St. Augustine of Hippo on Free Choice of the Will
Is Free Will Good a Good Thing?
Born in the year 354, St. Augustine of Hippo was an early Christian theologian and philosopher who was heavily influenced by Manichaeism and neo-Platonism. Throughout his life, he wrote about topics ranging from creationism to war theory. Arguably one of the most influential theologians to have ever existed, his thoughts on philosophy and theology remain relevant in the minds of scholars today. As we study his works, we come to a deeper understanding of ourselves within the greater scheme of life. Why are we here, and what does it all mean?
In Book 2 of St. Augustine’s On Free Choice of the Will, St. Augustine is challenged with the question of whether or not free will is a good or a bad thing. Evodius asks, “Since, ... free choice gives us the ability to sin, should it have been given to us by the one who created us” (Augustine 27)? If free will gives us the ability to sin and create evil in the world, can it possibly be a good thing? Before he can argue his position, St. Augustine must first establish what a good thing is actually considered to be.
The Nature of the Will is Choice
In Book 1, St. Augustine defines a good will as “a will by which we desire to live upright and honorable lives and to attain the highest wisdom” (19). Once he establishes this, he has established that a true good is to desire to live upright and honorable lives, and to attain the highest wisdom. Furthermore, all good things come from God. In order for a will to attain the good, it must align itself with the will of God. Since the will’s nature is to choose, not necessarily to choose good or bad, but simply to choose, we find that if it chooses to turn towards God it is good, and if it turns toward self it chooses badly.
When it is understood that the nature of the will is not to choose a specific side of good or bad, but just to have choice, Evodius says that it is obvious that “free will should indeed be counted as a good thing” (65). Earlier in St. Augustine’s and Evodius’ discussion, they stated that the “nature of the body is at a lower level than the nature of the soul, and so the soul is a greater good than the body” (65).
When one considers that the good things of the body can be used wrongly, such as a hand for murder or a tongue for slander, one does not suggest to eliminate the hands or tongue completely. Instead, it is not the nature of the hands to kill or the tongue to speak foul words, but the choice that impacts the nature of these tools. So, said Evodius, “why should it be surprising that there are also good things in the soul that we can use wrongly” (65)?
Just like the hands or the tongue, St. Augustine concurs with Evodius stating, “Free will is something without which one cannot live rightly." In other words, free will is required for living rightly. Just as the body is subordinate and good when it aligns itself with the will, the will is good when it is subordinate and aligns itself with that which is eternal–God. Because, “there can be no good thing, however great or small, that is not from God” (64). If the will is needed to live rightly, and if all that is right manifests within God’s will, then the will must be a good thing, because it has the choice to turn towards God–the ultimate good and progressive movement in spiritual and physical life.
In this way, St. Augustine's definition of free will being good is much like Socrates' definition of a perfectly just man. In Plato's Republic, Socrates argues with Glaucon about which choice is truly better for an individual: to act justly or to act unjustly. He concludes that a man who performs just actions reaps greater reward than a man who performs unjust actions. Like St. Augustine's definition, the just man feels better within his soul. He feels complete, rather than empty and craving--the ultimate outcome of one who freely chooses wrong or one who chooses unjust actions.
St. Augustine on Free Choice of the Will
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