About Intellectualism and Voluntarism

The thomist ethics shares with ancient philosophy the conviction that if someone knows what is good she cannot choose what is bad. Such a view, in fact, brings us back to the Socratic account of virtue according to which human beings are incapable to do harm as long as they have (intellectual) knowledge of what is virtuous (Protagoras, 357c–358d). The view that is the intellect the driving force behind human action was largely prevalent until the 14th century. Such a view in the middle age relied on the reception of the Aristotle´s theory of cognition[1] and implied, among other things, a certain passivity of the human mind and the idea that humans have a fixed nature: are necessarily designed to make the “good choice”. All the other choices are seen as “deviations” from the sanity and integrity of the “illuminated” intellect. This is not tenable from a psychological and practical point of view. Indeed, at that time some Franciscans scholars such as Olivi and Ockham already suggested another account of the relation between virtue and knowledge: the idea that “people can will to do what they recognize as evil”[2]. Interestingly, their emphasis on the freedom of human’s will can be related to the emphasis they put on the freedom of God’s will (the Ockhamian distinction between potentia ordinata and potentia absoluta was considered by some thinkers almost heretical as it was equated with the destruction of all certainties[3]). But perhaps even more importantly, in this way the central role of Aristotelian “unmoved mover” (God) is, at least at some extent, undermined: the will, according to Olivi, is in fact moved by itself: God ceases to be the only self-mover. And the will is undetermined. In conjunction with this, Olivi´s understanding of modalities contemplates the logical possibilities of different options at the same time.[4] Some considerations about the ethical consequences of the intellectualist view and the voluntarist reaction are needed. With the intellectualist view all sins could be traced back to a “cognitive error”. It followed that moral responsibility were undermined. On the contrary, with the voluntarist view human beings gain the freedom of choosing the “evil” and, with this, the possibility of paying the consequences of their own actions not on the ground that they are (once and for all) sinners who did not receive or find the God’s grace and “illumination”[5], but on the ground that they might have made a “wrong” (contingent) choice in a given circumstance whereas the distinction between “right” and “wrong” is blurred. This view, especially from a modern point of view, seems to be more tenable and more psychologically plausible: leaving aside the problem of what is the good and the evil, what is certain is that the “voluntarist” account opens up a wider range of possibilities for the individual as much as for her ethical and political dimension. Needless to say, the idea that the present divine order is not the only possible one (nor necessarily the best possible one) could represent a theoretical treat not only against the traditional way of conceiving divine order, but potentially against any political terrestrial order too. The voluntarist view sounds more realistic because today most of us take for granted that when it comes to political orders many possibilities at the same time do always exist. What is more, voluntarist ethics seems to suggest that “evil” is not to be considered an end, but rather a mean that can be chosen by free will[6] to achieve a concrete end. Paradoxically, the separation between virtue and knowledge that the voluntarist account implies instead of understanding the person in terms of a more irrational impulse (the will, for example), does “rationalize” the person: does start to consider the individual as a being with different desires and (often contradictory) volitions, but at the same time does also consider the same individual as a being capable of doing any possible choice.


Thus, the shift was not only from “ascetic” illumination to individual free will and responsibility, but also from blessedness of an inner condition (where virtue, knowledge and self-knowledge were equivalent) to the effect that an action can produce externally. Voluntarism was the first step toward the idea that the individual can act for her own perceived self-interests against the “natural” order and in many different ways.

[1] John, Marenbon. Medieval Philosophy: An Historical and Philosophical Introduction, Abingdon: Routledge, 2007. p. 279.

[2] Ibid., p. 304.

[3] Ibid., p. 303.

[4] Ibid., p. 280.

[5] One of the problems with the intellectualist account and idea of illumination is the tendency to reduce the sinner to her sin and, consequently, to think that there are good persons rather than good actions.

[6] However, it is not clear to me at what extent can the voluntarist “free will” be related to the modern ideal of rational free will ‘s decision making individual.

Matteo Iammarrone.

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