rather, they are simply inordinate in light of the circumstances.

    You are indeed right about the difference between Luther and Aquinas on the subject of whether grace is a habit, or as it was framed post-Lombard, whether grace was equivalent with virtue. Aquinas rejects the idea that grace is identifiable with virtue, even charity, stating instead that grace is the origin of the virtues, not the virtues themselves. I think Luther would hesitate to accept the Thomist position in light of the fact that it leaves a positive role for the will to play, which always made Luther suspicious of semi-Pelagianism.

  5. WiND05 on


    I’m very sorry if my answer implied that Thomas would have thought that there was such a thing as objective evil — I thought I was trying to say that Thomas rejects the idea of objective evil in favor of the idea of “apparent goods” which are only evil insofar as they are disordered, but of course have goodness commensurate with their being. Sorry for any confusion I may have caused.

  6. WiND05 on

    I see what tripped it up — the question of grasping for the autonomy of the God which was the prideful act of the Fall. Would you say that the properly Divine autonomy which Adam and Eve tried to grasp (“Ye shall be as gods”) was really only an apparent good? I’m not sure, because there is no degree to which humanity can have Divine autonomy, but instead they were made to share in God. Thoughts?

  7. everydaythomist on

    Yes, being like God is an apparent good. God is good, so to be like him must be good. It is only inordinate in the case of Adam and Eve because they tried to be like God on their own, and not in accordance with God’s plan. Moreover, eating from the tree was a direct act of disobedience, thereby rendering the object of the act bad as well. But Divine Autonomy is most definitely a good, and grasping at it rather than cooperating with grace to achieve union with God and the “divinization” that comes with it is indeed grasping at an “apparent good.”

  8. everydaythomist on

    One way of thinking about the desire to be as God as an apparent good, not as an evil qua evil is by looking at Aquinas’ treatment of the soul’s understanding as separated from the body (I, Q. 89, art. 1). Aquinas says that the soul has two modes of understanding. The first, when the soul is embodied, is by turning to “corporeal phantasms,” which is just a way of saying that the intellect can only understand things insofar as these things exist in matter. The intellect when embodied cannot understand immaterial substances.

    The second way of understanding is when the soul is separate from the body, in which case it can no longer understand material things (because it doesn’t have a sense appetite) but must instead turn to simply intelligible objects.

    Aquinas thinks that understanding simply intelligible objects, without having to have these objects mediated through the material world, is a superior sense of understanding, one which the angels have. But he also thinks that this un-embodied way of understanding is not natural to human creatures.

    Wouldn’t it be better, he asks, if God had made the soul so that it was granted the more noble way of understanding, like the angels? His answer is that such a mode of understanding as the angels have, while more perfect simply, “is not so perfect as regards what is possible to the soul.” Even though the human soul holds the lowest place among intellectual substances, nevertheless, the universe requires various grades of being, each having various grades of perfection.

    Now, it is a great good to understand immaterial created substances, but it is only an apparent good for the embodied soul as we experience normal human life. In a similar way, it is a great good to be like God, but for human creatures, such a good is only apparent because it is not fitting with the perfection required by our created natures.

    Hope this clears some things up.

  9. WiND05 on

    There’s no question that the desire to be God is an apparent good — the question is whether what appears to be good can be an objective evil. It would be objectively evil, but still desired as an apparent (but mistaken) good. This is different from apparent goods which are real, but lesser, goods.

  10. everydaythomist on

    I think we can agree that goodness is commensurate with being and so insofar as a thing exists, it has goodness.

    An act is of a different nature. For an act to be objectively good according to Aquinas, it must have three things: (1) a good object, (2) a good intent, and (3) the appropriate circumstances. If any one of these three is missing, the act is rendered inordinate, and we can say that it is objectively bad.

    So objectively evil acts exist, but no thing exists which is objectively evil.

    The question of intrinsic evil is more interesting. My take on this is that Aquinas thinks that there are certain acts which have an evil object contained in their term. Murder, for example, we could say is “intrinsically evil” because the object included in the definition is “the unjust taking of life.” However, the act itself is the taking of a life, or killing, which can be good or bad depending on circumstances (just war, self-defense, etc.) When we get more specific, however, we include more in our definition, and so we can say that certain terms refer to objectively evil actions which in no case could be rendered ordinate.

  11. everydaythomist on

    We must therefore say that every action has goodness, in so far as it has being; whereas it is lacking in goodness, in so far as it is lacking in something that is due to its fullness of being; and thus it is said to be evil: for instance if it lacks the quantity determined by reason, or its due place, or something of the kind. ( ST I-II, Q. 18, art. 1).

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