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The Falseness and Inconsistence of that metaphysical notion of Action, and Agency, which seems to be generally entertained by the defenders of the Arminian Doctrine concerning Liberty, moral Agency, &c.

One thing, that is made very much a ground of argument and supposed demonstration by Arminians, in defense of the forementioned principles, concerning moral Agency, virtue, vice, &c., is their metaphysical notion of Agency and Action. They say, unless the soul has a self-determining power, it has no power of Action; if its volitions be not caused by itself, but are excited and determined by some extrinsic cause, they cannot be the soul’s own acts; and that the soul cannot be active, but must be wholly passive, in those effects which it is the subject of necessarily, and not from its own free determination.

Mr. Chubb lays the foundation of his scheme of Liberty, and of his arguments to support it, very much in this position, that man is an Agent, and capable of Action. Which doubtless is true: but self-determination belongs to his notion of Action, and is the very essence of it. Whence he infers, that it is impossible for a man to act and be acted upon, in the same thing, at the same time; and that no Action can be the effect of the Action of another: and he insists, that a necessary Agent, or an Agent that is necessarily determined to act, is a plain contradiction. 138138    Were the human mind, indeed, not the subject of either passive power, on the one hand, as the predisposing cause of vice; or of divine holy influence, on the other, as the predisposing cause of real virtue; and were the determining motive what some have represented it to be, the object itself, irrespective of the changeable state of mind perceiving it; the objection, that “a necessary agent is a plain contradiction,” or, in other words, that man is no proper agent, would be unanswerable. For the rank and place of man in creation, and his relative circumstances in the arrangement of providence, being the result of decretive appointment, if he himself were not liable to any change but by the same appointment, it would follow, that if the objects themselves determined him to choose, and to choose always according to the strongest motive, his very volitions in the acts themselves would be necessitated decretively, to the exclusion of all hypothetical or moral possibility of failure; and therefore could never be erroneous, any more than the first cause could act erroneously. On such principles, moral evil, vice or fault, could have no existence. No effect cold be otherwise than good, amiable, and perfectly innocent; a moral possibility of failure being excluded by natural necessity. For the volition itself to be so necessitated, and not in a moral or hypothetical manner only, is the same thing as giving it no opportunity of choice or preference, or constraining it to choose one way by a settled purpose, with a natural impossibility of acting otherwise. But if every act of man be thus the result of settled purpose, why should he be blamed for any one act whatever? He does nothing but what he is constrained, or decretively necessitated to perform, the contrary being rendered naturally impossible; and if he deserves no praise, he can incur no blame, any more than a clock for not keeping time. Such a necessary agent would be indeed a plain contradiction. There is much reason to apprehend that some philosophical necessarians have no better notion of agency than that which Mr. Chubb charges, and justly charges, with “a plain contradiction.” For those who hold the sentiment, that every act, even as to its moral quality, and every event, are of decretive appointment, in subserviency to ultimate good, must allow, in order to be tolerably consistent, that the Supreme Being is “the only proper agent in the universe;” ( Belsham’s Elements of the Philosophy of the Mind, p. 254.) and thus reduce human agency, and things else called agency in a creature, to an appointed necessary choice, however odious in its nature, mischievious in its tendency, or painful in experience. Thus, according to them, God is the only proper agent in all foul crimes and horrid blasphemies, on earth and in hell! They have a right to define their terms, and to say what they mean by agency in God, or in a creature, and to state their hypothesis accordingly; but others also have a right to deduce the genuine consequences of that hypothesis, and to show wherein its error lies.—The design of these notes is not to excite a spirit of unprofitable controversy, but to assist the serious inquirer in detecting errors and recognizing truths of radical importance in ethics and theology; and, it is hoped, that to promote these ends the following observations may conduce. 1. It is granted, that in reference to natural acts, the Supreme Being is the “only proper agent in the universe,” as they all spring from his energy. In this respect he is the first cause of all causes, efficiently; and the description of the post is philosophically just: he “Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze, Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees, Lives through all life, extends through all extent, Spreads undivided, operates unspent.” POPE 2. It is also granted, that, in all acts morally good, the created agent is the subject of necessity several ways. He has an active nature from decretive necessity, which it is not in his power to alter. He is also, accordingly, compelled to some act of choice, from the activity of his nature. He is, moreover, the subject of physical influence of a holy and purifying nature, whereby the goodness of his choice is infallibly secured; and without which there could be no assignable ground of certainty that any action would be morally good. There is also a necessity of connexion, arising from the nature of things, or the essence of truth, first between the disposition and the act, or that the act will be of the same nature, morally considered, with the disposition from which it proceeds; and secondly, between the act and the end, or consequent, which is happiness. 3. It is moreover allowed, that in all acts morally evil, the soul is passive in reference to that necessity of dependence which is inseparable from a created nature, which may be called passive power; without which the existence of moral evil would be impossible. This necessity also arises form the nature of things, not from decree; for no decree can alter its existence, (though it may, and actually does, counteract it.) any more than it can alter the state of a creature from dependence into independence on the first cause. A creature without passive power involves the most palpable absurdities. For its very definition is, “that property in a creature whereby it differs essentially form the independence, self-sufficience, and indefectibility of the Creator;” and to deny it, is to suppose that a creature may be independent, self-sufficient, and indefectible - that in these respects the creature and the Creator are on a par—that a necessary and a contingent being are the same, in those very things which constitute their essential difference! Were it not for this property in an agent, he could never sin; for all his acts would be physically necessary, without any hypothetical medium, or moral alternative. 4. He is a moral agent, whose volitions might have been otherwise than they are, if the motives, and consequently the state of his mind, had been otherwise. But to suppose that his volitions might have been otherwise than they are, the motives and the state of the mind being the same, would be to make him in his volitions the sport of chance, or a mere non-entity. 5. He then is a moral agent who has, in reference to volition, a moral alternative, or a hypothetical possibility of a different choice. Where this alternative, or this possibility, is not, there the agent (if he may be so called) is not morally obliged, and therefore is not accountable. 6. But if so, where does the ground of such an alternative lie? It lies in the agent’s mind, or the disposition whence the volition springs, and whence its character is derived. If God influence the mind so as to make it, in a given degree, to resemble his own moral nature; in that degree would the choice made be morally good. But if passive power be not counteracted by such influence, (which being gracious, God is not bound in equity to do.) in any given degree, the nature of things, the essence of truth; connects, in a corresponding degree, the state of mind with the volition. 7. Hence it is plain, that moral influence, as such, effects nothing certain; but always requires a previous state of mind, in order to insure a certainty of good effect; and that previous state of mind is effected by no other possible means but a physical energy or agency, producing assimilation. There must be a virtuous mind before a virtuous choice; the quality of the act is derived from the agent. 8. One thing, which has been a source of much obscurity and confusion in reference to moral agency, is the supposition that the mind is equally free, in all respects, when choosing good and when choosing evil; in other words, that the one volition and the other becomes morally certain, form the same sort of necessity. But this is not the real case. Indeed the necessity of connexion between the previous state of mind and the corresponding volition, is the same; for it is, in each case, nothing else but the nature of things; but that necessity which effects a state of mind previous to good volitions, is as different from the other necessity which effects a state of mind previous to volitions morally evil, as light is from darkness. They proceed from opposite quarters, and operate in contrary directions. A holy disposition is generated by decretive holy influence; the other disposition (which ought not however to be called unholy) proceeds form the hypothetical nature of things. Such a disposition, though no morally vicious, yet generates vice in union with free agency. 9. It is highly worthy of remark, that though a good volition must proceed from a good heart, morally considered; yet a bad volition does not, originally and necessarily, proceed from a morally bad heart. The reason is, that the one state of heart proceeds form God., from his decretive holy will; the other proceeds form passive power, which is only a natural evil, and not a moral. Besides, were the disposition which immediately precedes a bad volition necessarily, or in a every case, evil, in a moral sense, either moral evil could have no place at all in the universe, no origin whatever, or else it must be the same as passive power. But passive power is a contrast, not to the moral perfections of God, but his natural; and has, when alone, no moral quality. And, seeing it belongs as a property to every creature, as such, were it any thing morally evil, moral evil would be essential to the very being of every creature; which is absurd. 10. Hence it is plain, that freedom is experienced in a higher sense or a greater degree, in bad volitions, than in good ones in such a sense, and to such a degree, as to justify this mode of expression. That man is necessitated to good, but free to evil. This however may need some explanatory qualification; for he is not so necessitated to good, as not to be morally or hypothetically free; nor so free to evil as not to be subject to a necessity of consequence. He who acts or chooses amiss without constraint, compulsion, or interfering voluntary force in that act, notwithstanding his passive power, is properly a free agent; for in the moral quality of the act, there is properly and strictly no will concerned but his own. But he who acts or chooses aright, is subject to a physical, decretive necessity, as to his disposition and a physical concourse of divine energy in the natural act of the will. He is indeed morally free, inasmuch as his volition might have been of a different, yea, of an opposite moral quality, if the state of his mind had been different. Hence it is evident, that in a good will, choice, or act, man is an agent in a less proper or secondary sense; but in a bad will, choice, or act, man is an agent, a moral agent, a free agent, in the most proper and strict sense. And in the production of an act morally good two wills are concerned, that of the agent, and the decretive will of God; in that of evil, only one, the agent’s own will. 11. If the Supreme Being is the only proper agent in the universe, either moral agency is no proper agency, or else man is not a moral agent; and if so, his is not accountable, and has no concern in religion or morals. Besides, if God be the only proper agent in the universe, how come there to exist evil deeds? God’s agency is good, else we have no evidence that he is a good being; but there are in the world evil deeds proceeding from evil minds, which common sense and universal consent allow, and the nature of the thing proves, to be properly evil agencies; consequently man is an agent, a moral agent, properly so called. 12. If there be no proper agent in the universe but the supreme Being, there is no evil in the nature of bad volitions, but only in their effects. Sin, on that supposition, is not bad in its own nature, but only injurious in it effects on the sinner. Sin is not to be hated, it seems, on its own account, as odious, but only shunned as dangerous. But as this must arise, according to the system of its abettors, from a sovereign appointment, it follows, that millions of beings are by this very appointment, doomed to the greatest sufferings in the universe, for that in which they had no proper agency—no possible alternative! Where is equity, of benevolence? The only clue out of this labyrinth, and out of many others formed by writers on human agency, is, we are fully persuaded , a right view of passive power, in its nature, origin, and tendency, in conjunction with a morally or hypothetically free choice. W.

But those are a precarious sort of demonstrations, which men build on the meaning that they arbitrarily affix to a 61 word; especially when that meaning is abstruse, inconsistent, and entirely diverse from the original sense of the word in common speech.

That the meaning of the word Action, as Mr. Chubb and many others use it, is utterly unintelligible and inconsistent, is manifest, because it belongs to their notion of an Action, that it is something wherein is no passion or passiveness; that is, (according to their sense of passiveness,) it is under the power, influence, or Action of no cause. And this implies, that Action has no cause, and is no effect; for to be an effect implies passiveness, or the being subject to the power and Action of its cause. And yet they hold, that the mind’s Action is the effect of its own determination, yea, the mind’s free and voluntary determination; which is the same with free choice. So that Action is the effect of something preceding, even a preceding act of choice: and consequently, in this effect the mind is passive, subject to the power and Action of the preceding cause, which is the foregoing choice, and therefore cannot be active. So that here we have this contradiction, that Action is always the effect of foregoing choice, and therefore cannot be Action; because it is passive to the power of that preceding causal choice; and the mind cannot be active and passive in the same thing, at the same time. Again they say, necessity is utterly inconsistent with Action, and a necessary Action is a contradiction; and so their notion of Action implies contingence, and excludes all necessity. And therefore, their notion of Action implies, that it has no necessary dependence on, or connexion with, any thing foregoing; for such a dependence or connexion excludes contingence, and implies necessity. And yet their notion of Action implies necessity, and supposes that it is necessary, and cannot he contingent. For they suppose, that whatever is properly called Action, must be determined by the Will and free choice; and this is as much as to say, that it must he necessary, being dependent upon, and determined by, something foregoing; namely, a foregoing act of choice. Again, it belongs to their notion of Action, that it is the beginning of motion, or of exertion of power; but yet it is implied in their notion of Action, that it is not the beginning of motion or exertion of power, but is consequent and dependent on a preceding exertion of power, viz. the power of Will and choice: for they say there is no proper Action but what is freely chosen; or, which is the same thing, determined by a foregoing act of free choice. But if any of them shall see cause to deny this, and say they hold no such thing as that every Action is chosen or determined by a foregoing choice; but that the very first exertion of Will only, undetermined by any preceding act, is properly called Action; then I say, such a man’s notion of Action implies necessity; for what the mind is the subject of, without the determination of its own previous choice, it is the subject of necessarily, as to any hand that free choice has in the affair; and without any ability the mind has to prevent it, by any will or election of its own; because by the supposition it precludes all previous acts of the Will or choice in the case, which might prevent it. So that it is again, in this other way, implied in their notion of act, that it is both necessary and not necessary, Again it belongs to their notion of an act, that it is no effect of a predetermining bias or preponderation, but springs immediately out of indifference; and this implies, that it cannot be from foregoing choice, which is foregoing preponderation: if it be not habitual, but occasional, yet if it causes the act, it is truly previous, efficacious, and determining. And yet, at the same time, it is essential to their notion of the act, that it is what the agent is the author of freely and voluntarily, and that is, by previous choice and design.

So that, according to their notion of the act, considered with regard to its consequences, these following things are all essential to it; viz. That it should be necessary, and not necessary; that it should be from a cause, and no cause; that it should be the fruit of choice and design, and not the fruit of choice and design; that it should he the beginning of motion or exertion, and yet consequent on previous exertion; that it should be before it is; that it should spring immediately out of indifference and equilibrium, and yet be the effect of preponderation; that it should be self-originated, and also have its original from 62 something else; that it is what the mind causes itself, of its own will, and can produce or prevent, according to its choice or pleasure, and yet what the mind has no power to prevent, precluding all previous choice in the affair.

So that an act, according to their metaphysical notion of it, is something of which there is no idea; it is nothing but a confusion of the mind, excited by words without any distinct meaning, and is an absolute nonentity; and that in two respects: (1.) There is nothing in the world that ever was, is, or can be, to answer the things which must belong to its description, according to what they suppose to be essential to it. And, (2.) There neither is, nor ever was, nor can be, any notion or idea to answer the word, as they use and explain it. For, if we should suppose any such notion, it would many ways destroy itself. But it is impossible any idea or notion should subsist in the mind, whose very nature and essence which constitutes it, destroys it.—If some learned philosopher, who had been abroad, in giving an account of the curious observations he had made in his travels, should say, “He had been in Terra del Fuego, and there had seen an animal, which he calls by a certain name, that begat and brought forth itself, and yet had a sire and dam distinct from itself; that it had an appetite, and was hungry before it had a being; that his master, who led him, and governed him at his pleasure, was always governed by him, and driven by him where he pleased; that when he moved, he always took a step before the first step; that he went with his head first, and yet always went tail foremost; and this, though he had neither head nor tail:” it would be no impudence at all, to tell such a traveler, though a learned man, that he himself had no notion or idea of such an animal as he gave an account of, and never had, nor ever would have.

As the forementioned notion of Action is very inconsistent, so it is wholly diverse from the original meaning of the word. The more usual signification of it, in vulgar speech, seems to be some motion or exertion of power, that is voluntary, or that is the effect of the Will; and is used in the same sense as doing: and most commonly it is used to signify outward Actions. So thinking is often distinguished from acting, and desiring and willing from doing.

Besides this more usual and proper signification of the word Action, there are other ways in which the word is used, that are less proper, which yet have place in common speech. Oftentimes it is used to signify some motion or alteration in inanimate things, with relation to some object and effect. So the spring of a watch is said to act upon the chain and wheels; the sunbeams, to act upon plants and trees: and the fire, to act upon wood. Sometimes, the word is useful to signify motions, alterations, and exertions of power, which are seen in corporeal things, considered absolutely; especially when these motions seem to arise from some internal cause which is hidden; so that they have a greater resemblance of those motions of our bodies, which are the effects of natural volition, or invisible exertions of Will. So the fermentation of liquor, the operations of the loadstone, and of electrical bodies, are called the Action of these things. And sometimes the word Action is used to signify the exercise of thought, or of Will and inclination: so meditating, loving, hating, inclining, disinclining, choosing, and refusing, may be sometimes called acting; though more rarely (unless it be by philosophers and metaphysicians) than in any of the other senses.

But the word is never used in vulgar speech for the self-determinate exercise of the Will, or an exertion of the soul that arises without any necessary connexion with any thing foregoing. If a man does something voluntarily, or as the effect of his choice, then in the most proper sense, and as the word is most originally and commonly used, he is said to act; but whether that choice or volition be self-determined, or no; whether it be connected with foregoing, habitual bias; whether it be the certain effect of the strongest motive, or some intrinsic cause, never comes into consideration in the meaning of the word.

And if the word Action is arbitrarily used by some men otherwise, to suit some scheme of metaphysics or morality, no argument can reasonably be founded on such a use of this term, to prove any thing but their own pleasure. For divines and philosophers strenuously to urge such arguments, as though they were sufficient to support and demonstrate a whole scheme of moral philosophy and divinity, is certainly to erect a mighty edifice on the sand, or rather on a shadow. And though it may now perhaps, through custom, have become natural for then to use the word in this sense, (if that may be called a sense or meaning, which is inconsistent with itself,) yet this does not prove, that it is agreeable to the natural notions men have of things, or that there can be any thing in the creation that should answer such a meaning. And though they appeal to experience, yet the truth is, that men are so far from experiencing any such thing, that it is impossible for them to have any conception of it.

If it should be objected, that Action and Passion are doubtless words of a contrary signification; but to suppose that the agent, in its Action, is under the power and influence of something intrinsic, is to confound Action and passion, and make them the same thing:

I answer, that Action and Passion are doubtless, as they are sometimes used, words of opposite signification; but not as signifying opposite existences, but only opposite relations. The words cause and effect are terms of opposite signification; but, nevertheless, if I assert, that the same thing may, at the same time, in different respects and relations, be both cause and effect, this will not prove that I confound the terms. The soul may be both active and passive in the same thing in different respects; active with relation to one thing, and passive with relation to another. 139139    This distinction is of considerable moment. The soul is passive, for instance, in reference to that necessity of dependence which is inseparable from a created nature; and when the subject of providential energy in natural acts; and also when the subject of that divine influence which purifies and enables the mind, and whereby holy effects are secured; and in all these respects it is passive at the very time that it is active in its choice or preference. In other words, the mind is necessitated in some respects; as, to exist, to think, to will, to suffer, or to enjoy; at the same instant that it is free in other respects, as, from contingence, (understanding thereby an event without any cause,) and from compulsions, or physical necessity in its acts as moral.—W. The word Passion, when set in opposition to Action, or rather activeness, is merely a relative: it signifies no effect or cause, nor any proper existence; but is the same with Passiveness, or a being passive, or a being acted upon by something. Which is a mere relation of a thing to some power or force exerted by some cause, producing some effect in it, or upon it. And Action, when set properly in opposition to Passion, or Passiveness, is no real existence; it is not the same with an Action, but is a mere relation: it is the activeness of something on another thing, being the opposite relation to the other, viz. a relation of power, or force, exerted by some cause, towards another thing, which is the subject of the effect of that power. Indeed, the word Action is frequently used to signify something not merely relative, but more absolute, and a real existence; as when we say an Action; when the word is not used transitively, but absolutely, for some motion or exercise of body or mind, without any relation to any object or effect: and as used thus, it is not properly the opposite of Passion; which ordinarily signifies nothing absolute, but merely the relation of being acted upon. And therefore if the word Action be used in the like relative sense, then Action and Passion are only two contrary relations. And it is no absurdity to suppose, that contrary relations may belong to the same thing at the same time, with respect to different things. So to suppose, that there are acts of the soul by which a man voluntarily moves, and acts upon objects, and produces effects, which yet themselves are effects of something else, and wherein the soul itself is the object of something acting upon, and influencing that, do not at all confound Action and Passion. The words may nevertheless be properly of opposite signification: there may be as true and real a difference between acting and being caused to act, though we should suppose the soul to be both in the same volition, as there is between living and being quickened, or made to live. It is no more a contradiction, to suppose that Action may be the effect of some other cause, besides the agent, or being that acts, than to suppose, that life may be the effect of some other cause, besides the being that lives.

What has led men into this inconsistent notion of Action, when applied to volition—as though it were essential 63 to this internal Action, that the agent should be self-determined in it, and that the Will should be the cause of it—was probably this; that according to the sense of mankind, and the common use of language, it is so, with respect to men’s external Actions; which originally, and according to the vulgar use and most proper sense of the word, are called Actions. Men in these are self-directed, self-determined, and their Wills are the cause of the motions of their bodies, and the external things done; so that unless men do them voluntarily, and of choice, and the Action be determined by their antecedent volition, it is no Action or doing of theirs. Hence some metaphysicians have been led unwarily, but exceeding absurdly, to suppose the same concerning volition itself, that that also must be determined by the Will; which is to be determined by antecedent volition, as the motion of the body is; not considering the contradiction it implies.

But it is very evident, that in the metaphysical distinction between Action and passion, (though long since become common and the general vogue) due care has not been taken to conform language to the nature of things, or to any distinct, clear ideas. As it is in innumerable other philosophical metaphysical terms, used in these disputes; which has occasioned inexpressible difficulty, contention, error, and confusion.

And thus probably it came to be thought, that necessity was inconsistent with Action, as these terms are applied to volition. First, these terms, Action and necessity are changed from their original meaning, as signifying external voluntary Action and constraint (in which meaning they are evidently inconsistent) to signify quite other things, viz. volition itself, and certainty of existence. And when the change of signification is made, care is not taken to make proper allowances and abatements for the difference of sense; but still the same things are unwarily attributed to Action and necessity, in the new meaning of the words, which plainly belonged to them in their first sense; and on this ground, maxims are established without any real foundation, as though they were the most certain truths, and the most evident dictates of reason.

But, however strenuously it is maintained, that what is necessary cannot he properly called Action, and that a necessary Action is a contradiction, yet it is probable there are few Arminian divines, who thoroughly tried, would stand to these principles. They will allow, that God is, in the highest sense, an active Being, and thee highest Fountain of life and Action; and they would not probably deny, that what are called God’s acts of righteousness, holiness, and faithfulness, are truly and properly God’s acts, and God is really a holy Agent in them; and yet, I trust, they will not deny, that God necessarily acts justly and faithfully, and that it is impossible for him to act unrighteously and unholily.

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