Friday, April 5, 2013

On Free Will - St. Anselm of Canterbury

I have been intrigued by Anselm ever since I first learned of his Ontological argument in a Philosophy of Religion class in college. The Ontological argument states that God is 'that than which nothing greater can be conceived,' and because God is the greatest possible imaginable being, God cannot be thought not to exist; for a God thought not to exist is not 'that than which nothing greater can be conceived' and is thus not God. It's an interesting argument, because [supposedly] one cannot refute the existence of God as God is understood in the terms of this definition. I have read several articles that make the point that you cannot equivocate something thought of in the mind to something existing in objective reality; but I still think the Ontological argument holds a lot of merit. Anyway, I didn't read about this argument in Anselm's Proslogion this week, but I did read something else of his from my collection of major works. I decided to read about Anselm's thoughts on free will.

Anselm defines free will differently than I have always thought of it for myself, and I think I might like his definition more than the loose one I've been working with all these years. On Free Will is written as a conversation between a student (S) and a teacher (T), and the student is asking the teacher all sorts of questions about his understanding of free will and liberty. The teacher continues to teach and challenge the student throughout the conversation, until finally the student runs out of questions. It's a shorter piece of literature, but it does well to go deep into the idea of free will both succinctly and with clarity. I am already looking forward to reading through the rest of Anselm's works in this book and reflecting on them in the future.

About the Author
St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093-1109. At age 27, he became a Benedictine monk at the Bec monastery and became a disciple of the current prior: Lanfranc. When Lanfranc left the monastery in 1063, Anselm became the principal teacher at Bec. Soon after he wrote the Monologion, which he considered to be a 'meditation on the divine essence', and followed it shortly with his Proslogion. in 1708 Anselm became the Abbot of Bec. He started to garner quite the reputation as his writing circulated through Europe, and others began to challenge his work. He wrote On the Incarnation of the Word just to clarify his position on the Trinity after someone pointed out his name had been linked to an unorthodox teaching.

In 1093, Anselm became Archbishop of Canterbury, though he didn't much care for the post. He didn't get along well with the king, and had to deal with some conflict there. There was also a good deal of conflict due to the East West schism which had occurred in 1054. The pope asked Anselm to speak on the main theological question of the schism (whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from God the Father alone, or from both God the Father and God the Son) to try and sway the Greeks, who believed that the Holy Spirit proceeded from God the Father alone. Anselm did speak at the Council at Bari, but was unsuccessful in swaying the Greeks. Anselm died on April 21st in 1109, on the Wednesday of Holy Week at age 76. (Page vii-x)

Anselm defines free will as the power of preserving the rectitude of will for its own sake. Basically, that means free will is the ability to align a person's own will with the will of God, simply because that is a person's natural and free state (like Adam and Eve before the fall). Anselm says that the ability to sin has nothing to do with free will. Free will is the ability not to sin in spite of the temptations and evils present in this world. Yes, both humans and angels have the capacity to sin, but that is not the same has having a free will to sin.

Anselm explains that a person who is able to refrain from becoming a slave to sin is more free than one who chooses to sin. The first humans were totally free to choose not to sin. They could not be made to sin by any power other than their own. They had that total freedom. They did choose to sin, but it was in spite of their free will, not because of their free will.
For what has it in its power not to serve cannot be forced by another to serve, although it can serve by its own power. (Page 177)
One cannot be forced to become a slave to sin, and one is not naturally in that state. It is not until a person willingly chooses to abandon her rectitude that she becomes a slave to sin. Anselm explains that no temptation can force one to sin unwillingly. The example is given of a person who must lie to save his life. The student asks Anselm whether his lie might be given unwillingly, because it was given under threat of immanent death. Anselm points out that he has still willingly chosen to lie, even if he did not will to lie for the sake of the lie, but for the sake of his life. He has unwillingly been thrust into a situation in which he must choose between sin and death, but if he had chosen to act according to his free will and preserved his rectitude for its own sake, he would have prevailed in eternal life. Anselm's point here is that no temptation can conquer right will, because the will can only be conquered by itself.

Although our will sometimes seems powerless against temptations, Anselm points out that "temptation can fight against a will that does not give in, but cannot conquer it against its will (Page 185)." We always have free will, or the ability not to sin, even when we are in the midst of abandoning our free will. It is likened to a person still having the ability to see, even though they might currently have their eyes closed. Anselm says that not even God can take away our free will, though only God can restore rectitude of will to a person who has abandoned it. When we abandon our free will, we become slaves to sin (though willingly). We are unable to restore our righteousness on our own. We still have the inherent ability to preserve our original rectitude, because we never lose our free will; but we cannot be restored through our own power. We are only restored to righteousness through the will of God.
Those who lack rectitude either lack it irrecoverably or recoverably. He who recoverably lacks it is one of the men in this life who lack it although many of them do not recover it. Those who lack it irrecoverably are reprobate angels and men, angels after their ruin and men after this life. (192)

I always thought that there was sin in this world because of our free will, and that free will was our ability to choose to sin or not to sin. Anselm's definition has given me a lot to think about. I think I really like it. It makes free will sound more like something God has equipped us with to fight against the temptations and evils in this world, rather than something God has burdened us with. It makes a lot of sense too, because why would God (who is totally Good and cannot be in relationship to sin) "gift" God's created beings with the ability to sin?

I like the idea that God instead gifted us with the free will to refrain from sinning. God has gifted us all with the capacity to love God and to love neighbors, and hate has nothing to do with free will. To choose hate is to choose against the free will God has given each of us. God has gifted us with the ability to remain patient and not lash out in anger and frustration. Violence is not an effect of free will, but it is rather to defect from it, to abandon the rectitude of will. Choosing hatred and violence is choosing willingly to become a slave to sin. Choosing love, patience, mercy, and forgiveness is to act according to our free will, align our will with God's will, and remain righteous.

According to this definition, Anselm does not believe humans are born into 'original sin', because if we were, then we would not inherently have free will- the ability to choose not to sin. This too, I like, because I have never been comfortable with the notion that humans are without the capacity to refrain from sinning; and never liked to think that we are born with evil (sin) in us. If this were so, if humans were born into original sin, then God seems entirely unjust to punish people for living into their natural state of being. Anselm's definition of free will disallows for this notion, and rather favors the idea that humans are born naturally with free will, and have the total capacity to live out their entire lives in alignment to God's will. We simply choose more often than not to abandon this free will and allow sin to enslave us.

One human being lived into his free will his entire life, and we all know who that is: (think Sunday School) Jesus of course! I have not read any of Anselm's Christology, so I cannot comment on the roll of the Christ in the restitution of our free will, but I will most likely be reflecting on it in the near future as I continue to read more of Anselm's work and understand his theology better. Humans are not always good, though (according to Anselm) we could be if we tried hard enough. God, however is Good all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.

Book Citation
St. Anselm. Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Jenna. Enjoyed your summary of this book and now its on my to read list.