Man's Free Will
How can man's will be free if many factors influence it? St. Thomas Aquinas left us a beautiful defense of man's free will in his writings.
The question of free will is of vital importance in the study of philosophical anthropology, theology, and even everyday life. There are some who claim that the human will possesses absolute freedom, with no influences on it whatsoever; others hold that it does not truly possess any freedom at all, but instead is controlled by something else. A proper Catholic understanding of the human will, however, lies between these two extremes and is beautifully expressed in the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas. The necessary influences on man’s will are what enable it to be truly free.
Aquinas begins by distinguishing between instinct and free will. He cites the Book of Ecclesiasticus, which says that “God made man from the beginning, and left him in the hand of his own counsel” (Ecclus 15:14 DRB). Aquinas defines this “counsel” of man as his free will. He then differentiates between free will and instinct. Animals are drawn toward or away from certain things by instinct; they have an innate knowledge whether such a thing is good or bad, whether it will lead them closer to or farther away from their temporal end.
These decisions cannot be seen as free choices, since they are not performed willingly or freely, but rather through the duress of nature, as it were. There is no rationalization involved with instinctual inclinations, and consequently, such actions are not truly free; they do not derive from the creatures’ free wills. The same applies to instinctual actions in humans: to pull one’s hand away from a hot stove is not an act of the will, but rather one of instinct resulting from the sensory neurons in the hand detecting the pain of the heat. Thus, the human will is connected to the use of reason; when man uses his reason or intellect to perform an action, he is using his free will.
Aquinas then studies the influence of necessity on the will. He identifies three different types of necessity. The first is absolute necessity, by which an “intrinsic principle” directs an object toward its end. The second, necessity of end, is that by which one is forced to take a particular course of action as the only means of achieving one’s end. Necessity of coercion results from external influences; it is this latter form of necessity that Aquinas says is “altogether repugnant to the will.” Because the will is spiritual, physical beings cannot force it to do something contrary to its end; the spiritual will transcends physical force and can choose to resist any kind of physical threats, instead holding fast to its end.
This is what Jesus was referring to when He said that “[t]he spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mat 26:41b). When a person does give in to physical threats and suffering, it is because the intellect has decided that the good, or man’s happiness, consists in avoiding the suffering; consequently, the will freely chooses this path. Necessity of end does not deprive the will of its freedom, for as Aquinas explains, when the will desires something as its end, it also desires those means necessary to attain that end by extension. The will foresees, as it were, that it will need to utilize certain means to attain the end to which it is ordered; thus, it freely wills these means in choosing to will the end to which they lead. Consequently, while necessity of coercion conflicts with the freedom of the spiritual will, necessity of end is compatible with this freedom.
To defend the compatibility of absolute necessity, one must first establish the ultimate end to which the human will is ordered. This is the good, or happiness. Man instinctively seeks happiness, which is an inclination that even animals possess on some level. This is a natural desire; man naturally longs for happiness, and consequently, it is in his happiness that lies the good. The will is inclined to this end through absolute necessity; it is ordered to the good by its very nature, and the temporal ends to which it directs itself throughout man’s life are ultimately ordered to the final end of man’s happiness, or the good. Rather than restraining man’s will, this inclination by absolute necessity gives man his freedom, because he is fulfilling the deepest desire of his heart – that of happiness – by pursuing the good. Ultimately, this good is God, and it is for this reason that the Catholic Church says that the “desire for God is written on the human heart.” This desire is not merely a natural instinct, such as that which draws man to food when he is starving; man uses his intellect to discern that in the good lies his happiness and that therefore, he should pursue the good in all things. God Himself inclines to the good, which is Himself; however, there is none who could claim to hold any authority or control over God. Just as God does this out of His own free will, so too do human beings, rationalizing that in the good, they shall find their happiness and true fulfillment. Therefore, even though it is naturally directed toward the good as its final end, the will remains free.
As explained above, the intellect directly controls the actions of the will. However, there are other influences on the will. As the First Mover of all that moves in the universe, God moves the will. This divine movement is not a type of control that strips the will of its freedom. As Aquinas explains, God is the Cause of the will, which is a “power of the rational soul.” Furthermore, the will is naturally oriented to the ultimate good, which is God Himself. This inclination toward the good is natural and free; consequently, God serving as the First Mover of the will does not supplant its freedom.
The senses also influence the will. Due to the effects of Original Sin, the human intellect is not perfectly ordered to the good and subsequently can make bad choices about the path by which to attain it. A weak will – that is, one that has not been strengthened through mortification and acts of self-denial – can find it difficult to resist the desires of the sensitive appetite. The intellect can erroneously believe that to satisfy one’s senses leads to happiness, and consequently pursue sensuality through the will as the good.
In a similar way, other people can also influence the will. Those with whom one surrounds oneself exercise a great influence on one’s intellect and conscience. They can either lead one closer to the true good or farther away from it by their words and actions. As stated earlier, the will depends on the intellect’s judgements about what the good is. When the intellect correctly perceives the good and the means to attain it, the will chooses these; when the intellect has been misled, either through bad example or erroneous teaching, the will shall also be misled in its choices and inclinations, directing itself toward that which is contrary to the true good. Thus, the influence of others plays an important role in directing one’s will.
True freedom consists in the will choosing the good, which is its natural end. Because it stems from the human reason, the will is fundamentally different from instinct. Necessity of coercion is incompatible with the spiritual will, which cannot be forced by any physical being. Necessity of end, however, is not contrary to the freedom of the will, because the will freely chooses all means to attain its end, even if there is only one way. Through absolute necessity, the will is inclined toward the good as its ultimate end. This good is man’s happiness, which he desires of his very nature. Because this inclination toward the good utilizes man’s intellect and reason, it is the epitome of freedom; it requires a properly formed conscience and intellect to have a correct understanding of the good and the means to attain it. Furthermore, man naturally longs to be happy, so the attainment of happiness – which is the good – makes him truly free. For this reason, the “essence of freedom” consists in the will “knowingly” inclining to the good. As the First Mover and Uncaused Cause of the will, God influences the will; however, since He is the ultimate end to which the will is directed, being goodness itself, this does not deprive the will of its freedom in any way. While the senses influence the will, they also do not deprive it of its freedom, since the will cannot be directly controlled by any physical power or object; the will is always free to resist the desires of the senses. Other people also heavily influence the will, but they too cannot force it to do anything, being physical beings. Thus, the human will is truly free by virtue of the necessary influences on it, directing it toward the good, in which lies man’s happiness.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I, q. 83, a. 1, respondeo, at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.
 ST, I, q. 82, a. 1, respondeo.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 27.
 John Finley, “Freedom and the Will” (lecture, PHS 450: Philosophical Anthropology, Holy Apostles College & Seminary, Cromwell, CT, 2022).
 ST, I-II, q. 3, a. 6, respondeo.
 Finley, “Freedom and the Will” (lecture, 2022).
Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000.
Thomas Aquinas. Summa theologiae. 2nd ed. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. At New Advent, www.newadvent.org.
Finley, John. “Freedom and the Will” Lecture, PHS 450: Philosophical Anthropology, Holy Apostles College & Seminary, Cromwell, CT, 2022.