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Free Will & The Paracelsian Metaphor of the Field, Seeds & Fruit

People have been grappling with the question of free will for a long time. I recently read a famous 16th Century writer's thoughts on this subject that were illuminating and I explore them in this post.

The writer, Paracelsus, was an influential figure in the history of medicine, philosophy and theology in Europe as it emerged into the light of the Renaissance. He has often been compared with his contemporary Martin Luther because of his open defiance of the authorities (in his case primarily in medicine) of his day. And his influence was profound for centuries after his death, resonating even today through the works of people like Carl Jung and Jorge Louis Borges and in the Japanese manga comic series Fullmetal Alchemist.

In thinking specifically about free will, which is our topic of interest here, he draws out the idea of human beings being like a field in nature. In Liber Prologi in Bitam Beatam (1533), he writes

"A bad seed produces a bad tree and in due course bad fruit, and a good seed produces a good tree and good fruit. But man is neither the good nor the bad seed. God is the good seed, and the devil is the bad seed, and man is the field. If the good seed falls upon man, it will grow out of him..."

So according to Paracelsus, humans are like a field in nature. Just as a field doesn't have the power to choose which seeds fall on it, neither do we humans. However, unlike a field, it would seem that humans have a few differences to a real field.

  1. We have a degree of freedom in being able to cultivate the conditions for our "soil" to be more or less fertile. In other words we can choose to be open to insights on living a happy life or we can choose to be pre-positioned to ignore or dismiss that sort of wisdom. We can form and hold an intention of openness to change for the better or we can resist any other way than the one we are using currently.

  2. Once we take in that wisdom, we can dedicate ourselves to incorporating it into our life or we can keep ignoring the lessons we have heard. Or, staying with the field metaphor, we have the power to ignore some and nurture other of the seeds that happen to fall upon us (i.e. we can choose to cultivate the ones that will grow into goodness and love).

  3. And, relatedly, we have the ability nurture the healthy habits in our life (like meditation, eating natural foods, and exercise) and break the unhealthy habits (like blaming, craving, aversion, attachment, envy, and so on). Or, again to use Paracelus's metaphor, to prune or starve seeds that will blossom into harm (i.e. to use the overtly Christian terminology of Paracelsus, instead of harm we could say "the devil" but it is the same fundamental meaning).

So if we have these three degrees of control, couldn't you call that free will? In one sense, yes. Looking at human life, we could say that each of us has the power accept the good seeds and reject the bad ones. But by Paracelsus' definition, no, we don't have free will. The passage above continues:

"Some like to claim that we have free will. This is not true. We do not choose; God chooses. ... you are a field, you are free to accept what you want, good or evil. If you take the evil, the devil does it, not you. You may say, I did it of my own free will, but in fact the devil did it, it is his achievement."


Here, Paracelsus' views become more nuanced. On the one hand, he says "you are free to accept what you want, good or evil." That sure sounds like we have free will. Yet just before that he says "We do not choose; God chooses." That sounds like an explicit rejection of free will to me. Is he contradicting himself?

I don't think so. I think he is implying that what he is calling God is willing all the time for us to choose the good seed (so "God chooses"). This energy for humans to accept the "good seed," it seems like he is saying, is a fundamental force in the nature of the universe and the human experience. It's like saying God wants rain to fall or a rock to roll down hill. In one sense "God" does "choose" this. Or you could just say the laws of nature prescribe this. I'm not sure there is that big of a difference from a wide-lensed perspective. So "God" is providing the good seeds and creating the conditions for humans to cultivate and grow the good seeds. But just like there isn't some actual person as master gardener sculpting every plant on earth each moment into a new shape or position, it isn't like there is literally some old guy with a beard with strings attached to our arms controlling our every movement or choice. It is more of a potential or direction of the natural flow of life.

But there is another force at work. There is the presence of the "bad seeds" and the temptation to nurture them. That is a possibility that exists alongside the fruits of the "good seeds." But because this "devil" force is present and at work, when we find the weeds of the bad seeds growing in our life, we can't claim to have done evil. Instead, we might say we have accepted it, consciously or not. So in that sense, we have a free will of choice but not a free will of action.

But even in this limited sense of free will of choice, we can't forget who is the one we say has free will. Who is the "we" that has "free will of choice."? Is it what normally we think of as "me," that is to say our body/brain and the memories, feelings, and thoughts that that body/brain produces? The answer is no, that part of our self most definitely does not have free will of any kind. That is the part of us that acts out the choice "we" have made between the good and the bad seed. This helps explain why we both do and do not have free will. Our body/brain does NOT have free will. "We" (the awareness or consciousness behind our body/brain) do have free will, but it is limited in the way Paracelsus describes to this free will of choice or acceptance or reception/cultivation of the good seeds.

This idea of acceptance or choice between which seeds we nurture and what kind of soil we prepare for those seeds can be expressed as our ability to move our awareness and our power to choose our beliefs. We can believe that life is great, or meant to be great, that we are free, that "god" exists, that we are "love," that the "kingdom of god" is here and now within and all around us. And our beliefs will manifest as our experience. These are the ideas embedded in the the good seeds. Or we also have the power to move our awareness to a negative interpretation of our life experiences and negative beliefs for what life has in store for us. This choice to have negative beliefs or to focus and maintain our awareness on fear or anger or sadness is a choice to accept and cultivate the "bad seeds." And the negative results will manifest (and keep manifesting) in our physical and emotional life.

So both are true at the same time. It is true that we have no free will. The seeds are the seeds, the field is the field, the fruits are the fruits. None of that do we have any power to influence. But at the same time we have the power to choose to accept the life that faith in love leads to. Or we can ignore the possibility of that life and we will bear witness to and live the life that comes from a belief in lack and separation and suffering. Both options are present at all times. That choice is ours. That power we do have. So is up to us, we do get to choose even though in some sense, we don't.


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