This is the fifth part of an intermittent series on Thomas Aquinas’ view of human free will and divine sovereignty. Many of the questions surrounding the problem of how much free will a human has vs. how much action God must take surrounds the ability of the human will.
To understand Thomas’ view of how the human will works, we look to his large work, Summa Theologica. If Thomas is anything, he is slow and careful. His usual approach is to start at a place much more basic and foundational than most of the rest of us. Since he speaks extensively on both human and divine abilities, he first explains what humans are capable of, and what limitations we have. Before he deals with free will, Thomas starts with what are the powers of the soul, and the Summa has an extensive section on the powers of the soul and the powers of the intellect.
Foundational to the question of human free will is the question of whether humans are an agent. ST 1.79.3 asks the question, “Is there an agent intellect?” and Thomas answers that yes, there is an agent intellect in humans. This is a critical conclusion, and turns out to be a fundamental prerequisite to understanding human free will.
Several theologians have dealt at length with the idea of the human will, including Jonathan Edwards, W. G. T. Shedd, Charles Hodge, and others. Most systematic theologies have a section on the extent and limits of human free will. Much of the discussion centers around how external forces act on the will. Thomas deals with the issue of external forces also, but before he gets to that question, he deals with a much more basic idea, that of whether the human will has any power in the first place, e.g., whether it is an agent.
An agent has the ability to generate something, to begin an action by itself with no external force acting upon it. There is not a human agent sense, for our senses are passive. But the intellect is an agent, in that it can generate meaning. An external object impresses on our senses, and therefore our senses passively receive the information from the external object. An object impresses “brown” or “heavy” on the senses, and the senses are passive in receiving this. But the intellect is different, in that it is also active, and supplies meaning. The intellect actively generates meaning, such as ‘This heavy brown thing is a chair, and it is useful for sitting.” The meaning is not in the chair by itself; a mind has to actively put meaning into the chair. The mind of the carpenter put “chairness” into the chair, and another mind actively generates “This is a chair and is useful for sitting.” Thomas says “We must therefore assign on the part of the intellect some power to make things actually intelligible, by the abstraction of the species from material conditions.”
Thus without the human intellect being an agent which is active in generating and receiving meaning, and making judgments, no meaning would be in the world, and we would have no will, whether it be bound or free. If the human intellect were not an agent, it would be a passive object, only moved by external forces.
In this section of the Summa, Thomas has not yet gotten to the question of limitations of the will or whether it is moved by external forces. But before we get to how God moves on the will, Thomas first demonstrates that there is an agent intellect which is capable of generating ideas and meaning of itself, without an external force acting upon it.
Thus those who hold that the human intellect is merely acted upon by an outside force must deal with the issue of how the human mind understands meaning. Without agent intellect, the mind has no meaning, such as the ink and paper do not mean anything without a mind to read the words.