One generation after Aristotle, Epicurus argued that as atoms move through the void, there are occasions when they might "swerve" from their otherwise determined paths, thus initiating new causal chains - with a causa sui or uncaused cause. Epicurus wanted to break the causal chain of physical determinism and deny claims that the future is logically necessary. Parenthetically, we now know that atoms do not occasionally swerve, they are moving unpredictably whenever they are in close contact with other atoms or interacting with radiation. Everything in the material universe is made of atoms in unstoppable perpetual motion. "Deterministic" paths are only the case for very large objects, where the statistical laws of atomic physics average to become nearly certain dynamical laws for billiard balls and planets. The paths of such large objects are only statistically determined, albeit with negligible randomness. We call the real physical determinism we have in the world "adequate determinism" to distinguish it from predeterminism, with its causal chain going back to the origin of the universe. So Epicurus' intuition of a fundamental randomness was correct. Just as Democritus' intuition of atoms in a void was confirmed by modern physics, so Epicurus' swerve (the "clinamen") has been confirmed by quantum physics. Like the other physiologoi (φυσιολόγοι) and physicists (φύσικοι), Democritus had replaced the gods as explanations of phenomena with his deterministic laws of nature in order to give humans more control over their fate and thus moral responsibility. For similar reasons, Epicurus added an element of chance to provide still more control and moral responsibility than physical determinism alone can provide. He said, in his Letter to Menoeceus, §134,
It is better to follow the myth about the gods than to be a slave of the "fate" of the physicists: for the former suggests a hope of forgiveness, in return for honor, but the latter has an ineluctable necessity. ἐπεὶ κρεῖττον ἦν τῷ περὶ θεῶν μύθῳ κατακολουθεῖν ἢ τῇ τῶν φυσικῶν εἱμαρμένῃ δουλεύειν· ὁ μὲν γὰρ ἐλπίδα παραιτή- σεως ὑπογράφει θεῶν διὰ τιμῆς, ἣ δὲ ἀπαραίτητον ἔχει τὴν ἀνάγκηνIt is critically important to note that there is very little new of importance in Epicurus - except the specific mechanism of the atomic swerve - that was not already there in Aristotle's treatment of moral responsibility in the Nichomachean Ethics and the Metaphysics. Aristotle had already argued against the atomists' necessity (Leucippus) and causal determinism (Democritus). He did not care for the atomists' atheistic dismissal of the gods, but he unequivocally endorsed chance, itself an atheistic idea flying in the face of the gods' foreknowledge, as the specific means of breaking the causal chain of determinism and necessity. Aristotle had also treated a related problem that greatly concerned Epicurus, namely the idea that the current truth or falsity of a statement about the future entails the necessity of the future event. In de Interpretatione, IX, Aristotle argued that statements about future events have no truth value until the event does or does not occur. The future is thus open, to accidental chance for example. Epicurus connected this logical necessity to causal determinism, because, he said, a future event could not be fated and logically necessitated unless the causes of that event are already present. Note that neither Aristotle nor Epicurus are denying the principles of bivalence or non-contradiction. They both think these principles will apply once the future arrives. The difference between Aristotle and Epicurus is then very slight as concerns the problem of free will. Aristotle never acknowledges the existence of a "free will problem." For him, it is transparent and obvious that our voluntary actions are "up to us." The determinism and necessity of the atomists is simply another impractical ideal, as inapplicable to the real world as the transcendental Ideas of his master Plato. And he was explicit that chance exists in the world. Aristotle sees three causes or explanations for things that happen - necessity, chance, and a third thing (a tertium quid) in the agent-causality that he describes as "up to us" (παρ’ ἡμᾶς). Since it clearly was Epicurus who first recognized an explicit conflict between determinism/necessity and free will, we can confirm that Epicurus was the first to recognize the traditional "problem of free will." For Epicurus, the atomic swerve was a means to deny the fatalistic future implied by determinism (and necessity). As the Epicurean Roman Lucretius explained the idea,
...if all motion is always one long chain, and new motion arises out of the old in order invariable, and if the first-beginnings do not make by swerving a beginning of motion such as to break the decrees of fate, that cause may not follow cause from infinity, whence comes this freedom in living creatures all over the earthEpicurus did not say the swerve was directly involved in decisions so as to make them random. His critics, ancient (the Stoics) and modern (determinists), have claimed mistakenly that Epicurus did assume "one swerve - one decision," so that our thoughts and actions would be random. Some recent philosophers call this the "traditional interpretation" of Epicurean free will. On the contrary, following Aristotle, Epicurus thought human agents have an autonomous ability to transcend the necessity and chance of some events. This special ability makes us morally responsible for our actions.
We know Epicurus' work largely from Lucretius and his friend ...some things happen of necessity (ἀνάγκη), others by chance (τύχη), others through our own agency (παρ’ ἡμᾶς).Cicero. Lucretius describes Epicurus' idea of breaking the causal chain of determinism in De Rerum Natura. Indeed, without swerves, nothing would ever have been produced.
One further point in this matter I desire you to understand: that while the first bodies are being carried downwards by their own weight in a straight line through the void, at times quite uncertain and uncertain places, they swerve a little from their course, just so much as you might call a change of motion. For if they were not apt to incline, all would fall downwards like raindrops through the profound void, no collision would take place and no blow would be caused amongst the first-beginnings: thus nature would never have produced anything. But if by chance anyone believes it to be possible that heavier elements, being carried more quickly straight through the void, fall from above or, the lighter, and so deal blows which can produce generative motions, he is astray and departs far from true reasoning. For whatever things fall through water and through fine air, these must speed their fall in accordance with their weights, because the body of water and the thin nature of air cannot delay each thing equally, but yield sooner overcome by the heavier ; but contrariwise empty void cannot offer any support to anything anywhere or at any time, but it must give way continually, as its nature demands : therefore they must all be carried with equal speed, although not of equal weight, through the unresisting void. So the heavier bodies will never be able to fall from above on the lighter, nor deal blows of themselves so as to produce the various motions by which nature carries on her processes. Therefore again and again I say, the bodies must incline a little; and not more than the least possible, or we shall seem to assume oblique movements, and thus be refuted by the facts. For this we see to be manifest and plain, that weights, as far as in them lies, cannot travel obliquely, when they drop straight from above, as far as one can perceive; but who is there who can perceive that they never swerve ever so little from the straight undeviating course?Lucretius may have associated the swerve more closely than did Epicurus himself with human freedom (libera) and with the will (voluntas) in this passage, where he identifies swerving (declinando) with "first-beginnings" of motions and describes our mind as swerving our motions wherever pleasure leads us.
Again, if all motion is always one long chain, and new motion arises out of the old in order invariable, and if the first-beginnings do not make by swerving a beginning of motion such as to break the decrees of fate, that cause may not follow cause from infinity, whence comes this free will (libera) in living creatures all over the earth, whence I say is this will (voluntas) wrested from the fates by which we proceed whither pleasure leads each, swerving also our motions not at fixed times and fixed places, but just where our mind has taken us? For undoubtedly it is his own will in each that begins these things, and from the will movements go rippling through the limbs.Note that the Loeb translators have made the common error of substituting "free will" for the first (free) part of Lucretius' description of the "libera voluntas." The second part is the will. The original text says "whence comes this freedom (libera)," not "whence comes this free will." Epicurus and Lucretius need the swerve only to break the causal chains at some point earlier than our willed actions, so that our will can proceed "whither pleasure leads us" and "just where our mind takes us." Neither Epicurus nor Lucretius likely assumed we could hold our will morally responsible for actions that are purely random, actions not involving our desires ("whither pleasure") or beliefs ("our mind"). Nevertheless, both thinkers have been misinterpreted and criticized, starting in antiquity with the Stoics, notably Chrysippus, and later the Academic Skeptic Cicero, who in his De Fato and De Natura Deorum attacks the Epicureans and lampoons the idea of a "free will" based on random atomic motions.
Epicurus saw that if the atoms travelled downwards by their own weight; we should have no freedom of the will [Cicero says literally "nothing would be in our power"], since the motion of the atoms would be determined by necessity. He therefore invented a device to escape from determinism (the point had apparently escaped the notice of Democritus): he said that the atom while travelling vertically downward by the force of gravity makes a very slight swerve to one side. This defence discredits him more than if he had had to abandon his original position. (Cicero, De Natura Deorum, Loeb Classical Library translation, v.40, p.67)This "traditional interpretation" of a libertarian free will dependent on chance has been attacked for centuries as irrational and unintelligible. This randomness objection is the second horn in the dilemma of the standard argument against free will. The first horn is the determinism objection and Epicurus was its discoverer.
Works of EpicurusLetter to Herodotus Letter to Menoeceus Letter to Pythocles Principal Doctrines
Commentators on Epicurean Freedom
Carlo GiussaniIn his 1896 Studi lucreziani (p.126),Giussani put forward the idea that atomic swerves are involved directly in every case of human free action, not just somewhere in the past that breaks the causal chain of determinism.
The complete conception of the will according to Epicurus comprises two elements, a complex atomic movement which has the characteristic of spontaneity, that is, is withdrawn from the necessity of mechanical causation: and then the sensus, or self-consciousness in virtue of which the will, illuminated by previous movements of sensation, thought, and emotion, profits by the peculiar liberty or spontaneity of the atomic motions, to direct or not to direct these in a direction seen or selected. (Cyril Bailey translation)
Cyril BaileyIn 1928 Bailey agreed with Giussani that the atoms of the mind-soul provide a break in the continuity of atomic motions, otherwise actions would be necessitated. Bailey imagined complexes of mind-atoms that work together to form a consciousness that is not determined, but also not susceptible to the pure randomness of individual atomic swerves, something that could constitute Epicurus' idea of actions being "up to us" (πὰρ' ἡμάς).
It is a commonplace to state that Epicurus, like his follower Lucretius, intended primarily to combat the 'myths' of the orthodox religion, to show by his demonstration of the unfailing laws of nature the falseness of the old notions of the arbitrary action of the gods and so to relieve humanity from the terrors of superstition. But it is sometimes forgotten that Epicurus viewed with almost greater horror the conception of irresistible 'destiny' or 'necessity', which is the logical outcome of the notion of natural law pressed to its conclusion. This conclusion had been accepted in its fulness by Democritus, but Epicurus conspicuously broke away from him: 'it were better to follow the myths about the gods than to become a slave to the "destiny" of the natural philosophers: for the former suggests a hope of placating the gods by worship, whereas the latter involves a necessity which knows no placation'. Diogenes of Oenoanda brings out the close connexion with moral teaching: 'if destiny be believed in, then all advice and rebuke is annihilated'. If any ethical system is to be effective it must postulate the freedom of the will. If in the sphere of human action too 'destiny' is master, if every action is the direct and inevitable outcome of all preceding conditions and man's belief in his own freedom of choice is a mere delusion, then a moral system is useless: it is futile to tell a man what he ought or ought not to do, if he is not at liberty to do it. Here at all events 'destiny' must be eliminated. It is a more fatal enemy than superstition, for it means complete paralysis: spontaneity — voluntas — must be at all costs maintained. But why, in order to secure this very remote object, should a protest against 'inexorable necessity' be made at this point in the physical system? It would have been easy, one might think, to accomplish the immediate purpose of securing the meeting of the atoms in their fall through space by some device, such as the Stoic notion that all things tend to the centre,' which should not be a breach of the fundamental law of causality, instead of this sporadic spontaneous deviation. And in what sense can this 'swerve' be said to be vital for the freedom of the will, with which Lucretius so emphatically connects it? The answer must be looked for in the very material notions of Epicurus' psychology, which may be briefly anticipated here. The mind (νοῦς) is a concentration in the breast of an aggregate of very fine atoms, the same in character as those which, distributed all over the body and intermingling with the body atoms, form the vital principle (ψυχή). This aggregation of atoms may be set in motion by images, whether coming directly from external things or stored up as an 'anticipation' (πρόληχις) in the mind itself. Suppose, for instance, that in this way there comes before my mind the image of myself walking: ultimately the atoms of the mind being themselves stirred, will set in motion the atoms of the vital principle: they in turn will stir the atoms of body, the limbs will be moved and I shall walk. But before this can happen another process must take place, the process of volitional choice.When the image is presented to the mind it does not of itself immediately and inevitably start the chain of motions which results in the physical movement; I can at will either accept or reject the idea which it suggests, I can decide either to walk or not to walk. This is a matter of universal experience and it must I not be denied or rejected. But how is this process of choice to be explained on purely material lines? It is due, said Epicurus, to the spontaneous swerving of the atoms: the act of volition is neither more nor less than the 'swerve' of the fine atoms which compose the mind. The fortuitous indeterminate movement of the individual atoms in the void 'is in the conscious complex (concilium) of the mind transformed into an act of deliberate will. The vital connexion, indeed the identity of the two processes is clearly brought out by Lucretius at the close of his exposition of the theory: 'but that the very mind feels not some necessity within in doing all things, and is not constrained like a conquered thing to bear and suffer, this is brought about by the tiny swerve of the first-beginnings in no determined direction of place and at no determined time'. It is not merely, as has been suggested, that Epicurus decided to get over two difficult problems in his system economically by adopting a single solution, but that he perceived an essential connexion between them: if freedom is to be preserved, it must be asserted at the very basis of the physical world. The 'swerve' of the atoms is, no doubt, as the critics have always pointed out, a breach of the fundamental laws of cause and effect, for it is the assertion of a force for which no cause can be given and no explanation offered. For if it be said that the atom swerves because it is its nature to do so, that is merely to put 'nature' as a deus ex machina on a level with 'necessity' as it was conceived by some of the early physicists, a force which came in to do what could not otherwise be explained. But it was no slip or oversight on Epicurus' part which a more careful consideration of his principles might have rectified. On the contrary it was a very deliberate breach in the creed of 'necessity' and is in a sense the hinge on which the whole of his system turns. He wished to secure 'freedom' as an occasional breach of 'natural law'. If criticism is to be brought against him, it must not be on the technical ground of inconsistency in this detail, but on the broader ground that in his system as a whole he was attempting the impossible. To escape from the old notion of the divine guidance of the world, the Atomists had set up a materialist philosophy directed solely by uniform laws of cause and effect. Democritus saw that this, if pursued to its logical conclusion, must lead to an unflinching determinism, which with more scientific insight perhaps, but less care for his ethical precepts, he had wholly accepted. Epicurus, unwilling in this way to risk his moral system, tried to escape from the impasse without abandoning a materialist position. Such a compromise is in reality impossible: a wholly materialist view of the world, which excludes altogether the spiritual and the supernatural, must lead to determinism, and there is no real path of escape, except in the acknowledgement of other than material conditions and causes. From the point of view of ultimate consistency, the 'swerve' is a flaw in Epicureanism, but it is not to be treated as a petty expedient to get over a temporary difficulty, or an unintelligent mistake which betrays the superficial thinker. It may not be uninteresting to notice that a parallel difficulty arises for modern thinkers and that a solution not unlike that of Epicurus' atomic swerve has sometimes been propounded.
David FurleyIn 1967 Furley examined the ideas of Giussani and Bailey and de-emphasized the importance of the swerve in both Epicurus and Lucretius so as to defend Epicurus from the "extreme" libertarian view that our actions are caused directly by random swerves. (Bailey had also denied this "traditional interpretation.") Furley argues for a strong connection between the ideas of Aristotle and Epicurus on autonomous actions that are "up to us."
If we now put together the introduction to Lucretius' passage on voluntas and Aristotle's theory of the voluntary, we can see how the swerve of atoms was supposed to do its work. Aristotle's criterion of the voluntary was a negative one: the source of the voluntary action is in the agent himself, in the sense that it cannot be traced back beyond or outside the agent himself. Lucretius says that voluntas must be saved from a succession of causes which can be traced back to infinity. All he needs to satisfy the Aristotelian criterion is a break in the succession of causes, so that the source of an action cannot be traced back to something occurring before the birth of the agent. A single swerve of a single atom in the individual's psyche would be enough for this purpose, if all actions are to be referred to the whole of the psyche.But there is no evidence about the number of swerves. One would be enough, and there must not be so many that the psyche exhibits no order at all; between these limits any number would satisfy the requirements of the theory. The swerve, then, plays a purely negative part in Epicurean psychology. It saves voluntas from necessity, as Lucretius says it does, but it does not feature in every act of voluntas. There is no need to scrutinize the psychology of a voluntary action to find an uncaused or spontaneous element in it. The peculiar vulnerability of Epicurean freedom — that it seemed to fit random actions, rather than deliberate and purposive ones — is a myth, if this explanation is correct. We can now understand why the swerve gets no mention in Lucretius' account of voluntary action. It gets no mention because it plays no direct part in it. The theory of the swerve asserts merely that our actions are not caused conjointly by the environment and our parentage. There was no need for Lucretius to mention this in his account of the psychology of action, any more than there was for Aristotle to insist on his negative criterion of the voluntary in De Motu Animalium. It may be objected that a swerve in the psyche must have been supposed to produce some observable effect. But not even this is true. We have already glanced at Lucretius' doctrine that the mind has before it innumerable simulacra which never reach the level of consciousness, because the time interval during which they are present is imperceptibly small. But if the impact of those complicated atomic configurations which constitute simulacra could have no observable effect, it is a safe inference that the minute swerve of a single atom would be undetectable. So we can, after all, make use of the Epicurean concept of the concilium in our explanation. I argued previously against Bailey's use of it in saying that "what in the individual atom is a matter of chance, in the conscious complex of the animus is 'conscious chance.'" It is impossible to see how the random motion of an individual atom can by itself account for the end-directed motions of the complex of which it is a part. It is perfectly reasonable, however, that the random motion of a single atom should be concealed by the fact that it is just one element in a complex. The Epicurean psychology of action, if I am right, was in outline as follows. Each person is born with a psyche of a particular character, determined by the proportions of atoms of the four different kinds which constitute a psyche. From the beginning of life, reactions occur between the psyche and the external world, through the medium of atomic eidola which flow from all objects and may reach the psyche through the sense organs and the mind. From the beginning, the child experiences feelings of pleasure and pain; in atomic terms, pain is a disturbance of the motions of the psyche atoms caused by a lack of something, and pleasure is either the restoration of the undisturbed motions which constitute tranquillity, or else the state of tranquillity itself. The child learns to associate external objects with one or other of these feelings. A feeling of something lacking constitutes a motive to make good the lack, and so creates an impulse towards an object in the external world which the child has learned will supply the deficiency. A person's feelings, and therefore his motives and his behavior, are to some extent determined by his genetic inheritance of a psyche of such and such a constitution. But the motions of the psyche (and it is in its motions that all its character and action consists) are not determined ab initio, because a discontinuity is brought about by the atomic swerve. The swerve of an atom or atoms in the psyche means that the inherited motions are disturbed, and this allows new patterns of motion to be established which cannot be explained by the initial constitution of the psyche. There is both continuity and discontinuity. The character of the person is to some extent still determined by the initial constitution of his psyche, because the proportions of atoms of different types in it remain the same. But to a much greater extent his character is adaptable, because the motions of the atoms are not determined and can be changed by learning. A person learns by experience. He learns what desires must be satisfied, and what objects satisfy them, simply by constant repetition of the experience of desire and satisfaction. He can learn by individual trial and error, or by precept and example from others. If he is indoctrinated in the Epicurean philosophy, he learns to distinguish desires which arise from nature and must be satisfied from those which arise from nature but need not be satisfied and from those which do not arise from nature and are best eliminated. He learns that the limit of pleasure is the absence of pain, and so ceases to feel pain through desire for some extra pleasure. His feelings become disciplined, so that an improper object—one that brings more pain than pleasure in the long run—no longer arouses desire in him. He learns not so much to reject some of the things he desires as to cease to desire the things he ought to reject. The wise Epicurean is not to be pictured as asserting himself by repeated "acts of volition" against the temptations of the world, but as having learned not to be tempted. His "freedom" does not consist in being presented with possible alternatives, and in choosing one when he might have chosen the other. It consists rather in the fact that his psyche is the product of his own actions and is not unalterably shaped by some "destiny" from the time before his birth. The weakness of this theory of "freedom," both in its Epicurean and in its Aristotelian form, is to be found chiefly in its refusal to consider the processes of character formation. When Aristotle says that children should be brought up from the beginning to feel pleasure and pain in the right objects, he obviously does not consider such education to be equivalent to compulsion. He stresses that educators and lawgivers use punishments and other incentives to make people behave in the right way, and at the same time insists that the acts which create virtuous dispositions are not to be referred to causes outside ourselves." It is curious that he does not see this as a problem, since it was clearly raised by Gorgias in his Praise of Helen, almost a century before, when he offered as one of his excuses for Helen's behavior the possibility that she was persuaded by argument. It might well have arisen, too, from a consideration of Democritus' ethical opinions. Part of the explanation is probably that persuasion was commonly seen as an antithesis to compulsion? But Aristotle should have seen the need to reestablish this antithesis, since he had to some extent broken it down himself in talking of a class of actions which were a mixture of the voluntary and the involuntary. If Aristotle had seriously examined the reasons why he took the results of education to be "in our own power," he would have been compelled to specify more exactly what he meant by saying "the source is in us." He might then have been led to say that the criterion of morality (that is to say, the criterion that determines whether an action is liable to moral appraisal or not) is to be found precisely in our ability to be influenced by persuasion as opposed to force. If he had stressed this, then I think Epicurus might after all have thought the swerve unnecessary (unnecessary, that is to say, in his psychology; it was still needed in his cosmology). For in his theory, the effects of persuasion would be similarly explained whether the swerve were there or not. Persuasion is by words, and words, in the crude atomism of the time, do their work by collisions, through the medium of the sense organs. The swerve is not needed for them to have this effect. I leave it to others to decide whether the Epicurean theory, without the swerve, would have been "determinist" as opposed to "libertarian," because I do not yet see how to define this particular antithesis. But if it would be determinist, I think it would be a sort of determinism that is compatible with morality.
Pamela HubyIn the same year 1967, Huby suggested that Epicurus was the original discoverer of the "freewill problem." Huby noted that there had been two main free will problems, corresponding to different determinisms, namely theological determinism (predestination and foreknowledge) and the physical causal determinism of Democritus.
It is unfortunate that our knowledge of the early history of the Stoics is so fragmentary, and that we have no agreed account of the relations between them and Epicurus. On the evidence we have, however, it seems to me more probable that Epicurus was the originator of the freewill controversy, and that it was only taken up with enthusiasm among the Stoics by Chrysippus, the third head of the school. The outlines of Epicurus' approach are familiar enough. He took over the atomic theory of Democritus almost unchanged, but introduced one significant new point, the swerve of the atoms, a slight change of direction that could occur without any cause. According to tradition this was to solve two problems for him: the change of direction would enable atoms otherwise falling all in the same direction and at the same speed to collide and so enter into larger combinations, and the fact that it occurred without cause would break the otherwise continuous chain of causation and so allow room for freedom of action by men, whose minds were composed of atoms and therefore subject to the same laws as everything else. In spite of the poverty of our evidence, it is quite clear that one main reason Epicurus had for introducing the swerve, or rather the swerve as a random, uncaused event, was as a solution to the problem of freewill. Unlike Aristotle, he fully appreciated that there was a problem. He believed in free will, because it seemed to him manifestly clear that men could originate action, but he could not, like Aristotle, regard this as the end of the matter. We may not think much of the solution he offers, but he deserves full credit for appreciating the problem. There are now two main points to be cleared up: (1) was Epicurus the first to appreciate the problem, or was he anticipated by the Stoics or someone else? (2) If he was the first, how did he come to do so, and what exactly was the nature of the problem as he saw it? ...we have to explain why Aristotle was so resistant to determinism, and Epicurus so impressed by it. The answer must surely lie, in part at least, in their differing attitudes to Democritus. Aristotle was indeed steeped in Democritus, and had a considerable admiration for him, but at the same time found his system quite unacceptable. We can see why this was so. Aristotle's thought was dominated by a teleological view of causality, in which the paradigm of what guides change is the tendency of an organism to develop into a certain kind of thing. This made the idea of a causal chain in which the future is entirely determined by the past strange and irrelevant. ...in Book K (1064b 35) Aristotle takes his stand on the point that we know very well that some things happen kata symbebekos, which is in opposition to ex anankes, and that, in this context, means causally determined in our sense. What happens kata symbebekos is, then, undetermined. Aristotle then had two reasons for rejecting determinism, (i) that some things obviously happened kata symbebekos, and (ii) that men had free will [Aristotle only says some actions are "up to us."] At the same time it is putting it too strongly to say that he rejected determinism: rather it seems that it was for him a non-starter. This is clearly in sharp contrast to the views of Epicurus and the Stoics, both of whom made valiant if unsuccessful attempts to reconcile freedom and determinism. ...the fact remains, on the evidence of Cicero and Lucretius, that Epicurus still ultimately traced the freedom of the will to the swerve of the atoms. How exactly he did this remains a mystery. The philosophical, as distinct from the historical, conclusion of my argument is twofold, first that it was possible for men like Plato and Aristotle to hold many educational and psychological beliefs in common with us without being aware of any freewill problem because they had no notion of thorough-going psychological determinism, and, second, that once the problem had been formulated it was appreciated by philosophers of many different schools throughout later antiquity as if it were indeed a natural problem.
A. A. Long and D. N. SedleyIn their great 1987 work The Hellenistic Philosophers (dedicated to David Furley), Long and Sedley discussed Epicurus and the free will problem at length, with references to the principal original Greek and Latin sources. (Long and Sedley did for the Hellenistic philosophers what Diels Kranz did for the Pre-Socratics. Letter references below are to the fragments in L&S volume 2. Number refernces are to sewctions of volume 1.)
Epicurus' problem is this: if it has been necessary all along that we should act as we do, it cannot be up to us, with the result that we would not be morally responsible for our actions at all (especially A, E 3, F 1, G). Thus posing the problem of determinism he becomes arguably the first philosopher to recognize the philosophical centrality of what we know as the Free Will Question. His strongly libertarian approach to it can be usefully contrasted with the Stoics' acceptance of determinism (see 62). Epicurus certainly saw the Democritean atomism which he had inherited as vulnerable to such a challenge, since it made all phenomena, including human behaviour, fully accountable in terms of rigid physical laws of atomic motion, and hence necessary: see A 2, C 13-14, E 3, G. It is perhaps the most widely known fact about Epicurus that he for this reason modified the deterministic Democritean system by introducing a slight element ofindeterminacy to atomic motion, the 'swerve' (on which see also 11H with commentary): E 2-3, F, G. But taken in isolation such a solution is notoriously unsatisfactory. It promises to liberate us from rigid necessity only to substitute an alternative human mechanism, perhaps more undependable and eccentric but hardly more autonomous. Epicurus' remarks in A 1, where 'that which depends on us' (or `that which is up to us') is contrasted with unstable fortune as well as with necessity, suggest that he meant to avoid this trap. In order to see how, we must defer discussion of the swerve for now.. The swerve is not even mentioned in the surviving papyrus fragments [B,C] of Epicurus' book on the issue of responsibility from which B and C are drawn But the book still sheds abundant light on the question. In C he conducts a running debate with a Democritean determinist. Democritus himself, we are told, simply failed to see the implications of his determinism for human action (C 13-14). Epicurus' principal target in C 2-12, on the other hand, is someone who consciously applies mechanistic determinism to all human behaviour, including his own. He probably has in mind such fourth-century Democriteans as his own reviled teacher Nausiphanes — the heirs of Democritus derided C 13, as perhaps also implicitly in G. (The early Stoics have sometimes been identified as his target, but cf. 62 with commentary; 'natural philosophers', A 2. would not normally be used of Stoics, in any case.) In C I Epicurus is arguing that since we start with a wide range of potentials ('seeds') for character development our actual direction of development is not physically predetermined but 'up to us'. There are physical influences, but we can control them (cf. 15D 7-8). If it were they that controlled us, our moral and critical attitudes to each other would make no sense (C 2). This leads him into his anti-determinist digression, which continues until its express conclusion at C 15. The determinist may simply regard these attitudes as themselves necessitated (C 3). But this does not save him from the charge of self-refutation (C 5, and perhaps already in the very fragmentary C 4): his own critical attitude in this very debate still implies what he wishes to deny, that the parties to the debate are responsible for their own views. The determinist will resort to the defence that he is compelled to behave in this way; when challenged once again for continuing to argue, will repeat the defence; and so on ad infinitum. Epicurus' objection to this infinite regress (C 6) is not that it is in itself vicious, but rather that it leaves the inconsistency untouched: at every stage of the regress the determinist's behaviour in continuing to argue his case as if with a responsible agent contradicts his thesis that everything, including our beliefs, is mechanically necessitated. In the second stage of the digression, C 8-12, Epicurus suggests that determinism cannot amount to a substantive thesis about the world, and that its application of 'necessity' to human agency will turn out to be no more than a change of terminology. First (C 8) comes an appeal to 'preconception' (on which as a criterion, see 17 above). We all share a preconception of our own agency as that which is responsible for our behaviour: to defuse the evidential force of this, the determinist would have to show how the alleged preconception has come to embody a faulty 'delineation' (cf. 17E 2, 5) of the facts. (Compare Epicurus' own grounds for dismissing the alleged preconception of the gods as provident, 23B—C below.) If he cannot, the preconception remains valid and the determinist's contribution is merely a new name for it. Second (C 9), his thesis is pragmatically empty. Since he denies us an internal source of self-determination (an 'auxiliary element or impulse in us') he can never expect his arguments to dissuade us from any action. In this Epicurus contrasts him with someone who has a proper grasp (as recommended in A 1) of the difference between the necessitated and the unnecessitated, and who consequently can expect to dissuade us from actions which would involve resisting necessity (C to) perhaps, for example, dissuade us from a vain desire to evade the inevitability of death, because unlike the determinist he can appreciate that while death is necessary our wishes are up to us. Third (C II), the determinist leaves himself no tools for analysing 'mixed' actions (as they are called by Aristotle, Nicomachean ethics in. I), those performed freely but reluctantly in avoidance of a greater evil, since he is unable to distinguish the voluntary from the necessitated elements in them. The final stage of the argument, C 13-14, is pragmatic, appealing to the disastrous practical consequences that would have ensued had Democritus remembered to apply his thesis of universal necessitation to himself. No illustration is given, but one easy example would be the abandonment of decision-making (cf. 55S). It is remarkable how closely the internal structure of this anti-determinist argument matches that of 16A's anti-sceptic argument, with the sequence of a self-refutation challenge (C 3-7; cf. 16A 1), an appeal to preconception and word-meaning (C 8-12; cf. 16A 2-3), and a pragmatic argument (C 13-14; cf. 16A 9-10). So too its function as a digression added late in the book to justify the preceding positive account of psychological causation matches the role of 16A in relation to Lucretius' preceding positive account of sense-perception. None of this is likely to be mere coincidence. For scepticism and the kind of mechanistic determinism envisaged here were seen as joint consequences of Democritus' reductionist atomism. If phenomenal properties were reducible to mere configurations of atoms and void, it seemed to follow that the atoms and void alone were real while the sensible properties were arbitrary constructions placed upon them by our cognitive organs. The result was scepticism about the sensible world, which had become the characteristic stance of most fourth-century Democriteans (see further, 1 and 16). Similarly, if the 'self' and its volitions were reducible to mere sequences of atomic motion in the soul, human action would easily appear to be mechanistic, fully explicable in terms of primary physical laws, with no additional explanatory or descriptive role left for such psychological entities as belief and volition. And that is just the kind of theory under attack in C (cf. especially C 2, 9). Given the extent of this parallelism between scepticism and determinism, and between Epicurus' respective refutations of them, we might expect his own positive alternatives to them to be similarly comparable. And so they are. Just as his answer to scepticism is to affirm the reality of phenomenal properties and the truth of sense-impressions of them (see on 7 and 16), so too his answer to mechanism is to affirm the reality and causal efficacy of the self and its volitions as something over and above the underlying patterns of atomic motion. This plainly emerges from B, despite the lack of context and certain difficulties of interpretation. Epicurus is speaking of self-determining animals. (Volitional autonomy is not restricted to human beings, cf. F 1-2; but elsewhere in the book, j in vol. 2, wild animals seem to be excluded, as lacking self-determination and hence as exempt from moral criticism, though not from hate.) Their misbehaviour is quite explicitly said (B 1-4) to be attributable not to their atoms but to their selves and their 'developments'. The latter term, which is crucial to the entire book's discussion, is explicated at B 5. The kind of 'development' which contributes psychological autonomy is one which is distinct from the underlying atoms in a 'differential' way ('transcendent' would be a tempting translation of the Greek word) — a way more radical than 'the way which is like viewing from a different distance'. The point is apparently that all bodies have certain properties, e.g. colour, over and above their constituent atoms, but that there the main difference is one of scale, one between macroscopic and microscopic analysis; whereas the 'developments' which supply autonomy differ from the atoms in a much more fundamental way. The fragmentary state of the text leaves us to guess at the nature of this difference, although it is hard to doubt that it includes the intentional properties associated with consciousness. How do these psychological entities relate metaphysically and causally to the mind's atoms? They can only be, technically speaking, 'accidental attributes' of those atoms (cf. 7). But they are not mere epiphenomena, supervenient on atomic motions and causally determined by them. For Epicurus is quite explicit in attributing to them a causal efficacy distinct from that of the atoms. Hence, although atomic make-up may be responsible for disorderly motions of the mind-atoms (B 4), it does not follow that we cannot make decisions which override those motions, and according to B 6 psychological causation actually operates on our component atoms. This throws immediate light on Lucretius' insistence at 14D 5 that although atomic composition of the soul determines our natural temperament, we can learn through reason to overcome that temperament. Perhaps, for instance, a natural coward can learn courage through rational reflection. His disorderly motions of soul atoms may then be stabilized, so that he ceases to suffer even the physical sensations of fear. By now the familiar 'materialist' label is beginning to fit Epicurus less neatly. Although he holds prima facie an Identity Theory of mind (see 14), he does not regard mental states as capable of straightforward physical analysis, for although properties of the corporeal mind they are not mere physical states of it. We have here, then, an interactionist dualism of the mental and the physical. But there is no hint of Cartesian dualism. A better comparison would be with the modern notion of Emergence. In Epicurus' view, matter in certain complex states can take on non-physical properties, which in turn bring entirely new causal laws into operation. B 7 emphasizes that the distinction between physical and psychological causation is crucial to an understanding of responsibility. And certainly it does constitute at least the beginning of an answer to determinism. The 'self' which is responsible for our actions is, Epicurus will say, more than a mere bundle of atoms, and therefore is not reducible to a link in a physical causal chain. Indeed Carneades, in defending Epicurean libertarianism for his own dialectical purposes (see 70G and commentary), suggested that this was already a sufficient answer to determinism: E 4-7. But how, it will be asked, can this emergent property of the corporeal mind so effectively take control of the soul, and through it of the body, as to move their atoms in ways in which according to the laws of physics alone they should not have moved? If the laws of physics are sufficient to determine the precise trajectory of every atom in us, how can the self be anything more than a helpless spectator of the body's actions? Here at last a significant role for the swerve leaps to the eye. For it is to answer just this question, according to Cicero at E 3, that the swerve was introduced. The evident power of the self and its volitions to intervene in the physical processes of soul and body would be inexplicable if physical laws alone were sufficient to determine the precise trajectory of every atom. Therefore physical laws are not sufficient to determine the precise trajectory of every atom. There is a minimal degree of physical indeterminism — the swerve. An unimpeded atom may at any given moment continue its present trajectory, but equally may `swerve' into one of the adjacent parallel trajectories (see commentary on 11H). As far as physics is concerned there is simply no reason for its following one rather than another of these trajectories. Normally, then, the result will be, in this minimal degree, random. But in the special case of the mind there is also a non-physical cause, volition, which can affect the atoms of which it is a property. It does so, we may speculate, not by overriding the laws of physics, but by choosing between the alternative possibilities which the laws of physics leave open. In this way a large group of soul atoms might simultaneously be diverted into a new pattern of motion, and thus radically redirect the motion of the body. Such an event, requiring as it does the coincidence of numerous swerves, would be statistically most improbable according to the laws of physics alone. But it is still, on the swerve theory, an intrinsically possible one, which volition might therefore be held to bring about. For a very similar thesis relating free will to modern quantum indeterminism, see A. S. Eddington, The nature of the physical world (1928). (It may be objected that swerves are meant to be entirely uncaused; but, as E 2 shows, that was only an inference by Epicurus' critics, made plausible by concentrating on the swerve's cosmogonic function, cf. 11H, for there it must indeed occur at random and without the intervention of volition.)Sedley here assumes a non-physical (metaphysical) ability of the volition to affect the atoms, which is implausible. But the idea that the volition chooses (consistent with and adequately determined by its character and values and its desires and feelings - from among alternative possibilities provided randomly by the atoms - is quite plausible.
Lucretius' evidence in F does not explicitly state the swerve's relation to volition, although numerous attempts have been made to discover it there. But if the above account of Epicurus' theory is justified by the other testimonia, it becomes clear that F is, at least, fully consistent with it. For the dominant theme of F 1-3 is precisely the evident power of volition to redirect the bodily mass in defiance of its purely mechanical patterns of motion. This is said, in F 1 and 4, to be explicable only if there is an undetermined swerve of atoms, since if impact and weight were the only causes of atomic motion the mind's behaviour would be rigidly mechanistic. Some have also seen in F 1 the further implication that the initiation of every new course of action directly involves the swerve. All this fits the above account comfortably enough. What is missing, of course, is an explanation of the non-physical character of psychological causation — not surprisingly, given that Lucretius' poem is about physics and that his sole object in the context is to complete his account of the laws of atomic motion (cf. 11). One further dimension to the debate emerges from E 1, H and I. Epicurus saw the threat of universal necessitation not only in unbreakable chains of physical causation, but also in the logical principle of bivalence according to which every proposition is either true or false, including those about the future. His solution of denying the principle as far as certain future-tensed propositions are concerned (the denial is slightly garbled in I's version, where 'one or the other is necessary' ought to read 'one or the other is true'; but the example is clearly authentic — Hermarchus was Epicurus' pupil and successor) was essentially that of Aristotle, according to the traditional reading of his celebrated Sea Battle discussion at De interpretatione 9. But Epicurus, like the Stoic with whom he is contrasted in E I (see further, 38G), saw physical and logical determinism as two aspects of a single thesis. The two formulations of determinism tend to be treated as interchangeable, as do the two respective solutions, the swerve and the denial of bivalence (cf. Cicero, On fate 18-19, and perhaps E 1-3). This conflation seems to rest on the assumed equivalence of 'true in advance' with 'determined by pre-existing causes'; cf. also the telling comment at the end of I. The interpretation of the swerve theory adopted above may help explain how it could be thought interchangeable with the denial of bivalance. Neither doctrine is involved in analysing the nature of volition itself (as many have thought the swerve to be). Their shared function is to guarantee the efficacy of volition, by keeping alternative possibilities genuinely open.
Don FowlerIn his 1983 thesis, Fowler criticized Sedley's limits on the swerve and defended the ancient claim that Epicurus proposed random swerves as directly causing our actions.
[The discussion of the swerve in Book II of De rerum natura] has received brilliant treatment from D. J. Furley in a work which is in many ways a model for the analysis of ancient philosophical texts. Yet it still seems to me that there is more to be said. I want here to try briefly to offer a fresh analysis of the argument of the vital paragraph 251-93, and to situate it within an Epicurean context. Inevitably this will involve criticism of Furley; let me state again at the outset my admiration of his work.
Julia AnnasIn her 1992 book, The Hellenistic Philosophy of Mind, Annas finds it hard to see how random swerves can help to explain free action.
...since swerves are random, it is hard to see how they help to explain free action. We can scarcely expect there to be a random swerve before every free action. Free actions are frequent, and (fairly) reliable. Random swerves cannot account for either of these features. This problem would be lessened if we could assume that swerves are very frequent, so that there is always likely to be one around before an action. However, if swerves are frequent, we face the problem that stones and trees ought to be enabled to act freely. And even in the case of humans random swerves would seem to produce, if anything, random actions; we still lack any clue as to how they could produce actions which are free. An influential modern line of thought avoids these problems by arguing that our evidence does not demand that there be a swerve for each free action [Furley]. Rather, swerves explain the fact that people have characters capable of change and reaction that goes beyond mechanical response to stimuli. We act freely because we have characters that are flexible and spontaneous, and this is because we are composed of atoms which swerve occasionally. On this account, swerves do not have to be frequent, since they are not part of any mechanism of action; one swerve in your soul is enough for the kind of character flexibility that is required. Such an account avoids the problems attaching to any account that brings swerves into free action, but at the cost of not answering very closely to the evidence; the Lucretius passage certainly suggests that swerves are in some way relevant at the point of action. Another kind of suggestion is that swerves are not the causes of free actions at all. Rather, they come into the process whereby free actions are brought about. Swerves are supposed to explain something about the nature of free agency and how it works, but they do not cause free actions (by cutting across causal chains, for example). This suggestion can be developed in several ways. The boldest version holds that swerves do not explain the existence of free volitions at all; [Sedley] rather Epicurus holds anyway that volitions are nonphysical, "emergent" entities.The role of swerves is to provide alternative possibilities for volitions to choose between, for there would be no point in having free will if there were no genuinely open possibilities between which to select. This suggestion depends on the strong thesis that Epicurus regards the mind as something nonphysical, which we have seen to be highly contentious; and also it likewise does not really answer to the evidence, in which it is not merely the possibility of swerves, but actual swerves, which play a role at the level of action. A second kind of account gives the swerve a role in enabling the mind to focus on one thing rather than another by way of the mind's selective "grasp" or epibole tes dianoias. A third sees it as parallel to Aristotle's use of the connate pneuma; that is, it creates a new kind of physical substance which explains, within a physicalist system, how human minds can be active, and in particular can initiate action. It is undoubtedly more attractive to find a role for swerves in the mechanism of free action, rather than as mysterious events enabling free action to come about. However, all such accounts face the problem of evidence: Lucretius, the only source who gives us much detail about the swerve in human action, associates it with the formation of impulse (voluntas), not with any subsequent mechanism to carry it out. However embarrassing we may find the thesis that the swerve explains the formation of free impulses, and in some way explains how they are free, that remains the view best supported by the ancient evidence. As we have seen, however, occasional random swerves cannot produce reliable free actions. The only way that the theory has a hope of working is on the assumption that swerves are extremely frequent, so as to produce a standing physical con dition. How, though, do we avoid the obvious objection that trees and stones would also contain frequent swerves, given that it is an important aspect of Epicureanism that human beings are parts of nature, atomic compounds like the others? We can meet this objection by the consideration that swerves are indeed everywhere frequent, but that they produce effects only in human souls, perhaps indeed only in the rational parts of human souls. This is because the human rational soul is a compound of the finest and most tenuous atoms, and only this kind of compound permits swerves to have effects. Thus we are free, and trees are not, because of a physical difference: in our minds atomic swerves produce effects, which somehow enable us to act freely. While the mechanism remains somewhat sketchy, we can see the general idea. Swerves do not operate one per action; rather, because we (and some animals) are the kinds of atomic compound that we are, we are able to act freely, in a way that genuinely chooses between alternatives. But now we find a striking redundancy, for Epicurus has already postulated the nameless atoms in the soul to account for the complexity of sentient and intelligent behavior. Why do we need swerves as well to account for the same fact? Impressive as the fact may be, we hardly need two such physical differences to account for it. It might be objected that nameless atoms account only for agency, while we need swerves to account for free agency. But it is quite unclear from our evidence what this difference would be taken to consist in. This is especially so since Lucretius uses animal behavior as an example of free agency, ruling out the otherwise promising idea that freedom might be a matter of informed choice between alternatives, or something similar which is plausibly found only in humans. It is very hard not to feel pressured here toward a developmental hypothesis, namely, that Epicurus had both these ideas, but not at the same time. It has been suspected on other grounds that the swerve was a late idea of Epicurus', one developed after he had written his major works, possibly in response to objections. It is also possible that Epicurus himself had no very definite theory of how the swerve underpins free agency, and that later Epicureans filled in the story, possibly in divergent ways, just as modern scholars do. It is hard to conclude, however, that the swerve was a good idea, and the disproportionate emphasis which it has received in discussion of Epicurus' ideas about the mind has been unfortunate.
Jeffrey PurintonIn a 1999 Phronesis article, Purinton agrees with Fowler that random swerves directly cause volitions and actions. The ideas of Furley and Fowler do not do justice to Epicurus' libertarianism, he says, "since they do not make volition itself a fresh start of motion, and Sedley's view does not do justice to his atomism...It seems to me, therefore, that there is no good reason to reject the thesis that Epicurus held that swerves cause volitions from the bottom up. And there are a number of good reasons to accept it."
(1) First and foremost, there is De Rerum Natura 2.251-93, where Lucretius presents what I shall call 'the libertarian argument' for the thesis that atoms swerve. Lucretius maintains that the swerve is that "whence" (unde) arises the "free volition" (libera voluntas) whereby "we likewise swerve our motions" (declinamus item motus) when and where we wish. And the natural way to read this is as claiming that swerves cause volitions from the bottom up. (I shall call this 'the argument from Lucretius.') (2) Other than Lucretius, none of the authors who mention the swerve gives any account at all of the relation between swerves and volitions. That is not very surprising, if the relation between swerves and volitions is so simple that it can go without saying (as it is on my view, according to which volitions 'at bottom' just are swerves). But it would be very surprising, if Epicurus had a complicated view of the relation of swerves to volitions, such as that swerves are very rare events which are not directly linked to volitions, but function only to break the chain of causation every once in a long while (as Furley would have it) or that swerves cause us to focus on images of actions, which then cause volitions (as Fowler would have it) or that first volitions occur and then, after a short wait, swerves occur to trigger the desired bodily motion (as Englert would have it) or that swerves are caused by volitions, as emergent properties of the mind, from the top down (as Sedley would have it). For none of our sources say any such thing. (I shall call this 'the argument from silence.') (3) Now set aside all textual evidence and simply ask what a would-be libertarian atomist is obliged to say. Since, to be a libertarian, one must say that volitions are fresh starts of motion, and since, to be an atomist, one must say that all mental events are caused from the bottom up by the motions of the mind's constituent atoms, a would-be libertarian atomist is obliged to say that volitions are caused from the bottom up by fresh starts of atomic motion. (I shall call this 'the a priori argument,' since it does not depend on any textual evidence.) (4) At Ennead 3.1.1, Plotinus formulates the problem with Epicurus' position thus: Chrysippus, for the compatibilism of freedom with causal determinism.One must not admit the uncaused by positing vain swerves or a sudden motion of bodies which happens with no antecedent cause or a sudden volition (ὁρμή) of the soul with nothing moving it toward doing what it was not doing before. Or else, by this very thing, a greater necessity would hold the soul, that of not belonging to itself, but of being borne along with such motions as are undesired and uncaused.Plotinus does not mention Epicurus here, but the allusions to "the uncaused" and "swerves" strongly suggest that it is Epicurus' view that Plotinus is here criticizing. And that is significant. For the objection that Plotinus makes - that we would not be in control of our own lives if we were borne along by random atomic motions - is basically Furley's objection to the view that swerves cause volitions from the bottom up. But, whereas Furley presents this as an objection to the thesis that Epicurus held such a view, Plotinus presents it as an argument against Epicurus' view. And that supports my thesis that, as a matter of historical fact, Epicurus did hold that swerves cause volitions from the bottom up. (I shall call this 'the argument from Plotinus.') Notice, by the way, that Plotinus speaks here of "swerves" in the plural but of "volition" in the singular. This raises a question: what are we to say is Epicurus' view of volition in the singular? We can be sure that, according to Epicurus, just as a mind is at bottom a plurality of atoms, so a volition, as a motion of the mind, is at bottom the motions of a plurality of atoms. But, in a given volition, how many of these many atomic motions are swerves? All of them? Only one? Some, but neither all nor only one? My guess is that Epicurus did not believe that, in a typical volition, only one atom swerves. He rather believed that many do, and that more do the more strenuous the action; more mind-atoms swerve when one tries to turn one's body sharply, for instance, than when one tries to deviate just a little from one's path. But this is just guesswork, which I want to keep separate from my main thesis. So here is how I shall formulate in the singular my thesis that Epicurus held that volitions (in the plural) are caused by swerves from the bottom up: Epicurus held that an agent's volition (in the singular) is caused from the bottom up by that agent's mind's atoms' motions, at least one of which is a swerve. That is my main thesis.
In her book and a 1998 article in Phronesis (Vol. 43, No. 2 (May, 1998), pp. 133-175), Bobzien identified several variations on the theme of human freedom that were important in antiquity. Three of them are indeterminist freedoms, by which she means the decision is partly or wholly a matter of chance, and does not involve the character and values of the agent:
1) freedom to do otherwise: I am free to do otherwise if, being the same agent, with the same desires and beliefs, and being in the same circumstances, it is possible for me to do or not to do something in the sense that it is not fully causally determined whether or not I do it.Then in 2000 Bobzien challenged Pamela Huby's 1967 assertion that Epicurus discovered the "free will problem."
In 1967 Epicurus was credited with the discovery of the problem of free will and determinism. Among the contestants were Aristotle and the early Stoics.Bobzien is of course right that Epicurus did not think that our decisions were made at random with no regard for our character and values, or for our feelings and desires. This is a straw argument put up by critics of Epicurean philosophy, notably the Stoic Epicurus emerged victorious, because — so the argument went — Aristotle did not yet have the problem, and the Stoics inherited it from Epicurus. In the same year David Furley published his essay 'Aristotle and Epicurus on Voluntary Action', in which he argued that Epicurus' problem was not the free will problem. In the thirty-odd years since then, a lot has been published about Epicurus on freedom and determinism. But it has only rarely been questioned whether Epicurus, in one way or another, found himself face to face with some version of the free will problem. In this paper I intend to take up the case for those who have questioned the point, combining a fresh perspective on the debate with a selection of new arguments and a detailed textual analysis of the relevant passages. Let me begin with a brief sketch of the problem of freedom and determinism which Epicurus is widely taken to have been concerned with. The determinism Epicurus defends himself against is usually understood as causal determinism: every event is fully determined in all its details by preceding causes. These causes are commonly pictured as forming an uninterrupted chain or network, reaching back infinitely into the past, and as governed by an all-embracing set of laws of nature, or as manifestations of such a set of laws of nature. On the side of freedom, Epicurus is generally understood to have been concerned with freedom of decision (the freedom to decide whether or not to do some action) or freedom of choice (the freedom to choose between doing and not doing some action) or freedom of the will (where the freedom to will to do something entails the freedom to will not to do it, and vice versa; I call this two-sided freedom of the will). Epicurus is taken to have introduced an indeterminist conception of free decision or free choice or two-sided free will: agents are free in this sense only if they are causally undetermined (or not fully causally determined) in their decision whether or not to act or their choice between alternative courses of action; undetermined, that is, by external and internal causal factors alike. There is assumed to be a gap in the causal chain immediately before, or simultaneously with, the decision or choice, a gap which allows the coming into being of a spontaneous motion. In this way every human decision or choice is directly linked with causal indeterminism. The assumption of such indeterminist free decision, free choice, or two-sided free will does not presuppose that one specifies an independent mental faculty, like e.g. a will, and indeed it is not usually assumed that Epicurus' theory involved such a faculty. The 'free will problem' that Epicurus is assumed to have faced is then roughly as follows: If determinism is true, every decision or choice of an agent between alternative courses of actions is fully determined by preceding causes, and forms part of an uninterrupted causal chain. On the other hand, if an agent has (two-sided) freedom of the will, it seems that the agent's decision or choice must not be fully determined by preceding causes. Hence, it appears, determinism and freedom of the will (freedom of decision, freedom of choice) are incompatible. I do not believe that Epicurus ever considered a problem along the lines of the one just described. In particular, I am sceptical about the assumption that he shared in a conception of free decision or free choice akin to the one I have sketched. (I also have my doubts that he ever conceived of a determinism characterized by a comprehensive set of laws of nature; but this is a point I only mention in passing.) To avoid misunderstandings, I should stress that I do believe that Epicurus was an indeterminist of sorts — only that he did not advocate indeterminist free decision or indeterminist free choice. Chryssipus and the Academic Skeptic Cicero. But Bobzien is wrong to suggest that Epicurus did not see a problem between human freedom and the causal determinism of his fellow atomist Democritus, and that his atomic swerve was not his proposed solution to that "free will problem." She notes that
Whether Epicurus discussed free will depends on what one means by 'free will'. For example, if one intends 'free will' to render Lucretius "libera voluntas," and to mean whatever element of Epicurus' doctrine Lucretius meant to capture by this phrase, then Epicurus evidently was concerned with free will. My concern is only to show that he did not discuss a problem of free will that involves a conception of freedom of decision or choice as adumbrated in the main text. [namely, "extreme" libertarianism in which chance is the direct cause of action.]
Tim O'KeefeIn his 2005 study Epicurus on Freedom, O'Keefe concluded that Epicurus was mostly concerned with defending an open future against fatalism and the logical necessity of statements about future events. If it is true that there will be a sea battle on Monday, the future event is necessitated.
My own thesis is that Epicurus' main concern is not with justified praise and blame, but with preserving the rationality and efficacy of deliberating about one's future actions, although he thinks that determinism is incompatible with both. The reason for this is that a necessary condition on effective deliberation is the openness and contingency of the future, and determinism makes the future necessary. Furthermore, even though Epicurus posits the swerve in order to render causal determinism false, the sort of deterministic argument that Epicurus is concerned to rebut is the fatalist argument given in de Int. 9 and by the Megarians, which moves from considerations of future truth, to the fixity of the future, to the pointlessness of deliberation. Epicurus thinks that, if the Principle of Bivalence (the principle that every statement either is true or is false) held universally, this would make the future fixed in a way such as to render us helpless. (And so we can call my view the 'bivalence' interpretation.) Epicurus thinks that both logical and causal determinism are incompatible with the contingency of the future, and the swerve renders both false, since logical and causal determinism are mutually entailing. The swerve plays no direct role in the production of action or the formation of character. The main textual support for attributing this role for the swerve to Epicurus is Cicero's De fato. There is precedent for the sort of position Epicurus adopts in Aristotle's rejection of the Principle of Bivalence for similar reasons in de Int. 9. If I am right about this, to assimilate Epicurus' concerns to those of modern libertarians is highly misleading. In order to establish the 'bivalence interpretation,' I need to go through die texts that bear on the Epicurean position regarding human freedom. Rut before doing so, let me first establish its initial plausibility by showing that none of the terminology Epicureans use when discussing human freedom preclude it, and that the sort of 'free will and determinism' problem that I take Epicurus to be concerned with is one he should be concerned with, given his ethics and psychology, whereas — even apart from considerations of how successfully the swerve addresses these problems the other sorts of free will and determinism problems should not even trouble Epicurus at all. Epicurus is concerned to defend human freedom, but none of the terminology he uses (or that others use who report on the Epicurean position) show that he is worried about preserving the ability of an agent to do otherwise than he does, much less that he conceived of this two-way ability in libertarian terms. Libera voluntas is often translated `free will,' but depending on the context, it can mean something like 'unfettered impulse.' After all, Cicero is willing to describe even the compatibilist Chrysippus, who certainly did not have a two-sided libertarian conception of freedom of will, as wanting to free (libero) our minds from necessity of motion and to accommodate the views of those who think that the movements of our minds are voluntary (voluntarius)." (For this reason, I will usually translate voluntas as 'volition,' since it is not potentially misleading in the way 'will' is, and while I think that the Epicurean theory of libera voluntas actually ends up being something like a theory of 'unfettered impulse,' using that as a translation would be highly tendentious.) Likewise, Epicurus says that how we act and develop "depends on us" (παρ’ ῆμᾶς) and that our actions arise through us ourselves or from us ourselves (δι’ ἡμῶν αὑτῶν or ἑξ ἡμῶν αὑτῶν). That our actions are παρ’ ῆμᾶς is compatible with them simply being caused by us (e.g., that I caused myself to walk, so that my walking "depended on me"), and need not imply that, however we act, it is "up to us" whether to act one way rather than another (e.g., that it was up to me whether or not to walk). In fact, Bobzien argues at length, and I think convincingly, that to say our actions are παρ’ ῆμᾶς is more naturally read as indicating that we are causally responsible for our actions (what she calls a 'one-sided causative' παρ’ ῆμᾶς and has no implications about free choice." To say that actions are δι’ ἡμῶν αὑτῶν or ἑξ ἡμῶν αὑτῶν also has no implications of free choice. In fact, Chrysippus defends the thesis that certain things originate "from us" (ἑξ ἡμῶν), and when the Stoics are concerned to describe precisely what type of agency we do have and are at pains to deny the thesis that freedom is a matter of having free choice between opposite actions, they say repeatedly that what is up to us is what happens through us (δι’ ἡμῶν)" The passages which report the Epicurean views on determinism and freedom indicate that Epicurus is concerned about defending something like the view that we have moral responsibility. The much later Epicurean Diogenes of Oinoanda claims that all censure and admonition would be abolished if fate controlled what we did, and Cicero, in reporting the worry that motivates the various parties to the fate and free volition debate, says that if fate were operative, there would be no justice in either praise or blame. Epicurus, likewise, when arguing that some things 'depend on us,' says praise and blame properly attach to such things, and in his anti-fatalist argument in On Nature 25, he asserts that our practices of rebuking, opposing and reforming each other presuppose that the cause of actions is 'in ourselves.' However, even more prominent in Epicurean thought is the theme that determinism would render us helpless. When Lucretius describes the libera voluntas that the swerve snatches from the fates, he says nothing about responsibility, praise, or blame. Instead, libera voluntas is what allows each animal to go where pleasure leads it and the mind to move itself (DRN 2 257-260). Although Lucretius' later discussions of voluntas do not mention the swerve, they do confirm that it is voluntas that allows us to act as we wish to act — to visualize what we wish to visualize, to move our limbs as we desire, etc. (DRN 4 777-780, 877-880) So, if determinism threatens this voluntas, the implication is that determinism would render us unable to act as we wish to act, to move our limbs as we will, etc. A similar concern with fatalism lurks in Epicurus' discussion of the "fate of the natural philosophers" in Ep. Men. 133-134. Epicurus contrasts what is ἁνάγκη, which is ἁνυπεύθυνος; — 'unanswerable' or 'beyond human control' — with what is παρ’ ῆμᾶς, which is ἁδέσποτος; — 'without master' or 'autonomous.' He then goes on to say that it would better to believe in the meddling Olympian gods than to be a 'slave' to the fate of the natural philosophers, since at least one can try to placate the Olympian gods, whereas the necessity of the natural philosophers is inescapable. In On Nature 25, the target of Epicurus' argument is a fatalist: this person denies that our decisions make any difference; what we do is not a cause or explanation (aitia) of what happens.' Finally, Cicero's discussions of the Epicurean and Stoic positions in the De fato show that a major concern of theirs was whether, if what will occur in the future has always been true and always been causally determined, the future is necessary in a way that makes all deliberation and action pointless. Now, before going through the texts, let's step back and ask: given Epicurus' ethics and his psychology, what sort of freedom should he be worried about? Epicurean ethics is egoistic and hedonistic. In every choice, one should strive to attain the 'goal of nature,' pleasure (KD 25). The problem with most of the traditional 'libertarian' interpretations of Epicurus is that they dissociate one's actions not only from external causation but also from being caused by the psychological states of the agent present at the moment of choice: his beliefs, desires, and character, since being causally determined by these states is incompatible with a robust ability to do otherwise than one does. Let us leave aside, for the moment, the objection that a random atomic swerving in one's mind is an unpromising basis for the production of free and responsible actions, instead of random and blameless twitches. Why should Epicureans be concerned to try to defend this sort of freedom of choice in the first place? If one has correct beliefs about the workings of the world and the limits of what is required for happiness, and one knows what one needs to do in the present situation to attain a pleasurable life, then having one's actions determined by these psychological states would not be ethically problematic — in fact, it is exactly what one would want to happen. This is the state of the Epicurean Sage. It is hard to see how having a 'two-sided' libertarian freedom of choice would help in the pursuit of ataraxia, or tranquility, which Epicurus maintains is the chief constituent of the happy life. And if this freedom would not help in the pursuit of ataraxia, it is hard to see why any good Epicurean should care abhout defending its possibility against the threat of determinism.O'Keefe, following Bobzien, makes libertarian freedom a will that ignores character and values, desires and feelings.
from Epicurus' Letter to Menoeceus
ἐπεὶ κρεϊττον ἦν τῶ περί θεῶν μύθῳ, κατακολουθεîν ή τή τῶν φυσικῶν είμαρμένη δουλεύειν• ό μέν γάρ έλπίδα παραιτήσεωs ύπογράφει θεῶν διά τιμῆς, ή δέ άπαραίτητον έχει τήν άνάyκην. (Letter tο Menοeceus §134)Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, Book II, lines 251-262 ("whence comes this free will?" - unde haec libera)
Denique si semper motus conectitur omnis et vetere exoritur motu novus ordine certo, nec declinando faciunt primordia motus principium quoddam quod fati foedera rumpat, ex infinito ne causam causa sequatur, libera per terras unde haec animantibus exstat, unde est haec, inquam, fatis avolsa voluntas, per quam progredimur quo ducit quemque voluptas, declinamus item motus nec tempore certo nec regione loci certa, sed ubi ipsa tulit mens? nam dubio procul his rebus sua cuique voluntas principium dat et hinc motus per membra rigantur