Philosophy of Evolution: Society

The Thomistic Foundations


St. Thomas Aquinas teaches liberty and free will. 



Does St. Thomas teach free will and human liberty? Yes, he does. St. Thomas says, "Of the actions done by man, only those are called human which are properly of man in so far as human. Man differs from irrational creatures in this that man is the master of his own acts. Whence these actions are called properly human, of which man is the master. It is man who is the master of his actions by reason and will; whence free will is called a faculty of the will and reason. Therefore, those actions are called properly human which proceed from a deliberate will. Any other acts that arise from man are able to be called ‘acts of man’ but not properly human acts, since they are not from man in so far as he is human" (Aquinas Summa Theologiae 1-2. 1. 1).44 Therefore, it appears that personal freedom is more important for St. Thomas than social evolution, which, if it exists, would have to arise from "acts of man" and not properly human acts.

Does St. Thomas treat the human will in any extensive way? Yes, he does, because St. Thomas views the will as important, for through it man’s actions, as just seen, are "properly human." St. Thomas views the will as the faculty (power) by which man perceives his own goals and seeks to realize them.45 Some principle places St. Thomas treats the will are in the Summa Theologiae (Aquinas Summa Theologiae 1. 80; Aquinas Summa Theologiae 1. 82; Aquinas Summa Thologiae 1. 83); in his work De Malo (Aquinas De Malo 3; Aquinas De Malo 6); and in his work De Veritate (Aquinas De Veritate 22). The types of issues St. Thomas proposes in order to investigate the will are: the object of the will, the freedom of the will, the rapport of the will and the intellect, and the rapport of the will and the passions. Assuming the possibility of social evolution, the treatment of St. Thomas implicitly touches the issue of social evolution in a number of ways. Is social evolution involved as essentially determining in the object of the will? Would the will be essentially free despite social evolution? Is the will essentially determined by the higher powers of humans like the intellect, so that if social evolution could influence those higher powers, it would be a human act? Does social evolution significantly determine the passions or any powers of man below the intellect? St. Thomas implicitly answers in the negative to all these questions. As will be seen from the texts below, social evolution is unlikely in the view of St. Thomas.

Does St. Thomas treat the object of the human will? Yes, he does, and it appears that social evolution could not be essentially determining the will. St. Thomas maintains, "The will is the faculty by which man tends to good, and the ‘definitely universal good,’ because this good alone is fully satisfying" (Aquinas Summa Theologiae 1. 82. 1).46 So the "definitely universal good" determines the will, but in the concrete, social evolution is not clearly the definitely universal good that man must choose. So man is free to chose the particular goods, as St. Thomas notes, "The will does nothing unless it is moved by its object which is the desirable good" (Aquinas De Veritate 14. 2).47


Does St. Thomas treat freedom of the will? Yes, he does, and it appears that social evolution does not essentially limit freedom of the will. St. Thomas maintains, "Reason in all particular goods can observe the aspect of good or the deficiency of good, which presents itself as evil; and basically from this (observation) one can apprehend each of these goods as worthy of choice or flight" (Aquinas Summa Theologiae 1-2. 13. 6).48 In the concrete, the intellect presents various goods to the will, and unless social evolution is the "definitely universal good," man is free to choose social evolution or not. This freedom is clear as St. Thomas teaches, "The will remains free before any object of choice even if it is naturally determined to desire happiness, but it is not determined by this or that object in particular" (Aquinas Scriptum in Liber Sententiarum 2. 25. 1. 2).49 In fact, St. Thomas (Aquinas De Veritate 22. 6) assigns a triple liberty to the will: of exercise to act or not, of specification to do this or that, and of contrariety to chose the good or the evil.50

Does St. Thomas treat the essential rapport of the will to the intellect? Yes, he does, and it appears that social evolution does not essentially determine the higher powers of man, thus making social evolution a human act. The sovereignty of the will is so extensive that it extends beyond its own acts even to the acts of other faculties: a person studies if he wishes to study, or a person goes for a walk if he wants to go for a walk. St. Thomas says, "The will has supremacy (principalitatem) over all human acts, given that as far as it is most free it inclines all the other potencies toward their acts... and in fact the intellect can consider or not (considerare et non considerare), according to how it may be endowed, or not, by the will; and as much can be said about the other appetites and even the very external acts of movement, such as to speak or be silent, to walk around or be seated" (Aquinas Scriptum in Liber Sententiarum 2. 35. 1. 4).51

Does St. Thomas treat the non-essential rapport of the will to the passions? Yes, he does, and it appears that social evolution does not significantly determine the passions or powers below the intellect of man. Of all the human faculties, only the will has the privilege of being free, and St. Thomas (Aquinas Scriptum in Liber Sententiarum 2. 39. 1. 1. ad 3) describes this freedom with the word liberrima, "most free."52 The only exception for the will is the necessary choice of the "universal good." The senses, imagination, memory, and intellect are necessarily determined by their object. However, for choice in the concrete, any good that determines the passions or other faculty has to be submitted to the will. The passions and other faculties do not determine the will, as St. Thomas notes, "The movement of the will has no place for the exclusive domination of the passions; even if there is a movement of the will and then it does not have to follow the impulse of the passions" (Aquinas Summa Theologiae 1-2. 10. 3).53

Concerning the necessity of social evolution, if it exists, the texts of St. Thomas can be examined in the light of two more questions. Does man as an individual need social evolution? Does society need social evolution? If the natural necessity is not present for the individual or society, then social evolution is unlikely. St. Thomas appears to incline to that opinion, that there is no necessity for any social evolution.

Does St. Thomas teach that man, the apex of creation, need social evolution individually? No, he does not, when St. Thomas maintains, "The person (of man) is what is most perfect in all of nature" (Aquinas Summa Theologiae 1. 29. 3).54 St. Thomas also states, "After this (the life of man) no later and more noble for is to be found in things that are generated and corrupted" (Aquinas Summa Contra Gentiles 3. 22).55 Then, there does not seem to be a natural necessity of social evolution for man, the individual, either continuing ("not later") or better ("no...more noble").56

Does St. Thomas teach that society is in need of some determinants in the form of social evolution? No, he does not. St. Thomas teaches that society is a group of men joined for some common action" (Aquinas Contra Impugnantes Dei Cultum et Religionem 3).57 There is a debate about the rapport between the individual and society. Some solve the problem individualistically, and the result is Liberalism or Indiviualism. Some solve the problem collectivistically, and the result is Communism or Totalitarianism. St. Thomas adopts an intermediate solution by distinguishing on the one hand what belongs to the ultimate goal of the person (including the supernatural goal of eternal life) and on the other hand what contributes to the realization of the common good of society.58 In both cases, man’s goals and the common good, it seems that the use of reason is the determinant of social good rather than blind evolutionary social determination. Therefore, there does not seem to be a natural necessity for the social evolution of man in society. There may be an added reason given by Aquinas, who notes, "Whatever comes to some thing, after it has been constituted, is in that thing as an addition (accidentaliter, rather than substantially)" (Aquinas De Potentia 7. 1. obj. 9).59 Therefore, if social evolution should exist, it would be an addition to the free will determinants already in society to determine personal good and the common good.

Author:  John Edward Mulvihill, S.T.D., D.Min., Ph.D.
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