Knowing and Willing in Aquinas

By Dunstan Robidoux, OSB

In the common literature which exists about Aquinas, he is frequently described as an “intellectualist.” His philosophy (or theology) is frequently regarded as “intellectualist” which implies that he subscribes to a tradition which emphasizes the primary of the human intellect in the life of human beings. However, is this popular view somewhat misleading for more than one reason? Can a development be detected in Aquinas which offers a more nuanced position, a thesis which jars with simple intellectualism and which can be reconciled with a degree of voluntarism? Is Aquinas misunderstood because many of his readers today could be working from a truncated understanding of what could be meant by “intellectualism”?

Early on, in his analysis, In interpreting Aristotle’s De Anima, 3, 433b10-13 in the Sentencia Libri De anima, 3, 15, 830; p. 246, Aquinas argues that, in Aristotle, the “absolute starting point of movement” in the movement of desire or appetite is the apprehension of a desired object, either through the powers of human imagination or the activity of the human intellect. Appetibile apprehensum movet appetitum; “the apprehended object of desire moves the appetite” (citing J. Michael Stebbins’s translation, Divine Initiative: Grace, World-Order, and Human Freedom in the Early Writings of Bernard Lonergan, p. 323, n. 90) even if this phrasing only presents the meaning of Aquinas’s interpretation and so does not cite any literal wording from any text written by Aquinas. On the whole, in the early writings of Aquinas, the will tends to be viewed in passive terms. It is something which is acted upon. Cf. Lonergan, “On God and Secondary Causes,” Collection, p. 63. It lacks a causality of its own.

However, in a development of view which gradually transcends the simple intellectualism of Aristotle, in Aquinas (and in Lonergan’s analysis of Aquinas), will and intellect are related in a way which is best understood in terms of a mutual causality or a causality of mutual priority. In analyzing how Aquinas understands how the human will is related to the life of the intellect, in his Grace and Freedom, pp. 95-96 and pp. 319-320, Lonergan argues that, when Aquinas speaks about the causality of the human will (the fact that it has a causality of its own), he rejects Aristotle’s understanding which had viewed the will as purely a function of reason (as a “wholly passive potency,” quoting Stebbins, p. 84). Cf. Patrick Byrne, “Thomist Sources of Lonergan’s Dynamic World-View,” Thomist: 117. See Thomas Aquinas, In 2 Scriptum super libros sententiarum, d. 25, q. 1, a. 2; De Veritate, q. 22, a. 6; Summa Contra Gentiles, 3, 10, 17; De Malo, q. 3, a. 3; Peri Hermeneias, 1, 14; and Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 81, a. 3, ad 2; q. 82, a. 2 for texts which deny that acts of understanding and judgment force or necessitate the will to engage in its activities which lead to a desired end. While the life of the human imagination and the human intellect does admittedly play a primary role in exciting the human will toward movement, a double primary causality is in fact to be postulated (two operative efficient causes) since the human will also acts (to move itself) on the basis of naturally desired ends which already belong to the structure of the will and which incline it to act in certain ways or in certain directions. “To will and not to will lie within the power of the will” (Summa Contra Gentiles, 3, 10, 17; 3, p. 61). Cf. De Malo, q. 6, a. 1. The human will is in fact moved by two causes, or two principles, which refer to a structure of reason and a structure of desire or appetite which are related to each other and which work together to move things forward in human life. As one’s understanding specifies an object or end which is to be desired by one’s human willing (Summa Theologiae, 1a2ae, q. 9, a. 1), at the same time, the self-movement of the will is accounted for by its own ends and first principles which, rationally, are constitutive of its inner life (q. 9, a. 3). The object or end is a practical good that is being desired or wanted. An appetibile or “seekable” designates the object of a striving. Cf. Martin Rhonheimer, Natural Law and Practical Reason, p. 26; p. 32; p. 71.

As this double causality is played out in the life of human beings in a way which also reveals a certain parallel in the structure of intellect and will in the rational life of human beings, where in the structure and operations of human cognition the object is a knowledge of specific facts, in the end, judgments belonging to the will (as a knowing which seeks to grasp courses of action) are also rationally made by reducing hypothesized conclusions to first principles in order to establish specific courses of action which can then be implemented to realize a desired, concrete good. In the life of the will, the will moves itself by working for ends or objectives which are constitutive of its first principles and by effecting a kind of reduction which tries to move from ends specified by first principles back towards specific means that can lead to the ultimate attainment of one’s desired ends. As, in theoretical understanding, from a general premiss in a syllogism one moves toward a specific conclusion, in the same way, from an end or object which functions as a kind of premiss in practical or moral understanding (Summa Theologiae, 1a2ae, q. 13, a. 3) and which is to be identified with the human will’s fundamental orientation toward the good (Summa Theologiae, 1a2ae, q. 90, a. 2; q. 94, a. 2 cited by Frederick Crowe, “Dialectic and the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises,” Appropriating the Lonergan Idea, p. 238), one moves toward a choice which designates a very specific means that can lead to other, higher means and ends which ultimately lead to an end that satisfies all of one’s desires and whose desiring has served as a catalyst to construct an ascending scale of related means and ends. If one is to reach an ultimate goal, one must discover a very specific, initial means or concrete step whose execution will initiate a series of actions that will lead to ultimately desired ends. A teological order or structure belongs to the dynamism of the human will as this will constructs a relation of means and ends which lead to the actualization of a highest goal or end, and as this same will works with other human wills to order means and ends in ways which distinguish how persons differently will and live their lives. As Aquinas argues above in the Summa Theologiae, 1a2ae, q. 13, a. 3, for a physician, a patient’s health is something ultimate. A physician will make decisions based on what will nourish or restore a patient’s health. But, if one is a patient or a potential patient, one might decide to forego certain medical treatments because one wishes to attain higher objectives: end which transcend the health of one’s body. The end of one person’s life or activity can become a means for another person’s life or activity. Cf. Crowe, pp. 237-8. In the life of the will, one usually works from an initial, inchoate sense of basic ends or objectives and, from there, one works toward specific objectives which designate means that are made known through co-operative activities that are centered in acts of inquiring, understanding, and judging.

Knowing and willing clearly move each other in a reciprocal relation which more fully reveals an existential tension which inherently exists within human life and, thus, a certain lack of simplicity: a mysteriousness or wonder which exists about the meaning of our human existence. A mutual or reciprocal causality excludes, on the one hand, a simple primacy of the reason over the will (as the Greeks would largely have it) and, on the other hand, a simple primacy of the will over the intellect (as many modern thinkers would have it, thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Nietzsche, and Freud). In one’s understanding, one’s desires and inclinations are known and in one’s desires and affections, one moves toward one’s acts of understanding (from what is already understood to what has yet to be understood). Cf. De Veritate, q. 9, a. 10, ad 3, 2ae ser. In the context of modern voluntarism, the human will is usually not seen as a reasonable or rational thing. Intellect and will, “intellectualism” and “voluntarism,” tend to be set apart from each other in a false dichotomy that can be overcome through a self-understanding which can begin to realize that our human understanding grows and develops through a constant interaction between intellect and will (which would also include a constant, ongoing interaction between sense and intellect in the life of the human mind). For a better understanding of modern contemporary views which emphasize the primacy of the will over the intellect, on Hobbes and the primacy of the human lust for power in human life, see Eric Voegelin, Modernity without Restraint: Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, vol. 5, ed. Manfred Henningsen (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000), p. 307.

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