Three philosophers on freedom: Anselm, Pico, Sartre

Man’s free will has been a preoccupation of Western philosophers since Saint Augustine.  All of them think it to be a central (usually the central) aspect of the human condition, but their understanding of freedom has evolved dramatically over the past millenium.  In this essay, I propose to chart this evolution by looking at four short essays–each of them a classic of Western thought:  Anselm of Canterbury’s On Free Will and On the Fall of the Devil (1080), Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486), and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism (1945).  Together, they come to less than one hundred pages and are well worth the time.

Anselm starts by considering the definition, popular in his time, that free will means the ability to sin or not to sin.  This doesn’t seem right, because it makes a good thing (freedom) dependent on a bad thing (the possibility of sinning).  What’s worse, it would seem to imply that God Himself and the blessed souls in heaven are not free, because their wills are indefectably turned to the good.  Instead, Anselm proposes the following definition of freedom:  the ability to maintain righteousness for its own sake.  That is, what makes us free is that we can will the good, not out of instinct or even rational desire for our own happiness, but for its own sake.  This freedom of the will is an awesome thing; although the body can be overpowered, the will can only be bested with its own collusion.  Strictly speaking, temptation cannot overwhelm the will, for sin requires a choice.  Such a strong affirmation of free will would seem to eliminate the need for divine grace, but Anslem is anxious to show that this is not the case.  While humans are able to preserve a just will, it remains a gift of God, and they cannot recover it without divine assistance if they freely cast it off through mortal sin.  This claim is asserted rather than proved in On Free Will, but On the Fall of the Devil introduces some new ideas that make it seem less arbitrary.  Here Anselm introduces the issue of motivation.  Men and angels have two wills–it would be better here to say “two desires”–one for happiness and one for justice.  The former comes from nature (angelic or human); the latter (if I understand Anselm properly) supernatural.  Both are ultimate, in that they are willed for their own sake rather than as means.  Both are metaphysically good, and both are part of God’s plan–since only a being that cared both for its own good and for justice could both enjoy beatitude and deserve it.  Satan and the reprobate angels cast away righteousness by putting their own wills  before God’s in some way unknown to us but presumably based on the happiness motivation.  As punishment, they lost both the justice that they themselves cast off and the happiness they had hoped to advance.  Anselm points out that we can’t make ourselves will something for its own sake when we don’t already; therefore, we can’t recover the will to justice on our own.  Left with only his will to happiness, the sinner is a slave to sin, although he remains free because he could maintain righteousness if it were given back to him.  Here seems to be the most questionable part of Anslem’s construction.  Why should we think that there is no natural desire for righteousness?  Does sin really alter our mental states so much?  Later theology built on Anselm but qualified some of these claims, distinguishing natural benevolence from supernatural charity, for example.

Fast forward five centuries, from Anselm the Catholic bishop to Pico the Renaissance humanist.  God, the great architect of the cosmos, made creatures at every level in the hierarchy of being:  the vital world of plants, the sensible world of animals, the intellectual world of angels, and the simplicity and charity of God Himself.  Every slot was filled, but God’s greatest creation was man, the creature with no fixed nature, no fixed place on the scale, one who could pick his place through his own free choices.  Man may descend into sensuality or lift himself up to the angelic and divine realms.  Since God has given us so great a gift, our efforts should be to use it well.  Philosophy is crucial to this enterprise of human self-improvement, by which Pico means the accumulated wisdom of mankind in its entirety, from natural philosophy to the religious writings of every people.  Pico is positively enthusiastic about studying the wisdom of other cultures, an enthusiasm grounded in his confidence that every religion’s sacred writings will corroborate the Catholic faith.

We see that Pico has essentially embraced the definition of freedom that Anselm rejected–the ability to choose good or bad.  Both think of freedom in terms of man responding to some external order.   For Anselm, the order is primarily moral; for Pico, it is primarily ontological (the great chain of being).  We see difference and continuity.

Fast forward five more centuries, from Pico the Catholic humanist to Sartre the atheist communist.  Like Pico, Sartre thinks that, for humans to be free, they must not be tied down to any distinct nature, but must rather fashion themselves–“existence preceeds essence”, as he puts it–but Sartre takes this farther.  For Pico, freedom is only significant because there is an objective hierarchy of being and value on which humans place themselves.  For Sartre, man is free because there are no objective values, no normative human nature, no God.  There is nothing outside of us that can decide for us how we should live; the responsibility for making this decision is all on us.  Each of us must be a legislator of values, although the responsibility that comes with this freedom is more likely to inspire anguish than jubilation.  Existentialism doesn’t ask us to rejoice or lament in this freedom, only to acknowledge it manfully and honestly.  Sartre thinks that appeals to natural law, categorical imperative, or authority are really forms of self-deception.  A man pretends his will is bound, when in fact the law or authority in question only binds him because he himself chose it.  It’s a way of making a decision, and then telling oneself dishonestly “I had no choice.”  But, one might object, if there is no “correct” answer to question of what to do with one’s freedom, isn’t the choice arbitrary and ultimately unimporant?  Sartre recognizes this objection and tries to diffuse it by pointing out cases where a person is caught between two conflicting duties.  There may be no unambiguously right choice, but the decision is not thereby unimportant.  However, in such cases, the seriousness of the situation would seem to come from the objective importance of both of the conflicting duties, so such cases aren’t necessarily evidence for Sartre’s position.

A surprising thing about each of these three theories of free will is that they all depend more on the nature of the world in general than on the nature of the human mind.  Whether or not human behavior is deterministic is not the central concern.  For Anselm, the key is an objective moral order whose claims a rational creature is able to heed.  For Pico, it is the hierarchy of being in which man is able to choose his place.  For Sartre, freedom is the situation of a man who has realized that there is no moral or metaphysical order outside himself, but rather that he must create an order from himself.  Each vision of freedom is compelling in its own way.  Today’s intellectual elite are mostly won over to Sartre’s autonomism; average people probably think more along the lines of Pico’s humanist vision.  Those who worry about reconciling freedom and virtue might gain from giving Anselm a second look.  Whichever vision we choose, debating free will seems to be a primary way for Westerners to meditate on the human condition.

3 Responses

  1. Aristotle always discussed the will and the practical intellect together, for for my reason is myself and expresses itself in action. Moreover, it is axiomatic that acts of the understanding are specified by their object, so this may serve to remind us that good and bad choices are no more equivalent than apprehension and misapprehension, truth and error are equivalent species of an identical genus; rather, bad choices are paralogisms (παραλογισμός = Unreasonable or fallacious).

    The good choice, “This – being such – is to be done,” is intelligible, because intelligent; the act of the bad will is a surd, ultimately unintelligible. True enough, we can often trace its causes to instinctive or dispositional factors, but it remains logically incoherent.

  2. You had best steer clear of that Neoplatonist Pico, because his ideas are in part heretical, in part the flower of heresy; several are scandalous and offensive to pious ears; most do nothing but reproduce the errors of pagan philosophers…others are capable of inflaming the impertinence of the Jews; a number of them, finally, under the pretext of “natural philosophy”, favor arts that are enemies to the Catholic faith and to the human race.

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