(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

The problem of the freedom of the will, like many of the traditional issues, remains a problem for many philosophers because of the manner of its formulation. Even determining the appropriate question is difficult. Is it whether the will is free? Or is it how the will is free? Or is it a question as to what the will is? Or freedom? Does it even make sense to talk about the will as free? A person can be free, but what is the sense of saying that the will—whatever that is—can be free? Or is the question whether the will is free or determined?

Jonathan Edwards, the great Puritan philosopher of the eighteenth century, taking his cue from John Locke, whose An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) he admired, recognized the difficulties involved in the formulation of the problem. Consequently, his careful study of the problem begins with explanations of the terms involved in discourse concerning freedom of the will; he begins with “will” and proceeds to “determination,” “necessity,” “liberty,” and other terms whose ambiguity and vagueness have made the problem a particularly troublesome one for philosophers. Also unlike many philosophers, Edwards did not use the occasion of definition as an opportunity for framing the problem to suit his own purposes. With analytic acumen, he hit on the meanings relative to common use, and he clarified those meanings without neglecting consideration of the function of terms in conventional discourse. Thus, in considering...

(The entire section is 629 words.)

A Strict Calvinist

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Edwards was a vigorous defender of Calvinism, a minister who was an effective combination of intellectual and emotional power. As minister at Northampton, Massachusetts, he argued for predestination, the depravity of man, and the doctrine of irresistible grace. He held with Puritan fervor to the conviction that God is unlimited in his use of grace; he can save whomever he chooses. In support of these hard doctrines, he employed a remarkable talent for developing, defending, and propounding ideas. However, he did not expect to win anything by the use of intellect alone; although he disdained religious emotionalism, he declared the necessity of conversion and faith. His extraordinary personality brought about an enthusiastic movement in support of the faith he defended; the church at Northampton became the origin and center of religious revival that came to be known as the Great Awakening.

His strict Calvinism eventually had its effect; as a result of an argument concerning the qualifications for communion, probably only the focal point of a number of doctrinal quarrels, he was dismissed in 1750 from the ministry of Northampton. He moved to the Indian mission at Stockbridge and continued work on the problem of the freedom of the will, an enterprise undertaken sometime in 1747. Written in support of the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination and of the necessity which it entails, the resultant work is nevertheless philosophically relevant to the general...

(The entire section is 511 words.)

The Will Defined

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Edwards begins his treatise with an analysis of the meaning of the term “will.” He quite sensibly reminds the reader that definition would probably not be necessary had not philosophers confused the issue. The will, then, is “that by which the mind chooses anything”; it is the power to choose. There is no suggestion that the will is a substantial entity of some sort, an internal mechanism that hands out decisions. The will is what common discourse makes it to be: simply the faculty that a person has of choosing to do one thing rather than another. Where there is no inclination one way of the other, there is no act of will, no volition.

Next, he considers what is meant in talking about the “determination” of the will. The answer is that the will is “said to be determined, when, in consequence of some action, or influence, its choice is directed to, and fixed upon a particular object.” To say that the will is determined, then, means simply that choices are caused.

The “good” is defined as the agreeable, whatever wins acceptance or “tends to draw the inclination.” Thus, Edwards points out, “the will always is as the greatest apparent good is.” In other words, if the will is the power to choose, and if choices are inclinations toward some alternatives at the expense of others, and if the greatest apparent good is what most of all provokes the interest, the inclination, of the person, then what is chosen, in every case,...

(The entire section is 590 words.)

The Arminian Concept of Free Will

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Having completed the definition of crucial terms, Edwards turns to an explication and criticism of the Arminian conception of the free will. According to the Arminians, the will is self-determining. Edwards points out the impropriety of saying that the will determines its own choices; after all, the will is not an agent. However, even if it be contended that not the will, but the soul, determines the will, and does so without causal influence of its action, the further difficulty remains that every act of choice would be determined by a preceding act of choice. If a first act of choice, in a series of acts, is self-determined, it must be the consequence of a previous choice and, thus, be not first: a contradiction. If, on the other hand, it is not self-determined, then it is not free in the Arminian sense. In either case, the Arminian notion is self-defeating.

The next important consideration is whether it would be possible for an event to occur (say, an act of volition) without a cause of its occurrence. Defining a cause as any antecedent on which the existence or nature of something depends, Edwards claims that no event could occur without cause. He affirms the principle of universal causation as one on which all reasoning about matters of fact depends, and he adds that no proof of the being of God would be possible without that principle. If no event could occur without a cause, then no act of volition could occur without a cause.


(The entire section is 478 words.)

Virtue and Necessity

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

In part 3, Edwards argues that the Arminian notion of an indifferent will, a will free from all causal necessity, is not only not necessary to moral virtue but also inconsistent with it. To establish his point, he advances a number of considerations to show that necessity is not incompatible with virtue or vice. God’s moral excellence, the holiness of Jesus’ acts, the sin of humanity—these are all necessary, but surely God’s nature is virtuous and praiseworthy, as are Jesus’ acts; and the acts of the sinner, although morally necessary, are nevertheless instances of vice and blameworthy.

Having argued that necessity is not incompatible with virtue, Edwards then maintains that the freedom of indifference is not compatible with virtue, for virtue cannot reside in a soul that is indifferent; what common judgment requires is that one commit the self, that one be inclined toward commendable action.

The conclusion is that virtue depends on necessity; if a person could not be moved by exhortations, considerations, and inducements, neither virtue nor vice would be possible, and neither praise nor blame would be sensible. Even the commands of God would have to be acknowledged as senseless if a virtuous soul could not be moved by those commands without losing its moral freedom.

Answers to Objections

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

In part 4, Edwards considers, among other objections to the doctrine he proposes, the claims that if choices are determined, people are machines; that if choices are necessary, fate rules people; that the doctrine makes God the author of sin and (ironically) encourages atheism; and, finally, that the doctrine is metaphysical and abstruse.

Answering the charges, Edwards argues that people are entirely different from machines in that people are able to reason, to will, to do as they will, to be capable of moral acts, and to be worthy of praise, love, and reward. According to the Arminian conception, however, people would be worse than machines, the victims of “absolute blind contingence.” If fate, as conceived by the Stoics, involves any limitations of human liberty, as Edwards has described it, then he rejects that notion of fate. It is misleading, Edwards continues, to argue that God is the author of sin, for even if God permits sin and so orders events that sin occurs, he does so for holy purposes and must be distinguished from the human agents who are the actual sinners. If atheists have embraced the doctrine of the determined will and have used it to defend their ways, Edwards argues, that in no way implies that the view is to blame. To the charge that his philosophy is metaphysical and abstruse, Edwards replies that it seems to be the other way about: The Arminian philosophy depends on vague and undefined ideas and self-contradictory suppositions.

Edwards concludes by claiming that the chief objections to Calvinism have been met by his discourse. The principal objections against the notions of God’s universal and absolute decree and the doctrine of personal election are that they imply a necessity of human volitions and of the acts of humanity; but the argument has shown that unless choices and acts are necessary, in the causal sense described, no volition is possible, and no judgment of moral action is justifiable.


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Chai, Leon. Jonathan Edwards and the Limits of Enlightenment Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Situates Jonathan Edwards in the context of the Enlightenment and shows his similarities and differences with that tradition.

Cherry, Conrad C. The Theology of Jonathan Edwards: A Reappraisal. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1966. Treating Edwards as a major figure in American literary and intellectual history, Cherry analyzes how Edwards’s philosophy and theology affect each other.

Elwood, Douglas J. The Philosophical Theology of Jonathan...

(The entire section is 421 words.)