John of Damascus on Human
Action, the Will, and Human
John of Damascus (perhaps born as early as AD 650, but no later than AD 680, died in AD 749, or shortly thereafter) has a complex account of human behaviour and human action. This account is mainly to be found in his Expositio fidei orthodoxae (), the third part of his tripartite Fons sapientiae ( ). In this account a doctrine of the will ( ) plays a crucial role, because John of Damascus believes that to understand human actions we have to see that they involve an exercise of the will, or at least a failure to exercise the will. It is because we have a will that we are responsible for what we are doing. For, if, for instance, we behave in a way which is open to criticism, it is either because we chose to act in this way or because we failed to exercise our will in such a way as to choose not to act in this way. Thus, how we behave depends on our will and the way we exercise it. In principle our will is such as to enable us to make the right choices. But we can fail to avail ourselves of this ability, or use this ability without the indicated care, with the result that we fail to make the right choice or that we make the wrong choice. Such failure to use the will, or to use it appropriately, in complex ways affects the will. It affects it in such a way that it diminishes our ability to make the right choices. A will is free ( ), and correspondingly a person is free, if the will is not thus diminished or constrained, if one’s ability to make the right choices is not thus reduced, for instance by having fallen into the habit of making in certain situations the wrong choices. But quite irrespective of whether or not one’s will in this way is constrained, it remains the fact that how one behaves depends on oneself in the sense that it depends on oneself how one exercises one’s will. This feature of a person John of Damascus calls . This term often is rendered by ‘freedom’ or even ‘freedom of will’ or ‘freedom of choice’. But it should be clear already from what has been said that this is
Myles Burnyeat generously read and made helpful comments on this chapter.