Freedom of the will

For the Christian, the issue of the freedom of the human will presents a dilemma. If free will is affirmed, the risk is run of denying the sovereignty of God. There is some justice in the assertion of John Calvin, a theologian for whom the sovereignty of God was a central concern, that those who believe in the freedom and effectiveness of the human will can affirm not a true omnipotence for God but rather a “vain, indolent, slumbering omnipotence.” On the other hand, however, an assertion of the absolute sovereignty of God to the exclusion of free will, such as the assertion Calvin himself made, plunges the Christian into the world of fatalism, whose guiding credo Machiavelli accurately described as the belief “that it is not necessary to labor much in affairs, but to let chance govern them.” This fatalistic perspectives also casts doubt upon the justice of God’s judgments; if, as, for example, Augustine avers, there is no activity in the world no matter how seemingly insignificant “outside of the laws of His providence,” that is, whose ultimate source of volition is the will of God, eternal rewards for virtue and punishments for vice are of questionable purpose and dubious equity. In Canto XVI of the Purgatorio, however, Dante offers a solution to the dilemma through the words of Marco, one of the penitent souls in Purgatory.

There, Dante inquires of Marco concerning the source of the evils in the world, “so that I may see it and show it to men, for one places it in the heavens and another here below.” Marcos begins his response to Dante with “a deep sigh” at the question, exclaiming “brother, the world is blind, and truly you come from it!” He explains his annoyance, saying, “You who are living refer every cause upwards to the heavens alone, as if they of necessity moved all things with them.” For Marco, the question itself is demonstrative of a desire to renounce responsibility by positing inevitability.

Marco then goes on to describe the problem with this belief. If “free will” were “destroyed in you,” he says, “there would be no justice in happiness for good or grief for evil.” Without human free will, the entire moral structure of the universe and the cosmic system of reward, punishment, and repentance through which Dante was making his way and in which Marco was currently suffering for the sake of future reward would disintegrate. If the structure of the cosmos is to be sensible and just, human beings must be free moral agents. It must be, then, says Marco, that “if the present world goes astray, in you is the cause.”

Marco’s emphatic declarations concerning human free will, however, do not, for him, undermine the sovereignty of God. On the contrary, human freedom is a credit to the sovereignty of God rather than a debit from it. “You lie subject, in your freedom,” Marco says, “to a greater power and to a better nature, and that creates the mind in you which the heavens have not in their charge.” It is, then, a testimony to the power of God that he created man in a manner that allows him to surpass the dictates of fate derived from the stars.

While Marco admits “the heavens initiate your movements,” that is, that there are impulses which arise in man naturally and over whose arising man does not possess control, he says that “a light is given you to know good and evil,” meaning that man has the ability to choose to follow these impulses or, instead, to resist them. Man, then, is uniquely endowed with the ability to choose between good and evil, a freedom which, far from denying the sovereignty of God, rather derives from and testifies to it. Indeed, the power of freedom with which man is endowed is so great that if “free will … endure fatigue in its first battles with the heavens, afterwards, if it is well nurtured, it conquers completely.”

In this short explanation of man’s freedom in the face of fate, Dante, through Marco, has adequately reconciled fate and free will while avoiding the respective pitfalls opened up by too great an emphasis on either. He has, on the one hand, affirmed the freedom of the human will, a necessary component of any worldview with a sense of cosmic justice, of which Christianity is undoubtedly the preeminent example. Simultaneously, he has also affirmed the existence of powerful forces external to man which draw him toward a foreordained destiny, while not allowing that these forces cancel out the free choices of persons. Perhaps most importantly, Dante has reconciled human freedom to the sovereignty of God in describing free will as an essential component of the will and activity of God rather than an external component somehow foreign to or incompatible with God’s omnipotence.

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