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§ 1. Different Theories of the Will.

All the different theories of the will may be included under the three classes of Necessity, Contingency, and Certainty.


To the first of these classes belong: —

1. The doctrine of Fatalism, which teaches that all events are determined by a blind necessity. This necessity does not arise from the will of an intelligent Being governing all his creatures and all their acts according to their nature, and for purposes of wisdom and goodness; but from a law of sequence to which God (or rather the gods) as well as men is subject. It precludes the idea of foresight or plan, or of the voluntary selection of an end, and the adoption of means for its accomplishment. Things are as they are, and must be as they are, and are to be, without any rational cause. This theory ignores any distinction between physical laws and free agency. The acts of men and the operations of nature are determined by a necessity of the same kind. Events are like a mighty stream borne onward by a resistless force, — a force outside of themselves, which cannot be controlled or modified. All we have to do is to acquiesce in being thus carried on. Whether we acquiesce or not makes no difference. A man falling from a precipice cannot by an act of will counteract the force of gravity; neither can he in any way control or modify the action of fate. His outward circumstances and inward acts are all equally determined by an inexorable law or influence residing out of himself. This at least is one form of fatalism. This view of the doctrine of necessity may rest on the assumption that the universe has the ground of its existence in itself, and is governed in all its operations by fixed laws, which determine the sequence of all events in the mineral, vegetable, and animal kingdom, by a like necessity. 281Or it may admit that the world owed its existence to an intelligent first cause, but assume that its author never designed to create free agents, but determined to set in operation certain causes which should work out given results.. However fatalists may differ as to the cause of the necessity which governs all events, they agree as to its nature. It may arise from the influence of the stars, as the ancient Chaldeans held; or from the operation of second causes, or from the original constitutions of things; or from the decree of God. It avowedly precludes all liberty of action, and reduces the acts of men to the same category with those of irrational animals. Properly speaking, however, fatalism refers this necessity to fate, an unintelligent cause.

2. A second form of the doctrine of necessity, is the mechanical theory. This denies that man is the efficient cause of his own acts. It represents him as passive, or as endued with no higher form of activity than spontaneity. It avowedly precludes the idea of responsibility. It assumes that the inward state of man, and consequently his acts, are determined by his outward circumstances. This doctrine as connected with the materialism of Hobbes, Hartley, Priestley, Belsham, and especially as fully developed by the French Encyclopædists, supposes that from the constitution of our nature, some things give us pain, others pleasure: some excite desire, and others aversion; and that this susceptibility of being acted upon is all the activity which belongs to man, who is as purely a piece of living mechanism as the irrational animals. A certain external object produces a corresponding impression on the nerves, that is transmitted to the brain, and an answering impulse is sent back to the muscles; or the effect is spent on the brain itself in the form of thought or feeling thereby excited or evolved. The general features of this theory are the same so far as its advocates ignore any distinction between physical and moral necessity, and reject the doctrine of free agency and responsibility, however much they may differ on other points.

3. A third form of necessity includes all those theories which supersede the efficiency of second causes, by referring all events to the immediate agency of the first cause. This of course is done by Pantheism in all its forms, whether it merely makes God the soul of the world, and refers all the operations of nature and all the actions of men to his immediate agency; or whether it regards the world itself as God; or whether it makes God the only substance of which nature and mind are the phenomena. According to all these views, God is the only agent; all activity is but different modes in which the activity of God manifests itself.


The theory of occasional causes leads to the same result. According to this doctrine, all efficiency is in God. Second causes are only the occasions on which that efficiency is exerted. Although this system allows a real existence to matter and mind, and admits that they are endowed with certain qualities and attributes, yet these are nothing more than susceptibilities, or receptivities for the manifestation of the divine efficiency. They furnish the occasions for the exercise of the all-pervading power of God. Matter and mind are alike passive: all the changes in the one, and all the appearance of activity in the other, are due to God’s immediate operation.

Under the same head belongs the doctrine that the agency of God in the preservation of the world is a continuous creation. This mode of representation is indeed often adopted as a figure of speech by orthodox theologians; but if taken literally it implies the absolute inefficiency of all second causes. If God creates the outward world at every successive moment, He must be the immediate author of all its changes. There is no connection between what precedes and what follows, between antecedent and consequent, cause and effect, but succession in time; and when applied to the inward world, or the soul, the same consequence of necessity follows. The soul, at any given moment, exists only in a certain state; if in that state it is created, then the creative energy is the immediate cause of all its feelings, cognitions, and acts. The soul is not an agent; it is only something which God creates in a given form. All continuity of being, all identity, and all efficiency are lost; and the universe of matter and mind becomes nothing more than the continued pulsation of the life of God.

Nearly allied with the doctrine of a continued creation is the “exercise scheme.” According to this theory the soul is a series of exercises created by God. There is no such thing as the soul, no self, but only certain perceptions which succeed each other with amazing rapidity. Hume denies any real cause. All we know is that these perceptions exist, and exist in succession. Emmons says, God creates them. It is of course in vain to speak of the liberty of man in producing the creative acts of God. If He creates our volitions in view of motives, they are his acts and not ours. The difference between this system and Pantheism is little more than nominal.


Directly opposed to all these schemes of necessity, is the doctrine of contingency, which has been held under different names and 283variously modified. Sometimes it is called the liberty of indifference; by which is meant, that the will, at the moment of decision, is self-poised among conflicting motives, and decides one way or the other, not because of the greater influence of one motive over others, but because it is indifferent or undetermined, able to act in accordance with the weaker against the stronger motive, or even without any motive at all. Sometimes this doctrine is expressed by the phrase, self-determining power of the will. By this it is intended to deny that the will is determined by motives, and to affirm that the reason of its decisions is to be sought in itself. It is a cause and not an effect, and therefore requires nothing out of itself to account for its acts. Sometimes this doctrine is called the power of contrary choice; that is, that in every volition there is and must be power to the contrary. Even supposing all antecedents external and internal to have been precisely the same, the decision might have been the reverse of what it actually was. Contingence is therefore necessary to liberty. This is the essential idea of this theory in all its forms. A contingent event is one which may or may not happen. Contingence, therefore, is opposed not merely to necessity, but also to certainty. If a man may act in opposition to all motives, external and internal, and in despite of all influence which can be exerted on him, short of destroying his liberty, then it must forever remain uncertain how he will act. The advocates of this theory of liberty, therefore, maintain, that the will is independent of reason, of feeling, and of God. There is no middle ground, they say, between contingency (i.e., uncertainty), and fatalism; between the independence of the will and of the agent, and the denial of all free agency.

Although the advocates of the liberty of contingency generally direct their arguments against the doctrine of necessity, yet it is apparent that they regard certainty no less than necessity to be inconsistent with liberty. This is plain, (1.) From the designations which they give their theory, as liberty of indifference, self-determining power of the will, power to the contrary. (2.) From their formal definition of liberty, as the power to decide for or against, or without motives; or it is power of “willing what we will.” “If,” says Reid, “in every voluntary action, the determination of his will be the necessary consequence of something involuntary in the state of his mind, or of something in the external circumstances of the agent, he is not free.”258258Active Powers, Essay iv. ch. 1; Works, p. 599, Sir. W. Hamilton’s edition, Edinburgh, 1849. Cousin says, “The 284will is mine, and I dispose absolutely of it within the limits of the spiritual world.”259259Elements of Psychology, p. 357, Henry’s translation. 4th edit., New York, 1856. The Scotists of the Middle Ages, Molina and the Jesuits as a class, and all the opponents of Augustinianism, define liberty as consisting in indifference, or in the independence of the will of the preceding state of the mind, and make it to exclude certainty no less than necessity. (3.) From the arguments by which they endeavour to sustain their theory, which are directed as often against certainty as against necessity. (4.) From their answers to opposing arguments, and especially to that derived from the foreknowledge of God. As the foreknowledge of an act supposes the certainty of its occurrence, if free acts are known, they must be certain. To this the advocates of the theory in question make such answers as show that certainty is what they are contending against. They say that we have no right to argue on this subject from the attributes of God; it is a simple matter of consciousness; or they say, that God’s foreknowledge may be limited, just as his power is limited by impossibilities. If it be impossible to foreknow free acts, they are not the objects of knowledge, and, therefore, not to foreknow them is not a limitation of the divine knowledge. From these and other considerations, it is plain that the theory of contingency in all its forms, is opposed to the doctrine of certainty no less than to that of necessity, in the proper sense of that term. By this, however, it is not meant that the advocates of contingency are consistent as to this point. Arguing against necessity, they frequently do not discriminate between physical and moral necessity. They class Hobbes, Hartley, Priestley, Belsham, Collins, Edwards, the French Encyclopædists, and all who use the word necessity, under the same category; and yet they cannot avoid admitting, that in many cases free acts may be certain. They very often say that particular arguments prove certainty but not necessity; when certainty is precisely the thing contended for, and which they themselves deny. This is one of the unavoidable inconsistencies of error. No one, however, notwithstanding these admissions, will dispute that the theory of contingence, whether called indifference, self-determining power of the will, power of contrary choice, or by any other name, is in fact, and is intended to be, antagonistic to that of certainty.


The third general theory on this subject is separated by an equal distance from the doctrine of necessity on the one hand, and 285from that of contingency on the other. It teaches that a man is free not only when his outward acts are determined by his will, but when his volitions are truly and properly his own, determined by nothing out of himself but proceeding from his own views, feelings, and immanent dispositions, so that they are the real, intelligent, and conscious expression of his character, or of what is in his mind.

This theory is often called the theory of moral or philosophical, as distinguished from physical, necessity. This is a most unfortunate and unsuitable designation. (1.) Because liberty and necessity are directly opposed. It is a contradiction to say that an act is free and yet necessary; that man is a free agent, and yet that all his acts are determined by a law of necessity. As all the advocates of the theory in question profess to believe in the freedom of the human will, or that man is a free agent, it is certainly to be regretted that they should use language which in its ordinary and proper sense teaches directly the reverse. (2.) Certainty and necessity are not the same, and therefore they should not be expressed by the same word. The necessity with which a stone falls to the ground, and the certainty with which a perfectly holy being confirmed in a state of grace will act holily, are as different as day and night. Applying the same term to express things essentially distinct tends to confound the things themselves. A man may be forced to do a thing against his will, but to say he can be forced to will against his will is a contradiction. A necessary volition is no volition, anymore than white is black. Because in popular language we often speak of a thing as necessary when it is absolutely certain, and although the Scriptures, written in the language of ordinary life, often do the same thing, is no reason why in philosophical discussions the word should be so used as unavoidably to mislead. (3.) Using the word necessity to express the idea of certainty brings the truth into reproach. It clothes it in the garb of error. It makes Edwards use the language of Hobbes. It puts Luther into the category with Spinoza; all Augustinians into the same class with the French materialists. They all use the same language, though their meaning is as diverse as possible. They all say that the acts of men are necessary. When they come to explain themselves, the one class says they are truly and properly necessary in such a sense that they are not free, and that they preclude the possibility of moral character or responsibility. The other class say that they are necessary, but in such a sense as to be nevertheless free and perfectly consistent with the moral responsibility of the agent. It is certainly a great evil that theories diametrically opposed to each 286other, that the doctrine of saints, and the doctrine of evils (to use Paul’s language) should be expressed in the same words. We accordingly find the most respectable writers, as Reid and Stewart, arguing against Edwards as though he held the doctrine of Belsham.

By the old Latin writers the theory of moral certainty is commonly designated Lubentia Rationalis, or Rational Spontaneity. This is a much more appropriate designation. It implies that in every volition there are the elements of rationality and spontaneous action. In brutes there is a spontaneity but no reason, and therefore they are not free agents in such a sense as to be the objects ot approbation or disapprobation. In maniacs also there is self-determination, but it is irrational, and therefore not free. But wherever reason and the power of self-determination or spontaneity are combined in an agent, he is free and responsible for his outward acts and for his volitions. This representation would satisfy Reid, who says, “We see evidently that, as reason without active power can do nothing, so active power without reason has no guide to direct it to any end. These two conjoined make moral liberty.”260260Active Powers, Essay iv. ch. 5; Works, Edinburgh, 1849, p. 615.

The old writers, in developing their doctrine of rational spontaneity were accustomed to say, the will is determined by the last judgment of the understanding. This is true or false as the language is interpreted. If by the last judgment of the understanding be meant the intellectual apprehension and conviction of the reasonableness and excellence of the object of choice, then none but the perfectly reasonable and good are always thus determined. Men in a multitude of cases choose that which their understanding condemns as wicked, trifling, or destructive. Or if the meaning be that every free act is the result of conscious deliberation, and consequent decision of the mind as to the desirableness of a given act, then again it cannot be said that the will follows the last dictate of the understanding. It is in reference probably to one or both of these interpretations of the language in question that Leibnitz says: “Non semper sequimur judicium ultimum intellectus practici, dum ad volendum nos determinamus; at ubi volumus, semper sequimur collectionem omnium inclinationum, tam a parte rationum, tam passionum, profectarum; id quod sæpenumero sine expresso intellectus judicio contingit.261261Works, edit. Geneva, 1768, vol. i. p. 156. But what is really meant by this expression is that the views or feelings which determine the will are themselves determined by the understanding. If I desire anything, 287it is because I apprehend it as suitable to satisfy some craving of my nature. If I will anything because it is right, its being right is something for the understanding to discern. In other words, all the desires, affections, or feelings which determine the will to act must have an object, and that object by which the feeling is excited and towards which it tends, must be discerned by the understanding. It is this that gives them their rational character, and renders the determinations of the will rational. Any volition which does not follow the last dictate of the understanding, in this sense of the words, is the act of an idiot. It may be spontaneous, just as the acts of brutes are, but it cannot be free in the sense of being the act of an accountable person.

Another form under which this doctrine is often expressed is, that the will is as the greatest apparent good. This is a very common mode of stating the doctrine, derived from Leibnitz, the father of optimism, whose whole “Theodicée” is founded on the assumption that sin is the necessary means of the greatest good. By “good,” writers of this class generally mean “adapted to produce happiness,” which is regarded as the summum bonum. Their doctrine is that the will always decides in favour of what promises the greatest happiness. It is not the greatest real, but the greatest apparent good which is said to determine the volition. A single draught from the bowl may appear to the drunkard, in the intensity of his craving, a greater good, i.e., as better suited to relieve and satisfy him, than the welfare of himself or family for life. This whole theory is founded on the assumption that happiness is the highest end, and that the desire of happiness is the ultimate spring of all voluntary action. As both of these principles are abhorrent to the great mass of cultivated, and especially of Christian minds; as men act from other and higher motives than a desire to promote their own happiness, there are few who, in our day, will adopt the doctrine that the will is as the greatest apparent good, as thus expounded. If, however, the word good be taken in a more comprehensive sense, including everything that is desirable, whether as right, becoming, or useful, as well as suited to give happiness, then the doctrine is no doubt true. The will in point of fact always is determined in favour of that which under some aspect, or for some reason, is regarded as good. Otherwise men might choose evil as evil, which would violate a fundamental law of all rational and sensuous natures.

It is still more common, at least in this country, to say that the will is always determined by the strongest motive. To this mode 288of statement there are two obvious objections. (1.) The ambiguity of the word motive. If that word be taken in one sense, the statement is true; if taken in another, it is false. (2.) The impossibility of establishing any test of the relative strength of motives. If you make vivacity of feeling the test, then it is not true that the strongest motive always prevails. If you make the effect the test, then you say that the strongest motive is that which determines the will, — which amounts to saying that the will is determined by that which determines it.

It is better to abide by the general statement. The will is not determined by any law of necessity; it is not independent, indifferent, or self-determined, but is always determined by the preceding state of mind; so that a man is free so long as his volitions are the conscious expression of his own mind; or so long as his activity is determined and controlled by his reason and feelings.

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