Wednesday, December 06, 2023

John Damascene's view on the will

One needs to know that here is a faculty naturally implanted in the soul that is appetitive of what is in accordance with nature and embraces everything that is essentially characteristic of nature. This is called the capacity for willing (θέλησις, thelēsis). For the essence of being and living and moving, both mentally and sensibly, has an appetency directed towards its own natural and full realization. For that reason, this natural will (θέλημα, thelēma) is also defined as follows: Will is a rational and vital appetency that depends solely on what belongs to nature. (St John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith, 144)

Θέλημά ἐστιν ὄρεξις λογική τε καὶ ζωτικὴ μόνων ἠρτημένη τῶν φυσικῶν (Ibid., 143)

Actual willing or wishing (βούλησις, boulēsis) is a natural capacity for willing of a particular kind, that is to say, a natural and rational appetency in relation to some specific thing. For there lies within the human soul a faculty of reaching out in a rational manner. Therefore when this rational appetency in relation to some specific thing is set in motion in a natural manner, it is called wishing. For wishing is an appetency and yearning for some rational specific thing. (p. 144)

One needs to know that the capacity for willing (θέλησις, thelēsis) is one thing and actual willing (βούλησις, boulēsis) is another, and that what is willed (τὸ θελητόν, to thelēton) is one thing, the faculty of volition (τὸ θελητικόν, to thelētikon) is another, and the agent of willing (ὁ θέλων, ho thelōn) is another. For the capacity for willing is the simple power itself of willing. Actual willing is the direction of the capacity of willing towards something. What is willed is the matter that is subject to the will, namely, that which we will. (For example, appetency is oriented towards food. Appetency on its own is a rational capacity for willing but when appetency is directed towards food it is actual willing, and the food itself is what is willed.) The faculty of willing is that which possesses the power to will, such as a human being, and the agent of willing is the one who exercises the capacity for willing. (p. 147)

Much has been made over whether God has one will or three wills. When one look at the Church Fathers on the issue, one of course know that they insisted that God has one will and that will is tied to nature not to the persons. But why is that the case?

When one reads carefully what they are saying, it is clear the Father are definining "will" in a very specific way. They are defining it not as how most of us today think of as a will. No. According to them, "will" (το θέλημα) is the "rational and vital appetency that depends solely on what belongs to nature." Put it another way, "will" is capacity. One does not "will" (θέλω) to do anything, but rather one chooses (βουλομαι), thus a distinction is made between "actual willling" (βούλησις) and "the will" (θέλησις).

The distinction works in its own way of course, and if one holds to these definitions, then most certainly God has one will, the Father and the Son do not have different wills but merely different βούλησις. If one wants to holds to Patristic terminology, then one should be able to say of the Trinity that there is one θέλησις, three βούλησεις. The problem of course is that the new classical theists do not go there even though that seems to what John of Damascus is moving towards.

That said, I would gladly hold to the technical difference between θέλησις and βούλησις, but not to calling θέλησις "will" as belonging to the nature. That is because that is not how the Enlish language works. "Will" is a dynammic term in modern parlance, not a static term in later patristics/ early medieval thought. Rather, it stands to reason in the modern context that we should translate θέλησις as "disposition" and βούλησις as "will," so as to better appreciate their use in the texts.

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