Boethius on Free Will

This is an excerpt of a paper I wrote for my Medieval philosophy class. 

Boethius On Free Will Compared

In his “Consolation of Philosophy,” Boethius presents his views on free will in the form of a dialogue between himself and Lady Philosophy. After exploring the definition and existence of “chance,” Boethius asks whether man’s will is free or if it is the product of chance. The answer given by Lady philosophy is that man must be free if man is by nature a rational being.[1]

Lady Philosophy argues it in the following way: If you are a rational being, then, by nature, you are able to make decisions.[2] Suppose you are thinking of the proposition X. Being a rational animal, in order to decipher the truth-value of proposition X, you must be able to deliberate about the evidence in support or against the proposition, and then you must arrive at a conclusion about that decision. You must be able to have the ability to make “judgments” and decisions about the truth-value.[3] Thus this would require the ability to make choices. If there were no free will, it would not be possible to have rationality at all. There would be no choice for me to deliberate about and make. If the deliberation is nothing but a mechanistic determination caused by atoms, then there was really no deliberation done by the agent at all. It was simply my atoms and neurons pulsing and “deciding” for me, causing the belief in question to pop into my head and other chemicals causing me to accept it.

The argument, derived from Lady Philosophy, looks like this:

  1. For all X, if X is a rational being, then X is free.
  2. X is a rational being.
  3. Therefore, X is free. [1, 2 MP]

Once again, Lady Philosophy states the idea behind premise one like this:

For any being, which by its nature has the use of reason, must also have the power of judgment by which it can make decisions and, by its own resources, distinguish between things which should be desired and things which should be avoided. Now everyone seeks that which he judges to be desirable, but rejects whatever he thinks should be avoided. Therefore, in rational creatures there is also freedom of desiring and shunning.[4]

It is clear by the two accounts explained above that both Boethius and Augustine agree that humans have free will. Their only difference is in the way they cash it out. Augustine, on the one hand, explains the existence of free will in terms of God giving it to us as a good gift for the purpose of doing right, and one cannot act rightly without the freedom to do so. On the other hand, Boethius explains our having free will by exploring our rational nature.

The free will debate has always remained in important aspect of the history of philosophy. What I find most intriguing is Boethius’ account of free-will. If we are rational creatures, then by necessity we must have free-will otherwise rationality is superfluous. Many contemporary arguments and discussions center around this very aspect with regard to free-will and determinism. Clearly, this idea of Boethius has followed us up until now and has had a huge impact in the history of philosophy. Some philosophers have argued if determinism is true, then rationality is superfluous because then our thoughts are caused by the biological and neurological elements within us and are not as a result of rational and intentional deliberation.


[1] Boethius, “The Consolation of Philosophy,” in Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy 6th Edition, ed. Forrest E. Baird (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2011), 126. Lady philosophy proclaims, “There is free will […] and no rational nature can exist which does not have it.”

[2] Ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

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2 comments
  1. Anna said:

    ‘Augustine and Boethius On Free Will Compared’ Misleading title as this talks mostly about Boethius with two sentences on Augustine.

    • David said:

      Anna, thank you for your comment, and that’s a good point. I will correct the title. Thank you for pointing that out to me!

      Cheers,

      David

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