An Essay Concerning Human Understanding By John Locke Book II: Of Ideas, Chapters 12-33

22. In respect of willing, a Man is not free.

But the inquisitive mind of man, willing to shift off from himself, as far as he can, all thoughts of guilt, though it be by putting himself into a worse state than that of fatal necessity, is not content with this: freedom, unless it reaches further than this, will not serve the turn: and it passes for a good plea, that a man is not free at all, if he be not as FREE TO WILL as he is to ACT WHAT HE WILLS. Concerning a man's liberty, there yet, therefore, is raised this further question, WHETHER A MAN BE FREE TO WILL? which I think is what is meant, when it is disputed whether the will be free. And as to that I imagine.

23. How a man cannot be free to will.

Secondly, That willing, or volition, being an action, and freedom consisting in a power of acting or not acting, a man in respect of willing or the act of volition, when any action in his power is once proposed to his thoughts, as presently to be done, cannot be free. The reason whereof is very manifest. For, it being unavoidable that the action depending on his will should exist or not exist, and its existence or not existence following perfectly the determination and preference of his will, he cannot avoid willing the existence or non-existence of that action; it is absolutely necessary that he will the one or the other; i.e. prefer the one to the other: since one of them must necessarily follow; and that which does follow follows by the choice and determination of his mind; that is, by his willing it: for if he did not will it, it would not be. So that, in respect of the act of willing, a man is not free: liberty consisting in a power to act or not to act; which, in regard of volition, a man, has not.

24. Liberty is freedom to execute what is willed.

This, then, is evident, That A MAN IS NOT AT LIBERTY TO WILL, OR NOT TO WILL, ANYTHING IN HIS POWER THAT HE ONCE CONSIDERS OF: liberty consisting in a power to act or to forbear acting, and in that only. For a man that sits still is said yet to be at liberty; because he can walk if he wills it. A man that walks is at liberty also, not because he walks or moves; but because he can stand still if he wills it. But if a man sitting still has not a power to remove himself, he is not at liberty; so likewise a man falling down a precipice, though in motion, is not at liberty, because he cannot stop that motion if he would. This being so, it is plain that a man that is walking, to whom it is proposed to give off walking, is not at liberty, whether he will determine himself to walk, or give off walking or not: he must necessarily prefer one or the other of them; walking or not walking. And so it is in regard of all other actions in our power they being once proposed, the mind has not a power to act or not to act, wherein consists liberty. The mind, in that case, has not a power to forbear WILLING; it cannot avoid some determination concerning them, let the consideration be as short, the thought as quick as it will, it either leaves the man in the state he was before thinking, or changes it; continues the action, or puts an end to it. Whereby it is manifest, that IT orders and directs one, in preference to, or with neglect of the other, and thereby either the continuation or change becomes UNAVOIDABLY voluntary.

25. The Will determined by something without it.

Since then it is plain that, in most cases, a man is not at liberty, whether he will or no, (for, when an action in his power is proposed to his thoughts, he CANNOT forbear volition; he MUST determine one way or the other;) the next thing demanded is, — WHETHER A MAN BE AT LIBERTY TO WILL WHICH OF THE TWO HE PLEASES, MOTION OR REST? This question carries the absurdity of it so manifestly in itself, that one might thereby sufficiently be convinced that liberty concerns not the will. For, to ask whether a man be at liberty to will either motion or rest, speaking or silence, which he pleases, is to ask whether a man can will what he wills, or be pleased with what he is pleased with? A question which, I think, needs no answer: and they who can make a question of it must suppose one will to determine the acts of another, and another to determine that, and so on in infinitum.

26. The ideas of LIBERTY and VOLITION must be defined.

To avoid these and the like absurdities, nothing can be of greater use than to establish in our minds determined ideas of the things under consideration. If the ideas of liberty and volition were well fixed in our understandings, and carried along with us in our minds, as they ought, through all the questions that are raised about them, I suppose a great part of the difficulties that perplex men's thoughts, and entangle their understandings, would be much easier resolved; and we should perceive where the confused signification of terms, or where the nature of the thing caused the obscurity.

27. Freedom.

First, then, it is carefully to be remembered, That freedom consists in the dependence of the existence, or not existence of any ACTION, upon our VOLITION of it; and not in the dependence of any action, or its contrary, on our PREFERENCE. A man standing on a cliff, is at liberty to leap twenty yards downwards into the sea, not because he has a power to do the contrary action, which is to leap twenty yards upwards, for that he cannot do; but he is therefore free, because he has a power to leap or not to leap. But if a greater force than his, either holds him fast, or tumbles him down, he is no longer free in that case; because the doing or forbearance of that particular action is no longer in his power. He that is a close prisoner in a room twenty feet square, being at the north side of his chamber, is at liberty to walk twenty feet southward, because he can walk or not walk it; but is not, at the same time, at liberty to do the contrary, i.e. to walk twenty feet northward.

In this, then, consists FREEDOM, viz. in our being able to act or not to act, according as we shall choose or will.

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