Book Review — Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson is the author’s memoir chronicling the stories of clients he represented when no one else would (perhaps when no one thought they could). Published in 2014 by Spiegel & Grau, the book paints a compelling narrative and highlights many of the problems that plague the American justice system today.

The troubling and lingering influences of racial bias, poverty, and mental illness are issues that the criminal justice system needs to face head-on and work to resolve now as much as ever. It’s clear just from Stevenson’s relatively short account in this book that much progress has been made, but it is equally clear that much remains yet to be done. Many Americans, however, have probably not really wrestled with the problems to which Stevenson draws attention. Whether that full accounting simply gets lost in a crowd of other issues or is drowned in the flood of the 24-hour news cycle, Just Mercy is the kind of medicine (strong, at times) that the average Americans needs. I highly recommend it.


There are two reasons, however, that I cannot find full agreement with Stevenson.

First, although it would be difficult to write a book of this sort without the author injecting some of his political opinions, Stevenson does so unnecessarily on a number of occasions (as, for instance, when he refers to infant mortality rates in the United States as compared to other countries without putting those statistics in context). When issues as weighty as the systemic problems with the imposition and application of the death penalty are the topic, partisan political swipes (even as relatively sparse as they are in this book) have no place, I think. Which political party may be most to blame (aside from being a question with no perfect answer), really does very little to work toward a resolution of those kinds of issues, but rather puts people on the defensive and impedes progress. For as much as Stevenson rightfully decries prejudices that cause people to be treated as members of a group rather than as individuals, the few occasions on which he swiped at political opponents with a broad brush were jarring.

Secondly, and  more importantly, is the concept of “just mercy” itself. Justice, by definition, is getting what one deserves. Mercy, by contrast, is a withholding of justice and can never be deserved or it would not be mercy. So, in fact, what Stevenson argues for (and he makes a compelling case, no doubt) is really just plain mercy or plain justice, not the “just mercy” that forms the premise of his book. It was an injustice to imprison people for crimes they did not commit; releasing them was an act of justice. To call it an act of mercy is to do a disservice to those people by implying that their release, as an act of mercy, was not something that they really deserved. Perhaps Stevenson would acknowledge the distinction between the concepts, but if he does so, that is not entirely clear from his book.

It is especially important for Christians to distinguish between the concept of justice and the idea of mercy. Writing in a similar vein, Jacob Brunton pointed out the problem with making an “equivocation between charity and justice.”

Remember that I said charity is a picture of the gospel? That’s why it’s such an important practice for the Church: it demonstrates the grace of God. Now, ask yourself this: if charity is a picture of the grace of God in the gospel, then what message are we sending about the grace of God, and about the gospel, when we preach that charity is deserved? Answer: We are teaching that God’s grace is, likewise, deserved. When we teach that we owe money to the poor, we are teaching that God owed us the cross. When we teach that the poor deserve monetary assistance, we are teaching that we deserved what Christ accomplished for us. When we teach that “economic justice” consists of giving to those in need, we are teaching that divine justice consists of the same — and the inevitable result is a grace-less universalism in which everyone gets all the blessings of heaven, because they need it. You cannot pervert the meaning of justice in “society” or in the “economy,” and not expect it to bleed over into theology. You cannot have one standard of justice in Church on Sunday morning, and another for the world the rest of the week.

I think the same holds true for the meaning of “mercy.” The stories Stevenson tells and the problems he addresses are ones that Christians should know about and should do something about to the extent that they can. At the same time, Christians must be vigilant to guard against anything that would distort or dilute the message of the Gospel.


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Puritanical Self-Interest

Self-denial is a topic I’ve discussed in this space before and a related topic would be self-interest. For a primer on the Biblical basis for rational self-interest see what Cody Libolt wrote here. He and Jacob Brunton also discuss the topic of holy self-interest in a little more depth on an episode of their podcast, For the New Christian Intellectual. They more than ably lay a foundation for the idea that rational self-interest is an important concept for Christians not only to understand, but also to embrace.

What I want to do here is show that their ideas are not new. In fact, the idea of a holy self-interest rooted in the character of God himself and based on the Bible is one that can be found in some unexpected places. Hence the title of this post.

Sadly,  the most that many people know about the Puritans consists what they remember from reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter in literature class, or, perhaps, Arthur Miller’s stage play The Crucible.  In these and other works, Puritans tend to be represented as one-dimensional figures who are characterized by their sour and prudish disposition. Popular misconceptions of the Puritans were probably best summed up by the famous American writer H. L. Mencken who gave this definition: “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”


Lillian Gish portrays Hester Prynne in the 1926 silent film version of The Scarlett Letter.

One might be left with the notion that the main goal of the Puritans was the repression of desire. However, if we let the Puritans speak for themselves what we find is quite different from the popular literary caricature.

First, consider the writing of one Puritan, John Owen. He lived from 1616-1683 and was periodically a chaplain to Oliver Cromwell who ruled England after the beheading of King Charles I. In his book The Death of Death in the Death of Christ Owen wrote:

His [God’s] Autarkeia, or self-sufficiency, will not allow that he should do any thing with an ultimate respect to any thing but himself. . . . God desireth nothing, neither is there any thing desirable to him, but only for himself. To suppose a good desirable to God for its own sake is intolerable.
Here we see in John Owen’s writing the very concept of a holy self-interest noted in the beginning of this post. God is all-powerful and is sufficient for all of his own purposes; he does not need anything from anyone. That does not mean that God has no desires, but that he fulfills all of his own desires. God, as Jacob Brunton puts it, “is the Ultimate Egoist, doing absolutely all that He does for the sake of enjoying His own greatness. — Psalm 115:3.” Perhaps John Owen might not have used the word “egoist,” but he clearly recognizes the same concept.

Thomas Watson (1620-1686)


Another Puritan worth noting on this topic is Thomas Watson.  He lived from 1620-1686, was a pastor at a church in London, and was briefly imprisoned for his association with a plot to restore Charles II as king. In his work The Godly Man’s Picture, he wrote the following about prayer:

Prayers which lack a good aim–lack a good answer. A godly man has spiritual goals in prayer. He sends out his prayer as a merchant sends out his ship, so that he may have large returns of spiritual blessings. His design in prayer is that his heart may be more holy and that he may have more communion with God. A godly man engages in the trade of prayer– so that he may increase the stock of grace.

In the absence of desires, what would be the point of prayer? In fact, the concept of prayer presupposes a person with desires. Clearly, a group of people like the Puritans who placed great emphasis on prayer cannot be against desires as such. Watson not only shares the presupposition that prayer requires desire, but says that the truly godly person should pray with his own benefit in mind, “so that he may increase his stock of grace.” Furthermore, consider how Jesus taught his followers to pray:

Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.

According to Jesus, a significant part of prayer is asking God for things: “give us, forgive us, lead us, etc.

On this topic of self-interest, Jonathan Edwards deserves special mention. Technically, historians might not consider him a Puritan. He was an American pastor and philosopher, who lived from 1703-1758, and is probably best known for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” I put him alongside the Puritans because he had so much in common with them from a theological standpoint. In addition, his efforts in what later became known as the Great Awakening were aimed at purifying the American church which had lost its roots in ways very similar to what the English Puritans experienced in the generations before Edwards.




Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)


In his work Charity and Its Fruits Edwards wrote the following:

It is not a thing contrary to Christianity that a man should love himself, or, which is the same thing, should love his own happiness. If Christianity did indeed tend to destroy a man’s love to himself, and to his own happiness, it would therein tend to destroy the very spirit of humanity; but the very announcement of the gospel, as a system of peace on earth and goodwill toward men (Luke 2:14), shows that it is not only not destructive of humanity, but in the highest degree promotive of its spirit. That a man should love his own happiness, is as necessary to his nature as the faculty of the will is; and it is impossible that such a love should be destroyed in any other way than by destroying his being. The saints love their own happiness. Yea, those that are perfect in happiness, the saints and angels in heaven, love their own happiness; otherwise that happiness which God hath given them would be no happiness to them; for that which anyone does not love he cannot enjoy any happiness in.

Jacob Brunton has a very helpful commentary on this passage from Edwards in his post “Jonathan Edwards on Egoism.”

However, at this point someone might say “What about I Corinthians 13:5?” That verse says that “Charity . . . seeketh not her own.” Because Edwards, despite his brilliance, did not write under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the same way that the Apostle Paul did, his conclusions must be judged against the truths of Scripture.

Christians can rest assured that there is no contradiction with Scripture here because, in fact, Charity and Its Fruits is Edwards’ series of lectures on the entirety of I Corinthians 13. The quote above is from the beginning of the lecture in which Edwards discussed verse 5, the very phrase that might give Christians pause about the idea of self-interest. Before he goes on to explain what “seeketh not her own” means for the Christian, Edwards gave an explanation of what it did not mean. He was emphatic that it did not mean that a Christian should shun his own happiness, his own self-interest. In other words, not only is Christianity not opposed to man “loving his own happiness,” but, as Jacob Brunton pointed out, Jonathan Edwards “implicitly condemns [anyone who supports that idea] as a destroyer of mankind.”

Finally, I want to draw attention to Richard Baxter, a pastor and author of theological works who lived from 1615-1691. He was, at one time, imprisoned for unlawful religious assembly apart from the Church of England. In his work, The Saint’s Everlasting Rest, he wrote:

[God’s] glorifying himself and the saving of his people are not two decrees with God, but one decree, to glorify his mercy in their salvation, though we may say that one is the end of the other: so I think they should be with us together indeed.

Coming back to the original point about self-interest being rooted in God’s holy character, we can see that even in the case of God’s saving his chosen people God ultimately does so for his own sake and for his own glory. Christians benefit from God’s act of redemption tremendously, “Nevertheless He saved them for the sake of His name, That He might make His power known.” Psalm 106:8.

I hope these examples are enough to at least cause readers to reconsider their perceptions of who the Puritans were and what they really believed. In contrast to the dreary, joyless picture of Puritans painted elsewhere, this group has much to teach Christians today and I have found their writings a great source of encouragement.

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The First and Last Thing I’ll Ever Write About Joel Osteen

No television preacher’s name likely evokes more visceral reactions than Joel Osteen’s. Some love his style of preaching while others denounce him (Google Christian rapper Shai Linne’s Fal$e Teacher$ for one example). I have to admit that until fairly recently I had never really paid very close attention to what Osteen said or wrote. Recognizing that it would be unfair of me to come to any conclusions about what he believes without letting the man speak for himself, a few years ago I checked out two of his books from the local library, Become a Better You and Every Day a Friday.

I started writing this note back then and had thoughts of doing a series of posts, pointing out both the good and the bad from Osteen’s works.  Brutal honesty time: I really couldn’t get into his books. I read the first few chapters of Become a Better You, but I just gave up after a while.  Aside from any theological issues, I just found the book repetitive and not engaging.  Those are issues of personal preference, however, and I certainly don’t hold those against Osteen or those who find value in his writing.


Be that as it may, the few paragraphs below are more along the lines of what I wanted to write about.  I don’t intend to read any of Osteen’s books in the future nor do I intend to spend very much time (if any) trying to discern whether his teaching is biblical or helpful.  I’ll leave that to others who can do it more effectively and who have the time to devote to it.

In the first few pages of Become a Better You I came across the following passage. I quote it at some length here to provide context.  The emphasis is in the original.

Too many people don’t have the confidence and self-esteem they should because they’re constantly dwelling on negative thoughts about themselves. I don’t say this arrogantly, but in my mind, all day long I try to remind myself: I am anointed. I am creative. I am talented. I am successful. I have the favor of God. People like me. I’m a victor and not a victim.

Try it! If you go around thinking those kinds of thoughts, low self-esteem, lack of confidence, or inferiority won’t have a chance with you. Throw your shoulders back, put a smile on your face, and be looking for opportunities to stretch into the next level.

Back in the Garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve at the forbidden fruit, they hid. In the cool of the day, God came to them and said. “Adam, Eve, where are your?”

They said, “God, we’re hiding because we are naked.”

I love the way God answered them. He said, “Adam, who told you that you were naked?” In other words, “Who told you that something was wrong with you?” God immediately knew that the enemy had been talking to them.

God is saying to you today, “Who told you that you don’t have what it takes to succeed? Who told you that the best grades you could make in school would be C’s rather than A’s? Who told you that you are not attractive enough to succeed in your personal relationships or talented enough to flourish in your career? Who told you that your marriage is never going to last?

Those paragraphs come from the first chapter of the book entitled “Stretching to the Next Level.”  The focus of the chapter should be obvious from the excerpt above: don’t let what other people tell you about yourself (negative thoughts) overshadow who you are as a child of God (at least that’s the best way I can think of to summarize Osteen’s writing).  As far as that statement goes, it’s unobjectionable and, I think, is not inconsistent with Scripture.

In the passage above, however, after some reflection, I think there are two problems.  At first blush, the Scripture passage to which Osteen refers seems to support his general point about rejecting negative thoughts put in one’s mind by someone else.  But upon closer examination, I think that Osteen has divorced this particular story from its context (perhaps dangerously so).

Indeed, God did pose the question to “Adam, who told you that you were naked?” (Gen. 3:11).  Osteen’s next sentences, however, are where I think he goes astray.  First of all, looking back a few verses we see that Adam and Eve “realized they were naked.”  (Gen. 3:7 NIV).  So the answer to the question God posed was not, as Osteen seems to imply, that the serpent (“the enemy”) had told them they were naked; rather Adam and Eve came to understand it on their own. Failing to read Scripture in context is an error.  It’s an error that’s rampant, of course, and each of us has our favorite verses to which we resort with little or no regard for the context.  To that extent, I can’t fault Osteen more than anyone else for making the same mistake that I’ve made on more occasions than I can probably even remember. Nevertheless, the error seems pretty clear in this instance.

The second and more significant problem with this passage from Osteen’s book is that the error is not harmless. Osteen suggests that God, as he did with the first people, asks each of us, “Who told you that something was wrong with you?”  His line of reasoning is that people should reject negative thoughts about themselves and focus instead on telling themselves things like, “I am successful. I have the favor of God. People like me.

Here’s the problem with using the passage about Adam and Eve to make that point: there was something wrong with Adam and Eve.  They had sinned, thereby requiring God to separate Himself from His creation.  Even if God meant to ask them “Who told you that something was wrong with you?” there can be no doubt that He certainly did not mean to imply that there was nothing wrong with them.

Osteen thus obscures the source of the first human beings’ sense that something was not right with them.  Removing sin from the story is, I think, the most harmful error one could possibly make.  To the extent that people today sometimes feel that something is missing from their lives or that something is wrong with them they are correct.  The only solution to that problem is salvation.  Absent a recognition of one’s sin nature and repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ there is no salvation.

Encouraging Christians with truths about the standing they enjoy with God because of Jesus’ work is one thing.  That seems to be the basis on which some defend the tone and content of Osteen’s preaching.  Confusing the lost by obscuring the effects of sin is indefensible for anyone who claims to be preaching the true Gospel.  Non-Christians very well may leave a service at Lakewood Church feeling better about themselves, but if they don’t come away with a clear understanding of their own sin and their need for repentance they have been deceived and they are likely much worse off than they were before.

That, I think, is the danger of the teaching of Joel Osteen and others like him.  I don’t doubt his sincerity and he does seem to be a genuinely happy person.  It is possible, however, to be very sincere, but, at the same time, to be sincerely wrong.

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A Time Management Tip from a Puritan Minister


Jeremiah Burroughs, c. 1600 –  November 13, 1646

What can we learn from the Puritans about the frenetic pace of modern life? Most would probably assume that their world and ours are so different that nothing they had to say could have much relevance for present-day followers of Christ. I think, however, that we should not be so quick to jump to that conclusion. Consider the following excerpt from Jeremiah Burroughs’ work The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment:


By murmuring and discontent in your hearts, you come to lose a great deal of time. How many times do men and women, when they are discontented, let their thoughts run, and are musing and contriving, through their present discontentedness and let their discontented thoughts work in them for some hours together, and they spend their time in vain! When you are alone you should spend your time in holy meditation, but you are spending your time in discontented thoughts. You complain that you cannot meditate, you cannot think on good things, but if you begin to think of them a little, soon your thoughts are off from them. But if you are discontented with anything, then you can go alone, and muse, and roll things up and down in your thoughts to feed a discontented humor. Oh, labor to see this evil effect of murmuring, the losing of your time

The Puritans, of course, could never have known anything of our technological advancements, but we can still learn from them because God never changes and because fallen human nature remains the same as well. If anything, modern Christians (especially those in the United States and other wealthy countries) are more susceptible to murmuring than the average Englishman of the 1600s. We have so many more distractions that the ways in which we can come to be discontent and prone to murmuring are almost without end.

What if we took Burroughs’ advice? What if we took all the time we spend thinking about things we think we ought to have or afflictions we think we should not have to bear and instead spent that time worshipping God and thinking on whatever is true and lovely and of a good report? (Philippians 4:8) I can’t help but wonder how much more productive we can be for the cause of Christ if we could rid ourselves of murmuring. We modern American Christians claim (murmur?) about how busy our lives are, but how much of that busyness could we shed merely by being content with God?


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What Does Inability Mean? (On Freedom of the Will, Part I Section 4b)

On Freedom of the Will Index page

Online version of Freedom of the Will

The previous explanation of natural and moral Necessity may also shed light on the concepts of natural and moral Inability. Someone would be naturally unable to do something when he cannot do it because nature does not allow it or because of some “obstacle that is extrinsic to the Will; either in the Faculty of understanding, constitution of body, or external objects.” However, none of those things constitutes moral Inability, which may be defined simply as a want of inclination.

Some examples of moral Inability are the following. A person “of great honor and chastity may have a moral Inability” to engage in prostitution. A child who is devoted to and truly loves his parents may be morally unable to kill his father. “A very malicious man may be unable to exert benevolent acts to an enemy.” Strength of virtue and a great degree of holiness may result in one’s being morally unable to “love wickedness in general.” On the other hand, the strength of one’s habitual wickedness may make him unable to “love and choose holiness.” Such a person may be “utterly unable to love an infinitely holy Being, or to choose and cleave to him as his chief good.”


Saul Attacking David by Guercino

Regarding this idea of moral Inability, I think it is useful to draw a distinction between the general/habitual and the particular/occasional. A general/habitual moral Inability is “an Inability in the heart to all exercises or acts of the will of that kind.” Thus, a person “whose heart is habitually void of gratitude” may be unable to show gratitude through his actions. By contrast, a particular/occasional moral Inability is an Inability relating to a particular act at a particular point in time. If it is true that “the Will is always determined by the strongest motive,” it follows that the will is always unable (a particular/occasional Inability) to “act otherwise than it does.” It is not possible for the Will to “go against the motive which has now, all things considered, the greatest advantage to induce it.”


The second of these kinds of moral Inability is commonly referred to simply as “Inability.” because the word’s original meaning related “to some stated defect.” In addition, as we noted before, Inability is most commonly used as a relative term; it relates to a will and endeavor that is “insufficient to bring to pass the thing desired and endeavored.” Whether occasional or habitual, a will and endeavor against present acts of the will cannot even be supposed; “that would be to suppose the Will, as present, to be otherwise than, at present, it is.” There conceivably could be, however, will and endeavor “against future acts of the Will.” There is no contradiction in saying that acts of the Will at one time “may be against the acts of the Will at another time.” One might desire to prevent a future act of the Will, but that desire might be overcome by the strength of a fixed habit. “In this respect, a man may be in miserable slavery and bondage to a strong habit.” On the other hand, it may be much easier to prevent future acts that “are only occasional and transient.” In this way, the moral Inability associated with fixed habits “especially obtains the name of Inability.” So just as the will may, in this sense, resist itself in vain, reason may resist a present act of the Will, although its resistance may be insufficient.

Again, with each kind of moral Inability, the word “Inability” is being used very differently from its original meaning. The word refers to a natural Inability, those cases where it can be supposed a person is inclined to do an act, but is unable. Under the ordinary definition, we cannot say that “a malicious man . . . cannot hold his hand from striking.” Strictly speaking, a man is able to do something “if he has it in his choice, or at his election”; we would not say that a man cannot do a thing “when he can do it if he will.” It is incorrect to say that someone is unable to do a thing (something that depends on an act of the Will) that “would be easily performed if the act of the Will were present.” It would be even worse to say that he is unable to “exert the acts of the Will themselves.” That would be a contradiction; to say “he cannot will, if he does will.” Therefore, we should not attribute non-performance to a lack of power or ability. What is lacking is not ability, but one’s being willing. A person may understand, and have the natural ability and everything else necessary, except a disposition. The only thing missing is a will.

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The Distinction Between Natural & Moral Necessity (On Freedom of the Will Part I, Section 4a)

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Section IV.

Of the distinction of natural and moral Necessity, and Inability.

The Necessity which has been explained above can be distinguished into more and natural Necessity. I will not delve into whether this distinction is a perfect one, but this is how the terms are understood and it is how I will use them below.

Moral Necessity is used in different ways. We use it to mean the Necessity of moral obligation, as when a person “is under bonds and duty of conscience from which he cannot be discharged.” Sometimes moral Necessity refers to “that Necessity of connexion and consequence” that arises from moral causes, such as the strength of inclination or motives, and the connections between those and “such certain volitions and actions. This is the sense in which I will be using the phrase “moral necessity.”

As applied to men, I define natural necessity as the Necessity we are “under through the force of natural causes” as opposed to moral causes, e.g., “habits and dispositions of the heart, and moral motives and inducements.” Thus, in certain situations, men experience particular things by Necessity: “they feel pain when their bodies are wounded;” they see things in a clear light when their eyes are opened; they acknowledge a truth as soon as they understand the terms (such as 2+2=4 or that parallel lines never intersect); “so by a natural Necessity men’s bodies move downwards, when their is nothing to support them.”

Note the following things about these two kinds of Necessity:

1. “Moral Necessity may be as absolute as natural Necessity.” Moral cause and effect may be just as perfectly connected as any natural cause and effect. Regardless of whether the Will is always “necessarily determined by the strongest motive,” anyone would accept, I think, that in some cases the motive is so strong “that the act of the will may be certainly and indissolubly connected therewith.” When a motive or bias is very powerful, it is generally accepted that it is difficult to go against them (and the difficulty increases in direct proportion to the power of the motive). At a certain point, the difficulty could become so great as to be insurmountable. Men have some power to overcome difficulties, but that power is not infinite; rather it has limits. Because it must be allowed that there can be a perfect connection between moral cause and effect, “so this only is what I call by the name of moral Necessity.”


2. Just because I distinguish between these kinds of necessity (moral vs. natural), that does not mean that if something comes to pass by moral necessity, “the nature of things is not concerned in it. I do not mean to say that when an act of the Will “infallibly follows” an insurmountable motive, “this is not owing to the nature of things.” Nevertheless, “natural” and “moral” are how these two kinds of Necessity have usually been distinguished and they must be distinguished somehow because there is a difference between them that has important consequences. The difference consists more “in the two terms connected” than in the nature of the connection. The cause of the effect “is of a particular kind,” namely something of a moral nature, “some previous habitual disposition, or some motive exhibited to the understanding.” Likewise, the effect is something of a moral nature, some “volition of the soul, or voluntary action.”

I suppose that natural necessity is so called “because mere nature,” as that word is commonly used, is not concerned with choice. “Nature” is often used “in opposition to choice” not because nature never has anything to do with our choice, but probably because our first notion of nature comes from our observation of things in which our choice plays no part. This is especially true with respect to the material world, in which we easily perceive “a settled course” or “manner or succession.” However, where we do not easily recognize “the rule and connexion” (although the connection truly exists) we refer to that sort of thing as something other than “nature.” Even some things in the material world that do not obviously occur “according to any settled course” are not called “nature,” but rather accident, chance, contingence, etc. Men distinguish between nature and choice “as if they were completely and universally distinct.” But I suppose it must be acknowledged that in many cases choice “arises from nature, as truly as other events.” It is not always obvious, however, how acts of choice and their causes are connected “according to established laws.” Choice appears to us to be a departure from the established order of things, showing itself most obviously in “corporeal things.” Choice also tends to “alter the chance of events” and causes them to go forward differently that they would have if left alone. “Hence it is spoken of as if it were a principle or notion entirely distinct from nature and properly set in opposition to it.”

3. Note that in explaining my term “moral Necessity,” the word Necessity is not used in its “original design and meaning.” As explained already, terms such as necessary, impossible, etc., as commonly used, are always relative; they always assume some “voluntary opposition . .  that is insufficient.” With moral Necessity, however, no such opposition can be assumed because it “is a certainty of the . . . will itself.” It is absurd to imagine an individual will opposing itself in its present act, just as it would be absurd “to talk of two contrary motions, in the same moving body, at the same time.”

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More Thoughts on Necessity (On Freedom of the Will Part I, Section 3b)

On Freedom of the Will Index page

Online version of Freedom of the Will

Section III (continued)

Concerning the meaning of the terms, Necessity, Impossibility, Inability, &c. and of Contingence.

I will now try to show that necessity is not inconsistent with liberty. Before proceeding, however, I will give my definition of the word “necessity.” What I mean when I use the term is the complete and certain connection between the subject and predicate of a given proposition.

“The subject and predicate of a proposition, which affirms the existence of something, may have a full, fixed, and certain connection several ways.”

(1.) The full and perfect connection may be inherent in the nature of the things themselves and any supposition to the contrary would be a contradiction or “gross absurdity.” For instance, “the eternal existence of being” is necessary in itself; it would be the “greatest absurdity” to deny the existence of being (would space allow, this could be shown to be “the sum of all contradictions”). The attributes of God, including his infinity, are, in this same sense, necessary. It is also necessary in itself that 2+2=4 and that all lies extending from the center of a circle to its edge are equal in length. Other metaphysical and mathematical truths are necessary in themselves: “the subject and predicate of the proposition which affirm them, are perfectly connected of themselves.”

(2.) The certainty of connection may come from the fact that the thing “is already come to pass” and has been “made sure of existence.” Therefore, a claim that acknowledges both present and past existence of it, is, in that way, made unalterably true. The “existence of whatever is already come to pass, is now become necessary.”

(3.) The connection might also be necessary as a consequence of something that is necessary in one of the ways discussed above [i.e., in previous posts]. This type of necessity hinges on the connection of two or more propositions with each other. Something that is “perfectly connected” with something that is already established as necessary is necessary “by a Necessity of consequence.”

It is only in this last sense that we can call something in the future necessary. It cannot be inherently necessary in itself, or else it would already exist. Likewise, for anything in the past (except those which were from eternity) this is the only sense in which they “could be necessary before they came to pass.” Therefore, this is the only way that any effect or event (anything that had, in the past, a beginning or will have one in the future) “has come into being necessarily. This is the Necessity we must focus on in questions about the acts of the will.

Furthermore we can distinguish between general and particular Necessity. A thing’s existence falls under general Necessity when “there is a foundation for the certainty of their existence” or where there is a complete and certain connection between “the subject and predicate of the proposition which affirms its existence.”

Something is necessary with particular Necessity when there is nothing that can affect the certainty of an event or the existence of a thing. With a particular Necessity nothing “can be of any account at all, in determining the infallibility of the connection of the subject and predicate in the proposition which affirms the existence of things.” So there are things that happen to particular people despite the fact that (at least at that time) their will does not affect its existence. Regardless of whether such things carry a general Necessity, yet they are necessary to those particular people “as they prevent all acts of the will about the affair.” It may be true that the same thing is necessary both in the general sense and in the particular sense, but that does not alter the case for drawing this distinction in the first place.

All of this should be sufficient for explaining how the terms “necessary” and “Necessity” are used as terms of art by metaphysicians and others. They assign a more extensive definition that either the original meanings or common usages of those words.

What I have said to explain “necessary” and “necessity” may also be sufficient for explaining the opposite terms: impossible and impossibility. The only difference is that the former are positive while the latter are negative. Impossibility is negative necessity or “a Necessity that a thing should not be.” It is also used as a term of art, distinct from its original, common meaning.

The same can be said for the words “unable” and “inability.” It has been pointed out that these words were originally used in relation to will and endeavor and as falling short of being able to bring to pass the thing willed or endeavored. When it comes to more philosophical writing, however (“especially writers on controversies about Free Will”), they are used very differently, even in cases where no will or endeavors “is or can be supposed.”

Just as all these words (necessary, impossible, unable, etc.) are used by some writers in ways that go beyond their common meaning, the same has happened to the term “contingent.” In its original sense, a thing was contingent if “its connection with its causes or antecedents . . . is not discerned.” With regard to us, something is deemed contingent or accidental if “it comes to pass without our foreknowledge, and besides our design and scope.”

However, the word “contingent” is frequently used in a very different sense. Rather than referring to something we cannot foresee, it is used to refer to “something which has absolutely no previous ground or reason.”

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