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St. Augustine and Free Will

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By Christine Murray
©Catholic Online 2004

People have always to determine the role of the free will in life - indeed, whether they have one at all. As we approach the Catholic feast day of St. Augustine on Aug. 28, it is good to examine his writings on the subject, especially in Free Choice of the Will.

He assumes the will is free and seeks to determine how we choose good or evil. This continues to be "debated" in our age and has great implications on one's perspective on life. The Catholic faith helps us understand how free will works. Sadly, many in society do not. How one answers the question of free will often helps determine whether one believes life has any ultimate "meaning" at all.

Augustine's approach to the "free choice of the will" assumes that "there can be no denying that we have a will." Instead, Augustine defines "good will" as "a will by which we seek to live a good and upright life and to attain unto perfect wisdom" which, of course, assumes that it is free. This is worth meditating on while considering the literal Latin translation of the first two are not meant for "stuff," but rather for God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church echoes this, saying, "Endowed with a spiritual soul, with intellect and with free will, the human person is from his very conception ordered to God and destined for eternal beatitude." (1711).

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In fact, a free will that does not seek God clings to material things, which are so easily lost in everything from hurricanes to death. Those who choose evil are ruled by their passion and desire for things of this world. This is futile because they only have, as Augustine says, "the love of things which each one can lose against his will." It is ironic, isn't it? One who chooses to do good ultimately gains everything because there is no fear of losing "things" due to lack of attachment to them. Those who becomes perfect could lose every material thing and still gain all precisely because they are trying to attain the perfect, which is wisdom. Wisdom cannot be lost as long as someone has good will.

So why would we choose evil? Humans always choose to do good, it's just a matter of whether one chooses a lesser "good." This occurs when one chooses to allow passions and desires rule the soul, which tend toward things of this world. While Augustine's friend Evodius can claim "there is a great difference between" passion-desire and fear, fear is a part of passion. We fear because we abhor something, which may or may not correspond with reason. Therefore someone of good will necessarily seeks to order oneself perfectly with God's help.lines of the Gloria: "Glory to God in the highest, and peace to men of good will" (Lk 2:14).

Augustine begins to answer the age-old question why man chooses to do evil by clarifying that what makes humans distinct from animals is the fact that humans have the capability of reasoning and animals do not. Then he points out that some things that men possess uniquely as opposed to animals, such as the "power to jest and laugh" and "the love of praise and glory," are "of a lower order." Therefore, when reason rules the soul, "the more perfect [reason] is made subject to the less perfect [desire and passion]." In our day, most people do not even realize they should work toward having reason rule their lives.

The psychological model that has been in vogue for more than one hundred years concludes that humans need to have their passions and desires rule their lives. Actually, this model claims that it is for the best that humans are ruled by them. In this worldview, those who have reason rule their lives are thought to be "rigid" because reason assumes that someone can find truth, which many now claim is impossible.

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These days, this outlook on life manifests itself by people thinking they can determine their own morality or even their own reality. On the flipside, people tend to think they're at the mercy of the bad things that happens to them to explain away their need to eliminate their faults.

Augustine helps Christians today understand the importance of understanding the use of one's free will. We live in an age when its ramifications to one's life are practically denied. If we have a free will, then we also have the duty to make decisions based on a well-formed conscience and what is good and evil. What determines whether a particular action is good does not depend on one's own judgment on whether "it feels good" or "does not hurt anyone."

Instead, we have a duty to determine good and evil based on truth and to have it rule one's life, with passion and desire subject to it. When people are ruled by feelings, it necessarily diminishes the dignity of a person. When a soul is not well-ordered, the ability to use one's will freely is diminished, but not obliterated completely. Rather, we have the duty to work to order our souls correctly, no matter how low we've gotten.

Augustine had a mistress for several years before turning from evil to do good (cf. Ps 34:15). With His grace, Augustine rose from a life of sin to become one of the greatest Doctors of the Church. If we seek our Lord's grace, we too can choose to become men of good will.


Catholic Online , US
Christine Murray - writer, 586 5669218



Augustine, free will

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