On the Freedom of the Will


by Jonathan Edwards



Concerning Those Objections, That This Scheme Of Necessity Renders All Means and Endeavors For The Avoiding Of Sin, Or The Obtaining Virtue And Holiness, Vain And To No Purpose; And That It makes Men No More Than Mere Machines In Affairs Of Morality And Religion

Arminians say, if it be so, that sin and virtue come to pass by a necessity consisting in a sure connexion of causes and effects, antecedents and consequents, it can never be worth the while to use any means or endeavors to obtain the one, and avoid the other; seeing no endeavors can alter the futurity of the event, which is become necessary by a, connexion already established.

But I desire that this matter may be fully considered; and that it may be examined with a thorough strictness, whether it will follow, that endeavors and means, in order to avoid or obtain any future thing, must be more in vain, on the supposition of such a connexion of antecedents and consequents than if the contrary be supposed.

For endeavors to be in vain, is for them not to be successful; that is to say, for them not eventually to be the means of the thing aimed at, which cannot be but in one of these two ways; either, first, That although the means are used, yet the event aimed at does not follow; or, secondly, If the event does follow, it is not because of the means, or from any connexion or dependence of the event on the means: the event would have come to pass as well without the means as with them. If either of these two things is the case, then the means are not properly successful, and are truly in vain. The successfulness or unsuccessfulness of means, in order to an effect, or their being in vain or not in vain, consists in those means being connected or not connected with the effect, in such a manner as this, viz. that the effect is with the means, and not without them; or, that the being of the effect is, on the one band, connected with means, and the want of the effect, on the other hand, is connected with the want of the means. If there be such a connexion, as this between means and end, the means are not in vain; the more there is of such a connexion, the further they are from being in vain; and the less of such a connexion, the more they are in vain.

Now, therefore, the question to be answered, (in order to determine, whether it follows from this doctrine of the necessary connexion between foregoing things and consequent ones, that means used in order to any effect are more in vain than they would be otherwise), is, whether it follows from it that there is less of the aforementioned connexion between means and effect; that is, whether, on the supposition of there being a real and true connexion between means and effect, than on the supposition of there being no fixed connexion between antecedent things and consequent ones; and the very stating of this question is sufficient to answer it. It must appear to every one that will open his eyes, that this question cannot be affirmed without the grossest absurdity and inconsistence. Means are foregoing things, and effects are following things. And if there were no connexion between foregoing things and following ones, there could be no connexion between means and end; and so all means would be wholly vain and fruitless. For it is by virtue of some connexion only, that they become successful. It is some connexion observed or revealed, or otherwise known, between antecedent things and following ones, that is what directs in the choice of means. And if there were no such thing as an established connexion, there could be no choice as to means; one thing would have no more tendency to an effect than another; there would be no such thing as tendency in the case. All those things which are successful means of other things, do therein prove connected antecedents of them; and therefore, to assert that a fixed connexion between antecedents and consequents makes means vain and useless, or stands in the way to hinder the connexion between means and end, is just as ridiculous as to say, that a connexion between antecedents and consequents stands in the way to hinder a connexion between antecedents and consequents.

Nor can any supposed connexion of the succession or train of antecedents and consequents, from the very beginning of all things, the connexion being made already sure and necessary, either by established laws of nature, or by these together with a decree of sovereign immediate interpositions of Divine power, on such and such occasions, or any other way (if any other there be); I say, no such necessary connexion of a series of antecedents and consequents can in the least tend to hinder, but that the means we use may belong to the series; and so may be some of those antecedents which are connected with the consequents we aim at in the established course of things. Endeavors which we use, are things that exist; and therefore they belong to the general chain of events; all the parts of which chain are supposed to be connected; and so endeavors are supposed to be connected with some effects, or some consequent things or other. And certainly this does not hinder but that the events they are connected with, may be those which we aim at, and which we choose, because we judge them most likely to have a connexion with those events from the established order and course of things which we observe, or from something in Divine revelation.

Let us suppose a real and true connexion between a man's having his eyes open in the clear day-light, with good organs of sight, and seeing; so that seeing is connected with his opening his eyes, and not seeing with his not opening his eyes; and also the like connexion between such a man's attempting to open his eyes, and his actually doing it: the supposed established connexion between these antecedents and consequents, let the connexion be never so sure and necessary, certainly does not prove that it is in vain for a man in such circumstances to attempt to open his eyes, in order to seeing: his aiming at that event, and the use of the means, being the effect of his will, does not break the connexion, or hinder the success.

So that the objection we are upon does not lie against the doctrine of the necessity of events by a certainty of connexion and consequence; on the contrary, it is truly forcible against the Arminian doctrine of contingence and self-determination; which is inconsistent with such a connexion. If there be no connexion between those events wherein virtue and vice consist, and any thing antecedent; then there is no connexion between these events and any means or endeavors used in order to them; and if so, then those means must be in vain. The less there is of connexion between foregoing things and following ones, so much the less there is between means and end, endeavors and success; and in the same proportion are means and endeavors ineffectual and in vain.

It will follow from Arminian principles that there is no degree of connexion between virtue or vice, and any foregoing event or thing; or, in other words, that the determination of the existence of virtue or vice does not in the least depend on the influence of any thing that comes to pass antecedently, from which the determination of its existence is, as its cause, means, or ground; because so far as it is so, it is not from self-determination; and, therefore, so far there is nothing of the nature of virtue or vice. And so it follows, that virtue and vice are not at all, in any degree, dependent upon, or connected with, any foregoing event or existence, as its cause, ground, or means. And if so, then all foregoing means must be totally in vain.

Hence it follows, that there cannot, in any consistence with the Arminian scheme, be any reasonable ground of so much as a conjecture concerning the consequence of any means and endeavors, in order to escaping vice, or obtaining virtue, or any choice or preference of means, as having a greater probability of success by some than others; either from any natural connexion or dependence of the end on the means, or through any divine constitution, or revealed way of God's bestowing or bringing to pass these things, in consequence of any means, endeavors, prayers, or deeds. Conjectures in this latter ease, depend on a supposition, that God himself is the giver, or determining cause, of the events sought; but if they depend on self-determination, then God is not the determining or disposing author of them; and if these things are not of his disposal, then no conjecture can be made, frown any revelation he has given, concerning any way or method of his disposal of them.

Yea, on these principles, it will not only follow, that men cannot have any reasonable ground of judgment or conjecture that their means and endeavors to obtain virtue, or avoid vice, will be successful, but they may be sure they will not; they may be certain that they will be in vain; and that if ever the thing, which they seek, comes to pass, it will not be at all owing to the means they use. For means and endeavors can have no effect at all, in order to obtain the end, but in one of those two ways; either (1.) Through a natural tendency and influence to prepare and dispose the mind more to virtuous acts, either by causing the disposition of the heart to be more in favor of such acts, or by bringing the mind more into the view of powerful motives and inducements; or, (2) By putting persons more in the way of God's bestowment of the benefit. But neither of these can be the case. Not the latter; for, as has been just observed, it does not consist with the Arminian notion of self-determination, which they suppose essential to virtue, that God should be the bestower, or (which is the same thing) the determining disposing author of virtue. Not the form; for natural influence and tendency supposes causality and connexion, and supposes necessity of event, which is inconsistent with Arminian liberty. A tendency of means, by biasing the heart in favor of virtue, or by bringing the will under the influence and power of motives in its determinations, are both inconsistent with Arminian liberty of will, consisting in indifference, and sovereign self-determination, as has been largely demonstrated.

But for the more full removal of this prejudice against the doctrine of necessity, which has been maintained, as though it tended to encourage a total neglect of all endeavors as vain; the following things may be considered: --

The question is not, Whether men may not thus improve this doctrine,-- we know that many true and wholesome doctrines are abused; but, whether the doctrine gives any just occasion for such an improvement; or whether, on the supposition of the truth of the doctrine, such a use of it would be unreasonable? If any shall affirm, that it would not, but that the very nature of the doctrine is such as gives just occasion for it, it must be on this supposition; namely, that such an invariable necessity of all things already settled, must render the interposition of all means, endeavors, conclusions, or actions of ours, in order to the obtaining any future end whatsoever, perfectly insignificant; because they cannot in the least alter or vary the course and series of things, in any event or circumstance; all being already fixed unutterably by necessity; and that therefore it is folly for men to use any means for any end; but their wisdom to save themselves the trouble of endeavors, and take their ease. No person can draw such all inference from this doctrine, and come to such a conclusion, without contradicting himself, and going counter to the very principles he pretends to act upon; for he comes to a conclusion and takes a course, in order to an end, even his case, or the saving himself from trouble he seeks something future, and uses means in order to a future thing, even in his drawing up that conclusion, that he will seek nothing, and use no means in order to any thing in future; he seeks his future ease, and the benefit and comfort of indolence. If prior necessity, that determines all things, makes vain, all actions or conclusions of ours, in order to any thing future; then it makes vain all conclusions and conduct of ours, in order to our future ease. The measure of our ease, with the time, manner, and every circumstance of it, is already fixed, by all-determining necessity, as much as any thing else. If he says within himself, "What future happiness or misery I shall have, is already, in effect, determined by the necessary course and connexion of things; therefore, I will save myself the trouble of labor and diligence which cannot add to my determined degree of happiness, or diminish my misery; but will take my ease, and will enjoy the comfort of sloth and negligence," -- such a man contradicts himself; he says, the measure of his future happiness and misery is already fixed, and he will not try to diminish the one, nor add to the other; but yet, in his very conclusion, he contradicts this; for, he takes up this conclusion, to add to his future happiness, by the ease and comfort of his negligence, and to diminish his future trouble and misery by saving himself the trouble of using means and taking pains.

Therefore, persons cannot reasonably make this improvement of the doctrine of necessity, that they will go into a voluntary negligence of means for their own happiness. For the principles they must go upon, in order to this, are inconsistent with their making any improvement at all of the doctrine; for to make some improvement of it, is to be influenced by it, to come to some voluntary conclusion, in regard to their own conduct, with some view or aim; but this, as has been shown, is inconsistent with the principles they pretend to act upon. In short, the principles are such as cannot be acted upon at all, or, in any respect, consistently. And therefore, in every pretense of acting upon them, or making any improvement at all of them, there is a self-contradiction.

As to that objection against the doctrine, which I have endeavored to prove, that it makes men no more than mere machines; I would say, that notwithstanding this doctrine, man is entirely, perfectly, and unspeakably different from a mere machine, in that he has reason and understanding, and has a faculty of will, and is so capable of volition and choice; and in that his will is guided by the dictates or views of his understanding; and in that his external actions and behavior, and in many respects also his thoughts, and the exercises of his mind, are subject to his will; so that he has liberty to act according to his choice, and do what he pleases; and, by means of these things, is capable of moral habits and moral acts, such inclinations and actions, as, according to the common sense of mankind, are worthy of praise, esteem, love, and reward; or, on the contrary, of disesteem, detestation, indignation, and punishment.

In these things is all the difference from mere machines, as to liberty and agency, that would be any perfection, dignity, or privilege, in any respect; all the difference that can be desired, and all that can be conceived of; and indeed all that the pretensions of the Arminians themselves come to, as they are forced often to explain themselves. (Though their explications overthrow and abolish the things asserted, and pretended to be explained,) For they are forced to explain a self-determining power of will, by a power in the soul to determine as it chooses or wills; which comes to no more than this, that a man has a power of choosing, and in many instances, can do as he chooses,-- which is quite a different thing from that contradiction, his having power of choosing his first act of choice in the case.

Or, if their scheme makes any other difference than this between men and machines, it is for the worse; it is so far from supposing men to have a dignity and privilege above machines, that it makes the manner of their being determined still more unhappy. Whereas machines are guided by an understanding cause, by the skillful hand of the workman or owner; the will of man is left to the guidance of nothing but absolute blind contingence.

Text scanned and edited by Michael Bremmer

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