Lesson 6: Human Freedom

The chief impediment to recovering Aquinas's teaching on voluntary agency is the modern celebration of freedom that stands between us and the 13th century. Freedom has inspired nearly all the great political movements of the modern world and modern philosophers have been more preoccupied with the questions of whether human beings are free and, if so, how we are to characterize that freedom. By contrast, Aquinas both devotes much less attention to the topic and develops a view of freedom that seems much too constraining to modern humanity.

Some understanding of modern conceptions of freedom is necessary if we are to uncover and appreciate the distinctive features of Aquinas's position. Just as with the question of mind and body, so too with the issue of freedom we find a basic set of options articulated very early in the modern period, in the writings of Descartes and Hobbes. The latter treats human nature and deliberation mechanistically and ends up denying the ascription of free choice to human agents. Choice is merely the last stage in deliberation, not a free rational judgment; it is always under the determining influence of antecedent passion. By underscoring the universal threat of violent death in the state of nature, Hobbes hopes to compel his audience to lay down their natural rights and submit to a Leviathan, a governor with complete power over his subjects. By contrast, Descartes separates human understanding and agency from the realm of physical causality and urges us to adopt a posture of self-determination and self-regulation of our thought. Although he does not in the Meditations develop an ethical doctrine of freedom, the description of human nature that emerges from that work suggests a position distinct from that of Hobbes.

When one compares the paucity of references to freedom in ancient philosophy with its centrality in modern philosophy, one also notes a corresponding shift in the modern period toward speaking of human beings as persons rather than as individuals with a shared human nature. Here the most important figure is undoubtedly Kant, who speaks of human persons precisely in order to distinguish them from nature. According to the Newtonian conception of nature which informs Kant's writing, nature is the realm of deterministic necessity, understood in terms of law-like generalizations and mathematical formulae. The mechanistic flow of natural causes leaves no room for freedom. To make room for freedom, to carve out a niche for properly human agency, Kant appeals to the "fact of freedom," which is at least implicitly experienced in each individual's deliberation and action. How is this so? In deliberating and acting, I must presuppose myself to be self-determining. Were I not to assume this capacity of free self-determination, I would undercut the very possibility of choosing among options that constitutes deliberation: "Now I say every being that cannot act except under the idea of freedom is just for that reason in a practical point of view really free... It must regard itself as the author of its principles independent of foreign influences" (Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals). More dramatically for Kant, the fact that in deliberating and choosing I find myself bound by a moral law is proof that I possess a rational independence from external causes. The moral law requires that, in cases where duty conflicts with inclination, I act against inclination, that is, against the deterministic realm of nature. Another crucial characteristic of the moral law is that each individual gives it to himself; only if I am self-legislating can I be autonomous and truly free. To accept a law from nature or human society or God is to act heteronomously, that is, to be enslaved to a force external to me. Our dignity consists in obeying a law we give ourselves. The rational self-determination that I discover in myself is present in each person and this is the ground of the imperative that we treat humanity as an end never merely as a means. Persons ought not to be instrumentalized; they have dignity, not price: "Man and generally any rational being exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will, but in all his actions, whether they concern himself or other rational beings, must be always regarded at the same time as an end" (p. 271). Although Kant uses the terms "man" and "humanity," he resists grounding dignity and freedom on an anthropology or empirical study of the inclinations and propensities of human nature. To do so would be to return us to the realm of natural, causal necessity. Imperatives based on human nature could be the basis only of hypothetical imperatives (that is, commands that presuppose some contingent inclination in human beings: for example, if you want a Pepsi, you must get off the couch and go to the kitchen), not categorical imperatives (that is, commands that we must obey regardless of our inclinations: for example, do not murder).

Kant presents a powerful defense of human freedom and of the distinctive dignity of human persons. At least in one respect, with his use of the term "person," he is anticipated by medieval, Catholic thought. The notion of human beings as persons was originally coined in the course of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. When Aquinas reflects on the three-personed God, he recurs to Boethius' classic definition of a person as an "individual substance of a rational nature" (ST, I, 29, 1). He notes that individuality belongs to concretely existing substances, especially to rational substances who have "dominion over their own acts." In the created order, "person" signifies "what is most perfect in all of nature." Especially in God the term "person" connotes a) incommunicability, since the divine persons are irreducibly distinct and unrepeatable, and b) relationality, since the only possible ground for distinction in a simple divine being is the relation of origin. As we shall see, incommunicability and relationality are also characteristics of human persons, although for different reasons.

When we compare Aquinas with Kant, the chief modern proponent of depicting human beings as persons, we find some similarities. Both speak of the self-determination of rational agents and both underscore the individuality or incommunicability of persons, who are not merely parts or members of a common species. The person is a "who," not merely a "what." In both accounts, persons have a special dignity that sets them apart. These commonalities must, however, be set against quite different backgrounds. First, Aquinas nowhere sets persons in diametrical opposition to nature; instead he refers to them as individuals of a rational nature and as most perfect in nature. We stand at the pinnacle of created, embodied nature; we thus recapitulate in ourselves the whole of nature and elevate bodily nature to a participation in our rational freedom. Thus we can appropriate and direct the lower functions and capacities of nature in accord with the judgment of our reason. Second, Aquinas does not operate within the framework of a dichotomy between autonomy and heteronomy, at least in anything like Kant's formulation of the division. Aquinas would of course concur that if we are compelled by force to act or if we allow ourselves to be dominated by vicious rather than virtuous inclinations, we are no longer self-determined. But Aquinas speaks of human beings as "ruled rulers," whose self-determination is ensconced within and fostered by obedience to nature and God. The more we participate in the order established for us by God, the more free we are. This is not to be enslaved to an external and self-alienating law; it is, rather, to discover who and what we are as creatures. Indeed, to think of ourselves as utterly autonomous is to replicate the sins of pride and envy that undid the rebellious angels and our first parents.

In the whole order of embodied nature, human persons have an especially intimate relationship to the divine. The incommunicability of the person is underscored by the fact that each human soul is created immediately by God. Historically, the notion of the person as incommunicable is associated with the process of naming, whereby something stands forth as distinct from other things. We need only recall the importance of naming in the book of Genesis, for example, Adam's naming of the animals and God's renaming of Abram. If we are persons in our very origins, we are so by being called forth into existence in an especially personal way by our creator. Our very being is radically contingent, dependent on the free gift of a creator God. Our personal identity is realized not in autonomy but in being referred to the person who is our transcendent source. As Aquinas observes in his discussion of man as imago Dei, our intellect and will reflect the divine, but we are images of God not primarily in so far as we possess in a static way the capacity of judgment and choice but in so far as we are dynamically and consciously ordered to the exemplar of the image, who is both source and goal of our life. Thus community is in some sense prior to and constitutive of our individuality.

The issues of autonomy and heteronomy are addressed concisely and eloquently in John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis Splendor. To the Kantian thesis, he responds that

obedience to God is not... heteronomy, as if the moral life were subject to the will of something all-powerful, absolute, extraneous to man and intolerant of his freedom. If in fact a heteronomy of morality were to mean a denial of man's self-determination or the imposition of norms unrelated to his good, this would be... nothing but a form of alienation, contrary to divine wisdom.

The antecedent and governing truth regarding the question of human freedom is that fact of creation and of human participation, especially in the highest capacities of knowing and loving, in the order of divine providence. Instead of heteronomy, we should speak of "theonomy or participated theonomy, since man's free obedience to divine law effectively implies that human reason and human will participate in God's wisdom and providence" (p. 57).

Aquinas's account of freedom is at odds not only with the classical, liberal view of Kant, but also with the school of existentialism, whose celebration of human freedom knows no limits. This school continues the so-called humanistic reaction against the degrading determinism of science and depicts all reliance upon external standards as "bad faith," a cowardly and immoral unwillingness to embrace our radical freedom. In his Existentialism and Human Emotions, Jean-Paul Sartre traces our freedom to the absence of a God who creates and knows natures. He echoes Dostoevsky's assertion that if there is no God, all is possible (p. 22). The metaphysical doctrine of existentialism is that existence precedes essence, that at first man is nothing and that whatever he becomes is the result of his free self-fashioning. Thus we are completely responsible for who we are and cannot blame anyone--God, family, or society--or anything--nature or law--for what we have become. Authentic experience of our freedom involves anguish and the feeling of being forlorn. Thus, Sartrean existentialism is fundamentally atheistic. If there were a creator God who made us according to some blueprint, then human beings could be said to have a nature corresponding to a concept or model in the divine mind. Since there is no creator God,

man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself. If man... is indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be. Thus, there is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive it... Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. (p. 15)

Residual elements of Kant's conception of human dignity surface in Sartre's view that accentuating our radical self-creation evades any attempted articulation of human beings as objects possessing determinate, definable natures. Existentialism "gives man dignity" because it "does not reduce him to an object" (p. 37). The universalist tenor of Kantian ethics perdures in Sartre's insistence that in creating ourselves we are creating an image of man as he ought to be. There is a tension, however, between the universalist thrust and the view of the moral life as a work of art (pp. 23 and 42). Kant's conception of duty does not immediately invite comparisons with artistic self-creation. There is an unstated link between the two in the conception of autonomy as that which is free from all external restraint. If one gives up Kant's division between autonomy and inclination, then duty itself comes to seem an artificial imposition upon autonomy. Here Nietzsche's remark that morality and autonomy are incompatible is prophetic. And once autonomy is construed as artistic self-creation, it is impossible to predict or limit the directions it might take: heroic sacrifice for the good of humanity or delight in the destruction of the innocent or the latter for the sake of the former as Dostoevsky shows in Crime and Punishment.

We might wonder, furthermore, whether existentialism liberates us from the shackles and dilemmas of modern science; it seems rather to entrench us further in the dualisms we have inherited from Descartes. On the existentialist view, science can teach us nothing about what we are as human beings; we would lose any sense that we are animals. The body is denigrated as merely biological. We are still lost in the cosmos with no proper place and without any clear limits on our use and manipulation of nature. Instead of safeguarding human dignity, existentialism deprives us of the ability to distinguish between an appropriate stewardship of nature and arbitrary tyranny over it. Indeed, there is an uneasy alliance between the emphasis on radical self-creation and the attempt to introduce moral limits by recourse to the notion that we are creating a universal norm. As we have already noted, the compatibility of these two assertions is itself mere assertion. For Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, the denial of the existence of a creating and legislating God may well engender the aspiration for freedom understood as the raw exercise of power, exhibited in acts of spectacular destruction.

In its reaction against the degrading determinism of modern science, existentialism seems to recapture the sense of life as a drama. But its view that we are nothing but what we make of ourselves at any moment dissolves the constituting continuity of a dramatic narrative. As Sartre puts it, we are "condemned at every moment to invent man" (p. 23). If our choices involve at every moment the radical reconstruction of the self, then we are saddled with an atomistic view of human action and condemned to a paralyzing multiplication of possibilities. Habit could not be the basis of a virtuous character but only an impediment to freedom.

There is, nonetheless, a sense in which Aquinas would subscribe to the priority of existence over essence. Created natures are dependent upon their act of existence which is a gracious gift of the creator God. This does not mean that nature or essence evaporates in the face of existence; nature remains the source of the intelligibility of substances. It means simply that our existence is contingent, dependent. What Thomas's existentialism unmasks is the false notion of the ego as self-constituting and self-sustaining. In itself, the self is nothing. Recall that it is only by wedding itself to the other in knowledge and in love that we have a self at all. The fact that existentialism has given way to philosophical views that further dissipate the self, that treat it as a mere locus for the intersection of vectors of force and power, is not surprising. Having seen through the self, we encounter our nothingness. If we do not then encounter the person who is the creating and sustaining cause of our natures, we are left to the whims of our arbitrary and increasingly trivial choices.

The modern exaltation of freedom at the expense of nature and our living relationship to a personal God begins by urging upon us the Herculean task of self-legislation but ends up reducing freedom to farce. If there is nothing either external to me or within my nature in light of which I might appraise my choices, then every choice validates (and thereby trivializes) itself. If Aquinas' view of the human person stands as an inviting alternative to the modern project, this does not mean that his position can be easily understood or vindicated. Aquinas's emphatic statement that the will necessarily desires happiness (ST, I, 82, 1) sounds constraining to modern ears. According to Aquinas, the only sort of necessity that is repugnant to our voluntariness is that of force or coercion (ST, I-II, 10, 2). We are masters of our own actions by free choice of means not by determining ultimate ends for ourselves. We are who we are, ordered to goods appropriate to our nature, no matter what we may think or do. Aquinas is thus diametrically opposed to the popular view that our freedom consists in our capacity of radical self-creation. Of course, this does not mean that nature dictates one way of life for all; a variety of ways of life are compatible with the ends set for us by our nature. We can certainly act against our nature and frustrate its telos. Or we can actively, consciously, and freely appropriate natural ends and in that sense "make" them our own. In what then does our freedom consist?

Some have wanted to see in Thomas's assertion that the will moves the intellect, an inchoate acknowledgment of the autonomy of the will. Aquinas does indeed note that, while the intellect moves the will by proposing ends to it, the will moves the intellect to the exercise of its own act (ST, I, 82, 4) and is even capable of moving itself (ST, I- II, 9, 3). Aquinas distinguishes between the specification of the act, which concerns the end and falls to the intellect, and the exercise, which concerns agency and is under the control of the will. The role of the will in the exercise of intellectual acts is rightly seen as an important Augustinian contribution to Aquinas's generally Aristotelian view of human action. It allows Aquinas to reflect on the ethical conditions of our exercise of our intellectual powers in ways that Aristotle never does. Nowhere, however, does Aquinas countenance anything more than a relative, and carefully circumscribed, autonomy of the will. In fact, he derives freedom of choice from the "free judgment" of reason (ST, I, 83, 1). Every act of will is preceded by apprehension. The priority of the presentation of the good to the will underscores our dependence on an order of nature of which we are but a part. In its primordial relationship to things, the will does not act as an efficient cause moving things this way or that. Rather, the will is drawn toward goods. Of course, the will is free to resist this attraction. Still, as Yves Simon puts it, the "attraction undergone precedes the attraction freely chosen." Most defenders of Aquinas trace human freedom to the indeterminacy of reason, to its ability to consider a number of aspects of any object, its various desirable and undesirable features, and thus to revise its judgment about the goodness of any particular object.

What is common and deficient in these two approaches to human freedom is their essentially negative character. They accent the indeterminacy of intellect or will or both. Yves Simon coins the term "super-determination" as a more apt description of Aquinas's view of freedom. The indifference of judgment is rooted in the "natural super-determination of the rational appetite," which finds satisfaction not in any particular good but only in the universal good (bonum in communi). The good in common or universal good is not an abstraction or an aggregate but the supreme good containing intensively all particular goods. Thus, the will's "inexhaustible ability to transcend any particular good" arises from its "living relationship to the comprehensive good." This relationship requires that the will "invalidate the claim of any particular good" to be the ultimate good.9 To see the advantages of construing freedom as super-determination, one might ponder the difference between a virtuous and non-virtuous, though not necessarily vicious, agent. We need to be careful here not to confuse Aquinas's conception of virtue as habit with our popular view of habit as the unreflective, mechanical, and rote performance of actions. Augustine thus speaks of sin as the "weight of habit" in his Confessions. A virtuous person will indeed possess a reliable character, but she will also act reflectively, be attuned to what is salient and peculiar in situations, and thus act in ways that could not be completely predicted, at least by those lacking the relevant virtue. With these caveats in mind, we do well to consider the following examples. Someone who lacks the virtue of courage or possesses it imperfectly is, in a situation that calls for the exercise of courage, likely to lack determination, to be torn between the options of courage and cowardice. The virtuous person by contrast will readily and with delight conform to what courage demands. Indeed, a perfectly virtuous person is incapable of knowingly acting otherwise. The question is-- Who is more free in this circumstance? The one who lacks virtue and thus has an indeterminate will? Or the virtuous whose will is super-determined?

Reading Assignment

Summa Theologiae, I, 29-30, 82-83, 93 

Kant, The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals 

John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor.

Writing Assignment

1. Summarize and explain the significance of the key points of Aquinas's account of human freedom.

2. Compare Kant and Aquinas on the human person and human dignity.

Suggested Reading

Yves Simon, Freedom of Choice (Fordham University Press)

Jean-Paul Sartre,Existentialism and Human Emotions (Citadel Press).


9. Simon, Freedom of Choice (New York: Fordham University Press, 1969), pp. 97-106 and 152-158.


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