Augustine and Good Will



Is Good Will Easy to Have?

Augustine in FCW 1 argues that it is easy to have a good will. One only has to will a good will then she will have one. According to Augustine, good will is “a will by which we seek to live rightly and honorably, and to attain the highest wisdom” FCW 1.12, p.19). If Augustine believes that a good will is easy to have, it implies that to will to live rightly and honorably and to attain the highest wisdom is easy to have. I did not find this theory convincing, since there are some empirical counter-examples that challenge his claim. My thesis: Despite what Augustine maintains, having a good will is not easy.

Augustine’s argument can be roughly formulated as follows:

  • Virtue is more powerful/superior than vice.
  • The soul is more powerful/superior than body and its desires.
  • The soul is able to master bodily inordinate desires.
  • The inferior can’t master a superior.
  • The will is in the power of the will.
  • A good will is “a will by which we seek to live rightly and honorably, and to attain the highest wisdom.”
  • The good will “cannot be stolen or taking away” either by its superior or its inferior (FCW 12. p.22).
  • Most people always will a good will. (Perhaps, it is a missing promise by Augustine.)[1]
  • Therefore, it is easy to have a good will.

Will is a property of the mind.

To Augustine, will in general and good will in particular is, perhaps an essential, property of the mind.[2] As long as the mind exists, the will is present too. As he maintains, “Should we then not rejoice a little that in the mind we have something – I am speaking of the good will itself – in comparison with which all the things we have mentioned are completely unimportant, things in pursuit of which we see many people spare no efforts or avoid no dangers?” (FCW 1.12, p.21). Hence, it is not possible to have a mind without having a will, since the former entails the latter.

According to Augustine, there are two types of goods. Goods that our possession over them is temporary, like wealth, beauty, and power. These transient goods not only can be taken away, but losing them is not in our power. On the contrary, the second types of goods are those that our possessions over them are eternal and not only the acquisition of these types of goods is in our power, but maintaining or losing them depends on our will. Unlike transient, external goods that can be taken away from us, good will is eternal and cannot be taken away from us. As an essential part of the soul, they can survive any worldly generation or corruption. The good will as an eternal good survives the generation and corruption in the world.

In the next step, Augustine tries to establish that the soul is more superior to material objects, including bodily inordinate desires. By the virtue of being eternal, the second types of goods are superior to the transient goods. Because the soul is more powerful than matter and virtue more powerful than vice. It is in the power of the soul to overcome inordinate desires. Indeed, Augustine subscribes to a neo-Platonic principle that an inferior cannot master a superior.

By doing this, he then claims that the will is in the power of the will. “Then I think you see now that it lies in our will to enjoy or to lack such a great and genuine good. For what is so much in the power of the will as the will itself?” So far, Augustine’s argument does not support the contention that good will is easily obtained. It merely establishes that we always have access to will, including to a good will or an evil will. Augustine’s next move should show that what make us to will a good will while we can have an evil will, given the fact that giving up to the inordinate desires and therefore to an evil will is easier for a significant number of people. To avoid this problem, Augustine needs to assume that we are naturally inclined to “seek to live rightly and honorably, and to attain the highest wisdom;” otherwise, we could have not a good will as easy as Augustine thinks.

However, there is a major problem with Augustine’s contention that having a good will is easy. Despite Augustine’s claim, to have a good will is not so easy if we are not naturally inclined to have a good will. There are significant numbers of wicked people who not only do not prefer to have a good will, but also willingly and knowingly prefer to have an evil will. If the good will were easy to have, abundance of good will in human societies would be a reasonable expectation. Unfortunately, what we witness in the world is far from the abundance of good will. Augustine himself witnessed the dark aspect of humanity in his own time. It might be due to these concerns that later Augustine admits that an unaided will cannot overcome evils, and one needs God’s grace to live rightly.

[1] Augustine maintains that a good person always seeks to prevent evil, but it is not the same as believing that most people will a good will. If most people did not a good will, it follows that it is not easy to have a good will.

[2] When Augustine asks his interlocutor Evodius whether he has a good will or not, he is clueless about whether he has a will or even he wants to know that whether he has one. After Augustine presses him more, he admits that he not only has a will, but it is a good one.

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