- Free Will and the Rebel Angels in Medieval Philosophy by Tobias Hoffmann
Human beings quite often choose bad actions because of cognitive deficits: they fail to understand what they ought to do. But what about angels? They are, by definition, perfect in their cognition. How can they choose bad actions or even commit sins? At first sight, this problem seems to be of mere theological significance, for it is only in the context of Christian theology that angels are supposed to exist. However, a closer look reveals that the problem runs deeper, as Tobias Hoffmann makes clear in his highly original study. Medieval authors used examples of angelic sinning as "test cases for the robustness of their theories of free will" (3). They sought to explain the voluntary production of bad actions by analyzing cases in which the badness has its source neither in a cognitive failure nor in a sensory compulsion. Angels therefore played a crucial role in philosophical theories of action.
Hoffmann examines this role in a three-step process. He first presents the general scholastic discussion about the structure and generation of actions, paying special attention to the controversy between intellectualists and voluntarists in the late thirteenth century (part 1). He then reconstructs different accounts of the source of evil in bad actions, taking Augustine as his starting point (part 2). Finally, he shows how medieval authors explained angelic sinning in light of their overall theories of action and explores how they dealt with test cases in different intellectualist and voluntarist frameworks (part 3). This way of reconstructing the whole debate, which locates it at the center of theories of action, makes clear that angels did in fact play a crucial role in philosophy, not just in theology.
Hoffmann is not the first to focus on the special place that was attributed to angels in scholastic debates about action. But he is the first to tell a comprehensive story that ranges from Anselm of Canterbury in the late eleventh century up to William of Ockham in the early fourteenth century. And he chooses a clear philosophical approach, such that his subtle reconstruction and discussion of key texts will appeal not just to medievalists but to all philosophers interested in problems concerning action. His study is innovative in at least three respects.
First, it sheds new light on well-known theories. This is most evident in the discussion of Aquinas's account of action. Aquinas is often considered an intellectualist who locates the source of freedom in intellectual judgments. In principle, Hoffmann agrees with this general line of interpretation (45). But he points out that there are limits to Aquinas's intellectualism that become visible in the account of angelic sinning. According to Aquinas's [End Page 340] mature treatment of this problem, angels do not commit a sin because of a false judgment; as cognitively perfect beings, they cannot make any error. Yet angels can deliberately ignore the divine order that should regulate all their actions. This is possible because they can use their will to steer their attention away from the divine order. In making this claim, Aquinas includes "a voluntarist dimension" (213) in his theory of action, as Hoffmann convincingly argues. This is true not just for angels, but also for human beings who can use their will to deliberately ignore certain aspects of the divine or mundane order when choosing an action. The analysis of angelic sinning illustrates this crucial point and thereby shows that Aquinas does not subscribe to an unrestricted intellectualist position.
Second, Hoffmann's study is also innovative because it includes a number of rather unknown authors who are often neglected in textbooks and standard histories of medieval philosophy. In fact, he shows that it is in these "minor authors" that one finds some of the most remarkable contributions to the debate. For instance, he carefully analyzes the exchange between John of Pouilly and Henry of Friemar, two early fourteenth-century philosophers. Pouilly claimed that rational beings can always control their actions because they can always...