Published online by Cambridge University Press: 02 March 2021
Ever since man has been able to reason, philosophers have obscured the question of free will; but the theologians rendered it unintelligible by absurd subtleties about grace. Locke was perhaps the first man to find a thread in the labyrinth, for he was the first, who, instead of arrogantly setting out from a general principle, examined human nature by analysis. For three thousand years people have disputed whether or not the will is free. In the Essay on Human Understanding, Locke shows that the question is fundamentally absurd, and that liberty can no more belong to the will than can color and movement.
What is the meaning of this phrase “to be free?” It means “to be able,” or else it has no meaning. To say that the will “can” is as ridiculous at bottom as to say that the will is yellow or blue, round or square. Will is wish, and liberty is power. Let us examine step by step, the chain of our inner processes without befuddling our minds with scholastic terms or antecedent principles.Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary c.1750
Voltaire formulates the most significant characteristics of the first Modern metaparadigm in his reflections on Locke and “free will.” The four phases of this metaparadigm will introduce heightened methods of self-analysis, methods for the analysis of human nature and the natural world, and separate this gain of human understanding and doing from the intervention of the Divine. This is a new epoch in human self-development. From its onset, we will see the view of a sovereign human being, whose very being is to be autonomous in his or her choices, indeed finding, as Hobbes will, that this “free will” is the major purpose of the age, an age that will reconstruct society's vision of authority, law, learning and moral action. As Martin Heidegger was to say in a later Modern metaparadigm, referring to great epochs such as that of ancient Greek thought and its ways of conceiving the human person and his community “But what is great can only begin great. Its beginning is in fact the greatest beginning of all.” He also saw such greatness as a potential within the beginnings of this epoch that begins in the mid-seventeenth century.