This is part six in an intermittent series on Thomas Aquinas’ view of free choice and divine sovereignty. (To see the first five parts, do a search for “Aquinas, Free Choice” in the search bar in this blog.)
Aquinas begins to directly explore the aspects of the human will in his book Summa Theologica, 1.82.1, where he asks the question “Whether the will desires something of necessity?” As is Aquinas’ style, he presents a question then answers it by making fine distinctions in the subject at hand. This question is really asking whether the human will must desire certain things. He is not yet at the point of telling us what these objects of the will could be; he is merely dealing with the question of ability. Thomas’ answer to this question has several useful items that we can explore; right now we will deal with but one.
Aquinas makes a fundamental but important point:
We call that violent which is against the inclination of a thing. But the very movement of the will is an inclination to something. Therefore, as a thing is called natural because it is according to the inclination of nature, so a thing is called voluntary because it is according to the inclination of the will. Therefore, just as it is impossible for a thing to be at the same time violent and natural, so it is impossible for a thing to be absolutely coerced or violent, and voluntary.
Here, in his usual style, he establishes very critical foundational points first, then slowly builds on his conclusions. Before he can explain how the will operates, he establishes the fact that a voluntary act cannot be a coerced act. In this passage Aquinas also establishes that the action of the will is a voluntary act, not a coerced one. The nature of the will is to make voluntary acts, and nothing voluntary is coerced.
However, Aquinas is not so naive as to leave the question there. He continues:
But necessity of end is not contrary to the will when the end cannot be attained except in one way; thus from the will to cross the sea arises in the will the necessity to wish for a ship.
In like manner, neither is natural necessity contrary to the will.
Aquinas is saying that while the will is voluntary, there are instances where it necessarily, unavoidably must will for certain things. If one wishes to cross the sea, one will wish for a ship. If all men desire happiness, the human will must necessarily, unavoidably will certain things. Yet these acts of the will are voluntary, not coerced.