Aquinas: Does God Mind-Control You?

We’re drawing to a close with Aquinas here. I’ve said before that I’ll finish with the end of the Prima Pars, but frankly I’ve had enough. I’ve done quite a bit of Aquinas – much more than any other writer – and it’s time to move on. I’m working on 1a.105 at the moment, so I’ll finish with that. The Prima Pars ends at Q119, so we’re not missing heaps, but – I mean there’s probably 40+ posts here on Aquinas. I’m tired and I need a change. Today we’re asking whether God can move the creature’s will.

The idea of God moving someone’s will is kinda weird. On the one hand, we’re all supposed to have free will, right, so therefore God shouldn’t be able to force it. Plus, if God does force our will in one thing or another, then surely we don’t bear any moral responsibility for that action – because it’s not really our action. Aquinas writes that “this is why a murder is imputed not to the stone but to the one who threw it.” If there’s no free will, there’s no acts “deserving either of reward or punishment,” and I mean if there’s none of that what’s even the point of anything?

Aquinas kicks off his rebuttal quoting Philippians 2.13: “It is God who worketh in us both to will and to accomplish.” Probably the stronger example would be Exodus or something – God tells Moses to go ask Pharaoh for freedom, and adds ‘oh also I’ll turn his heart against you so he’ll say no and then I’ll murder his kid.’ It all seems a bit shitty – and it’s precisely the issue that Aquinas is raising. If God is hardening Pharaoh’s heart, why does He then punish Pharaoh with plagues until Pharaoh changes his mind? It’s sort of like playing with dolls – God’s just decided that Pharaoh will ignore the plagues until it’s convenient for plot reasons for the Israelites to leave. It all just seems kinda shitty.

Fair warning now, I guess, Aquinas’s answer really doesn’t resolve this Pharaoh problem. We’ll work through what’s there, and then we’re really out in the cold – I’ve got nothing further to offer on this one. We’ve talked before about how for Aquinas, everyone desires good. It’s not like a choice – everyone just desires good all the time, and sin only exists because sometimes people are bad at getting the good stuff they actually want. Thus an adulterer wants sex, which is good, but they get it by cheating on their partner, which is bad. But focus on that desire component. Aquinas suggests here that the object of desire in some sense moves the will: “the will is moved by its object, the good.” From that perspective, the act of willing something “means precisely a responsiveness to the will’s object, the universal good.” We all want good, and when we will something it’s a response to our desire for the universal good. So we’re responding to goodness – we are, in a sense, moved to certain actions by goodness.

And now we’re saying what Aquinas wants us to say. If we’re moved to certain actions by goodness, and that’s just the definition of how will works, then God, as the universal ultimate goodness, is the thing that we’re ultimately moving towards with all our actions. That’s kind of a nice idea, right – every action and desire, good or bad or confused or otherwise, is a response to our desire for the universal good. We ultimately only act in response to our desire for God. It also solves Aquinas’s first problem from before. Yes, God can move our will: if our will is a response to our desire for the universal good, then the universal good (ie God) is in some sense moving our will. It’s not domineering or invalidating free will, it’s just our yearning for goodness/God. God, the universal good, moves our will in that we desire God and act to try and fulfil that desire. I think that’s kinda nice.

Right, so now we have to deal with the Pharaoh thing. Aquinas agrees that if you’ve got no free will, you’re not responsible for your actions. Fair enough. No crime, no punishment. But Aquinas also says that being moved by an external source doesn’t rule out self-movement (that’s free will). We can see how this idea follows from the previous argument. If the will is geared towards goodness, then technically you’re only ever free to either a) choose something good or b) choose something good badly. Those are the options. Either way, your will is still a response to goodness – it’s still being moved by goodness. But being moved by goodness doesn’t eliminate free will. You still have free will, and you can still freely move yourself along either of those avenues, even though you’re moved by this external ultimate goodness towards good actions. Those two elements co-exist. And if they co-exist, Aquinas says, then being moved by an external source doesn’t rule out self-movement. Therefore, even if God does push someone to do something, “the basis for [the action] deserving reward or punishment is not nullified either.” God might push you, but you’re still responsible.

But it’s fine, right, because God is good and He only moves us to do good things because He’s good. Right? Well, I guess, but what about Pharaoh? This is the point where I leave off, unfortunately. It seems like God should only be able to move us to do good things. At the same time, God pretty clearly says in Exodus that He’s going to harden Pharaoh’s heart against the Israelites. That seems shitty. You could argue that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to show His own majesty and power over and against this hardened Pharaoh, but that seems a bit shitty, especially given that God goes round murdering people and dropping plagues everywhere. It seems sort of like saying that God’s programming evil into the world in order to demonstrate His own goodness in a sort of contrast. We’ve talked about that idea before, and, uh, spoilers, it’s pretty fucked up too.

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