Without free will and a belief in it, there is no dignity and certainly no freedom of the human person. And without moral responsibility, there is no certain morality. Everything is merely as it was shaped to be, for good or for ill. This is the extremely dangerous situation in which we find ourselves today.
One of the greatest achievements of Western Civilization was its grasping, honing, and promoting the idea of free will. With free will, after all, comes moral responsibility, moral integrity, and a semblance of a good society.
The West, however, came to its understanding only through great struggle. The Ancient Greek philosophers—especially the pre-Socratics—had longed to understand the cycles of the universe, discovering what formed the first things, why the first things (such as fire, water, air, or soil) fell apart, and how the first things might come back to proper order. Within this cycle, order existed at nearly every level—at the macro as well as at the micro. Men were born, lived, and died. Winter became spring, spring into summer, summer into fall, and then fall into winter. These patterns, they thought, shaped the structure and essence of the universe.
Two full generations later, Socrates, of course, taught in the Crito that all of life was free will, that is, that at every moment of every day we make moral decisions. Our duties shape our decisions, and we must always practice piety toward our ancestors, our families, and our communities, but we choose such piety freely. One might, without too much exaggeration, acknowledge the Crito as the first great work on free will in the West.
The Stoics—who inherited so much from the pre-Socratics and from Socrates—wrestled repeated and incessantly (but not fruitlessly) over the issue of free will. If everything had a nature and if everything moral and just came from the right ordering of the universe, one must learn to conform to eternal dictates. Did these dictates harm or encourage our free will? Some Stoics were predestinarians, while others believed in the sovereign individual will choosing to become one with the Natural Law and the Heraclitan Logos. To be sure, all Stoics believed that any violation of the Natural Law was a sin, a violation against creation herself.
The next great moral treatises on free will can be found in Cicero’s On Duties and On the Laws. In the former, Cicero claimed, like Socrates had, that all decisions come down to the individual human person, either abiding by eternal moral laws or rejecting them. Cicero advocated for understanding and acknowledging what was eternally true, especially through manners and decorum. In the latter work, On the Laws, Cicero argued that all things are beholden to eternal truths, but they understand those eternal truths through the exercise of reason, which is the language of man to man, man to god, and god to god. It is, for all intents and purposes, the language of civility and order, that which binds the universe together in justice.
The West’s greatest proclamation of free will, though, came not from the Greco-Roman tradition, but from the Judeo-Christian tradition. In Christianity, especially, its practitioners must, as Socrates and Cicero had taught, make more decisions at every single moment of their lives. Acceptance of the faith is not a one-time proclamation, but a constant conversion and renewal toward the good.
C.S. Lewis explained this best at the beginning of his science-fiction morality tale, The Great Divorce.
We are not living in a world where all roads are radii of a circle and where all, if followed long enough, will therefore draw gradually nearer and finally meet at the center: rather in a world where every road, after a few miles, forks into two, and each of those into two again, and at each fork you must make a decision. Even on the biological level, life is not like a river but like a tree. It does not move toward unity but away from it, and the creatures grow further apart as they increase in perfection. Good, as it ripens, becomes continually more different not only from evil but from other good.
Complexity—because of the innumerable choices each person makes every day of his life—rules, finding order in a mostly spontaneous (from our perspective, not God’s) fashion. Further, Lewis noted, one must not merely start over when a wrong is committed. He must backtrack to the point of error and begin again. He must choose to do so, however painful.
I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road. A sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, but never by simply continuing on. Evil can be undone, but it cannot ‘develop’ into good.
These, as Lewis understood, are the moral complexities that haunt our every moment in life.
Like the Stoics, though, Christians have never fully unified on their understanding of free will and predestinarianism. Most, however, have adopted St. Augustine’s idea that both exist, but in ways so complex as to be almost incomprehensible from the viewpoint of this world. Thus, he said, men must choose between two loves: the love of self or the love of other. The City of Man embraces the former, and the City of God embraces the latter. Even when we choose the good though, Augustine continued, it is God’s grace that animated that choice.
The belief in both free will and predestination had dominated Christian theology and thus the cultural practices of Western Civilization, from the time of Christ’s resurrection to the eighteenth century, but to varying degrees, depending generally on which theologian or denomination is talking and thinking about it.
Then, everything changed. Rationalism and progressivism in the late eighteenth century slowly began to replace the Christian understanding, especially about free will. By the 1840s and especially after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, progress overrode—or so it seemed—the free will of the individual. For a while, the West thought that economics or biology or psychology determined our existence. Then around 1967, it became race, class, or gender.
And this is the extremely dangerous situation in which we find ourselves in 2020. Few believe in free will, and those who do have no real ability to shape intellectual or cultural trends. Yet, without free will and a belief in it, there is no dignity and certainly no freedom of the human person. And without moral responsibility, there is no certain morality. Everything is merely as it was shaped to be, for good or for ill.
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