Sunday, 8 September 2013

Question 82 – The Will

Why this Question Matters

The will is the second component of the intellectual soul; the appetite corresponding to the intellect itself. In these post-Nietzschean days in which the idea of the will to power is almost taken for granted as a self-evident truth, it is good to look back to before the disastrous late medieval ditch of nominalism and voluntarism into which philosophy fell.
The account that Aquinas describes will soon be seen to be quite alien to our modern sensibilities: the emotions are part of the sentient appetite; the will is under the command of the intellect. Aquinas is continuing to build up his account of what precisely is human in the human act. Considerations of the will itself (in this question) and of the freedom of the will (in the next question) are central to that account.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: We have only just been introduced to the will as the intellectual appetite, so we only know a little bit about how it works so far. The will is the appetite corresponding to the intellect and therefore it has an inclination towards what the intellect proposes to it as a good to be desired. Even with such little material available, Aquinas wants us to ask whether there is anything that the will must necessarily desire.

In order to answer this question we must be clear about what we mean by necessity. There are a number of possible meanings to the word that could apply to our question and which therefore could affect its answer. At the heart of it, necessities are things that are not able not to be; but the questions we must address concern the ways in which they are not able not to be.

There are certain forms of necessity that follow on from the very nature of the situation at hand. For example, it is necessary that the angles of a Euclidean triangle add up to two right angles; similarly a composition that involves contraries, such as a living organism, must by the fact of those contraries decay. These two are examples of natural necessities (the former is a formal necessity and the latter a material necessity).

On the other hand some necessities arise because of externalities. For example, if someone accepts a given goal or ambition, then they may find themselves forced to accept certain consequences in order to achieve that goal. This sort of necessity is called a necessity of the end. Similarly, some external agent may coerce someone into doing something that they may or may not otherwise wish to do. In this case, this is called a necessity of coercion.

Having gone through these, which of them might apply to the will? The first type of necessity to rule out is that of coercion. We can be forced to do something, but in being forced to do it we say that we are being forced against our will. Something cannot be both coerced and voluntary.

On the other hand, necessity of the end can apply to the will; if we have made a decision to try to achieve something and that achievement necessitates that certain means are required, then the inclination of the will towards those means is necessitated. (This does not prescind from the possibility that, under this necessitation, the will moves the intellect to “think again” about the overall object). Similarly, a natural necessity may apply to the will. For example, the will is by its very nature inclined towards the good as presented to it by the intellect; the absolute good, divine beatitude, will therefore incline the will by an absolute natural necessity.

A2: We’ve seen in the previous article that there are some things that the will wills by necessity; such as beatitude, or a necessity of means given the desired end. A slightly more subtle question is whether, given that the will is willing something, it is willing it necessarily? After all, given that the intellect is presenting an object to the will as an apparent good and that the will by its nature inclines towards what the intellect presents to it as good, does that not mean that it has no choice in the matter?

To answer this question, Aquinas makes an analogy with the intellect. There are certain things towards which the intellect has to give assent: it assents naturally to the first principles of reason. Then there are propositions which are true but which take some logical working out in order to demonstrate that they are true. Once the intellect has recognized that the demonstration works, it adheres to these propositions by necessity; but before it has understood the demonstration, necessity is not involved in its assent. Finally, there are propositions that are by their nature contingent; in this case the intellect does not assent to them by necessity.

The analogy of the intellect’s first principles of reason is the will’s ultimate end of beatitude; the good absolutely speaking. One immediately sees, however, that there are many particular goods that do not have a necessary connection with beatitude: whether I get out of bed now or in five minutes time, for example. Both of these could be particular goods seen from different aspects. It is a mistake to see the good as something simple; rather it is often made up of a complex mixture and the intellect will, in many circumstances, not present a single simple end as a good to the will, but rather will present a complex of intertwined apparent goods that may or may not be consistent with one another. The will chooses which ones it inclines towards (and this, of course, leads on to questions of the freedom of the will, discussed in the next question of this treatise).

There are particular goods that have a necessary connection to beatitude and once that connection is seen the will is necessitated towards them. However, in this life we see “as through a glass darkly” and that necessary connection may be obscured to us. For the blessed in heaven, granted an immediate vision of the divine essence, they necessarily will that beatitude and all that goes with it.

A3: By now it will come as no surprise that Aquinas is interested in which is the higher power, the intellect or the will. This question is not about which is in command of which; the relationship between the intellect and the will and how they work together in the human act will come later. Here the question is about the hierarchy of being.

Aquinas looks at this question in two ways. First of all he considers it in absolute terms and then he considers it from a relative point of view in varying circumstances. Looking at the question absolutely he concludes that the intellect is superior to the will because the object of the will, which is the desirable good, is include amongst the objects of the intellect. In this sense, the object of the intellect, that is the true, is simpler and more absolute than the object of the will.

On the other hand when we consider the intellect and the will in action, there can be some cases in which the object of the will exists in a higher entity than the object of the intellect. What Aquinas is driving at is that the object of the intellect lies within the intellect itself and the object of the will is precisely the good thing that is willed, external to the soul. So, when someone considers God intellectually, leading their will to incline themselves towards God through love, then we can say that the love of God is greater than the cognition of God because the cognition of God is within the intellect whereas God as object of the will is God Himself! On the other hand, in considering an ordinary everyday corporeal object, the cognition of it is better than the love for it. The intellect-in-knowing-the-object is greater than the object itself.

A4: We know that the intellect presents the will with an object to be desired as its end and in this way can be thought of as moving the will. Is the converse true? That is, does the will move the intellect? It does, but in a different way to the final causality with which the intellect moves the will. The will moves the intellect, and the sentient powers of the soul, as an agent. The idea here is presented through an analogy with kingship; in order to achieve some final goal the king orders his subordinate officers to apply their skills to ends appropriate to their abilities that contribute to the final goal. Likewise the will, which is ordered to the good, moves the intellect and the sentient powers of the soul as appropriate to the achievement of that good. We see here the beginnings of an account of the human act that will be elaborated later on in the summa. My intellect presents the will with the end of getting into town to do some shopping. The will moves the intellect to work out the best way of getting there and the sense of sight to read the bus timetable and so on. As we saw in the previous article, absolutely speaking the intellect is the superior power to the will. However, when we consider them in a particular human act, the intellect understands that the will wills and the will wills that the intellect understands; the good (the object of the will) is contained under the true (the object of the intellect) insofar as the good is a certain true thing that is understood and the true is contained under the good insofar as the true is a certain desired good.

A5: The sentient powers are divided into the irascible and the concupiscible; is the will divided in the same way? To answer this we must return to Aquinas’s criterion for the division of powers: powers that are ordered towards some common notion cannot be divided. The sentient powers are naturally divided by the different types of object proper to each of them, but the will is ordered towards the good, under the common notion of good. There may be many different types of good but they are all under this common notion. Hence there is no division of the will into the irascible and the concupiscible.

The first objection points out that the words irascible and concupiscible come from words to do with anger and desire respectively and it would seem that some instances of anger and desire stem from the intellective appetite and not from the sentient powers. This is an example of where we have to carefully tease apart the roles of intellect and sentience that are so intertwined in humans. The simple desire for or aversion to something is down to the will, but the concupiscence or irascibility that go along with these movements of the will are due to the sentient powers.

Handy Concepts

  • The will is the intellectual appetite; it inclines towards those things presented to it as apparent goods by the intellect. The will can be necessitated with a necessity of means and sometimes by a necessity of the end, but the will cannot be coerced.
  • The human act is complex; the intellect presents the will with a complex of apparent goods and the will, choosing among them, can move the intellect and the sentient powers in the elucidation or the execution of the act chosen.
  • Despite the feedback loop implied by this understanding of the intellect and will, absolutely speaking the intellect is the superior power.
  • The will is not divided into irascible and concupiscible powers; these latter are restricted to the sentient powers and the corresponding passions (or emotions) reside within these.


  • Aquinas argues that the will cannot be coerced. We would agree that we may be forced to do things against our wills, meaning that we shall do them but we do not will them. But what about the situation where the will is broken, under torture, for example or where the will is turned, as in the so-called Stockholm syndrome? Has the will been coerced in these situations to will what it would otherwise not will? In these situations we must remember that the will inclines towards what the intellect presents to it as an apparent good; if the intellect gets it wrong (in an absolute sense) it’s the fault of the intellect not of the will. These situations of apparent coercion of the will are really coercion of the intellect: by fair means or foul the intellect is persuaded to see objective evils as apparent goods and to present them to the will as goods.

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