Human Free Will in Anselm and Descartes

Human Free Will in Anselm and Descartes

Berman, Sophie (St. Francis College)

The Saint Anselm Journal 2.1 (Fall 2004)


Freedom is a central theme in Descartes’s philosophy, where it is linked to the theme of the infinite: it is through the freedom of the will, experienced as unlimited, that the human understands itself to bear the “image and likeness” of the infinite God. In God the will is logically prior to the intellect, although both are inseparable in the unity of the divine nature; the infinite, properly understood, is will, since its essence is pure power. The human will mirrors this power, transcendent to the world. The Cartesian “thing that thinks,” the rational being, is fundamentally the thing that is free. These views align Descartes with a voluntarist philosophical tradition emphasizing the will in both the human and the divine. Anselm is a major figure in this tradition. Undoubtedly the similarity between Anselm and Descartes is easily masked by the difference of context: Anselm’s De libertate arbitrii deals with the freedom of the will in connection with the question of sin, while Descartes’s Fourth Meditation brings up the notion of free will within the setting of an analysis of error. Descartes’s philosophical project, tied to epistemological exigencies, is not the Anselmian project of “faith seeking understanding.” Yet Anselm and Descartes reveal a common metaphysical intuition in discerning an indivisible and inalienable freedom – imaging the divine creativeness – at the heart of created rational nature. The aim of the present paper is to explain this commonality.

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