On free will

“One of the principal parts of wisdom,” writes Descartes in Passions of the soul, “is to know why and in what form each of us should feel esteem or contempt for themselves, and I shall attempt here to share my opinion on the topic. I can only see one thing within us that would give right cause for esteem, that is, the use of our own free will, and the control that we exert over it. Because only such activities as depend on this free will can rightfully receive praise or blame, and because, in some manner, it makes us akin to God, by making us masters of ourselves, for as long as we do not lose the rights that it gives us through cowardice.”

Free will is the cornerstone of all virtue. Any moral judgement, whether about ourselves or others, should hold this as leading principle. Practicalities may bring forward layers of complexity. Symbolic violence, sociological determinations, brain chemistry, all affect our free will. But a radical attachment to Cartesian ethics can help even then. In such and such a context, whether symbolic, social, chemical, how did we choose to behave, within the latitude that our free will made possible? How did that behaviour impact on the situation, our own, and that of others, in the short and long term? Was another path available? Why, then, did we choose this particular course of action?

More importantly, Descartes articulates free will and courage. In any situation, we must ask, to what extent are external circumstances genuinely beyond our control, in the short and the long term? To what extent are we using them as a pretext in order to avoid responsibility? Complex casuistic might ensue, but the glowing core principle remains. It inquires, naggingly, of rich and poor alike, what did you do with your free will?

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