Reflections on Calvin, part 3

Chapter 2: On the Knowledge of Man and Free Will

This second chapter covers a wider range of material than the first and so it is difficult to reflect on one part alone or the whole thing. Nonetheless, I will proceed to discuss what I can in such a short space. I noticed a subtle move proffered by Calvin to show how the reason can be defective. On pages 56-57, he describes the view of the “philosophers” (i.e., Plato and Aristotle) regarding the nature of humanity centering on the notions of knowledge and will (the two main points of this chapter. What impresses me about Calvin here is his clear understanding of these two philosophies and his ability to summarize their positions. What I find disappointing, and at the worst deceitful, was the way in which Calvin argued against them; or I should say dismisses without argument. For Plato he says, “Even when all these things are authentic or at least believable there is no good in wasting our time on them because there is danger that they will be scarcely any help to us, and they could plague us a great deal by their obscurity.” For Aristotle he doesn’t even give him the dignity of an obvious dismissal. Instead he first inserts an principle (which he doesn’t prove) that “we must use a way of speaking which everyone can understand, something which cannot be drawn from the philosophers.” Then he proceeds to discredit Aristotle’s position by how his two distinctions between understanding and desires turn into four distinctions where understanding and desire can be further separated into two. His critique is that “the philosophers always imagine that there is reason in a person by which he can rule himself,” which he admits is contrary to his position and therefore false. Therefore, without argument, he presents his own distinction (understanding and will) which then will help him prove his point. I’m not a logician, but I think that is called begging the question. He cannot argue that reason is entrapped by sin without first understanding what reason is, but in his discussion of what reason is, he assumes that it is weakened. I hope that he elaborated this more in his 1559 edition.

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3 thoughts on “Reflections on Calvin, part 3

    • You would have liked my class today since it was all about free will. I came out and said I was a intellectualist (contra voluntarism) and did my darndest to defend it. 🙂 Calvin himself seemed to lean towards voluntarism, but sometimes he sounded like an intellectualist. We concluded in class that he was trying to forge a middle way. Do you know of any other position that mediates between the two?

  1. If there is then I am not familiar with it. You may be able to say that the Conceptualists manage another route (see high Middle Ages) but I am not certain on that.

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