Authored by: Cyrille Michon

The Routledge Companion to Medieval Philosophy

Print publication date:  January  2021
Online publication date:  January  2021

Print ISBN: 9780415658270
eBook ISBN: 9781315709604
Adobe ISBN:


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What is the concept of will and when did it appear? Dihle (1982) assigned it to Augustine and his biblical roots; other scholars have defended an earlier origin: with the Stoics (Voelke 1973) or with Aristotle (Irwin 1992), or a later one: with Maximus the Confessor (Gauthier 1954). Recently, Sorabji (2003) has confirmed Dihle’s diagnostic, while Charles Kahn (1988) took the ecumenical view of a progressive constitution through all those steps. One might also deny that there is one concept of will and trace back our different notions to different origins (Bourke 1964). But, whatever one thinks of the unity and the origins of the concept or concepts of will, it seems undeniable that in medieval Latin thought, the word voluntas is commonly used as a very broad concept to mean an act and/or a faculty of the rational soul (or of the soul of rational creatures), appropriately attributed to pure spirits and to God. In the Middle Ages, two meta-processes are at play, not necessarily with the same force and path: one of unification and one of promotion. The Augustinian tradition dominates first and then merges with the Aristotelian conception of action, leading to Aquinas’s synthesis. We will see reasons for attributing a major influence to the elaboration of the concept of will on an Augustinian basis in the eleventh and twelfth centuries (the section “The Augustinian Tradition”), and then reasons for acknowledging Aquinas’s effort to synthesize the most relevant elements concerning human action (the section “The Aristotelian Synthesis of Thomas Aquinas”). But it can also be argued that a major shift occurred with the clash between most theologians and Aristotelianism at the end of the thirteenth century. The will and its freedom at that time were promoted against and above reason in a very conscious process. If one adopts as a concept of will that of a power free and active by itself, capable to adjudicate between different options and different desires by its own act (volition), then there is a case for the thesis that such a concept was fully elaborated by the voluntarist thinkers, mostly Franciscans, of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries (the section “The Clash”).

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