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Section 1

1. Can there be question as to whether the gods have voluntary action? Or are we to take it that, while we may well enquire in the case of men with their combination of powerlessness and hesitating power, the gods must be declared omnipotent, not merely some things but all lying at their nod? Or is power entire, freedom of action in all things, to be reserved to one alone, of the rest some being powerful, others powerless, others again a blend of power and impotence?

All this must come to the test: we must dare it even of the Firsts and of the All-Transcendent and, if we find omnipotence possible, work out how far freedom extends. The very notion of power must be scrutinized lest in this ascription we be really making power identical with Essential Act, and even with Act not yet achieved.

But for the moment we may pass over these questions to deal with the traditional problem of freedom of action in ourselves.

To begin with, what must be intended when we assert that something is in our power; what is the conception here?

To establish this will help to show whether we are to ascribe freedom to the gods and still more to God, or to refuse it, or again, while asserting it, to question still, in regard both to the higher and lower- the mode of its presence.

What then do we mean when we speak of freedom in ourselves and why do we question it?

My own reading is that, moving as we do amid adverse fortunes, compulsions, violent assaults of passion crushing the soul, feeling ourselves mastered by these experiences, playing slave to them, going where they lead, we have been brought by all this to doubt whether we are anything at all and dispose of ourselves in any particular.

This would indicate that we think of our free act as one which we execute of our own choice, in no servitude to chance or necessity or overmastering passion, nothing thwarting our will; the voluntary is conceived as an event amenable to will and occurring or not as our will dictates. Everything will be voluntary that is produced under no compulsion and with knowledge; our free act is what we are masters to perform.

Differing conceptually, the two conditions will often coincide but sometimes will clash. Thus a man would be master to kill, but the act will not be voluntary if in the victim he had failed to recognise his own father. Perhaps however that ignorance is not compatible with real freedom: for the knowledge necessary to a voluntary act cannot be limited to certain particulars but must cover the entire field. Why, for example, should killing be involuntary in the failure to recognise a father and not so in the failure to recognise the wickedness of murder? If because the killer ought to have learned, still ignorance of the duty of learning and the cause of that ignorance remain alike involuntary.

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