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Nicene and Ante-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol. IX:
John of Damascus: Exposition of the Orthodox Faith.: Concerning what is Voluntary and what is Involuntary.

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter XXIV.—Concerning what is Voluntary and what is Involuntary.

The voluntary 1868 implies a certain definite action, and so-called involuntariness also implies a certain definite action. Further, many attribute true involuntariness not only to suffering, but even to action. We must then understand action to be rational energy. Actions are followed by praise or blame, and some of them are accompanied with pleasure and others with pain; some are to be desired by the actor, others are to be shunned: further, of those that are desirable, some are always so, others only at some particular time. And so it is also with those that are to be shunned. Again, some actions enlist pity and are pardonable, others are hateful and deserve punishment. Voluntariness, then, is assuredly followed by praise or blame, and renders the action pleasurable and desirable to the actor, either for all time or for the moment of its performance. Involuntariness, on the other hand, brings merited pity or pardon in its train, and renders the act painful and undep. 39b sirable to the doer, and makes him leave it in a state of incompleteness even though force is brought to bear upon him.

Further, what is involuntary, depends in part on force and in part on ignorance. It depends on force when the creative beginning in cause is from without, that is to say, when one is forced by another without being at all persuaded, or when one does not contribute to the act on one’s own impulse, or does not co-operate at all, or do on one’s own account that which is exacted by force 1869 . Thus we may give this definition: “An involuntary act is one in which the beginning is from without, and where one does not contribute at all on one’s own impulse to that which one is forced.” And by beginning we mean the creative cause. All involuntary act depends, on the other hand, on ignorance, when one is not the cause of the ignorance one’s self, but events just so happen. For, if one commits murder while drunk, it is an act of ignorance, but yet not involuntary 1870 : for one was one’s self responsible for the cause of the ignorance, that is to say, the drunkenness. But if while shooting at the customary range one slew one’s father who happened to be passing by, this would be termed an ignorant and involuntary act.

As, then, that which is involuntary is in two parts, one depending on force, the other on ignorance, that which is voluntary is the opposite of both. For that which is voluntary is the result neither of force nor of ignorance 1871 . A voluntary act, then, is one of which the beginning or cause originates in an actor, who knows each individual circumstance through which and in which the action takes place. By “individual” is meant what the rhetoricians call circumstantial elements: for instance, the actor, the sufferer, the action (perchance a murder), the instrument, the place, the time, the manner, the reason of the action.

Notice that there are certain things that occupy a place intermediate between what is voluntary and what is involuntary. Although they are unpleasant and painful we welcome them as the escape from a still greater trouble; for instance, to escape shipwreck we cast the cargo overboard 1872 .

Notice also that children and irrational creatures perform voluntary actions, but these do not involve the exercise of choice: further, all our actions that are done in anger and without previous deliberation are voluntary actions, but do not in the least involve free choice 1873 . Also, if a friend suddenly appears on the scene, or if one unexpectedly lights on a treasure, so far as we are concerned it is quite voluntary, but there is no question of choice in the matter. For all these things are voluntary, because we desire pleasure from them, but they do not by any means imply choice, because they are not the result of deliberation. And deliberation must assuredly precede choice, as we have said above.



Cf. Greg. Nyss., in Maxim.; Nemes., ch. 29.


Nemes., ch. 30.


Ibid., ch. 31.


Ibid., ch. 32.


Ibid., ch. 30.


Nemes., ch. 33.

Next: Concerning what is in our own power, that is, concerning Free-will.

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