Thomas Aquinas on the Human Will and Freedom: Toward a Scientific Understanding

Dissertation, The Catholic University of America (2003)

Matthew Walz
University of Dallas
Thomas Aquinas's doctrine on the will manifests his profound insights into human nature. Recognizing our control over action, Aquinas grounds this phenomenon in the will, an appetitive capacity that underlies a human being's ability to act otherwise or not at all. This dissertation lays out Aquinas's teaching on the human will and freedom in a systematic way, using Aquinas's criteria for scientific understanding, outlined in his commentary on Aristotle's 'Posterior Analytics', as a framework for the investigation. Following the procedure for defining a capacity of the soul, which Aquinas adopts from the 'De anima', Aquinas defines the will as a rational appetitive capacity. For the will is the appetitive principle behind controlled action, and so it requires good grasped intellectually as an object. Given such cognition underlying its activity, the will's object is identified as good in general. Aquinas maintains that the will is subject to natural necessity, for it naturally tends toward good in general and happiness. Yet the will is never subject to coercion, and it is open to many means to its end. Hence two types of freedom may be said to belong to the will: "freedom of exercise" and "freedom of specification." Given Aquinas's definition of the will and these two types of freedom, and acknowledging the incontrovertible fact of human freedom, one is in a position to explain why freedom belongs to the will. In order to do so, Aquinas's major works are examined chronologically in order to draw out the relevant principles. This examination reveals that the will's freedom is grounded in its inclination toward good in general as an object and happiness as an end. Moreover, during his career Aquinas plumbs more and more deeply the will and its freedom. Over time, therefore, he begins to locate the cause of the will's freedom not only in the mode of cognition that underlies its activity, but also in its very nature as a rational appetitive capacity
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