27 Oct

What Ockham severed

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 10/27/15

Jean-Charles Nault on the advent of sheer freedom

“For the philosophers of Antiquity, and for the whole Christian tradition, freedom is the ability that man has — an ability belonging jointly to his intellect and will — to perform virtuous actions, good actions, excellent actions, perfect actions, when he wants and as he wants. Man’s freedom is therefore his capacity to accomplish good acts easily, joyously, and lastingly. This freedom is defined by the attraction of the good.

“William of Ockham, in contrast, makes freedom a moment ‘prior’ to intellect and will. In Ockham’s writings, the word ‘freedom’ is almost synonymous with Will. Man is no longer attracted at all by the good. He finds himself in a state of total indifference with regard to good and evil. In order for him to be able to choose between good and evil, therefore, the intervention of an external element will be necessary, which Ockham identifies with the law. From then on, according to this concept, obedience to the law is what defines the good: ‘It is good because the law requires it of me’, instead of ‘The law requires it of me because it is good.’ This is a veritable ‘revolution,’ which will eventually lead to what would be called ‘legalism,’ whereby the law alone is the criterion of good. Today we can recognize the havoc caused by all sorts of legalism.

“With Ockham we are confronted with what can be called an ‘extrinsicist’ concept of action: not in himself or in the goodness of the object does man find sufficient reasons for choosing one act or another; he chooses under the influence of an element outside himself, hence, the name extrinsicism. Once again we perceive the radical change of concept in this way of thinking about the good and this way of tending toward it.

“If there is no longer an attraction that impels us toward the good, that means that man no longer has within himself what St. Thomas called the ‘natural inclinations’, which he made a key feature of his moral doctrine. Natural inclinations are ‘natural’ dispositions, which is to say that they are dependent on the spiritual nature of man, potentialities of the whole person that set him in motion toward his own activity. They are the basis of the natural law. By virtue of being created in the image and likeness of God, man is naturally oriented toward the truth, toward the good, toward God, toward the opposite sex, toward the preservation of life. Founded on these inclinations, freedom is qualified by the attraction that it spontaneously experiences to what is true and good, or at least what appears to it as such. Thus man is free, not despite his natural inclinations, but on the contrary because of them. Of course man can be mistaken, but even sin does not present an obstacle to these natural inclinations. If man chooses evil, it is not because he was attracted by evil, as we have already explained earlier, but rather because evil, in the particular situation in which he finds himself, appears to him as a good — a deceptive one, no doubt, but as a good.”

—from Jean-Charles Nault, O.S.B.,  The Noonday Devil: Acedia, The Unnamed Evil of Our Times (Ignatius Press, 2015)

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