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Traditional Perspectives on Philosophy – pt. 1: Voluntarism

Above: The Ecstasy of Saint Francis of Assisi by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–1682)

This series of articles is the product of one interest and one concern. My interest, as a student of philosophy, is to serve a wider Catholic audience by demystifying philosophical schools and ‘isms’ that are relevant to modern Catholic history. Phenomenology, for instance, in the minds of many traditionally-minded Catholics, tends to conjure up suspicious associations with ‘modernist’ trends. Nevertheless, phenomenology deserves to be understood, considering its influence on Dietrich von Hildebrand, William Marra and other of Traditionalism’s founders.

My second motivation for writing—my concern—is that Catholics are often tempted by a simplistic narrative that the Second Vatican Council was a totally unaccountable break from what preceded, as if Pope John’s legendary “Un concilio!” had been a purely spontaneous (and malign) inspiration. On the contrary, both the council, and the progressivism that profited from the council’s ambiguity, were anticipated by years of ecclesial and intellectual controversy. (Consider, for example, that in 1933 Dom Martin Michler celebrated a versus populum dialogue Mass for students in Brazil.) My hope is to deepen the Traditionalist understanding of our own position by situating the council in its historical-philosophical context.

Interpreting history through philosophical trends can be a vanity project. It is tempting to want to play Hercule Poirot, re-assembling history as an inevitable causal chain of ideas and events. In truth, bad ideas require bad hands to yield bad fruit, and good ideas are never good enough to thwart sin. Nevertheless, while we acknowledge human moral agency, neither can we deny the instrumental role of ideas. Sinners require instruments; and philosophy, like language or technology, is a powerful instrument for good or ill.

My first discussions will focus on voluntarism, nominalism, and the 16th century Thomistic renaissance. These will involve two historic points of departure: the mid-to-late 13th century and the mid-to-late 16th.

St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure both died in 1274. Duns Scotus was active in the latter half of that century, and William of Ockham, the protégé of nominalism, was born in 1287. Typically conceived as the golden age of Catholic consensus, the 13th century actually witnessed considerable tensions in thought.

The 16th century, in turn, was a frenetic period of Catholic intellectual developments, of heresy and ecclesial politics. In key respects, it represented the practical application—cultural, political and scientific—of 13th century academic debates. Spain’s University of Salamanca led a Thomistic revival, beginning in 1524 under the Dominican Francisco de Vitoria. Scholars of the Salamanca School developed Aquinas’ natural law theory into political theories of international law, spurred by heated debates about Spain’s colonial empire. In 1517 Martin Luther published his 95 Theses, prompting Pope Paul III to convene the Council of Trent in 1545.

With this historical context in mind, let’s turn to voluntarism, beginning in 1209, with the origin of a new religious order: the Franciscans.

St. Francis exhorted his brothers to love God “with a full heart and a full soul, with full mind and full courage, with full understanding and full strength, with full effort and full affection, with full emotion, full desire and will.”[1] St. Francis modeled a spirituality of affection, of action and preaching by action, emphasizing practical testimony over theoretical discourse. These spiritual ‘emphases’ suggested an understanding of charity as passionate and aesthetic. As such, it shared characteristics with Plato and St. Augustine. Plato had characterized Beauty, and human love for the beautiful, as a source of spiritual ‘ascent.’ St. Augustine specified that the object of Plato’s ascent is a personal God, a God Who is not only worthy of our love, but Who loves us personally and individually. Plato and Augustine capture a tension within the spiritual life, between asceticism—freeing oneself from appetites—and embracing the motivation of a passionate moral hunger that engages the whole person, body and soul. Our desire for God is appetitive, engaging the Will. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” The Franciscans, especially when compared with their mendicant confreres, the Dominicans, seemed to emphasize our appetitive relation to God. “In view of this,” writes Fr. Clement O’Donnell, “we can understand a certain emphasis on will and its place in life, which is common to Franciscans.”[2]

Around 1220 the Franciscans entered the prestigious University of Paris, and their spiritual concerns shaped academia. The practical emphasis on knowledge over desire, on active choice over passive comprehension, influenced philosophy. God’s Beauty, His personal Fatherhood, the objects of our longing and the saints’ pursuit, was distinguishable from God as the object of systematic study and logical proofs. This distinction accentuated an age-old tension within philosophy itself. On the one hand, philosophy seeks scientific understanding, because the structure and contents of the world are unchanging. Just as the natural sciences can assume that all trees possess a common structure, and that gravity will not vanish tomorrow, so philosophy can assume that objects possess fundamental, unvarying natures, and tries to uncover these. On the other hand, philosophy (unlike natural science) is a moralethical discourse, a practical process of self-examination for the purpose of living well. We act unpredictably, because we have freedom and may or may not embrace our God-given nature. Moreover, individuals differ in many legitimate ways, which makes it difficult to specify what actions are appropriate in all situations. Aristotle begins his Nicomachean Ethics by cautioning that ethics is an imprecise discipline, because it requires experience and prudence. (Ethics, he tells us, is not for young men!) St. Augustine was very concerned with this slippery dimension of philosophy. As O’Donnell observes, for the Augustinian “philosophy is not so much a theory of being, as it is a quest for the good[, or] … a theory of interpretation and action.”[3]

Since St. Augustine, philosophical psychology had developed a theory distinguishing between Reason and Will. Reason is the faculty of reaching into physical experience and grasping the structures of created things. These structures include the goodness that God first perceived in His own creation. Whether we love it or not, we can comprehend the goodness of created things. Will, on the other hand, is the faculty of desiring goodness; of choosing to pursue it and to conform our lives to it. This involves more than dispassionate judgment. It involves affections. Will is ‘affective.’ Reason and Will, respectively, mirror philosophy’s two ‘faces,’ scientific and affective. In the 1200s, philosophers like Philip the Chancellor, Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure and Duns Scotus (the last three, Franciscans) argued in favor of Will as more properly ‘free’ than Reason. This implied that Will was in some sense more authentically human than Reason. Will, as the seat of freedom, was (they argued) the source of authentic charity, moral agency, and sanctity.

Let’s consider this last point more in depth. Reason can function poorly, but it cannot create its own reality. It is always beholden to what truly exists. Reason’s ideal achievement, then, is perfect mental conformity to the way things are. If somebody is unreasonable or ‘wrong’—say, in evaluating a crime scene or observing a natural phenomenon—then we treat this as a technical error. We correct him, and we assume (other things being equal) that he will embrace correction. Human Will is different. If someone fails to desire the good, we attempt to persuade him otherwise, but we grant him a certain ‘privilege of error.’ Will is less obviously determined by reality. In other words, reality does not have the same claim to conformity from the Will as it does to conformity from Reason. Will appears more intimately connected with what distinguish us from the rest of physical creation: our freedom, autonomy, and independence.

For example, following Colleen McCluskey’s analysis, Philip the Chancellor (b. 1160) held that “freedom is a function of the will primarily, and intellect only secondarily.”[4] St. Bonaventure was concerned with finding theoretical justifications for the Bible’s privileging charity over knowledge (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:2). Citing Jacques Maritain, O’Donnell observes that “contemplation can never supersede charity.” “Since the seat of this charity is the human will, it seems to follow, as St. Bonaventure concludes, that the will is the more noble faculty of man.”[5]

Voluntarism is a kind of emphasis: an emphasis on the Will as the primary seat or source of human nobility. This involved, among other things, attempts to stake out the independence of Will from Reason—for example, by accounting for freedom exclusively in terms of Will. Evoking St. Anselm, Philip emphasizes that Anselm “defined freedom as ‘a power for doing what one wants,’ and [not] … a power for doing what one judges or reasons.’”[6] In the 1200s, this trend was accompanied by a shift in language. The problem of liberum arbitrium, ‘free decision,’ became the problem of voluntas libera, or ‘free will.’[7] Another historical point is worth considering. In 1277 the bishop of Paris, Étienne Tempier, condemned a number of philosophical positions, including that the Will is not free but obligated to obey the conclusions of Reason.[8] Citing Bonnie Kent, McCluskey suggests that the condemnation had a pendulum effect, implicitly endorsing any philosophical theories promoting the Will’s freedom and independence. Importantly, this included the accusation “that Aquinas’ conception of the will as … responsive to the judgments of intellect [or Reason] commits him to a denial of [free will].”[9]

The future of voluntarism was not predetermined by its core emphases. Many of the 13th century Catholic voluntarists, advocating the Will’s superior dignity, its freedom and its autonomy, nevertheless retained the traditional framework of understanding Will and Reason as intimately interconnected. Though an appetite, Will relies on Reason to present it with objects, with its ‘food.’ This position is a far cry from Martin Luther’s voluntarism, which establishes an antagonism between Reason and Will. Thus, the lineage of voluntarism from the 13th to the 16th century involves key continuities but also key breaks.

Voluntarism is dangerous because it easily becomes bedfellows with the doctrine that man is essentially self-creating. This doctrine was characteristic of Renaissance humanism—as Professor Thomas Stark has observed in his analyses of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s famous Oration on the Dignity of Man.[10] Della Mirandola considers man a “creature of indeterminate image,”[11] unfettered by the laws that “restrict” other creatures. Eulogizing Adam, as the archetypal man, he writes:

[Y]ou, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature.[12]

This theory of human identity rejects Aristotle’s argument that our species is distinguished by the desire to know. If human beings were self-defining—if we legislated our own structure, purpose, and values—then truth, goodness, and beauty would cease being objects of Reason. They would exist, not actually, as things to be known, but potentially, as things to be created from nothing. Reason, traditionally understood, is a process of conforming to the true and the good. If the true and the good were created by us, Reason would have no role left to play. It would have nothing to grasp, nothing with a fixed nature independent of our whim. Or rather, the only noble use of Reason in such a world would be technological: one of reshaping our physical environment to accommodate our own fancy. It is easy to see how, in such a post-humanist (or trans-humanist) world, only Will remains. Nevertheless, such a Will would not be what the medievals conceived, an appetite for the good. The post-humanist Will can only be understood as sheer, undirected, libertarian power; action for action’s sake. Needless to say, Will in this sense is logically impossible. However much we abuse our nature, we can never extricate ourselves entirely from God’s created order. Under the influence of radical voluntarism, human beings see themselves only in the light of their powerlessness, and fall, inevitably, into despair.



Clement O’Donnell, O.F.M. Conv., “Voluntarism in Franciscan Philosophy,” Franciscan Studies 2, December 1942: 397-410.

Colleen McCluskey, “The Roots of Ethical Voluntarism,” Vivarium 39, 2001: 185-208.

The Unconfirmed First Rule of St Francis (1209/10-1221).”

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man, trans. by A. Robert Caponigri., intr. by Russell Kirk, (Chicago, Illinois: Henry Regnery Company, 1956).

Recommended Reading:

Carl E. Olson, “What’s in a Name?


[1]The Unconfirmed First Rule of St Francis (1209/10-1221),” 23.

[2] Clement O’Donnell, O.F.M. Conv., “Voluntarism in Franciscan Philosophy,” Franciscan Studies 2, December 1942, 398.

[3] ibid. 397.

[4] Colleen McCluskey, “The Roots of Ethical Voluntarism,” Vivarium 39, 2001, 193.

[5] O’Donnell 403.

[6] McCluskey 194.

[7] McCluskey 186.

[8] Cf. ibid. 189-190.

[9] ibid. 190.

[10] Dr. Stark repeated this point in a lecture for the 2023 summer conference hosted by The Roman Forum.

[11] Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man, trans. by A. Robert Caponigri, intr. by Russell Kirk, (Chicago, Illinois: Henry Regnery Company, 1956), 6.

[12] ibid. 7.

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