The Wind of Freedom

Free will is defined by Britannica as “the power or capacity to choose among alternatives or to act in certain situations independently of natural, social, or divine restraints”, however there is much controversy over whether or not free will is a fiction.  In the philosophical debate on the existence of free will, many great minds have attempted to give logical proof both in favor and against.  Although no single thinker has been able to give irrefutable evidence in either direction, if one follows the logic of multiple thinkers, the truth becomes more comprehensible.  One logical explanation put forth is that freedom of thought always exists within the mind, as asserted by Descartes in his Discourse on Method, and that thoughts may beget actions.  In this paper, I will outline the progression of freedom of thought to exercising the faculty of judgment, with consideration and deliberation.  Then, I will follow that decision as it evolves into a will to act and eventually an action, making the action free as well.

As Descartes set out to eliminate false suppositions and pre-conceived notions as well as doubt, he began with the idea that the mind is capable of exercising freedom of thought.  Descartes argues that “that there is nothing that is completely within our power except our thoughts” (15).  If thought is wholly within our power, we have control over it apart from any external factors, and thus thought is free.  Descartes also was a proponent of the notion that the mind is capable of imagining all possible options, unhindered, and this notion was at the center of his argument.  Thoughts are governed only by our minds, and every option is capable of being considered.  In his process, Descartes debated with himself continually and weighed assumptions carefully against all other options before accepting any propositions, but only after exhausting all other possibilities.  He used this deliberate consideration to come to logical conclusions.  If he derived his own truths slowly and carefully, Descartes believed that he could live a life free from error.  With this in mind, Descartes controlled all of the ideas and assumptions that he pondered and would selected, using his faculty of judgment, only those which he deemed to be certainly good or true to bring to fruition.  His ability to deliberate allowed him to determine his desired course of action, and will himself to act in a certain manner.  His chosen course of action would then be more likely to be “good” or “true”.  Thus Descartes demonstrated that this judgment process, and the use of the will to act once a decision is made, allows freedom of thought to exist in practice.  Descartes considered the will to act as the mode through which freedom of thought, careful consideration, and the selection of an option would become an action. Descartes then bound himself to his thoughts by pledging to see them through –to will them into fruition.  At the onset of his endeavor, he promised to adhere to his new assumptions as truly as he would have adhered to those already established, thus linking the will to act to action.  Descartes pledges to “be as firm and resolute in my actions as I could, and to follow the most doubtful opinions, once I had decided on them, with no less constancy than if they had been very well assured” (14).  Essentially, he asserts that if he has a thought and decides to act upon it, he will exercise his will to realize that decision, therefore adhering to his decision and using it to shape his life.  He uses will as the enforcing agent of his mind.  In his own life, Descartes decides to inextricably link the will to act to action, though he never explicitly expands the freedom of thought to freedom of action.  In fact, he maintains that freedom of the mind does not necessarily equal freedom of action, and his insistence on transforming thought to action with his will is the final step in connecting the desire to act to performing an action of one’s own free will.  Descartes can exercise this “self-instruction” (42), and therefore it follows that he can will himself to act. Thus, it can be sustained that thoughts lead to judgment, which in turn leads to a will to act and actions.

Building on the basis for freedom of thought established by Descartes, Jean-Pierre Vernant, in Intimations of the Will in Greek Tragedy, continues to maintain that, since the mind is the origin of all decisions, freedom of action ensues.  In Vernant’s argument, the human body is set up to be only secondary to the mind, highlighting the theory that the unconstrained nature of thought induces action, in the same process outlined by Descartes.  The body is then subjected to the decisions of the mind, which are arrived at freely.  He sees physical actions as the way that the mind exercises its freedom of thought and faculty of judgment in the outside world.  Vernant also reasons that a person’s will and body are the means through which decisions to act come to fruition, as exhibited in the statement, “The will can be described as the person seen as an agent, the self seen as the source of actions for which it is held responsible before others and to which it furthermore feels inwardly committed” (49).  The idea that a person feels an obligation to act upon his or her will echoes the sentiments of Descartes.  This again follows the progression of thoughts to decisions, to a will to act and action.  Evidently, actions, which are the physical manifestations of these free thoughts and decisions, would not be generated without the human mind to conceive of them first.  Continuing along the same line of reasoning, he also argues that “the human subject is assumed to be the origin and efficient cause of all the actions that stem from him…the agent apprehends himself as a kind of center of decision-making, holding a power that springs neither from the emotions nor from pure intelligence: It is a power sui generis that Descartes goes so far as to describe as infinite, ‘the same in us as it is in God,’ because in contrast with understanding which in created beings is bound to be limited, the power of the will knows no degree…” (49-50).  Thus, the human subject has complete autonomy over his thoughts and with that is free to think and judge for himself.  Every decision is made of our own volition.  Furthermore, Vernant cites the self-governed power of deliberation as the center of actions, a power that is not overshadowed by any influence, including that of God.  Additionally, the idea that will is unlimited correlates directly with Merriam-Webster’s definition of freedom, which reads, “the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action”.  By this definition, will knows no bounds and all possibilities are open for contemplation.  Will, at least in following this argument, is free.  Essentially, Vernant claims that the boundless possible courses of action, which we are free to choose between, make mankind inherently at liberty to dictate his own destiny.  If the mind decides to do something on its own, the body will commence to follow, realizing that decision.

Providing even further proof regarding the realization of decisions, Hilary Bok’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Want to Understand Free Will? Don’t Look to Neuroscience”, demonstrates that the decisions made between alternatives dictate actions.  Choice, in itself, necessitates the absence of a predetermined destiny.  Otherwise, there would be no choice between alternatives; there would only be one option.  Bok argues, “A person whose actions depend on her choices has alternatives; if she is, in addition, capable of stepping back from her existing motivations and habits and making a reasoned decision among them, then…she is free”.  By employing reason, the person in this example deliberately elects her own fate.  Bok considers the ability to make a logical decision between alternative courses of action a basic necessity for the existence of freedom of action.  Later in the article, Bok also remarks upon the other requirements for the existence of freedom of action.  She contends that “…someone can be free only if she can make a reasoned choice among various alternatives, and act on her decision; in short, only if she has the capacity for self-government.”  By governing herself, the person in Bok’s example has freedom of action because she can freely deliberate in her mind.  Her thoughts are unhindered by outside forces.  This idea of self-determination very closely echoes Descartes’s “self instruction”, though Descartes only applies this control mechanism to thought and Bok applies it to the sphere of action as well.  Bok expands Descartes’s notion of self-control in the mind to mean that all decisions to act in the world are the result of exerting freedom of thought, which is also reminiscent of the argument put forth by Vernant.  Freedom of thought, followed by a reasoned decision to act, begets a free will to act.  To further clarify, Bok also states, “When we say that a person’s choice caused her action, we do not mean that she swooped in from outside nature and altered her destiny; we mean that an event in her brain caused her to act”.  The thoughts in her brain are completely internal, and therefore are not limited by outside influences.  These thoughts are free and so is her capacity to judge.  She can then follow her decision, through the free exercise of her will, and act.  This cause and effect relationship between freedom of thought and freedom of action is therefore reasonable.  So, if we adhere to Descartes, Vernant, and Bok’s understanding of freedom of thought or the power of thinking, we can say that this rational decision is entirely her own.

As an example of the importance of free will in decision-making, Dante’s infamous character, Guido, who wrongfully exercised his free will and was cast into the Inferno, attests to the progression from thought to action.  Guido, by his own admission, was clever during his time on Earth, becoming a Franciscan friar in order to be saved, as a way to counteract the many transgressions committed during his life as a military man.  In the military, Guido found great success in waging unjust wars and tricking his enemies.  Immoral and conniving, Guido tried to apply the same tactics to his salvation and weasel his way into heaven.  He tells Dante, “my works were not those of a lion but a fox…and it would have worked”, demonstrating that he has no qualms about his subversive strategy and that he attempted to elude the devil (Inferno, XXVII: 74-84).  After this acknowledgement, Guido admits to committing an additional transgression during his time on Earth, which, according to him, wrongfully led to his damnation.  Though he had already become a friar, Guido revises his alleged change of heart and aids Boniface in the razing of Palestrina by counseling him to lie.  Intentionally providing false counsel, which was brought to fruition by his own volition, effectively undoes his conversion, and he dooms himself to the Inferno.  He made his decision freely and consciously willed it into action.  Guido thus proves that he was not an authentically changed man, and that beneath his Franciscan robes, he was just as foxlike as ever.  In his damnation, he serves as an example of executing thoughtful deliberation first as a decision and then as a willful action, and serves as a testament to the dangers of choosing a morally-deficient path.  He had a choice, due to his freedom of thought and faculty of judgment, and chose wrongfully.  Guido is therefore condemned because of his responsibility for his carefully elaborated and executed plans.

The choice between right and wrong is what we refer to as moral responsibility.  As a result of free will, all actions reflect on the choices made by the individual.  Thus, Dante’s Inferno is a comedy rather than a tragedy –the characters’ destinies are contingent upon their own decisions, not predetermined and inescapable.  The characters have a moral responsibility to choose and act virtuously if they want to escape an eternity in hell.  According to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, moral responsibility “seems to stem simply from the fact that one is fully conscious of one’s situation, and knows that one can choose, and believes that one action is morally better than the other.  This seems to be immediate enough to confer full and ultimate responsibility.”  If an individual can weigh the morality of particular courses of action and exercise freedom of thought in making his choice, he is therefore responsible for his actions.  Following this logic, his choices dictate where he will end up in the afterlife.  To elaborate, ultimate responsibility is defined in the same article of the Routledge Encyclopedia as “responsibility of such a kind that, if we have it, it makes sense to propose that it could be just to punish some of us with torment in hell and reward others with bliss in heaven.”  Since Dante emphasizes the existence of moral responsibility and the decision between what is right and what is wrong, his characters are to be held accountable for their decisions and may pay for them dearly in the afterlife.  For example, Guido’s son and foil, Buonconte, ends up in Purgatory instead of the Inferno, though the two only differ in their moral qualities.  Buonconte too was a military man, but in the last moments of his life, he willfully, actively, and genuinely repented for his sins.  This is something that Guido consciously chose not to do, and now must atone for in hell.  Guido had a moral responsibility to do what was right, or at least ask forgiveness for his transgressions while on Earth, but deliberately did not.  Instead, he decided to act dishonestly.  Hence, if the decision to choose between options of differing moral consequences is entirely up to us, moral responsibility for our actions must exist.  Otherwise, there is no reason that both Guido and Buonconte would not end up in Purgatory.

Therefore, following the argument set forth by Descartes and elaborated by Vernant and Bok, freedom of thought dictates action through the will, which is the enforcing agent of the mind.  The freedom of thought begets an unlimited judgment process, which brings about the will to act and hence freedom of action ensues.  The decision-making process, by its nature, inspires a will to act.  And, without first weighing options and being able to decide between them, or, in other words, without free will, no act would be conceivable nor achievable.  With this in mind, in life as in literature, according to Dante, we are morally responsible for our actions and liable to be punished for them in the afterlife.  Freedom starts in the mind and affects mankind’s faculty of decision-making, which, by its nature, causes us to act, proving the actualization of freedom in action, according to the argument of these philosophers.  Therefore, although there is no conclusive evidence to end the debate on the existence of free will, freedom of thought, at the very least, may lead to freedom of action.

Works Cited

Bok, Hilary. “Want to Understand Free Will? Don’t Look to Neuroscience.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle Review, 18 Mar. 2012. Web. 29 Oct. 2013. <;.

Dante, Alighieri, Robert M. Durling, and Ronald L. Martinez. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.

Descartes, René, Donald A. Cress, and René Descartes. Discourse on Method; And, Meditations on First Philosophy. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 1998. Print.

“Free Will.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2013. <;.

“Freedom.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2013. <;.

Strawson, Galen (1998, 2011). Free will. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved October 29, 2013, from

Vernant, Jean-Pierre. “Imitations of the Will in Greek Tragedy.” (n.d.): n. pag. Print.