Some non-Christian writers will admit the limits of human reason due to their own experiences. They might have at one time failed to resist the lure of temptation, or have been duped by some false religion, or have been controlled by their emotions instead of rational thoughts. For this reason, Cicero says that the sparks of reason given to people by nature are extinguished immediately by false opinions and depraved behavior (Cicero, Tusc, Quæst. lib. 3). Some authors will even confess that once these depraved things seize a mind, it is very difficult to reserve their course. They have compared these vices to wild horses, that run wild without restraint.
At the same time, however, they believe that it is beyond dispute that acting virtuously or poorly is due to our own human power. They argue that if it is our choice to do this or that, then it must also be our choice not to do it. If it is in our choice not to act, then it must be our choice to act. Both in doing something or abstaining from something, we seem to act with freedom of choice. Therefore, it we can choose to do good, then we can choose to not do good. And if we commit evil, we can also choose not to do evil (Aristot. Ethic. lib. 3 c. 5).
Some authors like Seneca will even boast that if was the gift of the gods that humans live, but that it is our own efforts which make us live well and purely. This is why Cicero (in the person Cotta) claims that no wise person ever thanked the gods for acquiring wisdom for himself. “We are praised,” he says, “for virtue. And we glory in virtue. But we could never be praised for doing the right thing if our virtue came from the gods and not from ourselves. (Cicero, De Nat. Deorum). A little after that he adds: “All people believe that good fortune must be sought from God but wisdom must come from ourselves.”
Therefore, in short, all the non-Christian philosophers maintain that human reason is sufficient to guide humanity’s thinking and lead it to proper behavior. They might believe that the human will, which is inferior to reason, may indeed to coopted my the human flesh or emotions to do evil, but since we have free choice, there is nothing to prevent a person from following reason in all things.
“Blogging the Institutes” is my on-going attempt to paraphrase John Calvin’s work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. You can find out more about the series in the Introduction. For all the posts in this series, check out the Master List.