I don’t know about you, but in my writing I tend to draw ideas and inspiration from all kinds of sources. These include other fiction authors, history, psychology, theology, philosophy, occult studies, the hard sciences, etc. There are all kinds of ways to approach thinking about the world and the wide variety of things that it contains. Some of these approaches are more useful for my writing than others, but I’ve found that anything that gives me a new perspective on the way the world works is something that can potentially be helpful in understanding my characters and their world more deeply, and thus in writing them more effectively. Something that I’ve recently stumbled across is Thomas Aquinas’ anatomy of a human action, and I see some value in this kind of approach.

So, the first thing to understand is that, for Aquinas, only deliberate (or voluntary) actions count as ‘human’ actions, and thus only deliberate actions can be morally right or wrong (i.e. if I legitimately don’t know that stabbing someone with a sword will kill someone, then I can’t actually be held responsible for killing the person – now, it is certainly arguable as to whether a person could legitimately not know that stabbing someone with a sword is going to kill the person, because if I illigemiately don’t know this [i.e. through negligence or willful ignorance] then I am still responsible). Aquinas sets forth five powers (or faculties) of the soul: the vegitative power (or that which allows one to maintain and reproduce one’s life), the locomotive power (or that which allows one to interact with the physical world), the sensible power (or that which allows one to collect information about the world and thus have desires), the appetitive or volitional power (or that which allows one to make choices), and the intellectual power (or that which allows one to store information in the memory and reason from given premises to correct conclusions). Of these five powers, three of them take part in creating a human action – the sensible, the volitional, and the intellectual. The locomotive or vegitative powers may take part in performing an action, but they don’t take part in creating that action in the first place.

So, how does this work? Well, Aquinas divides the reason into two parts: 1) the higher reason that considers ultimate things and 2) the lower reason which considers practical things. So, for a human action to take place first the senses must detect a variety of potential goals that could be moved towards (for instance, spiritual health, physical well-being, the accumulation of wealth or power, breathing in outer space, unaided flight, etc). However, the goals which the senses detect may be either possible goals (i.e. physical well-being) or impossible goals (i.e. breathing in outer space). However, the senses cannot determine whether a goal is possible. Instead the higher reason determines that the potential goals are possible and proper ultimate goals (and it may do so well or poorly, thus one man might see spiritual wealth or world domination as a proper ultimate goal while another might see walking in a straight line as a proper ultimate goal). However, the higher reason only has the information that the senses can provide to work with. Thus, for instance, if I have never heard of this strange thing you call ‘money’ or ‘property’ then I cannot actually make the accumulation of wealth my ultimate goal precisely because I don’t know what wealth is, so I can’t register it as a possible goal. Similarly, belief also plays a part here – for instance, I may have heard of this being you call God, but if I don’t believe that he exists, then I can’t make knowing him my ultimate goal. It would be insane to make something I don’t believe is real the ultimate goal of my life.

Thus, once the higher reason has selected a set of possible and proper ultimate goals, it presents these to the will, and the will chooses one of these ultimate goals as the most good or most desirable of those goals (Aquinas argues that the good and the desirable are the same, and argues for a distinction between what is truly good or desirable and what merely seems good or desirable at the moment). However, in making this decision the will may be influenced by the affections and aversions (i.e. desires to obtain and desires to avoid) of the sensible part (I’m using Humean or Edwardian language because it fits what Aquinas is trying to say here and is probably easier to understand than Aquinas’ own language) – further, it is important to note that this ultimate goal can change over the course of an individual’s life, sometimes many times. This decision, once made by the will, is not set in stone and must be made again and again. Once the will (properly or improperly influenced by the senses) has made this decision, it bounces the chosen desire back to the lower part of the reason, the job of which is to develop a scheme for obtaining or achieving this desire. This scheme is then bounced back to the will which then chooses whether to enact it through the means of the locomotive and/or generative powers.

So, how is this useful for writing? Well, on its face this looks like a complicated explanation of how we set goals and then move towards them. However, one of the things that I find most interesting about Aquinas’ work is that it sets out how each part, including the desires or passions, is involved in making these kinds of decisions. A lot of the time we don’t really stop to think about how, or sometimes why our characters do the things that they do. Sometimes this works out fine, but often it can lead to characters taking actions that fit the story well, but that don’t fit the character well. A good example might be a story where a woman who is obsessed with her daughter’s well-fair suddenly and inexplicably chooses to sacrifice her daughter for the good of the plot. While character growth and change can, and certainly should, take place over the course of the story, the readers should be able to see how the woman went from having her daughter’s welfare as her ultimate goal to having something else as her ultimate goal. Aquinas’ anatomy of a human action can certainly help us to remember 1) how important this is, and 2) give us a means or working out the process in our own minds, though I wouldn’t suggest writing out the process as a part of the story (… though, the back and forth that the process involves could make an interesting flash fiction piece). So, there’s your thought for the day! I hope that its helpful in your writing, and I hope that it’s got you thinking about how you and your characters both make decisions.

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