Kant and medieval saints and angels

Kant, in his ethical writings, famously treats of those ethical laws under which all rational beings stand, not just human beings. one purpose of his broad scope is to stress the a priori nature of ethical obligation, and to stress the distance between his position and those who would derive ethical norms from some considerations of human nature or behavior. but a second purpose of his abstraction here is to include God within the sphere of ethical discourse. God also stands under the objective laws of morality.

Kant uses various locutions which all refer to God, the most important being the holy will. interpreters of Kant, however, frequently take the term holy will to refer to God simpliciter. Kant, however, does not require that only God might possess a holy will. medieval ethical theory also treats of a richer universe of rational natures than is seen as a rule in more recent treatments. in addition to fallible sublunary humans and God, medieval writers consider our first parents before the fall, the evil angels before and after the fall, the good angels before and after their confirmation, and human beings after their death, both elect and damned.

in such a richer universe of rational natures, it becomes harder to make easy generalizations. angels before the fall are fallible, but do not possess bodies. good angels after their confirmation, and the elect saints in heaven, are all incorruptible. the elect saints in heaven do not possess bodies yet, but then later at the resurrection of all the dead, they will, as will the damned.

most interpreters of Kant do not consider these additional possibilities. Allen Wood glosses holy beings and holy will as the divine will (Kant's ethical thought, 26f). indeed, it is entirely common to view Kant's treatments of a holy will as simple locutions for God. but his actual writing is considerably more careful: Kant explicitly leaves open the possibility of non-divine holy wills: for the divine will, and in general for a holy will (groundwork, 414). most telling, we have a brief discussion of finite holy beings (metaphysics of morals, 383).

the origins of this complex array of beings is not to be found in philosophy, of course. but it was central to medieval writers to find an ethical theory which could articulate for each of these different beings what its distinctive position would be, regarding terms like freedom and choice. Kant, by his deliberately expansive language, also leaves open the possibility of including within his terms a richer universe of beings than merely God on the one hand and we fallible humans on the other. it is my goal in this essay to explore the ways that certain medieval authors used such terms, and then to examine how closely they may be fit into a Kantian framework.

it should be noted that i acknowledge a deliberate attempt to stretch Kant, perhaps where he does not want to go. my goal is to see how far one can go, staying within a broadly Kantian framework, in understanding angels and saints, and to note how much textual support there actually is for such an enterprise.

we will find that not only did medieval authors consider it important to treat of and include consideration of the broader panoply of rational beings, but indeed it was a central feature of their work. for Kant, it is certainly secondary, but he does offer considerably more nuanced treatments than the usual quick glosses would suggest.

medieval ethics and God

the antecedent theological assertions about God, of interest in this essay, are twofold—that God is supremely free, and at the same time, incorruptible. theologians having asserted that God is in no way constrained, but also is in no way able to sin, it becomes the task of the more philosophically minded to articulate a notion of moral freedom and necessitation that can include both these propositions.

Anselm begins his dialogue on freedom of choice with this condition—that whatever the account of human free choice will be, it must not involve a definition of freedom which could not at once be applied to God [and] the angels who are not able to sin (freedom of choice, 1). he immediately adds that we must insist on a univocal notion of freedom; that it will not do to say that the free choice of God and of the good angels is different from ours.

this criterion thus constrains the notion of freedom—it cannot be the case that freedom necessarily includes the ability to do wrong. Anselm's ultimate conclusion is that freedom consists in the ability to keep uprightness-of-will for the sake of this uprightness itself (freedom of choice, 3). we have here a capacity account of freedom: freedom consists in the capacity to do or act in a certain way. not in the ability to make any choice whatsoever, but rather, in the ability to make a certain kind of choice—for Anselm, the choice to keep uprightness-of-will for its own sake.

a capacity account of freedom is immediately congenial to an account of God in which he is at once unable to sin and still utterly free. because he possesses the relevant capacity in the utmost degree, he is supremely free, and his constitutional inability to sin in no way implicates this freedom. it is, indeed, the very nature of God to be free, and to be holy, and capacity accounts of freedom are able to include both of these at once with no particular difficulty.

medieval ethics and the angels and saints

before the fall, angels were all as fallible as are we sublunary humans, but they did not possess bodies. this theological presumption is seen to require that bodies are not necessary components of sin, and cannot be a sufficient explanation for sin—ours, or angels'. here christian ethics stakes out territory at great distance from many platonic accounts of moral failing. in addition, since the angels before the fall all had greatly limited knowledge, the traditional theological account holds that bodies are also not the source of limitations on knowledge.

indeed, precisely because angels lack bodies, they are the perfect foil for discussions of freedom and moral failing; free of the notion that all moral failing is due to the presence of bodies, writers can investigate the sorts of questions Kant is greatly concerned with in understanding the freedom of rational natures.

so, Anselm's treatment of freedom of choice first treats of both Satan and Adam, but then moves into the dialogue the fall of the devil for the treatment of how any free creatures could come to err. we find therein that the capacity account of freedom meshes conveniently with a two-source account of motivations. the devil has, before the fall, two motivations: a will-for-happiness (the fall of the devil, 13) and a will-for-uprightness (the fall of the devil, 14). the capacity account tells us that freedom consists in the capacity to preserve uprightness; when we add to it the two-source account of motivation, we see that one is preserving it against the possibly contrary will-for-happiness.

after the fall, the good angels retain their freedom, and acquire now incorruptibility. this is given them by a special grant: they are given the good which they lost as if on account of justice (the fall of the devil, 6); that is, they preserved uprightness-of-will by following their will-for-uprightness over and against their will-for-happiness, thus refraining from willing some certain forms of happiness. and, as a just reward, they are given now the very happinesses which they had before refrained from willing. because they now have received all they could will from the will-for-happiness, they are incorruptible. it should still be noted that after their confirmation the good angels do remain finite, of course.

Anselm does not identify the two-source account of motivation with freedom. freedom consists not in the presence of two sources of motivation, but rather in the ability to follow a particular one of them, for its own sake. however, Anselm is explicit that the two-source account of motivation is required to call the angels' actions just or unjust, and he gives a nice proof that both wills (for happiness, and for uprightness) must be given together by God:

if only the will-for-happiness is given, whatever is willed would be of necessity, and could not be called either just or unjust. but then whatever happiness were to be received would be unmerited, and that would not be just. if God were to give only a will-for-uprightness, however, which only willed what was fitting, then the angel again could not be called just, because he would only be following necessity. accordingly, both must be given that the angel's choice for uprightness can be the source of merit for the happiness received.

but this elaboration of the two-source account of motivation exists in a quite uneasy tension with the capacity account of freedom. It would seem that the good angels after their confirmation (and indeed God) should not be called just, because they always and only will what is fitting, from necessity: because, by their confirmation, they have been granted sufficient happiness that their will-for-happiness will never come into any possible conflict with their will-for-uprightness. in the case of the good angels after their confirmation, they continue to be called just on account of their initial choice for uprightness. no account is given of why God, whose will necessarily follows both the will-for-happiness and the will-for-uprightness should be called just, except perhaps metaphorically on account of the fittingness of his actions. and indeed, while Anselm insists that freedom of choice must be applied univocally to God and creatures, he does not make any such insistence about justice. one might also suggest in defense of Anselm's position that the two-source account is necessary to ground attributions of merit per se, and then happily argue that it is not sensible to ask whether God merits his own happiness, since he is necessarily happy.

after the fall, both the evil angel and we sublunary humans are devoid of uprightness-of-will; as a consequence, our capacity to keep uprightness-of-will for its own sake is entirely idle, as we have none left to keep. still, Anselm argues that the capacity to keep such uprightness, were it hypothetically present, remains even if in our circumstance we are unable to use the capacity.

Duns Scotus merged the capacity account of freedom of choice with the two-sources account of motivation. in this way, he avoids the difficulty just noted, by which the argument for the two-source account ends up partially defeating the capacity account of freedom. Scotus interprets Anselm's affection for justice and affection for happiness as component parts of freedom of the will. for Anselm, they were necessary for the attribution of meritorious terms, but they do not play a direct role in the definition of freedom. Scotus has sharpened freedom to be not merely of choice, but now of the will—that is, a property inhering in a particular part of the soul.

by relocating freedom in the two-source theory of motivation, Scotus also takes freedom to be in no significant way damaged by the fall. for Anselm, freedom is still present after the fall, but only in a thoroughly inoperative way. but since Scotus seems to drop the capacity account of freedom, and relocate freedom as a consequence of the two-source theory (which two sources are agreed by all to survive the fall), he is considerably more positive about the possibilities for human moral goodness after the fall.

however, also as a consequence of dropping the capacity account of freedom, Scotus finds it awkward to explain how God, the good angels, and the blessed saints, can all be said to be free. i do not know of texts in which Scotus addresses the freedom of God, but Robert Prentice, OFM, has written of the case of the blessed saints. Prentice argues that Scotus's solution is to claim that in heaven the blessed saints are prevented by God, by an external act, from willing wrongly. Prentice describes this as God's mov[ing] the will in his own superior way not to posit the act of sin (the degree and mode of liberty in the beatitude of the blessed, 339). but this is not contrary to the will's own freedom; God's action is purely preventative and so the [bad] act that [the will] never places does not change the nature of the [good] act which it does place.

i am not confident that i find this solution entirely satisfactory; it is possible that Prentice has mischaracterized Scotus's position, but it it also reasonable that Scotus has here a real difficulty in accounting for the freedom of the saints in heaven.

many other authors of the middle ages argued that the blessed saints could not properly be called free—i do not claim that each position of Anselm or Scotus above is broadly representative of the period. but Kant argues that it is an inherent property of rational nature that it be free; accordingly i have used some of those authors who seem to agree with him to serve as a foil in the exploration of his own views below.

Kant and the intermediate case

interpreters of Kant's ethics frequently assume a simple two-place system of beings: human beings, and God. occasionally they include various categories of other finite beings, which are presumed to be like us in all relevant particulars, but not necessary h. sapiens: finite, fallible, with bodies, capable of the same sorts of epistemological abilities, and so forth.

but i would argue that Kant is consiberably more careful in his language, by no means excluding the possibility that there may be a richer array of beings. because Kant makes many broad statements about all beings with rational natures—because he does not want to leave any such beings out of the reach of his ethical system—he is more or less careful to include them within the sphere of his discussion.

however, because readers frequently gloss over his more careful language, some initial cautions are in order. Kant defines the key characteristics of a holy will (or a perfectly good will) as

a perfectly good will [cannot] be conceived as necessitated to act in conformity with law, since of itself, in accordance with its subjective constitution, it can be determined only by the concept of the good. hence for the divine will, and in general for a holy will...i will is...of itself necessarily in harmony with the law. (groundwork, 414)
while it is therefore incorrect to describe a holy will as necessitated (that is, controlled or commanded), a holy will is one which is of itself necessarily good. note that Kant is clear here that the divine will is holy, but also that there may be additional holy wills beyond just the divine.

Kant also gives an elaborate psychology of a drive (triebfeder), but not all rational beings necessarily have drives. a drive is a subjective determining ground of a will whose reason does not by its nature necessarily conform to the objective law (critique of practical reason, 72). drives are thus what serve for motives for beings which are not by nature holy. since holy being is of itself necessarily in harmony with the law, it might be mistakenly thought that the text on drives is speaking of holy wills in general, and that of itself necessarily and by its nature necessarily are synonymous.

arguing against this however, is that the text on drives goes on to carefully distinguish finite beings (which possess drive, interest, and maxim) from the divine will; the former have drives precisely because of their finitude, a limitation of the nature of the being (critique of practical reason, 79). only two possibilities remain: there are finite holy wills, which possess drives, or else there are no finite holy wills, and holy will is coextensive with divine will. the latter possibility is ruled out by Kant's explicit consideration of finite holy wills: for finite holy beings...there would be no doctrine of virtue but only a doctrine of morals (metaphysics of morals, 383).

so in what follows, and in general in reading Kant on the subject of the holy will and infinite being, we must recall that he includes the possibility of finite holy beings, which possess drives, an infinite holy being, which does not, and finite fallible beings, which are like us.

Kant, the capacity theory, and the two-sources account

Kant clearly adopts both the capacity theory of freedom and the two-sources account of human motivations. the capacity theory is well developed in the latter two parts of the groundwork of the metaphysic of morals and the beginning of the critique of practical reason, and is quite well known. freedom consists in the capacity to act in accordance with reason rather than necessitation in the causal structures of the phenomenal world.

the definition above of the holy will is carefully given by Kant to allow for holy wills to be clearly known to be free: they do what is right because it is right, but unlike fallible wills, they do not experience this as a form of compulsion, not as a necessitation. the freedom that Kant describes is available to all rational beings; unlike Anselm it is not an inert and unused capacity for us. while we saw above that Scotus does not seem to explicitly hold to a capacity theory of freedom, the responsiveness to reason that is the hallmark of Kant's theory of freedom is one that Scotus also finds in all the rational natures he considers. Scotus insists that the will is a rational faculty precisely in order to guarantee that the decisions of the will are always able to be responsive to reason.

so, while Scotus does not identify freedom with the capacity to act in accord with reason, he does agree with Kant about which beings in fact possess this capacity. just as with Anselm, the capacity theory in Kant allows him to unproblematically ascribe freedom to all candidate rational beings, including those which possess holy wills. however, because the relevant capacity is one of rationality itself, it is not inert in us as it was for Anselm. this rationality is the same as being under the moral law: a free will and a will under moral laws are one and the same (groundwork, 447); a holy will is expressly under law: a perfectly good will ... [stands] under objective laws (groundwork, 414).

Kant is also well known for using a two-sources account in understanding ascriptions of merit. the clearest exposition of this is again in the treatment of the drives in a finite being, one of which is a drive of the moral law, and the others are drives arising from sensuous nature (critique of practical reason, 71–89). (connected to these two sorts of drives is of course the treatment of the ends of action at the front of the doctrine of virtue in the metaphysics of morals.)

the two kinds of drives given by Kant are unsurprisingly similar to those in Anselm and taken up by Scotus. what is remarkable is that Kant uses them so heavily in treating of a holy will that he does seem to nearly exclude such a will from the stringent tests of moral worth. indeed, nearly all of the texts in which Kant treats of the holy will, he goes on to exclude it from the very things that make for moral worth.

a holy will never acts contrary to inclination, for example, since it is either to be taken to have no inclinations whatsoever, or to have inclinations that in fact necessarily concur with the moral law. if Schiller's interpretation is correct, then this establishes at once that a holy will can never have moral worth.

most interpreters are of course not happy with Schiller's reading. consider, however, that duty is the necessity to act out of reverence for the law (groundwork, 400) and that a holy will cannot be conceived as necessitated to act in conformity with law (groundwork, 414). it would seem then that the notion of duty cannot be properly applied to a holy will, which is therefore not capable of actions possessing moral worth, under any reading of the so-called overdetermination problem.

such beings, as the confirmed good angels in Anselm, are counted as deserving happiness, as morally worthy, (for Anselm the issue is whether they can properly be called just) only by virtue of their past acts of moral worth and not on account of any new acts of moral worth which they might do.

the relation of body and sense to holiness in Kant

one obstacle to the foregoing is the assertion by Kant of links between a will's lack of holiness and its possession of sensible nature. the medievals considered three categories of unembodied finite beings: angels before the fall, angels (both good and bad) after the fall, and humans (both good and bad) between their death and the resurrection on the last day. it is not clear whether such beings should be regarded as possessing sensuous motives in Kant's terms, and a full discussion of the medieval considerations of the nature of intellection, perception, and desire in unembodied finite spirits would take us far afield.

however, several texts in the critique of practical reason do seem to imply that finitude specifically has an inherent connection with the possession of a will not holy. for example, we find at critique of practical reason, 32, the statement that duty applies to all finite beings having reason and will, but as seen above, not to a holy being.

more centrally, the elucidation of the analytic at critique of practical reason 100–102 seems to explain the fallibility of humans in connection with the difference between their phenomenal existence and their noumenal existence. for God, the connection is quite satisfactory: because God, uniquely, is able to see himself as he is in himself, his connection to the laws of reason that operate in world of reason is absolute. God is not a thing in the world, but humans are: for this reason, the distinction between things in the world and things in themselves serves to drive the two-sources account of human motivation and at once to explain the inapplicability of that account to God.

however, this neat achievement may be at the cost of a clean treatment of the case of other beings than embodied rational natures. to fully answer the question here would require a deeper investigation into Kant's epistemology, and a comparison between it and the medieval accounts of the manner of knowing possessed by the angels. i cannot say, not having undertaken this investigation, whether we can indeed find a satisfying resolution of what Kant's position might be, as we did find above in section five.

one potential answer here might be along the lines of Prentice's understanding of Scotus's account. perhaps the finite holy wills are holy not because of any difference in their nature, but because God specially intervenes to keep their inclinations in line with the moral law. for such a being, its actions would be necessarily in accord with the law. if one accepts the accounts of moral worth given by Herman or Korsgard, then such a being would certainly be capable of acts of moral worth, and could merit happiness just as said by Scotus.

Kant and moral progess after death

in the dialectic of pure practical reason, Kant provides some transcendental arguments for what he terms the postulates of pure practical reason; one of which is the immortality of the soul (critique of practical reason, 121–124). Kant holds that the immortality of the soul is a necessary precondition of the possibility of pure practical reason, and the opinions he articulates with regard to it are of direct relevance to the present essay.

Kant postulates the immortality of the soul in order to guarantee the possibility of infinite progress towards holiness. only in an infinite progress can this be acheived (critique of practical reason, 122); holiness functions both as the ideal goal towards which this infinite progress tends, and also a property of the entire series seen as a whole by God.

the traditional christian doctrine holds that the saints, after death, are incorruptible; is this true as well in Kant's picture? the closest we would come would be a commitment on his part that the progress of the soul continues necessarily, and that one can not fall back, as it were. Kant does not express any position on this point.

he does hold that holiness...is a perfection of which no rational being in the world of sense is at any time capable (critique of practical reason, 122) (from which is deduced that the holiness of the entire series of a life arises only when viewed as a whole by God, outside time). a slight equivocation of this point later holds that one cannot hope [at any point in time] to be fully adequate to God's will, without indulgence or remission which would not harmonize with justice (critique of practical reason, 123).

Kant's treatment of the immortality of the soul seems to seriously foreclose many of the possibilites described in the previous sections above. the confirmed good angels, for example, according to Anselm, are good by virtue of their inability to will any happiness inconsistent with justice, because they have received (as reward) all the happiness they are capable of. similarly, the elect saints, as described by Scotus, are incorruptible because God specially intervenes to guarantee they will not will contrary to justice. but such divine intervention is not allowed by Kant.

it is no secret that Kant objects to traditional christian notions of free divine grace; his commitment to strict proportional justice in matching happiness to moral worth forces this. but faced with one text which asserts that holiness is not possible in the world of time and another which says that such holiness would only be possible by special divine indulgence (as above), it seems natural to privilege the latter. Kant's objection to divine indulgence would explain the former text as a natural abbreviation of the same thought.

this opens again the possibility for finite holy beings, considered as holy within time, and not merely the series of their life as a whole. such possibility depends on special indulgence from God (which Kant believes cannot be forthcoming)—but the traditional christian doctrine always dependend on such special indulgence. as a result, if one (contra Kant) grants that such divine mercy is conceivable, then Kant himself now should accept the possibility that such divine mercy could provide for finite beings with holiness within time.

Kant's notion of holiness of the entire series of a life is not one i can make good sense of. holiness is (as we saw in section three) the property of a will which is necessarily in harmony with the law. if a will, viewed over the entire infinite series of its existence, was occasionally not in harmony with the law, how could it have been holy? i can only take it that the sort of extra-temporal holiness Kant speaks of here (in critique of practical reason, 121–124) is merely analogous to the proper sense, and not to be taken as synonymous with it.


Kant does not seem to offer a single coherent view about the holiness of finite beings. he seems to assume that (among rational beings) the class of finite beings, the class of beings in the world of sense, the class of beings who have sensibility, the class who have inclinations, the class who are not holy—that all these classes are to be identified. but at least the intensions of the expressions all differ, and the possibility that their extensions differ as well must be allowed.

because Kant is usually sensitive to the precise intension of these terms, it is possible, as i have sketched above, to work out ways in which finite rational beings might be in one or more of these classes but not the others. consideration of such beings was of paramount importance for medieval theorists whose considerations led into the framework of kantian ethics, and the reflexes in Kant of these medieval ideas indeed show adaptability to these questions.

indeed, by working out such an interpretive scheme, we find that Kant can be viewed as a participant in the same enterprise as his medieval predecessors, offering unique and interesting possible discussions of the ways incorruptible beings can be said to be free, or to merit happiness, and so forth.

Kant's ontology (at least, as presupposed by practical reason) explicitly includes room for God; as a consequence, interpreting the application of his concepts to God is much easier. still, there are some uncertain areas of interpretation: is God's holiness directly tied to his perfect intellection? or perhaps rather to the absence of sensation? or are these the same? regardless, Kant diverges much less here from the medieval writers i consider; as a result it is fairly easy to relate Kant's descriptions of the freedom and holiness of God to his medieval predecessors.


Anselm of canterbury, translation of Hopkins and Richardson
Kant, Immanuel. groundwork, translated by Paton.
———. critique of practical reason, translated by Beck.
———. metaphysics of morals, translated by Gregor.
Prentice, Robert P., OFM. the degree and mode of liberty in the beatitude of the blessed, in Deus et homo ad mentem i, acta tertia congressus scotistici internationalis vindebonae; sept. 28—oct. 2, 1970 (romae: societas internationalis scotistica, 1972), pp. 328–342.
Wood, Allen W. Kant's ethical thought.

things i wrote for my m.a.