Aquinas on a Freedom that Follows Reason: An Examination and Defense of the Nature of Human Agency within an Aristotelian Tradition

Christopher Mark Upham, Fordham University


If freedom can follow reason, there must be no opposition between the fullest exercise of human abilities and an inescapable limitation by what we recognize as practically reasonable. In line with this notion of freedom, my driving principle is to adopt tradition as a philosophical method, reflecting the belief that ‘what is intelligible’ is, itself, encountered within a lived, historical context, and so is, rather like freedom, limited and non-ultimate (chapter 1). Accordingly, (in chapter 2) I argue that Aquinas’s notion of substance as a category can be understood in response to the need for linguistic expressions that a) predicate what a subject term is, i.e., give its meaning; and b) have a reference to real-world objects, which are themselves examples of whatever is being predicated. These determinate objects of reference—particular substances—furnish us with experiences by which we can show one another what we mean and learn to understand the non-particular nature of things while only having contact with particular things. Just as our understanding and linguistic practices point us to objects in the category of substance, our causal inquiries—I contend (in chapter 3)—must terminate with self-sufficient agent causes, which act to produce characteristic effects from their very nature, so as not to arouse any further causal questions in their very act of causation. For Aquinas, the agency of these self-sufficient causes derives from substantial forms, inward principles of both immanent activities and the possibility of effecting change in others. Though none of this mentions voluntary agency, all of this is crucial to appreciating how Aquinas—as I explain (in chapter 4)—considers voluntary agency to be a type of natural causation, since voluntary agency involves cognitive creatures acting from an inward principle, namely, the ability to act for an immediate end because (note the causal link) the agent cognitively grasps information conveying that end as attractive. Attraction, in turn, Aquinas considers to be dependent upon certain natural appetites, over which an agent cannot exercise control, and for this reason, his view of voluntary agency is non-ultimate. While brute animals and humans share in common the ability to act voluntarily for ends that are recognized as attractive, the human ability to reason practically sets us apart. It gives us a further control not only over our actions but also over our appetites. This account of humans as non-ultimate agents, voluntarily controlling ourselves via substance causation by way of practical reasons, sets up a version of libertarian freedom that is importantly different from rival libertarian views and obviously pitted against compatibilism. After situating Aquinas’s ‘freedom that follows reason’ within the current debate between compatibilists and libertarians, I maintain (in chapter 5) that his approach is preferable because it offers a view of freedom that is necessary for moral evaluation of human actions and appetites, while it still does not succumb to the charge of being inconsistent with natural, physical causation.

Subject Area

Medieval literature|Ethics|Metaphysics|Philosophy

Recommended Citation

Upham, Christopher Mark, "Aquinas on a Freedom that Follows Reason: An Examination and Defense of the Nature of Human Agency within an Aristotelian Tradition" (2015). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10013394.