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St. Bonaventure on Freedom, Free Will, and Love

Though I don’t place much value in “fortunes,” I consider myself quite fortunate to have gone to high school where I did, Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys.

I have two fantastic brothers by birth (who also wear the ring) and classes upon classes of brothers by formation who are blessed to wear the ring of our alma mater. Back in the day, “I’d take a bullet for you” was one of our highest verbal expressions of love, though, of course, it never came time to love in that way. Still, we definitely meant something by that phrase, and what we meant deserves some reflection.

High school boys are full of bravado, but often have clear insight into the truth.

On the feast of St. Bonaventure, I’d like to consider the brother theologians-professors-cardinals for some clarity on love. St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure have much to tell us about brotherly love.

Both are happy to define love as choosing the good in truth, and both would recognize the high school Tommy as trying to express the kind of love which would lay down his life for another in our teenage saying. No less authority than St. John himself tells us that the greatest love one can have for another is lay down her life. (Jn 15:13)

Nevertheless, St. Thomas is happiest in thinking of love and fulfillment relying on truth and knowledge, whereas St. Bonaventure is happiest in thinking of love moving through knowledge to a region of expression that is beyond language.

Pope Benedict XVI stated the characteristic difference between Thomas and Bonaventure with this turn of phrase: to see God is to love (Thomas) and to love God is to see (Bonaventure).

There are two important terms for ‘free will’ in Latin, liberum arbitrium and voluntas. The former is “free choice” in the direct sense of “arbitration” in today’s English. The latter is the root of our English “voluntary.” It refers not only to a kind of personal choice that is free (i.e. not determined by something else), but, more importantly to the specific personal choice we call “love.”

Human free will is the primary “part” of us (philosophers use the fancy term “faculty”) that loves.

“Love” can refer to both to the will as a want or desire and to the will as the free will which chooses. The more important love is, of course, the choice which is rooted in our free will and not the desire which is rooted in our appetite. As Pope St. John Paul II reflected, love as an emotion should be subjected to love as a choice. Human love is not simply desire for something that answers a lack, but rather the free choice for another.

For St. Bonaventure, the free choice for another is always focused on The Good. For St. Thomas, it would be natural to think of love focused on Truth.

They are not exclusive. For Bonaventure, to love God enables a kind of knowledge of God which is not possible without that love. The free choice to love God is also the essence of human happiness and fulfillment. While we must certainly pursue all realms of human knowledge with as much vigor as we can manage (e.g. see the course of study Bonaventure summarizes in The Mind’s Journey to GodItinerarium Mentis in Deum), Bonaventure teaches that there comes a time when we simply face the naked choice of love. It’s not so much that we love without reasons, but that the reasons do not motivate the love. Rather, the love provides the reasons.

We must be careful not to mistake young, foolish love with mature love of God.

Genuine love of God, according to St. Bonaventure, is the fruit of maturation in both the practice of virtue and the study of Scripture and Theology. Only once we have climbed those ladders do we have perspective from which to push them away.

What may have been too full of bravado even to the point of being cavalier with the value of life back in high school still saw straight through to the heart of brotherly love. I don’t need a calculated reason to give my life for my brother. I need to know him well enough to love him so that I can love him well enough to know that he deserves my gift of self. Let us, then, use our free will to deepen our fraternal love of Christ that we may truly give our lives to God.

Pope Benedict XVI on Sts. Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas:–st-thomas-aquinas-6263

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Tommy Humphries

Tommy is a proud father and husband for the Humphries’ outpost in Florida. A native of Arkansas, he grew up in Little Rock. He is paid to teach philosophy, theology, and religion as university professor (CV on, and volunteers his time as a District Chief with the county Fire Rescue Department.

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