Free choice in 200 AD

kermitxrayThe tectonic shift accomplished by Christianity in the culture of Late Antiquity was driven by a profound re-thinking of free choice. To Roman minds governed by astrology and fate, living in a society where the only rules and guidelines ever imagined were those demanded by one’s social standing, the concept that each person stood before deity, accountable for every choice was, literally, a revelation. Finding oneself outside society and its norms, outside a cosmos governed by fate, and asked to choose whom or what to serve, regardless of whether one was high-born or slave, male or female, Hebrew or Greek or Roman, was to find oneself in a new world.

Classics professor Kyle Harper tells us that in the Christian culture emerging in Rome, an essential belief was that “nothing–not the stars, not physical violence, not even the quiet undertow of social expectation–could be held responsible for the individual’s choice of good and evil.” The Second Century Christian apologist Justin Martyr was the first philosopher to unambiguously use the term “free will.” According to Martyr, “The good is a purpose that man may accomplish through the freedom of his will, so that the evil man is justly punished, having become wicked through his own doing, while the just man is worthy of praise for his good deeds, not having transgressed the will of God in the exercise of his autonomy.” Humans, in the image of God, are apart from the rest of Creation. “Not like plants or beasts, without the faculty of choice, did God create man.”

It was an unsettling discovery. The idea that persons were free in a moral context quite apart from state and society, uncontrolled by cosmic fate, was essential to a host of ideas that gave Europe much of its later character. Slavery was abandoned and then abolished, freedom of religion advanced, and the idea of principles separate from and superior to society supported the development of rule of law understood as including the mightiest of earthly ruler under its demands.

The old determinism of the stars has lost most of its legitimacy among moderns, but determinism remains, offering its reassuring escape from freedom. We are not free, some think, because our genes control who we are and what we do, or our horizons are formed by our poverty or our race or our sex. Free will is an illusion, according to as many authorities as you would like to cite. Advocates of economic determinism, cultural determinism, psychological determinism, biological determinism, technological determinism and historical determinism are quite sure we are not free.

Samuel Johnson famously observed that  “you are surer that you can lift up your finger or not as you please, than you are of any conclusion from a deduction of reasoning.” He did not resolve all the arguments, but he did take a side. “All theory is against the freedom of the will,” he said. “All experience for it.”