by Albert Liang
Before we can have any meaningful discussion on the existence of free will, we must first specify what it means to have “free will.” The will, according to Simone Weil, is strictly limited to the physical, “associated with the idea of the change of position of near-by objects” (Weil, 116). We can, for instance, will to bike quickly to a class across campus or will to kick a soccer ball to a teammate down the field. We cannot, on the other hand, simply will to be just or will truth into being – the will is inadequate for dealing with these abstractions. Weil posits that objectives that extend beyond the physical, involving ideals such as justice, truth, and freedom, require something more than will, a higher motivation that Weil terms “attention.” In order to gain a comprehensive definition of freedom as it relates to free will, we should examine attention and substitute it for will. Furthermore, we can contrast Buonconte and Guido, two characters from Dante’s Divine Comedy who illustrate the role of attention in making free will possible. By understanding free will in terms of attention, we frame the question of free will in a way that more closely matches what we experience, thus providing a more realistic and concrete foundation for the debate over free will.
Weil defines “attention” in two simultaneous parts: first as a method for making judgments, and second as a commitment to realizing those principles the judgment was based on. Attention is that component of our human thought process which “constitutes the creative faculty” (Weil, 117) of our minds, allowing us to consider principles, ponder ideas, and then draw moral and metaphysical conclusions from them. At the same time, Weil emphasizes that attention is not the same as the scientist’s focus on his research or the entrepreneur’s scrutiny of her development strategy. While both cases require careful thought and focus, they involve the pursuit of an achievement or some sort of gain. This is the “wrong way of seeking,” where “we become dependent on the object of our efforts” (Weil, 117). Instead, attention is more like giving, where we seek something not so that it can become ours, but so that we can help that thing “be.” Attention becomes a commitment to actualize the principles behind our decisions and serves as an internal motivator for our actions; “taken to its highest degree,” the experience of exercising attention “is the same thing as prayer” (Weil, 117). In this way, attention is a process that “presupposes faith and love” (Weil, 117), firmly rooting us in our humanity by calling on our uniquely human capacities for creativity, rationality, and morality.
Thus, we can describe free will as more than the ability of people to make decisions independent of external influence; free will is the human capacity to apply attention to one’s judgments and then to act upon them. Where the former definition makes no distinction between reaching out one’s hand to grab a pencil and helping a homeless man on the street, the latter definition draws a clear contrast which reflects our actual experience in daily life. One is a decision made to obtain something, while the other is the result of the deliberate, thoughtful weighing of principles under the light of attention.
Dante provides an excellent illustration of attention and how it sheds light on our understanding of free will. In Purgatorio, Dante encounters Buonconte, a renowned mercenary captain who, “wounded in the throat,” dies reciting a prayer, making it only through the first two words – Ave Maria (Purgatorio 5, 98-101). His incomplete prayer comes after a long career of sin and violence, and based on that fact alone one would not expect Buonconte to receive any kind of celestial reward. Yet, those two words make all the difference – the sincerity of Buonconte’s gesture is enough to rescue him from eternal punishment in the Inferno. As an angel carries Buonconte’s soul to Purgatory, the Devil cries out, “[Why] do you rob me? You carry off with you this man’s eternal part. For a little tear he’s taken from me” (Purgatorio 5, 105-107). The answer to the Devil’s question is simple; at the end of his life, out of his own volition, Buonconte makes a whole-hearted, honest admission of his guilt and turns to divine authority for help. There is an inherent humility in how Buonconte faces his inescapable death, a life of immoral deeds trailing behind him like a chain, and recognizes that he must turn to something greater than himself, be it a principle, an ideal, or God. Note that Buonconte is not motivated to “attain” Heaven, but rather to express his faith in the promise of salvation. There is a big difference between the two – the first implies a kind of machination to obtain God’s grace, while the second is closer to the “prayer” that characterizes attention. Buonconte, then, is an example of someone who exercises full use of his freedom; through his attention he reflects on how his past actions diverged from the moral path and repents after acknowledging that divergence.
Dante also demonstrates what happens when someone does not exercise attention. Buonconte’s father, Guido, demonstrates the misguided notion that the will is sovereign. Guido explains to Dante that, after spending most of his life as a prominent mercenary captain, he decided to convert to the monastic life, “believing, so girt, to make amends” (Inferno 27, 68). Dante’s choice of the word “girt” hints at Guido’s misguided motives – already he is scheming to get into heaven by simply putting on the robes of a Franciscan friar. Guido, in contrast to Buonconte, aims to achieve salvation as he has won victory in past battles, by means of a strategy. Heaven is Guido’s objective; he seeks to attain it through “the wrong way of seeking” and does not devote his attention into living according to the monastic ideal. Guido is not driven by principles and does not turn to anything greater than himself as the basis for his actions; this contrasts sharply with his son’s humble recognition of God’s power. During his time in the Franciscan order, Guido is approached by Pope Boniface VIII, who was waging unholy political wars against Christians in the name of the Church. Boniface asks Guido for military advice and promises to absolve Guido of the sin his counsel will help perpetuate. Guido, abandoning Franciscan virtue, complies, and upon his death, finds himself carried to Hell (Inferno 27, 85-123).
Because Guido’s actions arose not of attention but of a selfish ambition, he errs on two counts. First, Boniface, as powerful as he is, cannot control what is right and wrong, and Guido is the only one with agency over whether or not he upholds his piety. Thus, Guido should understand that the Pope’s action is irrelevant. Instead, Guido’s actions ought to be informed by commitment to and genuine belief in something greater than himself, namely God, and he needs only to stand with the principles of the Catholic tradition. Instead, he attempts to plot his way into heaven by doing the pope a favor, and ends up as an accomplice to treachery. Second, Guido remains unrepentant, claiming that the Pope’s “weighty arguments impelled” him to commit the sin (Inferno 27, 106). Guido denies his freedom, and with it any access to the human capacities of faith and morality, in his attempt to shift his guilt onto the Pope – a stark contrast with Buonconte, who fully embraces his free will in his last moments by recognizing his faults. Guido, unwilling to engage his attention or recognize his responsibility, chains himself to his eternal despair.
Buonconte and Guido demonstrate what it means to be free, and how attention ought to serve as the motivator of our judgments. Simply defining free will as “independent decision-making” is not sufficient to describe what these two characters experience; framing free will in the context of attention best encompasses the depth of human decision-making. With a more complete understanding of free will, our discussion can finally move beyond the mechanics of thought, and begin considering the existence of free will in a more realistic and applicable frame of reference.
Weil, Simone. “Attention and Will.” Gravity and Grace. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. New York: Oxford UP, 1948. Print.