Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

"Liber Est Causa Sui": Thomas Aquinas and the Maxim "The Free Is the Cause of Itself"

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

"Liber Est Causa Sui": Thomas Aquinas and the Maxim "The Free Is the Cause of Itself"

Article excerpt

THOMAS AQUINAS FREQUENTLY uses the maxim liber est causa sui--a sentence most easily translated as "The free is the cause of itself." (1) Thomas usually cites this maxim, which he takes from the first book of Aristotle's Metaphysics, when he needs to show that something, or someone, is free. It plays a key role as a premise in his De veritate argument that men have free decision (liberum arbitrium). The purpose of this paper is to ask how we should understand liber est causa sui when we read these words in Thomas's writings. There is a radical meaning associated with the words causa sui: Descartes would later use this phrase to describe God's causing of his own being. Does Thomas mean that what is free causes or creates itself? Modern sensibilities about freedom incline in this direction, linking freedom with self-creation. This radical meaning, though, can easily be accused of contradiction: how could anything cause itself?. In the first section of this paper, I will show that Thomas does not intend us to understand the maxim as involving self-creation of any sort: as he himself often says, Nihil est causa sui.

Thomas's meaning of causa sui is more limited: what is free does something for itself, but it does not make itself exist. In fact, Thomas makes clear in several explanatory notes that the free is not the cause of itself in being, but the cause of itself in acting: the free thing acts "out of" itself (ex se) or "from" itself (a se). This basic notion of a free agent as one whose actions flow from himself is well established, and the notion of acting "from oneself" continues to be relevant in today's debates on the meaning of freedom. Several libertarians have tried to capture it by their discussions of "agent causality." (2) In the second and most substantial part of this paper, however, I will argue that Thomas intended us to understand something more than agent causality or acting "from oneself" when he cited this maxim. I am convinced that Thomas's meaning when citing this maxim includes Aristotle's meaning in writing it. When Aristotle wrote the words Thomas quotes, he did not primarily mean that the free being caused itself to act; instead, he meant that the free being acted for the sake of an end that was its own--it acted "for its own sake." I will argue that passages in which Thomas cites the maxim--particularly De veritate 24.1--must be understood to include two senses of causa sui, not just one. When Thomas applies the words causa sui to something, he does not simply mean that its actions are from itself or a se; he also intends to signify that its actions are "for its own sake" or propter se.

Understanding the meaning behind Thomas's liber est causa sui is helpful for several reasons. A good interpretation of Thomas's causa sui can help us understand what Thomas means by his well-known claim that reason--not will, power, or agency--is the root of freedom. (3) Moreover, it is helpful in determining the extent to which Thomas's teachings on freedom have an Aristotelian basis. Lastly, claims about the causality of the free agent have always been prominent in debates over human free will. Some notion of causing one's own actions has always seemed necessary to combat determinism, and so notions of agent causality are frequently proposed, and their meaning is constantly being explored. At the same time, such agent causality is consistently accused of being merely a contradictory causa sui in disguise--and, indeed, some self-contradiction remains in many libertarian points of view. (4) Reflection on the meaning behind Thomas's maxim helps us see where he stands in this perennial debate, and may be of some use in sorting out an apparently perennial confusion.

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Did Thomas Intend the Radical Meaning of "Causa Sui"? When Thomas writes that liber est causa sui, does he mean that the free being causes itself to exist in some way? This is, after all, an understanding of the phrase causa sui that is well established in the philosophical tradition. …

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