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…”


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