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22.04.03 Hoffmann, Free Will and the Rebel Angels in Medieval Philosophy

22.04.03 Hoffmann, Free Will and the Rebel Angels in Medieval Philosophy

If you ever stole a pack of gum from a candy store--or didn’t--or if you ever hit a parked car and left a note on the windshield--or didn’t--or if you found yourself caught in a war in heaven and you stood proudly by the side of your Sovereign Lord--or you didn’t--then you’ll find this amazing book to be absolutely fascinating. Tobias Hoffmann recounts how medieval philosophers contemplated issues of agency so fundamental to human experience (concern for angels serves the end of understanding human action) and therefore incredibly relatable to modern readers. The questions asked--and the not always so satisfying answers--are transtemporal: Why do we act? Do we reason our will into obeying an impulse, or does our will overpower reason into action? Students of philosophy will be interested, but I found the work here applicable as well to many poetic texts, including Dante’s Commedia (consider the rebel angels who guard the city of Dis in Inferno, 8-9), and Langland’s Piers Plowman (which adds a character named Liberum Arbitrium to the C text). Hoffmann conducts a magisterial scholarly performance, examining in clear, cogent detail contributions by scores of medieval figures, some obscure, some famously sainted, who grapple with this most fundamental of human questions: why do we choose good or evil?--or, more accurately, why do we do good or evil, since concepts like “choice,” “decision,” and “necessity” are not necessarily clear in these debates.

The introduction lays out the range of the study, designated as “Latin medieval” (Jewish, Islamic, and Byzantine traditions are noted as independent subjects beyond the current scope). Occasioning much of the unfolding drama is the “reception of Aristotle’s action theory” in the West in the 1220s, leading in the 1260s to “strong reactions” by such figures as Aquinas and Siger of Brabant (1). Some thinkers feared that Aristotle’s concept of “faulty judgements” would threaten free will, leading to the ongoing battle “about the relations between cognition and volition” (1) that ensues for the next 266 pages.

Angels are critical to the story because medieval thinkers wondered if ignorance of the good, per Aristotle’s “lack of proper moral education” (2) leads to evil; since angels sinned without, we figure, a prior deficiency or ignorance, they present quite a puzzle. Readers may stop and wonder here: “hey, that war in Heaven, isn’t that more Milton than Bible?” Hoffmann knows that “sacred scripture contains quite little about the sins of the angels,” but that that did not stop the theologians, who were less concerned with how any such “fall of the angels” happened and more concerned with “how it could happen” (6). And between elaborations on the theme by Church fathers--and poets, I would add--the reality, so to speak, of angelic sin was concrete enough to occasion these debates. As Hoffmann says, “angels were no side issue,” for studying angels had “implications for wider philosophical and theological issues” (3).

Hoffmann’s prose and voice, passim, could not be more humane and attentive to readers’ needs, in a virtuoso display of critical analysis, while tackling one of the most complicated issues in medieval philosophic history. As each new thinker enters, Hoffmann folds the new ideas into the mix, alerting us to the innovations and adjustments being made, highlighting the features and frailties of each assay.

Part I concerns Free Will, with subchapters including “Free Will with and without Aristotle”; “Voluntarism and the Condemnation of Intellectualism”; and “Refinements and Radicalizations.” Hoffmann surveys here how thinkers (Aquinas, Henry of Ghent, Giles of Rome, and a score more) struggled with free will and made some very subtle, complicated, and hard-to-distinguish distinctions in differentiating elements of will or reason as causes of human action.

One major theme helps the reader focus throughout all the contortions: how to preserve freedom of the will. What good is evaluating a moral choice unless it was free, unless the agent could have done something different? What could virtue or vice possibly mean if not the product of free choice? To this point, Hoffmann discusses, for example, the work of the Franciscan Peter Olivi, who claims “that while the ability to sin is foreign to divine freedom, it is essential to created freedom” and “the ability to sin is essential to personal merit” (90).

Toward the end of “Refinements and Radicalization,” the ideas multiply and deepen in intensity and complexity, addressing what force moves the will to act and what role judgment has in the process. For example, John of Pouilly argues that “the will’s act must be caused by the cognized object rather than by the will itself, because per se self-motion of the will is impossible” (137). People have acted, the philosophers know, but what authorized, sanctioned, approved of, decided, desired, and finally actualized this action remains the subject of fierce debate. A desire to integrate Aristotle’s notions of “motion” doesn’t always render a satisfying result about what moves what.

William of Ockham offers a dramatic contribution, which Hoffmann depicts as the “most modern” seeming so far (151). “According to Ockham,” explains Hoffmann, “intellect and will are identical--they are the substance of the soul--but the words ‘intellect’ and ‘will’ connote really distinct acts” (152), and thus “no partial cause other than the will controls whether the will actually wills something, abstains from willing it, or wills against it” (152-153). Perhaps not related to this particular contribution, but in response to some of his bold thought experiments, including the notion that “hatred of God is an upright act,” “if that act were commanded by God,” led to Ockham, while not formally condemned in his trial, nonetheless being excommunicated for apostasy after he fled Avignon in 1312 (154-155).

In this context, modern readers in the age of social media--where a battle constantly rages about who is speaking the truth, who is listened to, who disregarded or silenced--will find this aspect of the book fascinating. Who establishes orthodoxy, and who disciplines and punishes those who think differently and oppose such doctrines? It’s fascinating to see a fourteenth-century version of social media hostility play out. See pp. 94-103 for example, where, in taking a moderate position between intellectualism and voluntarism, Giles of Rome (a student of Aquinas) “made himself enemies on both sides” (102). Sometimes you just can’t win.

Freedom keeps reasserting itself, again helping us to ride a major wave throughout the entire book. Consider Hoffmann’s exposition on two major figures from the early 14th century. First on Duns Scotus:

“Freedom, then, is compatible with necessity, although not with natural necessity. Scotus clarifies that even when acting necessarily, the will is not determined from without, but determines itself to its act—a view that resembles Henry’s [of Ghent] theory that in necessary volitions, the will imposes the necessity on itself. Freedom, then, implies self-determination, although not contingency” (129).

And on William of Ockham:

“Many, including intellectualists, ground freedom in the will’s indeterminacy. But while Godfrey [of Fontaines] and his followers hold that the will’s indeterminacy must be determined by deliberation so as to make the will actually will one of the other alternatives, Ockham insists that the will does not need any such determinant; rather it determines itself to one alternative. Put differently, the will has immediate control of its act; its control is not mediated by deliberation” (157).

We leave Part I feeling we have witnessed a sort of battle royale, where each champion strides upon the stage and engages in fraught combat, not only with prior thinkers, but with a series of terms (will, reason, freedom, determinacy, action, etc.), attempting to understand and order them. And questions remain, for whatever we have learned from “intellectualism” and “voluntarism” and all their various permutations: “Either approach to free will...faces the problem of what explains why free agents make the choices they do” (159).

This cliffhanger takes us dramatically to Part II, “Whence Evil” and chapter 6, “Does Evil have a Cause.” Without knowing what evil is, we cannot discover why the will (or the reason) would choose evil over all the better, healthier, more blessed options, founded in the love of God. Since “the sin of the Angels is the first incident of moral evil in the universe created good” (163), naturally we want to know how evil arose in the angels when they had no predisposition to it, which should help us study “the cause of an evil will in a good person” (163).

Genesis says unequivocally that God created the world, and it was “good.” The Manichaeans however, make it easy by regarding evil as substantial--but Christian writers must resist, as Augustine famously did, this dichotomy. Augustine tackles the issue in the Confessions (evil is deprivation of the good), but here a rich discussion in City of Godreveals a complex struggle to account for evil in the will. Hoffmann summarizes the issues Augustine faces: “since the will cannot have always been must have become bad after being good”; and since it “could not have been made bad by a thing,” Augustine claims that it “must have become bad without an efficient cause” (166). This leads to what Hoffmann calls Augustine’s dilemma: “a good will cannot cause moral evil...and an evil will cannot cause the first moral evil” (166). “But why the devil was proud,” Hoffmann later explains, “that is, why his motive for being proud actually was a motive for him, Augustine does not and cannot say. And this is the point: an evil will ultimately lacks an explanation. Any explanation would only be a penultimate explanation” (168-169).

Pseudo-Dionysius takes up the same nagging questions rooted in the essential goodness of creation. One of the reasons why demons “cannot be evil by nature is that God produces only good things” (172); the demons “became evil because of a deficient activity of their own, because of an ‘irrational rage, a foolish desire, a reckless imagination’” (172).

Chapter 7, closing Part II, examines writers sometimes misinterpreting Augustine. Thinking they follow him, they wind up holding “just the opposite view, claiming that something good--the will as a power of the soul--is the cause of moral evil” (174). Through all the struggles, contortions, inconsistencies, and contradictions Hoffmann asserts: “despite notable differences, at bottom all thinkers here considered converge on the admission that evil has no ultimate explanation--which ironically is the point of Augustine’s ‘deficient cause’ of evil, although they failed to recognize this” (174).

We’re now finally ready for the angels themselves in focus (though they have informed all that has gone before), as we ponder “how a person in optimal cognitive conditions can do evil” (196). Hoffmann notices “several difficulties in explaining the fall of the angels” (199), one being that according to everything we know about angels, they “cannot sin because they know better” (199). A theory going back to Socrates had posited that if you make a bad choice-- a volitional deficiency--there must have been a cognitive deficiency behind it. But how can that apply to angels who lack any cognitive deficiencies?

In these inquiries into angelic sin, Aristotle, though pre-Christian, is invoked in his contention that “the intellect is always right while the imagination is either right or not,” which allows our philosophers to conclude that “in the angels, only the intellect moves the appetite” (202). “A sin,” therefore, “cannot be elicited by what moves the appetite rightly” and therefore “the angels cannot sin” (202), but humans can because we have imagination, which can be “right or not” (202). And therefore “when the human will follows the imagination rather than the intellect, it chooses an apparent good, which is not always the true good” (201). A highlight here is Aquinas’s sharp explanation: “this is the way the angel [Lucifer] sinned: by seeking his own good, by his own free decision, without ordering [the act] according to the rule of the divine will” (208-209). This misuse of freedom, this confusion about the proper end of action, is evidenced in the human pursuit of pleasure and other false goods. Another highlight is Peter Olivi’s contention that Lucifer sinned because of “loving himself for his own sake rather than for the sake of God.” Lucifer’s “inordinate self-love entailed presumption, for he did not want to be under anyone else” (228). Lovers of Milton will certainly enjoy pondering this.

In his conclusion, Hoffmann summarizes the debates with extraordinary discrimination, as we look back on the rough sea we have crossed: “Aristotle enabled later medieval thinkers to articulate more clearly the rational process that leads to a choice, and it provided the tools for them to develop more refined theories of the way in which decision-making is rooted in the powers of the soul” (263).

And despite the swirling controversies and sometimes fruitless wanderings of the philosophers, Hoffmann ties things up nicely: “all Christian thinkers admit that rational creatures--angels and human beings--are in control of their choices” (265), a clear and well-earned statement. He continues helpfully: “freely made choices have an explanation--there’s a story behind them--but at some point, the explanation stops at a bare fact, a person willing something rather than not willing it” (265). And yet the angels always puzzle: “Lucifer’s act is a rational act, even though in the last analysis it remains unexplained. In fact, there is ultimately no contrastive explanation of why a person freely makes one choice rather than another, or why two persons who are in the same conditions make different choices (e.g., Lucifer and Michael)” (265-266). Not wanting to abandon the reader at this crux, Hoffmann provides this welcome coda: “Nevertheless, the medieval thinkers did not think that bad choices happen because of bad luck. They happen because the agent wants them to happen, and for this reason the agent is responsible for them” (266). At this point a reader is likely to agree.

The book is very beautifully produced on heavy paper with margins for glosses, and a gorgeous cover image of the “fall of the rebel angels” from Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. As you read, you’ll find yourself gazing up into the empyrean after every few pages contemplating the human will and the entire structure of the psyche, and how all human action is informed either by desire or by reason or by a battle between the two. The magisterial book has copious footnotes and concludes with a hearty bibliography, an index of manuscripts, and a dense general index. When I finished this book, I felt like I had lost a friend, or a hundred friends that I had been debating with. Provocative intellectual pleasures, not sinful ones, abound on every well-wrought page.