Aquinas: Do Angels Have Free Will?

We’re getting closer to the fallen angels here – 1a.59.3 asks whether angels have free will. Theoretically you’d think they must, right? Otherwise if they don’t have free will they’re not responsible for falling, and it’s God’s fault, and God’s kinda just a dick. So it’s pretty important that the angels have free will. Let’s see what Aquinas has to say.

He first raises some objections against the idea. First, he notes, angels don’t really make decisions. Aristotle said that choice is a willful decision made after deliberation, and angels don’t deliberate because they already intuitively know everything, so they don’t really have to deliberate. There’s a really crucial idea here – if you already know everything, in what sense can we say you choose anything? Aquinas has argued before that nobody desires bad things – everybody just wants what’s good, and it’s just that sometimes people want good things in the wrong way – and that’s what evil is. That’s 1a.48.1. But if you know all things perfectly, you know how to desire good in the right way, and because we all desire good, your knowledge means that you have to pursue goodness in the right way. You don’t actually have the ability to choose anything else. In that sense, angels don’t really make decisions.

In rebutting this argument, Aquinas draws again on the point he made in 1a.57.1. Angels are better than humans, and so they have to be able to do all the shit that humans can do and more – otherwise they’re not really better at all. Aquinas argues that “free will is a constituent of human dignity: angels have a more than human dignity; a fortiori then they have free will.” He points out that not all actions are chosen – if you think about, say, an arrow, it can fly towards a target, but it doesn’t really choose to fly in any meaningful sense. It’s fired from a bow. Similarly sheep make decisions, but again, Aquinas argues, they aren’t really proper decisions. They have genetic instincts, and they act on those instincts, but they can’t really choose to not. So if a sheep sees a wolf, it scarpers. No choice involved – it just scarpers. So then if humans have free will, but sheep don’t, presumably humans have something that sheep lack. For Aquinas, that’s intelligence.

So if intelligence is a condition for free will, and angels have intelligence, Aquinas argues, then presumably they have free will too: “wherever intellect is found, there is free will.” This argument seems a bit dodgy to me – it seems like assuming that if you’ve got wheels, you’ve got a whole car. It’s inferring the whole from a single part. I mean, it does make some sense – given that angels are higher than humans, presumably we can’t have free will without angels having it too. And, if you assume that we’re designed in a pretty similar way to angels, then if intelligence is part of our free will, then it’s probably part of theirs too. But this doesn’t really explain how angels have free will – it doesn’t deal with the problem we raised earlier.

And in a sense Aquinas doesn’t really explain that problem fully here. We will come back to it over the next little arc of posts – we’re working up to the devils, so the problem will be solved before we finish that arc. But for now, there’s only really little incidental solutions. For instance, Aquinas notes that, as we’ve said, an angel’s knowledge works differently to a human’s. And just as our knowledge is different, so too are our actions different. We choose between options while not fully understanding their ramifications. Angels choose following their “immediate apprehension of truth.” You can see how there’s still an issue here, right – if angels all apprehend truth perfectly, how do they fall into sin? Either they actively want evil things, in which case not all creatures desire goodness, or they don’t understand when things are evil, in which case they didn’t have proper angelic knowledge in the first place. And you can’t say that maybe their knowledge was broken by their sinfulness, because they weren’t created as devils. They were created as angels, and then they fell – so there’s a point where they were all still angels, perfectly equipped with all the proper angel equipment, and somehow still with all of that equipment they managed to sin. That’s the problem we’re dealing with. Let’s hold out for an answer.

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