Summary Against Modern Thought: There Is Free Will

This may be proved in three ways. The first...
This may be proved in three ways. The first…
See the first post in this series for an explanation and guide of our tour of Summa Contra Gentiles. All posts are under the category SAMT.

Previous post.

At last! An initial discussion of free will and what is meant by that. Recall last week we proved the existence of intellectual creatures.

Chapter 47 The intellectual substances are capable of willing (alternate translation)

1 Now these intellectual substances must needs be capable of willing.

2 For there is in all things a desire for good, since the good is what all desire, as philosophers teach. This desire, in things devoid of knowledge, is called natural appetite: thus a stone desires to be below. In those which have sensitive knowledge, it is called animal appetite, which is divided into concupiscible and irascible. In those which understand, it is called intellectual or rational appetite, which is the will. Therefore intellectual substances have a will.

Notes It’s almost tautological that that which we desire is the good. We decide what we think is small-g good. Small-g good is not necessarily the same as big-G Good, i.e. the Good. It might seem good in the moment to cheat at cards and so gain the pot, but cheating is not Good.

Of course, Thomas is not saying stones anthropomorphically desire to fall; he merely means the same thing any physicist does: a stone tossed upward can bean you. That natural falling is called—a technical term—natural appetite. We mean the word differently now, but it would be a crude fallacy to impose our current definitions on old words, would it not?

Worms and frogs have sensations and act on these sensations, i.e. their sensitive knowledge, and the direction of the acts is called animal appetite, just like the direction of the stone following physics was natural appetite. But worms and frogs don’t have the intellectual or rational appetite, which we do, which is also called the will.

3 Again. That which is by another is reduced to that which is by itself as preceding it; wherefore according to the Philosopher (8 Phys.), things moved by another are reduced to the first self-movers: also, in syllogisms, the conclusions which are known from other things, are reduced to first principles which are self-evident.

Now, in created substances, we find some which do not move themselves to act, but are moved by force of nature, for instance inanimate things, plants and dumb animals, for it is not in them to act or not to act. Therefore there must be a reduction to some first things which move themselves to action. But the first in created things are intellectual substances, as shown above [last week]. Therefore these substances move themselves to act. Now this is proper to the will, whereby a substance has the dominion of its action, because it is in it to act and not to act. Therefore created intellectual substances have a will.

Notes “That which is by another is reduced to that which is by itself as preceding it” and the analogy is syllogisms, such as this classic (premises) “No reptiles have fur, and all snakes are reptiles” gives (the conclusion) “no snakes have fur.” That conclusion was “contained” in the premises. If you move a rock, the rock moves, but the impetus is from you, etc. For a dumb animal that can be moved, think of a sponge. And, of course, we choose to act or not; the will points the way to the act.

4 Moreover. The principle of every operation is the form whereby a thing is actual, since every agent acts for as much as it is actual. Wherefore the mode of an operation consequent upon a form must be in accordance with that form. Hence a form that does not proceed from that which acts by that form, causes an operation over which the agent has no dominion: whereas if there be a form that proceeds from that which acts thereby, the agent will have dominion over the consequent operation.

Now natural forms, consequent upon which are natural movements and operations, do not proceed from those things whose forms they are, but wholly from extrinsic agents, since by a natural form a thing has being in its own nature, and nothing can be cause of its own being. Wherefore things that are moved naturally do not move themselves: for a heavy body does not move itself downwards, but its generator which gave it its form.

Again, in dumb animals, the forms, sensed or imagined, which result in movement, are not discovered by the dumb animals themselves, but are received by them from exterior sensibles which act on their senses, and judged of by their natural estimative faculty. Hence, though they are said after a fashion to move themselves, in so far as one part of them moves, and another is moved, yet the actual moving is not from themselves, but partly from external objects sensed, and partly from nature.

For in so far as their appetite moves their members, they are said to move themselves, wherein they surpass inanimate beings and plants; and in so far as the act of their appetite is in them a necessary sequel to the forms received through their senses and the judgment of their natural estimative power, they are not the cause of their own movement. Hence they have not dominion over their own action. But the form understood, whereby the intellectual substance acts, proceeds from the intellect itself, being conceived and, after a fashion, thought out by it: as may be seen in the form of art, which the craftsman conceives and thinks out, and whereby he works. Accordingly, intellectual substances move themselves to act, as having dominion over their actions. Therefore they have a will.

Notes Wee beasties move themselves only in a sense, yet, as Thomas says, the moving is from external stimuli and instinct (in the modern phrase, though “instinct” is a loaded and perhaps unfortunate term). But animals do not have “dominion over their action”. Why? Take care to understand what the next argument says about apprehension.

5 Again. The active force should be proportionate to the patient, and motive power to the movable. Now in things possessed of knowledge the apprehensive power is related to the appetitive, as the motive power to the movable: since that which is apprehended by the sense, imagination, or intellect, moves the intellectual or animal appetite. But intellective apprehension is not confined to certain objects, but is of all things: wherefore the Philosopher says of the passive intellect (3 De Anima) that it is that whereby we become all things. Hence the appetite of an intellectual substance has a habitude to all things. Now it is proper to the will to have a habitude to all things: wherefore the Philosopher says (3 Ethic.) that it is of both the possible and the impossible. Therefore intellectual substances have a will.

Notes The intellect can apprehend (understand, grasp, know) universals, for instance. There’s naturally much more to say on all this, which we shall come to.


  1. Michael Dowd

    Having some examples would make these abstractions easier to understand.

  2. All living things do things. That’s one way we can identify them as living. At the simplest, these things done are thought out the least, and at the most complex, thought out the most. The simplest things also are done by the most complex, and often the most complex is really just a composite of many, many simple activities. The will is conscious want, desire, urge to do things. It is not however the originator of the want, the desire, the urge. It is just an impetus, an assist, as when you produce more or less of certain hormones when you anticipate certain stimuli. Often the regulation of hormonal activity is the will. Choices we make regarding our will are tempered by our environment, as we are in many ways products and parts of it. We are told which decisions are good and which are bad, but in every society there are those who’s will does not comport with the rest. That is because good and bad are often very subjective notions.


  3. JohnK

    “Still [Aristotle’s] physical theory of the universe, the action he allots to the noûs poietkós, and the irresistible influence exerted by the Prime Mover make the conception of genuine moral freedom in his system very obscure and difficult.”
    –The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1909 ed., Free Will
    However, the classical Thomist ‘baptism’ of Aristotle does not resolve this difficulty in Aristotelianism. The Catholic Encyclopedia hints at the reason: one would be required to abandon the very fabric of Aristotelianism, to find a way in which ‘genuine moral freedom’ is NOT ‘very obscure and difficult.’ Wisely, the Encyclopedia never does indicate the manner in which Thomism actually resolves the key Aristotelian difficulties; it merely reports Thomism’s arguments — while also briefly sketching a fundamental theological dilemma engendered by the Thomist account. In fact, any insufficiently ‘baptised’ Aristotelianism — as classic Thomism certainly is — will be inadequate to the task of providing a coherent account of ‘genuine moral freedom.’

    …Aristotelianism which is the reflex of a systematic or methodologically-controlled Thomism … is to be distinguished from the thought of the historical Aristotle primarily in that it joins, as a single Absolute, what Aristotle discussed separately as the divinity, the Prime Mover, and the Agent Intellect, and places that Absolute within the human species as its formal cause. All this is done as the necessary implication of the immanence of form in matter, upon which Aristotle insisted as against Plato, and which insistence is integral to the Aristotelian metaphysical method of act and potency in a correlation of contrariety.
    It may be questioned whether in fact this abstract Aristotelianism — Aristotelilanism-understood-as-the-nonhistorical-reflex-of-Thomism — is in fact systematically coherent even in its abstract state. It does not appear to be, for it must identify the Agent Intellect, the Absolute, with the immanent activity of the human species: i.e., with the intraspecific communication of truth among the members of the species, sub specie aeternitatis. However, this immanent activity or communication is on the level of operation, or second act; it presupposes the participation of each individual human being in a specific first act or formal cause — but no such first cause, prior to individuation, can be provided within the format of an Aristotelianism whose first insistence is that form is always correlative to matter.
    The impasse here is total. Aristotle himself recognized it, in his insistence that the divinity and the Prime Mover are dissociate from matter, and in his vacillation over the subject of the immanence of the Agent Intellect. Finally, it does not appear that the sub specie aeternitatis viewpoint can be maintained within the limitations of the Aristotelian epistemology, for that would suppose an a-temporal knowledge, which Aristotle’s principles cannot recognize.
    This final incoherence of a reflex Aristotelianism, which is no more than the reification of the essential, as opposed to the existential, intelligence should not be surprising, given the Thomist insistence that verum is convertible with ens, and that the actuality of both is in Thomism an existential contingency rather than the essential necessity that it is in Aristotelianism. Even within Aristotelianism, a fully coherent systematization amounts to a doomed effort of the individuated intelligence to transcend its own finitude by logic — a logic which is the very sign of its individuation, its inability to possess the fullness of the essential truth.
    It follows that there is within the Aristotelian system a fundamental paradox, a radical failure to integrate the universe by means of logic. This is simply to conclude, with Plato, to the final non-immanence of form in matter.

    –Donald J. Keefe SJ, A THEOLOGICAL SUMMARY OF ARISTOTELIAN METAPHYSICS In Comparison With Platonic Universal Hylemorphism

  4. Oldavid

    Hmm. I think that this is another instance of where the essence of the argument is lost in the dissertation.

    Poor ole Tom seems to have had a serious problem trying to reconcile the Aristotelian and Augustinian notions of an omnipotent Prime Mover with a freedom of the “moved” which implies a kind of determinism. It’s most obvious in his practically incomprehensible treatment of predestination.

    Luis Molina SJ (in my opinion) provided a much better reconciliation of an omnipotent cause of everything and the free will of rational beings. An explanation that, I think, accords with the intuitive understanding of the whole business as always understood by “the great unwashed”… the common folk… the sensus fidelium.

    In summary it goes a bit like this: A Man cannot create himself. Everything that makes the Good in him is a gift of one kind or other (nature or/and nurture, in the natural realm) but he is entirely free to reject or rebel against any offering; he can even reject the gift of life itself by suicide. In other words, even though he cannot claim creative credit for the Good that’s in him he can be entirely to blame for the Good that he should have but which he freely rejected.

    Free will is a “thing” (I’ll be roasting in Hell for “reification” again) that certainly exists according to even the most simplistic intuition and observation of yooman lives.

  5. Joy

    Of course, Thomas is not saying stones anthropomorphically desire to fall; he merely means the same thing any physicist does: a stone tossed upward can bean you. That natural falling is called—a technical term—natural appetite. We mean the word differently now, but it would be a crude fallacy to impose our current definitions on old words, would it not?

    I think Thomas means potential to move.
    Free Will is potential if described prior to it’s action execution.
    movement implies passivity or activity. Action implies will, somebody to blame for the movement.

    “It would be a crude fallacy to impose our current definitions on old words, would it not?”
    Yes and it would be crude fallacy to impose old arcane definitions on our current language, too. Definitions must be clarified, not imposed, or a different word must be used. Dictionary writers (OED) are charged with the privilege to define modern words.

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