“It is the will by which we sin and live well. Thus, the will extends to opposites” (Aquinas, 363). Thomas Aquinas, in his discussion of free will in the Summa Theologica, thus paraphrases Augustine’s understanding of the will. According to both Augustine and Aquinas, our ability to act autonomously gives us the power to choose lives of sin or virtue. Unlike animals, whose actions are driven by instinct, we make conscious decisions. Our faculty of judgment allows us to weigh potential courses of action against one another and choose either that which we deem best or that which we find to be most convenient. Yet judgment alone is insufficient; we cannot execute decisions without the will. The human soul is thereby composed of two faculties: the intellect, by which we come to reasonable conclusions, and the will, by which we enact those decisions. If our intellect offers us a clear vision of the good, and our will gives us the power to act on that good, why does our will so often stray from the correct path? Indeed, it is only too often that, swayed by our human passions and desires, we act thoughtlessly in spite of our better judgment. The question then arises: how do we achieve the good if intellect and will alone do not ensure its attainment?
Augustine, in his treatise On Grace and Free Will, reminds us that while our reason enables us to choose a course of action and our will allows us to act on said course, “man’s free will is not enough unless he is given the victory by the Lord in answer to his prayer that he be not led into temptation” (Augustine, 261). While the intellect and the will might allow us to see and pursue the good, only God’s grace ensures its achievement. To will alone is not enough; God himself must grant it victory. Victory, however, is not bestowed arbitrarily, but only “in answer to prayer.” God will not reach down to intervene on our behalf unless we ourselves first stretch our fingers up to the heavens in faith. No matter how judiciously we come to conclusions, no matter how intently we direct our will, our efforts may go in vain without faith in God and his infinite and inalterable goodness. Dante Aligheri, in his tripartite Divine Comedy, emphasizes the idea that the will is inherently weak, comparing it even to a wounded left foot, dragging, limp, behind the un-impaired right foot of reason. Dante reminds his reader that just as an athlete must train his muscles to perfect his sport, the will must be actively strengthened for prayer to be genuine and faith to be absolute. Dante the pilgrim takes on this training of the will in his passage from Inferno to Paradiso, diligently nursing his injured will back to good health and warning us all the while that we must do the same before we can begin to hope for salvation. While Simone Weil, a 20th century French philosopher, reduced the will to a means of controlling our limbs, she also introduced the concept of attention, an idea practically identical to Dante’s notion of faith. Although she bypasses the will, Weil stresses the importance of exercising our attention. Both Dante and Weil, therefore, agree that faith is not an objective to be achieved passively, but is rather a process that requires constant engagement and effort.
In his Divine Comedy, Dante suggests that it is only by consciously pursuing virtue that we can hope to make salvation possible. If we misdirect our will and sin regardless of our rational misgivings, we will suffer the consequences for eternity. In a world where one’s actions in life have such an impact on the state of one’s eternal soul, free will is paramount. Simone Weil presents a different, though nevertheless Christian, interpretation of the will. “The will only controls a few movements of a few muscles, and these movements are associated with the idea of the change and position of nearby objects” (Weil, 105). For Weil, the will is nothing more than a means of controlling our physical movements. While Dante’s will enables us to direct our path toward heaven or hell, Weil sees it as nothing more than a means of manipulating her limbs. In renouncing the significance of the will, however, Weil does not leave us without an alternate way to seek absolution. “We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will” (Weil, 105). Attention is a means of introspection, and allows us to pursue virtue internally. Weil’s attention, which she deems to be “the same thing as prayer” (Weil, 105), is essentially the same as what Dante would call faith—the indefatigable and unshakeable expectation of God’s goodness. While Weil and Dante at first seem to present different understandings of the human soul, both agree that well-trained faith is a precondition of grace.
Dante elucidates his perception of the will with the stories of Guido da Montefeltro, and Buonconte, his son. Guido, a fraudulent counselor, is damned to the eighth and penultimate circle of hell. As punishment for the false council he gave in life, his soul is enveloped in an eternal flame. Guido himself recounts his tale to Dante, exposing the reason for his damnation. “I was a man of arms, and then I was a Franciscan / believing, so girt, to make amends” (Dante, Inf. 27.67-68). In this preliminary statement, Guido reveals his flighty and fickle character. He led a life rife with violence and treachery, but when he realized that death was no longer so distant, he joined the church solely to guarantee his salvation. While he does not confess the insincerity of his conversion, his own description of his cunning character supports the idea that his repentance was not altogether genuine. “While I was the form of bone and flesh / that my mother gave me, my works were not those of a lion / but of a fox. / The tricks and hidden ways, I knew them all…” (Inf. 27.73-76) Guido’s plan, however, did not succeed. Pope Boniface, the ultimate figure of authority in late 13th century Italy, demanded Guido’s advice on how to destroy the Colonna family, who had taken refuge in their fortress at Palestrina. Boniface promised to absolve Guido of his sins should his council yield successful results. Guido, out of fear of Boniface’s power, advised him to make a “long promise with a short keeping” (Inf. 27.109-10), that is, to go back on his word. Although Boniface assured Guido that he would be forgiven for his sin,
“he cannot be absolved who does not repent,
nor can one repent and will together, because of the
contradiction, which does not permit it.” (Inf. 27.118-20)
One cannot feel genuine remorse for a sin while one is enacting it, Dante reminds us. One cannot be forgiven for a crime before it has been committed. Guido’s soul, therefore, is condemned to hell, despite his crooked attempts to save it.
Buonconte da Montefeltro, like his father, was a “man of arms.” While Guido reached that part of life “where every man should lower the sails and coil the ropes,” (Inf. 27.80) however, Buonconte was not so lucky, and suffered a mortal wound in the battle at Campaldino. His body was never found, and the story he recounts to Dante explains both his salvation and the cause for his body’s disappearance. Upon being wounded, says Buonconte, “I made my way / wounded in the throat, fleeing on foot, / and dripping blood across the plain” (Purg. 5.97-99). This graphic image emphasizes the violent nature of his death. While Buonconte’s struggle from the battlefield is filled with blood and gore, the moment of death itself is one of repentance and clarity. “There I lost sight and speech. / I ended on the name of Mary…” (Purg. 5.100-101) In losing his sensory faculties, those of sight and speech, Buonconte becomes, in a sense, a living spirit. Since he has no way of perceiving the physical world, for a moment he is purely an internal being. He ends his life on the name of Mary, only the second word of the traditional Catholic prayer. These two words, however, are enough. They signify his genuine remorse and his willful repentance. We also have to wonder why, when he is slashed in the throat, Buonconte does not simply lie down on the dusty battlefield to die, but rather wills himself onwards, to the spring at the source of the Archiano. Perhaps this too is a representation of his desire for cleansing and redemption. Buonconte’s repentance, though tardy, is what saves him from his father’s fate. As in the case of his father, angel and demon alike fight for Buonconte’s soul. When Guido dies, St. Francis comes for his soul, only to be stopped by a black cherubim who claims the soul for hell instead. Similarly, while Buonconte’s spirit is taken by God’s angel, “he from hell” (Purg. 5.104) cries out in protest. Satan is unable to claim Buonconte’s soul, however, for Buonconte willfully repented, whereas Guido half-heartedly repents only to consciously continue to sin. It is only in choosing the good, Buonconte demonstrates, that we can ever dream of salvation. If our repentance is insincere, Guido shows us, we may as well have never repented at all.
While Dante attributes Guido da Montefeltro’s punishment to his weak will, Weil would ascribe it to his lack of attention. It is only by careful focus of attention that we can achieve inner purity, says Weil. The will has no impact on the state of the soul. Simone Weil even goes to far as to suggest that we remain “indifferent to good and evil” and “project the light of our attention equally on both,” (Weil, p. 107) for the good will inevitably gain the day. “There is not a choice to be made in its favour.” (Weil, p. 107) This is the definition of grace: the idea that good will inevitably become evident, rising above the bad like oil in water. Similarly, Dante must explore the depths of the underworld before ascending into the heavens. In order to climb his way up to paradise, he must explore not only the goodness of God’s domain, but also the evils haunting the abyss below.
Although Dante emphasizes the importance of the will while Simone Weil denies its significance, they have a similar understanding of grace, and of the necessity of grace in the salvation of an individual. Even Dante, who places so much weight on human choice, does not believe that we can will ourselves into heaven. In the words of Augustine, man “is aided by grace so that commands are not imposed upon his will to no purpose.” (Augustine, 261) We cannot be saved unless we repent, but repentance does not presuppose deliverance. It is only God’s grace that can unlock the gates of heaven. The souls in purgatory cry out to Dante:
“Sinners to the final hour
we were all at the point of violent death
when a light from Heaven brought us understanding,
so that, repenting and forgiving,
we parted from our lives at peace with God
who with desire to see Him wrings our hearts.” (Purg. 5.52-57)
While repentance may be an act of the will, God’s grace is its inspiration. It is God who plants the seed of remorse in Buonconte’s soul and it is thus thanks to God that Buonconte’s soul climbs Mount Purgatory rather than burning in the abyss. God intervenes on behalf of Buonconte’s soul because of the faith he shows when he stumbles, covered in blood, to the mouth of the Archiano and takes his last breath on the name of the virgin. Grace, therefore, is not given arbitrarily, but is granted in response to a human’s expectation of goodness. The faith that saves Buonconte’s soul is essentially the same as Weil’s concept of attention. Indeed, according to Weil “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love” (Weil, 105). Dante and Weil, therefore, agree that both grace and its antecedent, faith, are essential to salvation.
As God says in the book of Matthew, “turn to me…and I will turn to you” (Matt. 26.41). This turning is not an act of the will, but an act of faith. Thus faith itself, though inspired by God, is a realization of human agency. Prayer is not a passive undertaking, Weil reminds us, but requires the intensive training of the attention. Indeed, Buonconte’s bloody trek to the Archiano could even be seen as an embodiment of this internal struggle to find faith. While his salvation may initially appear to be an isolated and instantaneous moment of grace, Weil’s words on attention help us to realize that it is not quite so simple. Whether like Dante we place the will on a pedestal, or toss it aside like Weil, the significance of faith and the efforts that we must go to for its attainment are undeniable. According to Weil, “sin is nothing else but the failure to recognize human wretchedness” (Weil, 110). It is only in accepting our inherent imperfection with humility, and in taking that first hesitant step on the path of faith, that we can hope to transcend the wretchedness that defines our condition.
Augustine. The Teacher: The Free Choice of the Will. Grace and Free Will. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1968.
Dante, Alighieri. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Inferno. Trans. Robert M. Durling. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.
Pegis, Anton C., ed., Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologica. New York: McGraw Hill, inc. 1948.
Weil, Simone. Gravity and Grace. Trans. Emma Craufurd. New York: Routledge, 1995.