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.

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