Aquinas: Desire and Freedom

The Philosophical System of Thomas Aquinas

VII. Desire and Freedom

A. Two forms of appetition

Side by side with the life of knowledge, there is in us a certain vital tendency which lead us to seek for something other than ourselves, with the object of taking possession of if, and thereby procuring for ourselves some benefit. We wish to go for a walk, we long for a house of our own to live in, we seek to meet a friend. These examples show us that not only the external object, but also the exercise itself of our activities may become the subject matter of our desire. But whatever it may be that we desire, in every case we find that the motive which prompts our appetite is the benefit or the fulfillment which the object or activity in question will obtain for us. For man, like all other creatures, is only attracted by that which is good for him (VIII, G) or, at least, that which in appearance is such.

In point of fact, our desires are directed towards a specific object only if it appears to be, that is, is known by us as suitable for us. Nihil volitum nisi cognitum. — “Nothing is desired unless it is first known.” Appetition is the tendency or inclination of a knowing subject towards what it perceives as good. And just as knowledge is twofold in kind, so also the tendency which follows upon knowledge will differ, according as it succeeds an act of sense perception or an abstract representation. The former is given the name of sense appetite; the latter is referred to as the will.

B. Sense appetite and the passions

External and internal sensations may arouse our desires if they represent to us the attractions of external objects, or the charm or pleasure which accompanies the very exercise of our faculties. And since every sensation has a particularized, concrete content (II, B) it will be this particular object of sense, or this individual sense activity which we wish to attain or accomplish when our appetite is set in motion.

The higher animals share with us certain sense movements which accompany our sense appetitions, such as love and hatred, courage, fear and anger. These emotions — or as the Schoolmen called them, these passions — are situated in the organism, and are by nature organic like the sensations and the sense appetitions. Thomas and the Schoolmen do not consider a passion as being of another kind than the sense appetition, which they accompany and intensify. If these passions or movements, which impel us towards a particular good or away from a particular evil present in sense perception, become violent and escape the control of reason, they disturb and may even dominate us completely.

C. The will – its necessity and freedom

In addition to these perceptions of some particular good offered by the senses, we possess a higher notion of that which is good: the idea of goodness as such. It needs little reflection to realize that the good can be thought of without limits, complete in itself, and universal. An irresistible impulse presses us towards the good as such, which we, human beings, alone among material creatures, are capable of conceiving. We are conscious of a deep, insatiable need of uniting ourselves to that which is capable of perfecting us in every way and forever. It is a need which is ever present, and acts upon us just as a weight attached to a lever continually exercises a downward pull. To this extent and in this sense the will is necessitated or determined, and is in a state of continual activity. This impulsion towards that which is suitable for us manifests itself in the initial attraction which we experience in the presence of any object which we look upon for the time being as good, without attending to its drawbacks. If the mind were to find itself in the presence of a real being which possessed the plenitude of goodness (and according to scholastic philosophy, God answers to this description) the will would see in it its object par excellence, that which is capable of satisfying all its needs, and it would cast itself towards God as iron towards a magnet.

But it so happens that in the field of our earthly activity we are confronted only by partially good things, and as soon as we reflect we become conscious of this limitation. It is thus in such a judgment following reflection that Thomism find the explanation of liberty. Each good thing is good only from certain points of view, and is deficient from others. Consequently, the intellect presents us with two judgments. During the war, a soldier was often asked to volunteer for a task which must lead to certain death, and heroically, but freely, responded to the call. When he decided after a short reflection to die for his country, he was subject to the general attraction of that which is good (necessitated will), but he also found himself in the presence of two contradictory judgments: “to preserve one’s life is good” (from one point of view), “not to to preserve one’s life is also good” (i.e., in certain cases, from another point of view). Thus we are called to judge and to choose between two contradictory judgments. Which shall I accept? It is the will which must make the choice, and the decision will be quite free, since neither judgment demands necessarily our assent. We choose freely the good as offered by one of both judgments, not because it is a greater good, but because it possesses some good.

It is true in a sense that we choose that which we consider to be the better. But to be quite accurate, we ought to add that there is a free intervention of the will in deciding what is better. In point of fact, the will can give its preference to either of the alternatives, by loading the scale as it were. When the moment comes for definitive choice, deliberation ceases and give way to decision. By means of this analysis, Aquinas and Duns Scotus avoided the psychological determinism which appealed to other Schoolmen, — such as Godfrey of Fontaines, and John Buridan.

Liberty or freedom, of which we have just explained the psychological process, manifests itself in two forms:

exercise of will, and
In the former, I decide to will, or to abstain from willing and choosing, and I differ my decision to some other time, — just as a citizen may decide to put a cross against the name of a candidate, or else may refuse to vote. This is known as liberty of exercise (libertas exercitationis). In the second case, I decide to will, and to choose one of two possible good things, like the elector who marks the ballot paper according to his preference, and this is liberty of specification (libertas specificationis). For instance, shall I go for a voyage or not? It rests with me to differ my decision or to decide at once. The Schoolmen also spoke of a third form of liberty: the moral value of the voluntary act. Of this we shall speak later on (XII, 3).

In every case it is easy to see that willing and liberty belong to the domain of consciousness, that external violence as such does not affect it, and that the carrying out of actions is a result of a free decision, but cannot constitute its essence. This does not mean that liberty is incapable of intensification or weakening by foreign elements.

D. Sentiments

Before touching on the intensification or weakening of our free acts by other elements, it is well to note that affective states which precede our volitions, such as hope or despair, or which follow it, as pleasure or pain, etc., are regarded by the Schoolmen as modifications of the volitions themselves, — just as the passions are modifications of the sense-appetitions. They are simply certain modes of being of our desires in relation to an object. In consequence, pleasure and pain reside and have their seat in the desire itself, of which they are a sort of tonality. And just as any and every expenditure of conscious energy may become the object of desire, and be willed for the sake of the benefit derived from it, so in the same way the cause or source of pleasure is the conscious activity itself, when accompanied by certain conditions. Thus, in the apt expression of Aristotle, the pleasure of an activity (as for instance walking, or devoting oneself to something) forms a complement of the activity itself “as bloom in the case of youth” [1]

It follows from what we have said that Scholasticism knows nothing of a threefold division of our psychic activities such as that introduced by Tetens and Kant, who distinguished between knowledge, appetition, and sentiment. The last named is regarded instead as a natural dependent or the sense appetite of the will.

E. Foreign influences and the will

Since liberty presupposes a mind which reflects upon and judges its own judgment, it is itself a reaffirmation of the prestige enjoyed by the intelligence, undisputed monarch of our life as human beings. It is the mind which illumines our free choice, and clear mental vision is the primordial condition of the normal exercise of liberty.

But it is matter of ordinary experience that our deliberations are affected by motives other than the real value of the objects under consideration. We are liable to be influenced by our emotions, passions, sentiments, and may be overcome by their disordered promptings, unless we take the precaution to discipline them by our reason. Or again, our spontaneous sympathy or preference for one of the alternatives may obscure the real value of the objects of choice. Prout unusquisque affectus est, ita judicat. As each one is inclined by his affection, so he judges. Anything which clarifies the mental vision of things increases thereby our liberty, and conversely, whatever darkens the intelligence, diminishes our freedom. In the same way, threats, terrorism, external violence, or organic disturbances may suppress completely the exercise of reason and therefore leave no place for liberty in a particular case.

On the other hand, a man who is master of himself can enlist his passions, tendencies and pleasures in the service of a free decision and strengthen his liberty with all their psychological power. Such would be an explorer, or a missionary who found in his ardent temperament various elements which helped him to will more effectively and intensely a task freely chosen.

The interaction of the various activities of knowledge and of desire, and their dependence on the organism — which cannot be treated here in detail — lead us on to another doctrine, that of the unity of the ego. It is for didactic reasons that we have isolated our cognitive operations from our desires. In point of fact, the interdependence which we have already noticed between them shows that they are not juxtaposed like squares on a drafting board, but might rather be said to compenetrate each other. We shall see later that all the human functions arise from one single source (X).



  1. Aristotle, Ethic. Nicom., L, X, cap. 4.

The Philosophical System of Thomas Aquinas, by Maurice de Wulf (an advanced & comprehensive discussion, edited and adapted for the Web by Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty)

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