Augustine: On the Free Choice of the Will
Augustine and the Free Will
Free will is a philosophical description for the capacity of a being endowed with the reasoning skill to enable him or her to discern the best action from all other actions. Most philosophers presumed that free will is connected to the moral responsibility. In this sense, free will entails the responsibility of having being conscious on the possible consequences of one’s action (“Free Will” 2005). In Book I, the long discussion on the free will started when Evodius inquired on the cause of evil. Since God is the cause of every existing thing, is Evodius then, the author of evil deeds? For Saint Augustine, God is good and just in giving punishments to the wicked but is not the cause of the evil deeds (Hackett 1993). For him, every human has the “free choice of will” which presence can not be refuted. For free choice in everything is very obvious that it needs not to be explained, hence, it is an absurdity to deny it. As discussed by Marcus, man’s free will gives him the freedom to choose from the set of alternatives. His will is good because this is a gift from God, the perfect being. However, this can be strayed when it is not subdued with reason.
The Free Choice of the Will
God is completely good and just, all knowing, and a powerful being. He is the creator of everything except evil. God is good; the absence of good is evil. Thus, evil is then considered as the absence of God. Evil then is a deficiency, lack of any good and without any positive attribute. In addition, man has the power to choose between the good and the evil because of God-given gift free will that is innate in humans. If a man has no freedom to choose between the bad and the good, but is rather destined to be wicked enough to receive God’s punishment, then, it destroys the premise that God is good and just. If God is good and everything is created by God, it follows then that all creatures are good. Why evil deeds then are prevalent in our lives? According to Saint Augustine, evil things are due to man’s choice to do evil. This has led to the question, that if God is all knowing, He has foreknowledge that a person in a certain situation will choose the evil side. Why then God permits that person to choose the evil if punishment is the consequence of that choice? God’s sense of justice will be at stake in this sense. As Saint Augustine said, if God will intervene in man’s decision, then, man’s “free will” is no longer a free will. Man’s gift of the free will means he has the power to do what he wants and what he chooses. Thus, to avoid sin and punishment, man must not be willed to sin.
Most philosophers presumed that free will is implied in every moral judgment (“Free Will” 2005). Rewards and punishment in every act then is unjust if the doer is unconscious in the act. As such, in the absence of free will, our moral, political, and religious standards then are absolutely devoid of justice. However, it is very obvious that even the act of challenging the justice of God’s punishment indicates freedom of choice. Thus, to deny it also means the denial of the essence of any moral judgment. Saint Augustine added that any explanation of a morally good or evil ceases if the choice is not the choice of the one responsible for the act. This implies that evil –doing without free will is not a sin. If this is the truth, God is unjust in giving punishment.
God’s Providence and Human Happiness
Following the arguments and propositions on God’s justice and on the cause of evil in Book I and II, their discussions led to God’s providence and Human happiness. Since God is omniscient, He has sovereignty in all things. Thus, the proposition that God has no foreknowledge is a denial of this sovereignty. In book III, Evodius argued that God’s providential foreknowledge destroys free will. In this line, Augustine told a scenario, “Suppose, for example, that you are going to be happy a year from now. That means that a year from now God is going to make you happy.” Can one be happy against his will? Since it is impossible to be happy against one’s will, the proposition of Evodius that God’s providence deprives our free will is false. If you know that your best friend will be absent tomorrow in your philosophy class, for instance, your foreknowledge won’t affect his will to be out of class. Thus, even if God has foreknowledge of man’s future choices, man has the power to do what he wills. God’s providence then, confirmed man’s free will of choice.
Will, Cupidity, and Free Choice of the Will
Based on the discussion of Hooker, for Augustine, man has both carnal will or the cupidity, and spiritual will or caritas, that are in continuous struggle. The carnal self supports sinful actions while the caritas sustains self-denial and ethical actions. Thus, the carnal is the will of the flesh while caritas, is the will to God. Thought and external influences are voluntary sources of sin through bodily senses and evil desires. For Augustine, choices are shaped by our motives, that are in turn, are affected by our desires. Desires on the other hand, influence our dispositions towards good or evil thus affecting our decisions. Since, man is a creation of God, thus, the he is also the source of everything.
Free will then, is a gift from God for us to live in harmony with His nature. God has given us free will in order for us to choose His path not just because it is the easiest way. Nevertheless, the cause of free choice of the will is God while its misuse under the inclination of the will causes sin and evil. If drought, although a condition for, is not a cause of famine; lack of food does. In the same manner, God creates condition for man to move humans closer to him. If man, misuses this condition, failure results. Hence, God has foreknowledge of the events but He is not the agent of what He has foreseen. Thus, He does not share responsibility on man’s misuse of freedom. For instance, if one donated money in an organization for relief goods and someone embezzled it, the donor is not morally ground to this demolish thing. In the same manner, God has given us the gift of free will but is not responsible for its misuse. It is a blasphemy then to attribute the evil doings of the creatures to the creator. Why is then free will given to man? The happiness God has designed for higher creatures are the happiness of being freely, voluntarily, that is freely united to Him and to one another. Moreover, God has given us the power to avoid sin just like Jesus Christ, the saints, and the angels. However, according to Augustine, we can not oblige God to bestow unto us every attributes we want. We owe everything to God and God owes nothing to us; yet gives everything freely. We must be therefore thankful on what He has given to us and should not question what we want but He has not given.
The Nature of Evil
Augustine stated that evil is the result of the misuse of man’s free will. Free will made the way for the evil to enter the world. Free will then provides us with power and responsibility for us to choose what we want regardless of the boundaries. The evil character of the will is its inability to choose the available greatest good. In addition, since evil is not a plausible entity, we can not fully explain its nature and origin. Moreover, defects in the will may also be unprovoked because no external force can be sufficient to affect the will. If there is such force present, that would be much powerful than the will. If the will is overpowered by a stronger force, there will be no moral fault but if the will is stronger than the force yet unable to overcome it, evil results. If evil will is uncaused then, how God has known it? This may lead us back to the basic premise, “will” can be caused and foreknown but not its evilness.
State and Free Will
Loving God is a state of being and not an action. The companion power within the soul is the intellect that perceives what is good, whereas the will, using the information, makes choices and initiates actions. If our actions are all based on the free choice of will, this does not mean that our state of being also does. For we are free to love God and to show our commitment to Him through praying or helping the poor, but we may not be able to transform ourselves to be a God-lover. According to Augustine, these actions may not be pleasing to God unless they emanated from our state of loving, hence, beyond our power of choosing. He therefore denied that our will is free to love God without God’s intervention.
Natural Movement and Voluntary Movement
In Book III, Augustine used the analogy of a falling stone to differentiate a natural movement from a voluntary one. The stone falls due to the action of gravity. Thus, we can not blame the stone for the cause of its fall for it is the nature which dictated its fate. Humans, on the other hand, have the sense of reason that made them different from all other creatures. On this ground, man must be responsible for all his actions. Although he did not deny that there is movement natural to the will, he still reiterated that the will is not dictated by its nature as similar with the stone. The will acts by its own forces. This means that in every human action, the will is the ultimate cause. Only the will can determine itself and not by any external factor. It has therefore an intrinsic nature prior to any choice.
Limitations of Human Judgment
Through the hierarchy of things here in the world, we perceive that several creatures are much better, thus, higher than the others: creatures that are alive are better than inanimate objects; living organisms that have senses are much better than plants; and humans that are alive have senses, and have the gift of reason are much perfect to the rest of the creations. However, even if we are the highest form of living organisms, we are not capable of an absolute understanding of reality. For we judge reality based the way we perceive things, beauty, truth or evil. In order to perceive, we make use of definite criteria that if are correct, entails the veracity of our judgment. Can we absolutely perceive the truth? In judging, we are guided by the truth but we do not judge the truth. The truth therefore is higher than us. Nonetheless, in perceiving the truth, we must grasp with something that does not change (solid basis). For if our basis changes, the left over is just a part of the truth. This is also true in perceiving the real free choice of the will. In trying to explain free choices through other things may limit the rationale for the free will. For different things may require different explanations. Hence, in trying to conceive for the real sense of the free will, this may lead us to a perilous situation that is substituting vagueness to its real essence.
In completely relying on our own natural reason to make plausible reason of the nature of the free will might lead us to failure. By theoretical reason, presenting the cause of our freedom may destroy the real sense of freedom. For if our freedom has a cause that provides its explanation, whether it is from below or above, the freedom has explained away. In terms of practical reason, by saying that we are free from God’s influence is admitting the fact that God is the single source of everything, thus, limiting the metaphysical reason. It is then righteous to go back to book I wherein Evodius asked Augustine of the cause of evil. Augustine told Evodius to persevere and be patient enough in order to gain understanding on the matter of his inquiry. He stated that he himself has experience the same menace that when not resolved will lead him astray and may cause him to blame God in the end. For God is an all-powerful being and has sovereignty in everything, thus, he is the ruler, Evodius must believe. He further stated that in believing they will gain understanding through God’s mercy.
Through these words of Saint Augustine, we may say that he is seeking the truth through faith and understanding. He insisted in their dialogue that we should believe through faith that in God’s providence, we are free. This means that the only way to understand these matters of faith is through divine intervention. It is possibly true that by imploring aid from God deprives our freedom, but this seems the best way to understand these matters. For sure, we can not entirely understand God’s nature because we can not deem equality with God, that is, we are not God and are impossible to be God. If it is a menial task for us to understand the intricacies of God’s creation, much even more his mysterious nature.
Augustine, On the Free Choice of the Will, tr. Thomas Williams. Cambridge: Hackett, 1993.
“Free Will.” 14 April 2005. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 31 October 2008 <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freewill/>
Hooker, Roger. 1996. “Early Christianity.” World Civilization. 31 October 2008 <http://www.wsu.edu:8000/~dee/CHRIST/AUG.HTM>
Marcus, Jacqueline. n.d. “Introduction to Philosophy.” Philosophy.org. 31 October 2008 < http://www.tcsn.net/jackie/philosophy_class.htm>