Dabney’s Possibilism

Steven Wedgeworth over at The Calvinist International has posted a fascinating passage from Robert Dabney criticizing certain quantificational approaches to the atonement. This is all to the good, but the fly in the ointment comes with this regrettable statement by Dabney: “And God, the Creditor, has an optional discretion to decline the proffer [of Christ’s satisfaction], if He chooses (before He is bound by His own covenant), or to accept it. Hence, the extent to which, and the terms on which Christ’s vicarious actions shall actually satisfy the law, depend simply on the stipulations made between Father and Son, in the covenant of redemption…” This is just bizarre, and the effects are, I submit, exactly opposite to what Dabney intends: in his effort to affirm God’s sovereignty and freedom in salvation, he ends up denying both. This is because Dabney, in typical voluntarist fashion, misconstrues God’s freedom in terms of a supreme power and liberty to conjoin otherwise unrelated possibilities, without asking the prior question of how these realities were made to be possibilities in the first place. Thus, on Dabney’s possibilism, Christ becoming incarnate, suffering, and dying on the cross is one distinct possibility, mankind’s salvation is another distinct possibility, and there is no intrinsic connection between the two (this is why one could happen without the other), only a divine contract from before time that the one event should be followed by the other.  The theological and soteriological meaning of Christ’s sacrifice, accordingly, is something outside or extrinsic to the sacrifice itself, being reduced to a mere overlay of divine will. As for Christ’s sacrifice itself, thus gutted of any inherent theological depth and revelation, its possibility is absolutized, immanentized, and hence secularized: it has no meaning except that which God chooses to give it, and by Dabney’s own admission, God could have chosen to give it none (making God not only a secularist, but even something of a nihilist).

Dabney’s lapse into theological possibilism is even more curious in light of his own rejection of precisely this kind of reasoning in his excellent discussion of the absurdities of the lapsarian debate. As he writes in his criticism of the “illogicality” of the supralapsarian position in particular,

The view from which it starts, that the ultimate end must be first in design, and then the intermediate means, is of force only with reference to a finite mind. God’s decree has no succession; and to Him no successive order of parts; because it is a contemporaneous unit, comprehended altogether, by one infinite intuition. In this thing, the statements of both parties are untrue to God’s thought. The true statement of the matter is, that in this co-etaneous, unit plan, one part of the plan is devised by God with reference to a state of facts which He intended to result from another part of the plan; but all parts equally present, and all equally primary to His mind. As to the decree to create man, to permit his fall, to elect some to life; neither part preceded any other part with God.

To apply this same, impeccable reasoning to his earlier quote, there is no such thing as, or even the possibility of, Christ sacrificing himself apart from such a sacrifice also being efficacious for man’s salvation. This is not because God, although the Creditor, is somehow “forced” to accept the terms under which debts to him must be repaid, but because in the truly sovereign, creative determination of God, the possibility that is Christ’s sacrifice and the possibility that is man’s salvation have no meaning (at least so far as our “finite minds” are able to ascertain) except in relation to each other. Their possibility is a compossibility. In Dabney’s words, the two are “parts” of a single “plan,” a plan that is not posterior to, constructed out of, and hence made possible by its parts, but is concurrent with them, giving them their very identity as parts and as possibilities.

Something as the possibility of nothing.

Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, part 3 

Consistent, then, with the Student’s overall possibilism, while God causes the non-being of things in the same way as he causes them to exist, the possibility of a thing’s non-being, of its being nothing, is itself a given for God. God’s creative power may be responsible for a thing being nothing, but he is not on that account God over its nothingness, its primitive, a-theological ability to be nothing. The possibility of a thing’s non-being is as much a brute fact of God’s existence and experience as is its possibility to exist. In contrast with this is the very different theology of nothing represented in the Teacher’s denial that God makes or causes things to not exist. He corrects his pupil’s starting premise by explaining that, although we do sometimes speak of someone “causing” a thing not to be when he has only not exercised his power to cause it to be, in such cases causality is improperly rather than properly attributed to the agent in question. Here we can see Anselm sowing the seeds of the much more developed semantics and logic of modal agency he would begin to formulate in his later, unfinished Philosophical Fragments, a work we will consider in a subsequent chapter but which has been identified by scholars as the earliest explict examination in the history of philosophy of a theory of modal agency.[1] For the present, it is enough for us to observe the specifically theological occasion and context in which the question of modal agency first occurs in Anselm’s writings. As the Teacher summarizes his position, “In this [improper] mode God is said to cause many things which He does not cause.”[3] He goes on to explain that even when God destroys a thing, its annihilation is not a case of God causing it to no longer be, but rather of his ceasing to cause it to be: “when He ceases to conserve what He has created, then that thing which existed returns to not-being, not because He causes it not to be but because He ceases to cause it to be.”[4] For the Teacher, bringing it about that a thing does not exist is a different kind of activity than bringing about its existence, and therefore, we may be led to infer, a different kind of possibility. The existence and non-existence of a thing are not two opposite but otherwise comparable outcomes that stand in an equivalent relationship to God in the lottery of the divine will. The (non-)event of a thing ceasing to be is obviously privative, and the reality it is privative of is the original initiative God undertook to bring the thing into existence in the first place. A thing’s non-existence, accordingly, is not an absolute possibility that stands in the same potential causal relationship to God as the possibility of its existence does, but is a possibility that is relative to and conditioned upon the thing actually existing in the first place. It is the possibility of a thing actually existing, in other words, that is the prior possibility of it then being able not to exist. It is only in and through causing a thing to exist that God also makes it possible for his ceasing to cause that thing to exist. Such a cessation, then, does not involve an additional action, but the interruption of his otherwise ongoing action of preserving the thing in its existence. In the place of the Student’s possibilism, accordingly—which nihilistically collapsed this analogical distinction between divine action and inaction into a univocal equivalence between causing being and causing non-being—the Teacher substitutes a theistic actualism according to which it is only what God does that in turns makes possible and intelligible what God is then “able” not to do. The non-being of what now exists, therefore, is not an absolute possibility with which God must eternally reckon, a fourth member of a divine Quadrinity, as it were. Before creation, in other words, there was not God and nothing, the one who is Being on the one hand and his supposed opposite of non-being on the other. There was only God, and that was all. The possibility of a thing not existing, consequently, does not pre-exist that thing at all, for the very possibility of non-existence is itself post-existence. A thing’s non-being is not its alien “other,” for the possibility of non-being is only con-created in and through the creation of those things that God has made real. Here we get our first instance of a theme that will be explored much more fully in Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, namely the respect in which what God has already done or accomplished with respect to creation determines the parameters and meaning and hence possibility for any “subsequent” (from both a temporal and a logical point of view) divine action.

[1] Belnap, Perloff, and Xu, for example, attribute to Anselm (whom they anachronistically identify as a Dominican) the “earliest modal logic of agency of which we have learned.” Facing the Future: Agents and Choices in Our Indeterminist World, 18. See also Knuuttila, “Anselm on Modality,” 125, and articles by D. Walton, Eileen Serene, and Sarah Uckelman.

[3]De casu 1. “Hoc modo Deus dicitur multa facere quae non facit…”

[4] “Cum ipse desinit servare quod fecit; non ideo id, quod erat, redit in non esse, quia ipse facit non esse; sed quia cessat facere esse.”

Adam’s Other Spare Rib

What would have happened had Eve sinned but Adam hadn’t? Would the whole human race still have perished? According to Anselm, the answer is “No.”

For God could have made another woman from Adam, in whom he had created the seed of all human beings; and by that other woman made from Adam, God’s purpose would have been fulfilled. (On the Virginal Conception, and On Original Sin ch. 9)

While Anselm does not go so far as to say that Adam’s second wife would have been taken from one of Adam’s other ribs (though this is surely more likely than not), he does assume that she would have been taken from Adam just as Eve had been. This is because, as I argued Anselm implies in Cur Deus Homo, to be human one must be taken from Adam. As the first human being, Adam was not merely an instance of a type in the divine mind, but was the very type itself. This means that to be human, one must be descended from Adam. To have the essence of humanity is not merely formal, but is genealogical.

Necessity of the Incarnation in Tolkien’s Ainulindalë

Tolkien really was an astute theologian, my latest example of which is the following, theologically suggestive passage from his creation-myth, the Ainulindalë. In it, Tolkien may be interpreted as pointing in the direction of a theistic actualism, the thesis that God creates his own possibilities rather than creating from a set of possibilities already given to or for him. After the world of Eä was created, it is recorded that some of the angelic Ainur

took leave of Ilúvatar and descended into it. But this condition Ilúvatar made, or it is the necessity of their love, that their power should thenceforward be contained and bounded in the World, to be within it for ever, until it is complete, so that  they are its life and it is theirs. And therefore they are named the Valar, the Powers of the World.

When the Ainur choose to enter into this world, they have to take upon themselves something of its own nature. Consistent with the literary mode of myth, however, Tolkien is deliberately ambiguous as to the source of this “necessity of the (Ainur’s) incarnation.” Is it because Ilúvatar, for inscrutable reasons of his own, simply and autocratically stipulated physical embodiment as a condition for the Ainur’s habitation within Eä (i.e., divine-command theory, theological voluntarism)? Or was the origin of this necessity something more immanent and intrinsic to the natural order, the “way things are”? The answer, of course, is both: Ilúvatar is the sovereign Creator of the natural order, including its possibilities and necessities, and as such he has made it a necessity of Ainuric love that should they choose to enter the world that he has made, they must kenotically take upon themselves its limitations and conditions. In this Tolkien arrives at much the same conclusion St. Anselm does with regard to Christ’s Incarnation in Cur Deus Homo, namely that in order for God to save the human race, it was necessary that he himself become a man, and yet this necessity was not a constraint imposed upon God from the outside, but was a condition he laid upon both creation and himself in making creation to be what it is.

Political vs. Theological Origins of Anselm’s Modal Agency

Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, part 4

In the previous post I made the claim that Anselm’s theory of agent modality, viewed by some scholars as the first in the field, has a specifically theological origin. Nuel Belnap, Michael Perloff, and Ming Xu, in their Facing the Future: Agents and Choices in our Indeterminate World, give a different account, implying that the origins of Anselm’s theory of agency may have had a political (and hence secular) source of inspiration. As they recount:

the archbishop was deeply involved in controversy with the tyrant William Rufus and later his brother Henry in regard to the matters of lay investiture and clerical homage; he vigorously opposed the former. These controversies were heavily freighted with the concepts of promising and commitment and agentive powers. In order to make clear that his authority in matters spiritual was not at the pleasure of the king, Anselm refused to accept the papal pallium from the hands of William Rufus. Partly in consequence, the archbishop was in effect exiled by the king. Anselm’s brief notes on the modal logic of agency were, we think, composed during this bitter exile. (Facing the Future 18-19)

This political reading of the influences on Anselm’s modal logic of agency is intriguing and may have something to it, yet there can be no doubt that the actual textual antecedents to his general modal logic agency are his discussions of divine agency in particular. For Anselm, just as it is faith that makes possible understanding, so it his theological reflections on the nature of divine possibility that opens up the “possibility” of a theory of human possibility.

The Nihilism of Theistic Possibilism

Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, part 2

Although Anselm did not have any knowledge of Avicenna, the similarities between the Student’s statement that God causes the non-being of non-existing things on the one hand and the implications of the Avicennian doctrine of creaturely essences on the other, reveal the extent of Anselm’s intuitive grasp of the extremes to which such theistic possibilism can tend. Consistent with his opening thesis in On Freedom of Choice that the latter power involves the ability to sin and not to sin, the above passage has the Student characterizing God’s own freedom in terms of an ability both to cause things to be and to cause things not to be. Such a scheme encourages us to picture God as being perpetually presented with an exhaustive array of infinite possibilities, each one of which incessantly demands the attention of a divine “yea” or “nay,” of metaphysical election or reprobation. Flattening and democritizing the difference between divine action and inaction relative to a given possibility, accordingly, is the operation of an even more primitive and universal phenomenon of God’s will casting a univocal vote up or down on every bill of possibility brought to the floor of divine contemplation. Ironically, far from this theological voluntarism displacing the necessitarianism of the Neoplatonic emanationist scheme, it actually recapitulates it: instead of the One who is “beyond being” processing through all the lower orders of reality, we have a divine Chooser who, beyond being and non-being, ineluctably emanates all possibilities from himself, albeit with the (now largely insignificant) difference that he decides which handful of possibilities he will make real and which ones he will make unreal. Yet a further consequence of this modal and metaphysical “double-predestination” is that the very basis for privileging one divine response to a given possibility as “action” and demoting its opposite response to the state of “inaction,” is essentially eliminated or rendered arbitrary. If every possibility, after all, requires not only a positive act of divine choice, but of divine causality, to make it either to exist or not to exist, then there is a very real sense in which every possibility in fact receives actualization one way or another. Possibility, in other words, is no longer exclusively possibility towards existence, but is equally (in Cunningham’s phrase) “towards nothing,” as the possibility for being is now superseded by a prior, meta-possibility things have for either existing or not existing, a meta-modality that is entirely ambivalent towards existence. The result is a kind of modal nihilism according to which the world that actually exists really has no special ontological status whatsoever, being the mere photo-negative of the much more abundant realm of everything else that God causes not to exist. As has been suggested, however, privileging one modality by calling it “existence” and its opposite as “non-existence” is hereby exposed as entirely arbitrary and prejudicial: from the vantage point of those things divinely elected to the land of non-being, it is presumably this world that lacks existence. At the beginning of On Freedom of Choice, the Student had characterized free will as operating between two alternatives construed in the negative terms of sinning and not sinning. In much the same way, the Student’s possibilism-cum-nihilism here permits us to similarly revalue God’s choices as taking place between a positive, active causing things to not exist, and a comparatively negative, passive causing them to fail to not exist (in Christ, everything is “Nay and Amen.”). While God consigns some possibilities to the perturbations and anguish of being, we might as well say, others he blesses with the beatific repose and sabbath of non-being.

Causing Nothing

Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, part 1

If the modal problem at the center of On Freedom of Choice is the question of what it is that makes free will possible, Anselm’s companion dialogue, On the Fall of the Devil (De casu diaboli), undertakes an examination of how, using their freedom of choice, the primal sin of the rebelling angels was possible. In the course of doing so, moreover, Anselm sketches what might be described as two competing “theologies of nothing,” corresponding to the antithesis we have been tracing between theistic possibilism on the one hand and theistic actualism on the other. In this series of posts I will be investigating these two alternative accounts of the possibility of nothing before turning to see how they each make an appearance within Anselm’s account of how the fall of Satan was made possible.

On the Fall of the Devil opens with the Student inquiring whether the angels’ perseverance in original justice or rectitude of will was itself a gift of God. Answering in the affirmative, the Teacher makes the general metaphysical observation that whatever being a creature has, including the state of the will’s continuing uprightness, must come from God as the source of all existence. From this the Student mistakenly infers that God therefore must not only be the cause of the being of those things which do exist, but also of the non-being of those things which don’t. He asks:

Or who causes-not-to-be whatever is not except Him who causes-to-be all that is. Likewise, if there is something only because God causes it, then it follows that what-is-not is not because He does not cause it. Therefore, just as those things which exist have from Him their being something, so those things which do not exist, or which pass from being to not-being, seem to have from Him their being nothing.[1]

Although an erroneous interpretation of the Teacher’s statement that God is the source of all existence, the Student’s statement is no unrealistic caricature on Anselm’s part, as it actually captures some important elements of the teaching of his immediate predecessor, the Muslim philosopher Avicenna (980-1037).  According to Avicenna, who was under the direct influence of the Neoplatonist Plotinus (204-270), God eternally and necessarily emanates down through a hierarchical series of ten intelligences that culminate in the Agent Intellect in which all possible creaturely essences are contained.[2] As early a critic as St. Thomas Aquinas recognized, this means that creaturely essences contain within themselves their own possibility both for being and for non-being.[3] In his discussion of the resulting “nihilism” of Avicenna, Conor Cunningham writes:

The potential for non-being was prevalent to such an extent that every essence was said to have a positive orientation to non-being… For Avicenna, everything with a quiddity is caused. It is for this reason that everything with the exception of the necessary Being has quiddity, and these quiddities are possible through themselves: ‘To such quiddities being does not accrue except extrinsically’. As a result, we can agree with Gilson that essences are measured by their lack of existence. Indeed, they are this lack of existence.[4]

As possibles in themselves, these creaturely essences are, in Gerard Smith’s apt phrase, “God’s data, given to, not by Him,”[5] meaning that, as Cunningham continues, God gives to each of these essences only “its to-be but not its to-be-able-to-be,” its existence, that is, but not its possibility for existence.[6] A further consequence of this teaching is Avicenna’s famous doctrine that existence is a mere accident which extrinsically accrues to a given essence at the behest of the divine will: “existence has shifted from existentiality to an essential realm,” which means that the real difference between being and non-being has been reduced to a “difference of essence; this essence rather than that essence.”[7] Additional corrolaries to the Avicennian doctrine is the latter’s de-theologizing of metaphysics by making being rather than God the proper subject of the science of first philosophy, a teaching that some scholars have identified as a precursor to Duns Scotus’s doctrine of univocity.[8]

[1] De casu 1. “Aut quis facit non esse, quidquid non est; nisi ille qui facit esse, omne quod est? Item si non est aliquid, nisi ideo quia Deus facit; necesse est ut quod non est ideirco non sit, quia ipse non facit. Sicut ergo illa quae sunt, ab illo habent esse aliquid; ita quae non sunt, vel quae de esse transeunt ad non esse, videntur ab eodem ipso habere esse nihil.”

[2] Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 9.

[3] Aquinas, De Potentia 5.3, cited in Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 11.

[4] Ibid., 11.

[5] Gerard Smith, “Avicenna and the Possibles,” New Scholasticism, no. 17 (1943), 347, cited in Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 11.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 10.

[8] Ibid.

A Power to Sin?

Anselm on Freedom, part 6

One final ambiguity in Anselm’s On Freedom of Choice deserves mentioning, especially as it is one that will reappear in in Anselm’s sequel dialgogue, On the Fall of the Devil. Although the Teacher denies, as we have seen, that the so-called “ability to sin” is a necessary or intrinsic part of freedom, there are moments when he nevertheless treats it as a real, positive power or ability, and in that sense as an authentic and officially recognized (even while morally prohibited) outlet of created free choice. On the one hand, the debility to sin is neither a power nor a freedom, but a form of impotence and lack of freedom. Yet despite Anselm’s concern in general not to speak “improperly,” his Teacher is guilty of such imprecision when he refers, for example, to a “power of sinning” (potestatem peccandi) or a “power to be a slave” (potestatis est ut serviat).[1] The Teacher’s difficulty is appreciable, as his challenge is to try to explain how it is that humans can sin and even use their freedom in order to sin, without on that account reckoning this liability as in any way part of the meaning or created purpose of the God-given power of free choice. Where the Teacher’s references to a “power” or “ability” to sin problematically imply that a certain vulnerability to sin is a positive, even temporary design feature of creaturely freedom, a much more subtle and successful approach is to be had in one of the finer distinctions drawn in in Anselm’s On Freedom of Choice. Speaking of Satan and Adam, the Teacher says that “each sinned by his own choice, which was free; but neither sinned by means of that in virtue of which his choice was free. That is [neither sinned] by means of the ability in virtue of which he was able not to sin and not to serve sin.”[2] What I take the Teacher to be somewhat awkwardly trying to articulate here is something like the more precise Aristotelian distinction between a thing causing something per se and it causing it per accidens. When Satan and Adam chose to sin, their individual wills were not a per se cause of their evil—that is, their wills were not a cause of their evil as a proper or essential consequence, function, or meaning of their freedom—but were rather a per accidens cause of the evil: the occasion, opportunity, and in this case, liability or vulnerability towards evil was something that just happened to be an accidental (i.e., contingent, non-necessary) feature of their freedom, an accident of freedom that in the angels’ case was removed the moment they resolved to abide in justice. This, I think, is what the Teacher means when he distinguishes between Satan and Adam sinning through their free choice, which he affirms, from their sinning on account of the freedom of that choice, which he denies. As the Teacher recognizes, and as has been said, our “ability” to sin is really a debility to sin, a negative and accidental rather than a positive and essential feature of human freedom. Just as evil does not have being in its own right, but is parasitic on the good that it negates, so our “power of sinning” cannot be a real power in its own right after all, but is a power parasitic on our (vulner)ability in freely choosing and doing the good. Sinning and being a slave to sin are, in summary, not positive possibilities in and of themselves which are just “there” in the same sense as our power to do the good, serving along side them to delimit and define the meaning and opportunities of creaturely freedom, but are rather the negative space concreated along with and as an accidental part of the (divinely designed yet temporary) limitations of human and angelic freedom. Freedom is not so much the power and possibility for sin as it is sin’s “unpossibility,” the unique (in)opportunity that free creatures have to fail to act on their God-given capacity for free and obedient action for its own sake.

[1] On Freedom of Choice 2.

[2] On Freedom of Choice 2. “Pecavit autem per arbitrium suum, quod erat liberum; sed non per hoc unde liberum erat, id est per potestatem, quia poterat non peccare, et peccato non servire…”

God is the Meaning of Freedom

Anselm on Freedom, part 5

In regards to that imperviousness to sin that God and the unfallen angels do “share,” this, too, may be best understood in analogical rather than univocal terms, for even this commonality finds itself radically disrupted by the recognition that, whereas God is his own freedom, creatures are free only by partaking in God’s freedom. As the Teacher explains in the central chapter of the dialogue, the purpose for which creatures were given freedom of choice was so that they might will what is right because it is right, for the sake of the rightness, correctness, or rectitude of will for its own sake.[1] Freedom of choice is accordingly defined as simply this capacity the free creature has for keeping or preserving the will’s original rightness of willing. To his earlier denial, therefore, that freedom of choice involves a floating between the abstract possibilities of sinning and not sinning, the Teacher gives further concrete, actualist grounding to the freedom of choice through his insistence on the latter’s ineluctably teleological character. Freedom is something given to creatures, by God, for a purpose, namely in order that the principle of right willing itself might be a superintending motive force in all of our free actions. The inherently theological character of this understanding of freedom of choice, however, is perhaps best seen in the fact that this rectitude of will (the preservation of which is the purpose of the freedom of choice) is a species of rectitude—or conforming to divine truth—in general, a topic the Teacher addresses at some length in the prequel to On Freedom of Choice, Anselm’s dialogue On Truth (De Veritate). Freedom of choice, in other words, is that unique capacity God’s rational creatures have for self-knowingly conforming themselves to the purpose God has for them and which purpose and conformity is their truth. With this context in mind, it becomes clear that God and his rational creatures do not so much share a common meaning of freedom as it is the case that God is the meaning of the freedom of his rational creatures: they are free precisely to the degree that they allow their own rectitude of will, and hence their own conformity to God’s purpose, to be the ulterior motive behind all their actions deserving to be called free. In sum, then, it is not some abstract, univocal definition of freedom, but God himself who is the prior metaphysical and hence semantic possibility for the similarity or resemblance between himself and his creatures. Far from freedom being a simple binary affair, in which a being either conforms to the univocal definition or it doesn’t, the picture of freedom that emerges is that of an analogical scale according to which freedom admits of a greater or lesser capacity to relentlessly pursue divine truth. God of course cannot himself inhabit such a scale since the scale itself is the measure of a thing’s likeness to God’s own freedom. If so, by what possible, univocal, theologically-neutral definition of freedom might we compare his freedom to that of his creatures? Similar to the possibilist myth of there existing real, determinate, yet uncreated possibilities and worlds—alleged to be necessary for explaining God’s counterfactual freedom and power—so the promise of a univocal concept of freedom, here and as we shall see later, turns out to be less fact than fiction: conjectured as a necessary bulwark for the possibility of meaningful religious langauge and the validity of theological science, univocity turns out time and again to be an apparition that dissipates the moment it is subjected to the light of a frank assessment of God’s transcendence. Freedom, accordingly, is not so malleable as to be hammered thin enough to gild both God and his creatures as so many common “instances” of a single, univocal meaning. Instead, creaturely freedom is a limited, analogical sounding of the otherwise infinite depths of God’s measureless freedom. In terms of our theology of the possible, freedom is not an abstract property existing prior to and apart from God’s creative intention—all the while permanently defining God’s own potential to be univocally harnessed along side his possible creation—but is a metaphysical and semantic possibility only brought into being through God’s at once eternal yet ad hoc interpretation of and improvisation upon his own inimitable liberty. In short, God is his own freedom and as such invents the analogical freedom of his creatures.

[1] On Freedom of Choice 3.

Freedom as the Inability to Sin (Non Posse Peccare)

Anselm on Freedom, part 4

Having asserted the mere fact of there being an element of sameness between the freedom of God and the angels and the freedom of human beings, the Teacher immediately follows this with a qualification as to their profound difference. Far from allowing freedom to range over possibilities which are thought to include both good and evil, the Teacher argues that freedom actually lies in one’s liberation from evil as a “possibility”:

T: Which will seems the more free to you: the will which so wills and is so able not to sin that it cannot at all be turned away from the rightness [rectitudo] of not sinning or the will which in some way is able to be turned to sinning?

S: I do not see why a will which has both abilities [viz., to sin and not to sin] is not the more free.

T: Don’t you see that someone who so possesses what is fitting and advantageous that he cannot lose it is more free than someone else who possesses the same thing in such a way that he can lose it and can be induced to what is unfitting and disadvantageous? … Then, the ability to sin, which if added to the will decreases the will’s freedom and if substracted from the will increases its freedom, is neither freedom nor a part of freedom.[1]

In the Proslogion’s discussion of “the other side of omnipotence,” we recall, Anselm had argued in semi-Boethian fashion that the person who can do evil things or suffer misfortune does so “not by a power but by a lack of power. For it is not the case that he is said to be able because he himself is able; rather, [he is said to be able] because his own lack of power causes something else to be powerful over him…”[2] It is much the same argument that the Teacher here applies to the supposition of freedom including the ability to sin: just as the ability to do evil is not properly speaking a power, but a lack of power, so this same ability to do evil is not properly speaking a matter of freedom, but a lack of freedom, an ability to lose one’s freedom. It is not so much an ability as it is a kind of liabiliaty or inability. Being altogether free from what we might call the debility of sin, God and the confirmed angels are therefore free in a way and to a degree that human beings presently are not. In contrast, then, to what the Teacher says about there being a univocal sameness between the freedom of God and his rational creatures, what he actually shows is how different and surpassing divine and angelic freedom is in comparison to the vulnerability of human freedom to sin.

[1] On Freedom of Choice 1(emphasis added).

[2] Proslogion 7.

Not Univocity, Just No Equivocity

Anselm on Freedom, part 3

The previous post looked at some of the implications of the Teacher’s suggestion that God’s freedom is univocal with ours. However that may be, as we saw in the Monologion, there is a compelling case to be made for seeing Anselm’s instincts as ultimately lying in the direction of an analogical rather than univocal theory of theological language. Consistent with this is that, even in On Freedom of Choice, having asserted the fact of a univocal meaning of freedom for God and creatures, Anselm’s Teacher, significantly enough, actually has precious little to say either in explanation or defense of his claim. Given the context, it is tempting and perhaps justifiable to suppose that that the Teacher’s daliance with univocity is nothing more than a well-meaning yet misguided application of his more basic concern, namely to refute the Student’s suggestion that freedom requires the ability to sin. As has been noted, the Teacher only posits his thesis of univocal freedom to counter the Student’s suggestion that the Teacher’s counter-examples of divine and angelic freedom are too equivocal to merit comparison with human freedom. Thus, unless we beg the question by assuming that a univocal concept of freedom among God, angels, and humans is the only possible alternative to the Student’s assertion of equivocity, the burden of proof on the Teacher is actually quite low: he doesn’t need to show that there is a sense in which the freedom of God and the angels is exactly the same as that of human beings, nor, once again, does he anywhere demonstrate such univocity. Rather, he only needs to establish a sufficient likeness (i.e., analogy) between divine and angelic freedom and human freedom so as to establish that if God and the angels don’t need the ability to sin in order to be free, neither do humans. In short, the Teacher doesn’t need to prove univocity of divine and human freedom, but only deny equivocity.

Is God’s Freedom Univocal with Ours?

Anselm on Freedom, part 2

For the Teacher, then, freedom does not lie, in possibilist fashion, in a supposed ability to range indifferently over the possibilities of sinning and not sinning. What the Teacher does allow, ironically, is the meaning of freedom to range indifferently over the possibilities of divine and creaturely freedom. When the Student responds by asking whether the cases of God and the good angels are not too dissimilar to draw any conclusions about our own freedom, the Teacher answers: “Although the free choice of men differs from that of God and of the good angels, nevertheless the definition of this freedom ought to be the same in both cases, in accordance with the name ‘freedom.’”[1] The assertion of a definition of freedom common to both God and creatures has understandably led a number of scholars to conclude that Anselm affirms a theory of univocal speech about God after all, despite his disavowal of any such possibility in his teaching on God’s transcendence and aseity in the Monologion. If Anselm’s intent, as seems to be the case, is indeed to affirm a univocity of divine and creaturely freedom, the concern is whether, in the very process of defending—over against the Student’s objection—the relevance of God’s freedom to the discussion of creaturely freedom, the Teacher has not effectively reduced God ontically to a mere instance of freedom free of the alleged “ability to sin,” and so have marginalized God from having any ultimate intrinsic significance to the meaning of freedom. Instead of analogically rooting the meaning and possibility of freedom in the actual, concrete reality of God (as I suggested the Teacher started off doing), God’s own freedom is now recast as just one among two possible (divine versus created) modalities situated within a semantically and hence logically prior and more encompassing system of freedom. It was suggested in our earlier consideration of analogy in the Monologion that there is a kind of divine univocalism involved in the Augustinian ideas, according to which God predicates of himself all those possibilities which precede and determine the range and meaning of divine action. In a parallel fashion, the Teacher’s notion of a univocal concept of freedom would seem to establish a prior, abstract possibility of freedom that is supposed to semantically precede and yoke the actual, concrete and specific instances of divine and creaturely freedom. If so, and in some ways even more explicit than the Student’s rejected definition of freedom as the ability to sin and not to sin, it is the Teacher who in fact allows for an effective de-naturing and now even de-theologizing of freedom. As we shall see later, one potential consequence of having brought God thus down to inhabit the same semantic orbit of freedom as his creatures is the way a number of Anselm’s interpreters have understood—incorrectly, in my view—God’s own causal agency as similarly existing and even competing within the same metaphysical plane as the freedom of his creatures. Once freedom has been admitted as a semantically and logically “given” for God, in other words, we should not be surprised to find the freedom of his creatures to be similarly understood as a metaphysical and causal “given” for him as well. A God whose freedom can mean the same thing as his creatures’ freedom, it may turn out, is a God whose freedom can be exercised over his creatures only at the expense and exclusion of their own freedom.

[1] On Freedom of Choice 1. “Quamvis differat liberum arbitrium hominum a libero arbitrio Dei et angelorum bonorum diffinitio tamen hujus libertatis in utrisque, secundum hoc nomen, eadem debet esse.”

Is Freedom of Choice the Ability to Sin or Not to Sin?

Anselm on Freedom, part 1

Although they do not address the doctrines of God and creation directly, the works in which Anselm deals most directly and extensively with the question of possibility are his two dialogues on free will, On Freedom of Choice (De libertate arbitrii) and its sequel On the Fall of the Devil (De casu diaboli). Together, these works comprise Anselm’s explanation of how God has made the freedom of choice possible for his rational creatures, and how and in what sense, through this freedom, moral evil has also been made “possible.”

A dialogue between a master and his pupil, Anselm’s On Freedom of Choice opens with the Student asking his Teacher whether “freedom of choice consists in being able to sin and not to sin” (libertas arbitrii est posse pecare et non peccare), as many allege to be the case. The Teacher, as we shall see shortly, denies that freedom of choice includes any such “ability to sin,” yet as I hope to show, he is not as successful in escaping this notion as one might wish him to be. Before considering the Teacher’s response, therefore, it may behoove us to consider the implication’s of the Student’s position on freedom in closer detail. In contemporary philosophical parlance, the characterization of freedom as the ability to sin or not to sin involves the Principle of Alternate Possibilities, the thesis that for any exercise of free choice, two or more equally available and electable options must be present.[1] The possibilism of such a formulation, of course, lies in its characterization of freedom as a capacity to range indifferently (at least so far as the essence of freedom is concerned) over supposedly equally available and electable, but otherwise mutually exclusive options. Freedom, accordingly, would seem to lie not in any suposed intrinsic or natural connection between the will and its actions, but in the comparatively extrinsic consideration that the will should have at its disposal the opportunity not only to perform a given action, but also its opposite. (This suggests, moreover, that the meaning of a given action, so far as it is a free action, is in some sense parasitic upon the meaning of its contrary: to be a free action is for that action to be chosen over against, yet in the presence of, its opposite.) Once again, we see that it is the possible that is allowed to precede and determine what is afterward made actual. More problematic still is the Student’s suggestion that the alternative possibilities supposed to be necessary to comprise freedom lie not in the possibility of doing one good action to the exclusion of another good action, but in an alleged “ability to sin” counterbalancing and in tension with an opposing ability to do the good. What is more, the Student’s formulation would seem to use Augustine’s notion of posse non peccare to invert Augustine’s own privation theory of evil, inasmuch as the ability to do the good has been reconceived not in positive but in privative terms as an “ability not to sin,” thereby suggesting that, if anything, it is the “ability to sin” that is the default orientation of freedom. On such a view of freedom, then, not only is evil effectively elevated into, if not a moral, then at least a real modal and metaphysical possibility—one whose presence is positively required for the existence and exercise of freedom as freedom—but insofar as its spectre now haunts both poles between which freedom operates, evil comes to constitute the total and intrinsic meaning and possibility of freedom. To sin or not to sin—that is the question of freedom.

Seen in this light, it is not surprising to find the Teacher rejecting so dubious an account of freedom in no uncertain terms. He cites as counter-examples the cases of God and the unfallen and confirmed angels, both of whom are free and yet neither of whom possess the Student’s hypothesized “ability to sin.” Over against the possibilism of the Student’s conjecture of an abstract, denatured freedom to sin or not to sin, in other words, the Teacher will take as his provisional characterization of freedom the actual, concrete examples of God and the blessed angels whose freedom, as we shall see shortly, lies not in any alleged ability to prescind itself from the good, but rather in their unwavering commitment to the same.

[1] On Anselm’s rejection of the Principle of Alternate Possibilities as a requirement for freedom of choice, see, for example, Visser and Williams, Anselm, and Rogers, Anselm on Freedom.

Nothingness as Post-Existence

A couple of weeks ago I posted on how God’s act of creation is so radical, so basic, so ultimate, that more than merely bringing existence into being from nothing, it is actually responsible for bringing into being for the the very first time the very opposition between being and non-being itself, and in that sense might be said to involve the very invention of “nothing.” Before God created, there was no “thing,” not even “nothing.” Not only is creatio ex nihilo, but nihil ex creatione. 

Rereading his On the Fall of the Devil, I find that Anselm says much the same thing. In response to the Student’s query as to how the word nothing can have any signification if what it signifies is indeed nothing, the Teacher replies:

It is agreed that as far as its signification goes, the word ‘nothing’ is in no way different from ‘not-something.’ And nothing is more obvious than this: ‘not-something’ by its signification requires that every thing, whatsoever, and anything that is something, is to be excluded from the understanding, and that no thing at all or what is in any way something is to be included in the understanding. But since there is no way to signify the exclusion of something except by signifying the very thing whose exclusion is signified–for no one understand what ‘not-human’ signifies except by understanding what a human is–the expression ‘not-something’ must signify something precisely by eliminating that which is something. On the other hand, by excluding everything that is something, it signifies no essence that it requires to be included in the hearer’s understanding. Therefore, the expression ‘not-something’ does not signify any thing or that which is something. (De casu diaboli 11, Williams trans.)

Nothingness, therefore, is a post-existence, and hence post-creational, phenomenon. Before God creates, there is not God and nothing: there is only God. Nothingness is con-created (and hence con-signified, as Anselm’s Teacher observes) along with the somethingness that is creation, which means that God invents nothing in and with what he creates. As Conor Cunningham puts it in the passage I cited in the previous post, the difference between being and non-being is preceded by the intra-Trinitarian differences that constitute the Godhead. Put differently, God’s act of creation is so powerful that it brings into being the possibility of its own opposite, nothing. Anselm’s near contemporary Peter Damian says in his letter On Divine Omnipotence that “God has not yet learned to make nothing.” What he means is that God doesn’t make things that don’t in fact exist, something Anselm agrees with. But there is a another sense in which nothing is exactly what God makes, by virtue of making something. In terms of our modal theism, finally, we see that it is not an empty nothing that is the prior possibility of there then being an actual something (possibilism), but it is God’s creation of an actual something that makes nothing possible.