Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Thomas Aquinas and Giles of Rome on the Will

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Thomas Aquinas and Giles of Rome on the Will

Article excerpt

ONE OF THE MORE INTERESTING IF TROUBLESOME DEBATES within medieval philosophy is the paradoxical question of whether St. Thomas Aquinas, arguably the most influential theologian the medieval Catholic Church produced, defends an account of moral responsibility that is consistent with the Christian faith. Debate regarding the orthodoxy of Aquinas's action theory has surfaced intermittently since at least the thirteenth century, attracting the attention of both supporters and detractors. The aboriginal dispute centered on whether Thomas's account of the will (voluntas) could provide an adequate foundation for moral responsibility. Medieval critics such as Henry of Ghent (d. 1293) and William de la Mare (d. 1290) charged that Aquinas's understanding of the will as a passive potency that always follows the judgments of practical deliberation led to cognitive determinism. For such critics, if the will were determined by the intellect, then it would lack freedom, and if it lacked freedom, then moral responsibility would fall by the wayside. To deny the will's independence from the intellect was, to such theologians, incompatible with Catholic teaching on moral responsibility. (1)

Medieval Thomists such as the Dominican master John of Paris (d. 1306), on the other hand, attempted to defend Aquinas against such charges. Adopting Thomas's notion of the passivity of the will, John nonetheless denied that such a position necessarily interferes with moral responsibility. He justified this stance on the grounds that an agent's freedom is only violated when it is necessitated contrary to its own nature. Because the will is naturally suited to follow practical deliberation, its necessitation by the intellect leaves its freedom intact. (2)

Something of this polemical spirit has reawakened in recent years among students of medieval philosophy. Ever since Odon Lottin raised the question in his pioneering studies on medieval ethics and moral psychology in the last century, scholars have taken a lively interest in whether Aquinas's considered view of the will was principally a voluntaristic or an intellectualistic one. On Lottin's account, Thomas did in fact defend the passivity of the will but only in his early works. In his mature writings, by contrast, he abandoned this position in favor of a more active conception of the will. (3) It should be noted that Lottin's theory initially garnered the support of some very eminent thinkers, Bernard Lonergan among them. (4)

The claim that Aquinas abandoned his early view of the will as found, for example, in the prima pars of the Summa theologiae for a later, more voluntaristic view of the will as found in De malo, question 6, however, is not without its troublesome implications. (5) Most notably, if Lottin's interpretation is right, it renders vital sections of the Summa, Thomas's masterpiece, the product of immaturity that must, as one contemporary scholar has pointed out, either be ignored or read with caution. (6) Furthermore, even if it is true that Aquinas introduces a radically new account of the will in De malo, Question 6 (c. 1270), one would naturally expect it to inform other late works--such as the prima secundae of the Summa--that were composed at approximately the same time. However, there is scant evidence that the prima secundae as a whole has a particularly voluntaristic orientation. (7)

Recent scholarship has evinced a reaction against Lottin's interpretation of Aquinas's moral psychology. Exegetes continue to dispute whether Aquinas was principally a voluntarist or an intellectualist but seem less interested, as a general rule, in the question of whether there occurred a development in his view of the will. Rather, they largely assume that he held a consistent position throughout his career, although what precisely that position amounts to is the source of disagreement. Recent interpretations have ranged from presenting Aquinas as a thoroughgoing intellectualist to a defender of erstwhile voluntarism and erstwhile intellectualism, depending on the context. …

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