Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Philosophy Reformed Irenicism

The Four Degrees of Action (2)

I recently posted an excerpt from Niels Hemminsen’s “Theological Handbook” (Enchiridion theologicum) in which he analyzes the four “degrees” of action that are possible for man. He does this in the context of a discussion on free choice (liberum arbitrium) (n.b., not “free will”) in order to further analyze the freedom in those various types of action that is still possible for man after the Fall. This is useful, because it gives nuance and distinction in place of generalized claims that man has (or has not) “free will.”

Today I include the first part of his discussion of the first three degrees.1 Note the way in which Ovid is used to add rhetorical force to his philosophical point. Who said there has to be a war between philosophers and poets?

In the first degree of actions [i.e., those held in common with beasts] man has free choice. For he is able by the sense of nature to discern the actions of this degree; he is also able, by a natural impulse, to be carried along toward those things, nor are the powers in this part [of man] so shattered that they are unable to supply obedience to appetite.

In the second and third degrees [i.e., those of reason and “ecclesiastical works”], [men] are hindered by two things: the tyranny of the Devil and the weakness of their powers, and their judgment here is not so unimpaired, nor is their will [voluntas] so quick [to obey] as in the first type. Hence that remark of Medea: “I see the better things and I approve them; I follow the worse.”2 And experience bears witness to how weak men are, even in these external actions, and especially in those that touch upon each one’s vocation and that pertain to learning (ad disciplinam). Therefore, here both our weakness and the Devil’s tyranny must be acknowledged, and God must be beseeched to be present to us and help us, and not allow the Devil to rage against us according to his desire.3

  1. All translations, from pp. 72-3, are my own.
  2. video meliora proboque/deteriora sequor (Ovid, Metamorphoses 7.20-1.
  3. Cf. 1 Peter 5:8.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

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