Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Distinction: St. Paul, St. Thomas Aquinas on Freedom for Excellence vs. Freedom to Sin

Chapter 6, lecture 3, n. 501: But the one who obeys God is made a slave of this obedience, because through the habit of obeying the mind is inclined more and more to obeying and as a result achieves holiness. Therefore, he says: or of obedience, namely, of the divine precepts, which leads to righteousness: “It is the doers of the law who will be justified” (Rom 2:13). 

Chapter 6, lecture 4, n. 508: In regard to the first it should be noted that man is by nature free because of his reason and will, which cannot be forced but can be inclined by certain things. Therefore, in regard to the freedom of the will man is always free of compulsion, although he is not free of inclinations. For the free judgment is sometimes inclined to the good through the habit of grace 
or righteousness; and then it is in slavery to righteousness but free from sin. But sometimes the free judgment is inclined to evil through the habit of sin; and then it is in slavery to sin and free from righteousness. Now, slavery to sin consists in being drawn to consent to sin against the judgment of reason: “Everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin” (Jn 8:34). 

And in regard to this he says: When you were slaves of sin. Freedom from righteousness, on the other hand, implies that a man rushes headlong into sin without the restraint of righteousness; in regard to this he says: you were free in regard to righteousness. This happens especially in those who sin of set purpose: “Long ago you broke your yoke and burst your bonds; and you said, ‘I will not serve’” (Jer 2:20); “A vain man is lifted up into pride, and thinks himself born free like a wild ass’ colt” (Jb 11:12). 

509. Yet it should be noted that this state involves true slavery and only apparent freedom. For since man should act according to reason, be is truly a slave when he is led away from what is reasonable by something alien. Furthermore, if he is not restrained by the yoke of reason from following concupiscence, he is free only in the opinion of those who suppose that the highest good is to follow one’s concupiscence.


When we become slaves to sin, we are free from righteousness. But when we are free from sin, we are slaves to righteousness. Hence the arbitrary freedom of hedonism is diametrically opposed to the freedom for excellence although both make use of the will's profound dynamic energy behind habitus, whether virtuous or vicious.

Notice also how St. Thomas identified so clearly the false autonomy that exists in Western society today: "If he is not restrained by the yoke of reason from following concupiscence, he is free only in the opinion of those who suppose that the highest good is to follow one's concupiscence." Hence people say, for example, of a homosexual couple who "love" each other that they should be allowed to marry and follow their "love." The love itself is justification for the act. This is morality for excellence reduced to bestiality, the moral animal to the beasts.

St. Thomas also identifies the psychological indicator of slavery either to sin or righteousness: the predominant inclination to one or the other. Notice St. Thomas also says that we shall never be free of inclination itself, which is desire. If there is a predominant inclination to sin, such that we usually fall into sin by acting on that inclination, then we know we are enslaved to sin. But if the predominant inclination draws us to act righteously, then we know that we are enslaved to righteousness. 

Hence the psychological test that I have given elsewhere to demonstrate one's predominant inclination, namely, can you go at least three months without fixation on some object or action? For example, only recently I was reminded of a song I used to listen to over and over when I was younger. The fact that I haven't thought of that song in such a long time demonstrates to me that I have no attachment to it any longer. I am "free" from that song, not a slave to it. 

Then St. John of the Cross shows us that the way to freedom for excellence is to remove ourselves from that object of inclination and enter the dark nothings by which our desire can refocus on God. St. John of the Cross further shows that in the transforming union, the soul reaches such a state that although it may suffer temptations as God allows them, these are alien to its predominant desire, which is centered on God. Hence these temptations are hardly occasion for sin but rather occasions for further perfection.


Source: St. Thomas Aquinas, Lectures on the Letter to the Romans, trans. by Fabian Larcher, ed. by Jeremy Holmes, Nova et Vetera, accessed April 23, 2014,

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