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Annotated critical copy of A Free Will: Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought
The notion of a free will is a notion we have inherited from antiquity. It was first in antiquity that one came to think of human beings as having a free will. But, as with so many other notions we have inherited from antiquity, for instance, the notion of an essence or the notion of a teleological cause, we have to ask ourselves whether the notion of a free will has not outlived its usefulness, has not become a burden rather than of any real help in understanding ourselves and what we do. Contemporary philosophers for the most part dispense with the notion of a free will, and the few attempts which are still made to give an account of what it is to have free will seem rather discouraging. In this situation it may be of some help to retrace our steps and see what purpose the notion of a free will originally was supposed to serve, how it was supposed to help our understanding, and whether it was flawed right from its beginnings, as we might now see in hindsight.
In these lectures it is in this spirit that I want to pursue the question "When in antiquity did one first think of human beings as having a free will, why did one come to think so, and what notion of a free will was involved when one came to think of human beings in this way?" To raise this question, though, is to make a substantial assumption about the very nature of the notion of a free will. I assume, and I will try to show, that this notion in its origins is a technical, philosophical notion which already presupposes quite definite and far from trivial assumptions about ourselves and the world. It is for this reason that I presume its having an identifiable historical origin.
In contrast, this is not the view scholars took until fairly recently. They went on the assumption that the notion of a free will is an ordinary notion, part of the repertory of notions in terms of which the ordinary person thinks about things and in terms of which the ancient Greeks must have already been thinking all along. And on this assumption, of course, there is no place for the question of when the ancients first came to think of human beings as having a free will.
The assumption that the Greeks all along must have been thinking of human beings as having a free will seems truly astounding nowadays. For, if we look at Greek literature from Homer onwards, down to long after Aristotle, we do not find any trace of a reference to, let alone a mention of, a free will.
Aristotle was very concerned that our actions not be the result of chance
, but are sometimes "up to us
This is all the more remarkable, as Plato and in particular Aristotle had plenty of occasion to refer to a free will. But there is no sign of such a reference in their works. Scholars did indeed notice this with a certain amount of puzzlement. But it did not occur to them to draw what would seem to be the obvious inference, namely, that Plato and Aristotle did not yet have a notion of a free will and that it was for this reason that they did not talk of a free will. As eminent a scholar as W. D. Ross again could note that Plato and Aristotle do not refer to a will, let alone a free will.
But even Ross concludes that we must assume that Aristotle, as Ross puts it, "shared the plain man's belief in free will." And he explains Aristotle's failure to refer to a free will explicitly as due to the fact that Aristotle did not think hard and carefully enough about the matter to arrive at a philosophical account of what it is to have a free will.
But why should we assume in the first place that Aristotle believed in a free will? To understand the assumption Ross and earlier scholars make, we have to take into account the following. Let us assume that it is a fact that, at least sometimes when we do something, we are responsible for what we are doing, as nothing or nobody forces us to act in this way; rather, we ourselves desire or even choose or decide to act in this way. Let us also assume, as is reasonable enough, that this is what the Greeks believed all along. It certainly is something Aristotle took to be a fact.
Frede links free will to moral responsibility. We separate
The notion of a free will was originally introduced within the context of a particular theory, namely, a late Stoic theory, in a way specific to this theory, to account for this presumed fact. But once this notion had been introduced into Stoicism, rival theories, either Peripatetic or Platonist, developed their own version of a notion of a free will, which fitted in with their overall theory. In fact, it was a notion which was eagerly taken up by Christians, too. And, largely due to the influence of mainstream Christianity, it came to be a notion which, in one version or another, gained almost universal acceptance. People quite generally, whether followers of Stoicism, Platonism, or mainstream Christianity, felt committed to a belief in a free will. Even if they themselves were not able to give a theoretical account of what a free will is, they relied on such an account's being available. This had the effect that the mere assumption that sometimes we are responsible for what we are doing, since we do it not because we are forced to but because we ourselves want to, came to be regarded as tantamount to a belief in a free will. From here it was just a short step to the assumption that the mere notion of a free will was an ordinary notion, with philosophical theory coming in only to give a theoretical account of what it is to have a free will. This is why Ross could assume that Aristotle shared the plain man's belief in a free will but failed to give a theoretical account of that.
It seems to me to be clear, though, that we should carefully distinguish between the belief in a free will and the ordinary belief that at least sometimes we are responsible for what we are doing, because we are not forced or made to behave in this way but really want or even choose or decide to act in this way. This belief in a free will is involved in some theoretical accounts of what we ordinarily believe. But it is not to be identified with this ordinary belief. And it seems to me that Aristotle is a good example of a philosopher who is committed to the ordinary belief but does not resort to the notion of a free will to account for this belief. Hence, since even Aristotle does not yet talk of a free will, we should assume that he did not yet have a notion of a free will.
is a behaviorist and a determinist, so defends a Humean "compatibilist free will"
This indeed is what scholars nowadays are generally agreed on. The change of scholarly opinion is largely due to the fact that philosophical discussions, of the kind we find, for instance, in Gilbert Ryle's The Concept of Mind
, have persuaded scholars that the notion of a free will is at best a highly controversial notion.' In light of this, Aristotle's failure to refer to a free will is no longer regarded as a cause for puzzlement but by many is registered with outright relief.
Once one finally comes to see that it is not the case that the Greeks all along had a notion of a free will and that we do not yet find this notion even in Aristotle, the question naturally poses itself: When did the notion of a free will arise? And so more recent scholars have begun to inquire into this question.
By far the most substantial attempt to answer this question was made by Albrecht Dihle in his Sather Lectures of 1974, which were published by the University of California Press in 1982 under the title The Theory of Will in Classical Antiquity
. This book remains the most important contribution to the subject. One must admire the wide learning and insight which went into its writing. But, even if one does not dispose of the kind of learning Dihle does, one cannot help being struck by one fact about his account which pervasively shapes his book.
It is an account which is focused on a highly specific notion of a free will. What Dihle attempts to lay bare and to shed light on is the origin of this particular notion of a free will. He calls it "our modern notion of will."' This cannot fail to provoke two reactions.
To begin with, we should query the phrase, "our modern notion of will," especially since Dihle assumes that this notion of will is a notion of a free will.4
In light of what we have said before, he hardly seems entitled to the assumption that there is one notion of a will, and a free will at that, which we all share. Dihle talks as if a certain notion of the will, though not there all along, became common currency from a certain point onwards up to the present. But this does not seem to be true. He is of course perfectly entitled to a view about how we all should or would conceive of the will, if we had properly understood what a will is.
Presumably, Dihle assumes a "libertarian free will."
But, if we then look more closely at what Dihle has to say about the will, it turns out to be a notion of a free will which is dangerously close to the kind of notion which philosophers have been attacking, a notion which is supposed to do justice to the presumed fact that we can do something by sheer volition, by a sheer act of the will.
We should quote here Dihle's argument that Augustine invented our "modern notion" of free will.
"It is generally accepted in the study of the history of philosophy that the notion of the will, as it is used as a tool of analysis and description in many philosophical doctrines from the early Scholastics to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, was invented by Augustine."
(A. Dihle, The Theory of Will in Classical Antiquity
Dihle is clearly interested in a "modern" notion of free will that is needed for theological purposes. One concludes that Frede's work is similarly biased toward religious views. His remark about being guided by Latin vocabulary is very interesting.
"St. Augustine was, in fact, the inventor of our modern notion of will, which he conceived for the needs and purposes of his specific theology and in continuation of the attempts of Greek theologians, who developed their doctrine of the Trinity in terms of Neoplatonic ontology. He took the decisive step towards the concept of human will by reinterpreting a hermeneutical term as an anthropological one. This eventually led him to an adequate philosophical description of what the Biblical tradition taught about man's fall, salvation, and moral conduct. But in doing so, he was greatly helped and tacitly guided by the Latin vocabulary of his time.
(A. Dihle, The Theory of Will in Classical Antiquity, p.144)
Second, the very phrase "our modern notion of will" quite rightly reminds us that history presents us with a wide variety of versions of a notion of a free will, which differ quite substantially from Dihle's favored notion, presumed to be our notion. In part these differ in that, as he puts it, they are much too "intellectualistic" and not "voluntaristic" enough.' Dihle passes over all such notions with little or no discussion, as they cannot count as notions of a will in what he takes to be our sense of the concept.
It seems to me that Dihle does indeed contribute a great deal to our understanding of the historical origins of a specific notion of a free will - one that is still quite widespread and that many may think captures the way we ought to conceive of the will as such. But my aim is completely different from Dihle's. I do not aim to elucidate the origins of some specific notion of a free will which we might have, let alone a notion I myself favor. For I regard my inquiry as purely historical. I do not want it to depend on, and be shaped and slanted by, a notion of a free will which at best can be regarded as philosophically quite controversial. Rather, I am interested, as I said at the outset, in trying to find out when and why a notion of a free will arose in the first place and what notion this was. I will then try to trace the history of this notion to see whether and how it changed in the course of the discussions to which it gave rise in antiquity. In this way, I hope, we shall also be able to identify the ancestor of Dihle's favored notion of a free will or, for that matter, the ancestors of any later notion of a free will. It is in this sense that I plan to talk about the origins of the notion of a free will.
Now, though I do not presuppose a specific notion of a free will, let alone want to endorse or advocate some specific notion of it, I do rely on something like a general idea of a free will, something like a schema which any specific notion of a free will or any particular version of the notion of a free will, at least in antiquity, will fit into. I do not arrive at this general idea or schema on the basis of some philosophical view as to what any notion of a free will has to look like but rather with the benefit of historical hindsight. That is to say, I have looked at the relevant ancient texts and have abstracted this schema from those texts which explicitly talk of a will, the freedom of the will, or a free will. In having such a schema, we shall at least have a general idea of what we are looking for when we investigate the origins of the notion of a free will but without having to commit ourselves to any particular view, ancient or modern, as to what a free will really is.
It should be clear that in order to have any such notion, one must first of all have a notion of a will. As a matter of historical fact, it turns out that a notion of a will is not necessarily a notion of a will which is free. In any case, in order to have a notion of a free will, one must, in addition to the notion of a will, also have a notion of freedom. These notions of a will and of freedom must be such that it makes sense to say that we have a will which is free.
In order to get any notion of a will at all, one must assume the following. Unless one is literally forced or made to do something in such a manner that what one is doing is in no way one's own action (as when one is pushing something over because one is pushed oneself), one does what one does because something happens in one's mind which makes one do what one does. Moreover, one has to assume that what happens in one's mind which makes one do what one does is that one chooses or decides to act in this way. Or at least one has to assume that there is something going on in the mind which can be construed as a choice or decision. We need not worry for the moment about this qualification or its significance. Thus, for instance, if one feels hungry or feels like having something to eat, one might or might not choose or decide to have something to eat. If one then does have something to eat, it is because one has chosen or decided to have something to eat, since one feels hungry.
But the notion of the will, at least in antiquity, involves a notion of the mind such that the mere fact that one feels hungry will not yet explain why one is having something to eat. This is supposed to be so, because, even if one does feel hungry or does feel like having something to eat, one might choose or decide not to have anything to eat because one thinks that it would not be a good thing to have something to eat now. One might also decide to have something to eat, though one does not feel hungry at all, because one thinks that it would be a good thing to have something to eat. But, in any case, for there to be an action that is one's own action, there is supposed to be an event in one's mind, a mental act, a choice or decision which brings about the action. The notion of a will, then, is the notion of our ability to make such choices or decisions which make us act in the way we do. It is crucial for the notion of the will that this ability differs greatly from person to person, as different people not only have different thoughts about what is or is not a good thing to do but also have quite different feelings about different things. This is why different people in the same situation will make very different choices and hence will act quite differently. It is also crucial for the notion of the will that it is an ability which needs to be developed, cultivated, and perfected. One can get better and better at making choices, just as one can get worse and worse. One can choose or decide to improve one's will, one's ability to make choices.
This is doubtful. προαιρέω means to choose and αἵρεω to take, grasp. The most common word for will is βούλησισ, cognate with voluntas, and connoting purpose
ἐλεύθερια means free from coercion or cost
The standard Greek term for the will is prohairesis
, literally, "choice" or "disposition to choose." Later boulēsis
and, in particular, thelēsis
will also be used in this sense, especially in Byzantine times. The standard Latin term, of course, is voluntas
. The Greek term for the relevant notion of freedom is eleutheria
. This term provides us with some guidance as to how the notion of freedom we are interested in is to be understood. As the very term indicates, it must be a notion formed by analogy to the political notion of freedom. According to the political notion, one is free if one is a citizen rather than a slave and living in a free political community rather than in a community governed, for instance, by a tyrant.
This political notion of freedom is two-sided. It is characterized, on the one side, by the laws which the citizens of the community have imposed on themselves and, on the other side, by there being no further external constraints on a free citizen which would systematically prevent him from doing what he could reasonably want to do in pursuit of his own good, in particular from living the kind of life he could reasonably want to live. It is crucial that this freedom, to put the matter in a grossly simplified form, almost invariably seems to be understood as a freedom from external constraints which go beyond the acceptable constraints involved in living in a political community and which would systematically prevent one from doing what it takes to have a good life. Living under a tyrant and being a slave are regarded as involving such constraints, as the tyrant and the slave master, by definition, impose constraints on what one can do which systematically prevent one from having a good life, at least given a certain traditional understanding of what a good life amounts to.
The notion of freedom we are interested in is formed by analogy to this political notion, but its precise relation to the political is never definitively settled, in good part for political and social reasons; being formed by analogy to the political notion, it also inherits its double-sided character. Thus the ability of a free person to have a good life is understood more precisely as the ability to live a good life in what we, not very helpfully, might be tempted to call a moral sense. The lack of clarity about the relation between the political notion and this personal notion of freedom in part is due to a lack of clarity about the relation between the good life one is able to have when one is politically free and the good life one can live if one has personal freedom. The tendency among ancient philosophers, needless to say, is to claim that one can live a good life even under a tyrant or as a slave.
What, then, are the external constraints which this personal notion of freedom envisages which could systematically prevent us from doing what we need to do in order to live a good life, assuming that the constraints a tyrant or a slave master could impose on us do not count as such? The answer, in a nutshell and again very grossly simplified, is that at the time when the notion of a free will arises, there are any number of views, some of them widespread, according to which the world we live in, or at least part of the world we live in, is run by a tyrant or a slave master or a whole group of them. We should not forget that even Christians like Augustine or John of Damascus had no difficulty in thinking that the right way to characterize our relationship to God is to say that we are slaves of God. Now the Christian God is a benevolent agent who provides for his slaves in such a way as to enable them to live a good life. Even on this view there is an obvious tension between our being free and our being slaves, one may even say at least an apparent contradiction. But there were lots of other views, according to which those who rule the world, or our sublunary part of it, are far from benevolent, far from concerned about our well-being.
There are, for instance, the so-called archontes
, the rulers or planetary gods who rule the sublunary world and determine what happens in it, including our lives, so as to fit their designs and ideas and to serve their interests as they perceive them.' They do not care about what this does to our lives or to our ability to have or to live a good life. Indeed, they might try to do what they can to make it impossible for us to live a good life. There is also a widespread view, which we find among groups (following some early Christian authors like Irenaeus) we have come to call "Gnostics," according to which the agent who created the visible world we live in, the demiurge or creator, is a being which pursues its own interests without regard for what this does to us, a being lacking in wisdom and goodness, as one can see from the fact that it deludes itself into thinking that it is God and demanding worship.
Frede avoids the Gnostic view that "this" world is evil and that Jesus, being worldly, is also evil
This view, if held by Gnostics, as a rule seems to be combined with the view that this God is the God of Jewish scripture, who created this world which in all sorts of ways reflects his lack of wisdom and goodness, for instance, in that it puts at least many, if not all of us, into a position in which it is impossible to live a good life.
It is against the background of a large number of such views that the notion of freedom we are interested in emerges. To say that human beings are free is to say that the world does not put such constraints on us from the outside as to make it impossible for us to live a good life. These views will strike most of us as extremely fanciful. But we should keep in mind that late antiquity was full of such views, which exercised an enormous attraction. And we should also keep in mind that there were other views which, though much less fanciful, were also perceived to put at least into question whether we are free.
This is the "problem of free will" that Epicurus
The views in question assume some kind of physical determinism, according to which everything which happens, including our actions, is determined by antecedent physical causes and is thus predetermined. The nearest we ever get in antiquity to the kind of physical determinism we are now thinking of, when we talk about determinism, is in Epicurus, if only for Epicurus to reject it without much of an argument.7
Epicurus is concerned that the kind of atomism introduced by Democritus, and espoused by himself, might be misunderstood as entailing a view according to which everything which happens, including what we do, is predetermined by an endless chain of antecedent causes. If this were true, nothing that we do would in any substantial sense depend on us. For the conditions from which it would ineluctably follow that one day you would exist, that you would be this sort of person with those beliefs and those desires, and that in a certain situation you would respond to this situation in this way, would already be there all along.
These conditions would have come about without any thought of you, without any regard to you or your life, and you certainly would have had no active part in bringing them about. So your action would just be a part of how the world ineluctably unfolds from antecedent conditions which have predetermined your action long before you existed.
It is almost impossible for us not to understand Democritus in the way Epicurus rejects. Democritus assumes that all there is are atoms moving in a void. They collide and rebound, form transient compounds, among them compounds which are relatively stable, owing to the configuration of their constituent atoms. What we call "objects," including plants, animals, and human beings, are such compounds. These entities, owing to the particular configurations of their constituent atoms, display a certain regularity in their behavior.
We can hardly resist the temptation to assume wrongly that Democritus must have thought that the atoms move, collide, or rebound according to fixed laws of nature, such that everything which happens ultimately is governed by these laws. But it is perfectly clear that Democritus has no idea of such laws. He is concerned, rather, to resist the idea that the apparent regularity in the behavior of objects be understood as the result of their being designed to behave in this fashion; for in Greek thought regularity of behavior as a rule is associated with design by an intellect.
Democritus' purpose was to free man from the arbitrary interference in our lives from these planet/gods and restore human responsibility
The planets are taken to be supremely intelligent, if not wise, because they move with an extreme degree of regularity.8
If an object is not intelligent but displays regularity in behavior, it is readily thought to do so by design of an intelligent agent. Democritus's point is that the apparent regularity in the world is not a work of design, say, by an Anaxagorean cosmic intellect but a surface phenomenon produced by the aimless, random motion of the atoms. Thus apparent regularity is supposed to be explained in terms of randomness. But already in Epicurus's day there was the temptation to think of the motion of the atoms as itself regular. Hence Epicurus, to avoid this misinterpretation of his own atomism, tries to insist on the irregularity of the motion of the atoms by claiming that they swerve from their paths without cause.9
Epicurus's doctrine of the swerve, it seems to me, has been widely misunderstood as a doctrine which is meant to explain human freedom, as if a postulated swerve of atoms in the mind could explain such a thing.
Here Frede gets Epicurus
' purpose right. The swerve breaks the causal chain, so some things are "up to us"
Epicurus's point is, rather, that, since the world is not deterministic in this way, it does not constitute a threat to the idea that some of the things we do are genuinely our own actions, rather than something which happens to us or something we are made to do. But here is at least an envisaged possible view, which is not fanciful at all but is rather close to what we call physical determinism. According to that, the world puts constraints on what we can do, which are such that we cannot but do whatever it is that we are doing, and hence might systematically prevent us from doing what we would need to do to live a good life.
The doctrine which in antiquity comes nearest to physical determinism in our sense, and was actually espoused, is the Stoic doctrine of fate.10
According to the Stoics, everything which happens has antecedent physical causes which form a chain reaching back as far as we care to trace it. But even this form of universal physical determinism differs radically from its modern counterpart in three crucial respects. First, Stoic fate is the work of an agent, namely, God, whose plan dictates the way the world evolves and changes, including what we ourselves do, down to the smallest detail." Modern determinists, in contrast, do not normally believe in a cosmic agent who determines things. Second, this plan is providential precisely in the sense that the Stoic God predetermines things in part with regard to us, taking into consideration what his determination does to us and to our life. Modern determinists, however, will find it natural to think not only that everything we do is predetermined but also that our choices and decisions are predetermined entirely without regard to us. Third, in a curious twist to the Stoic position (and with nothing comparable in the case of modern determinism), the divine plan itself seems to be contingent on our choices and decisions, in such a way that God anticipates them in determining the way the world evolves.
In any case, God in his providence sets the world up in such a way that there are no constraints imposed on us from the outside which would systematically make it impossible for us to do what we need to do to live a good life. So here we do have a form of causal determinism, but it was a matter of dispute whether it
posed a threat to freedom or not. Tellingly, those who argued that it did, like Alexander of Aphrodisias
, conveniently disregarded the idea that, on this theory, our choices are not just the product of fate but themselves to some extent determine fate.12
Universal causal determinism, though, was not a view which had many adherents in antiquity. This was not because the ancients believed for the most part that things happen without a cause or an explanation. For the most part they came to believe that things do have a natural cause or explanation. But they had a very different conception from ours of what constitutes a cause or explanation.
Heraclitus' notion that everything changes, but that change is governed by a logos, comes close
Perhaps the most crucial difference is that nobody in antiquity had the notion of laws of nature, meaning a body of laws which govern and explain the behavior of all objects, irrespective of their kind. For the most part, at least, philosophers believed (and this is true, though in different ways, of Aristotelians, Platonists, Stoics, and Epicureans alike) that the most important factor for one's understanding of the way things behave is the nature of an object. If you wish, you can think of the nature of an object as something which could be explained by a set of principles and laws which govern and explain the behavior of objects with this nature, for instance, plants or stars. But they are principles and laws governing a specific set of items. The nature of an object puts certain internal constraints on what objects of this kind or nature can do. Human beings, for instance, cannot do everything; just because they are human beings, they cannot fly, even if they wanted to. But there are also lots of things the nature of an object enables it to do. For instance, the nature of a sunflower enables it to turn in the direction of the sun. In fact, it makes the flower turn towards the sun, when the sun is visible. Quite generally, the nature of an object is such that, given certain specifiable conditions, it cannot but behave in a certain identifiable way.
It is only when we come to more complex animals and, of course, to human beings that the behavior is not entirely determined by the nature of the object and the circumstances or conditions the object finds itself in. Animals can learn, be trained, or even be taught to do certain things. Different animals of the same kind might behave quite differently in the same circumstances. Their behavior is not entirely fixed by their nature or the laws of their nature. And, notoriously, human beings have to be trained and taught and educated. They have to learn a lot before they are able to act in a truly human and mature way. What is more, and what is crucially important, human beings have to actively involve themselves in acquiring the competence it takes to lead a truly human life. It is certainly not by their nature that human beings act virtuously.
Frede ignores the deterministic idea of only one actual future that Diodorus Cronus
and the Megarians proposed. Aristotle dealt with this Master Argument
, defending future contingency in his discussion of the "Sea Battle" (De. Int.
Given a view of the world in which what happens is largely accounted for in terms of the nature of things, there may be nothing which does not have a natural cause and explanation, but, given the kinds of causes and explanations appealed to, the world might remain in our sense causally underdetermined, leaving enough space for us to live our life as we see fit. But, as we come to late antiquity, there is a growing sense that at least the physical world may be determined. Yet by then, of course, there is also the view, which rapidly spreads, that the mind is not physical. In any case, the notion of freedom gets its point only from the fact that there are available at the time numerous views about the world, according to which we are under such constraints as to possibly, if not necessarily, be unable to do what we need to do to live a good life.
With this we come to the combination of the two notions of
the will, on the one hand, and of freedom, on the other hand, in the notion of a free will. Given the view that our actions are caused by a choice or a decision of the will, our freedom to do the things we need to do in order to live a good life must involve the freedom to make the choices which need to be made in order to produce the actions which need to be taken.
But this is indeed the problem of free will, and it is not trivial!
This, however, is a trivial connection between the will and freedom. It would hardly explain the great emphasis on the freedom of the will.
A less trivial connection is this. We might act under such constraints that the choices we have are so limited that they might not produce a good life. Just think of a cosmic tyrant who again and again confronts you with a choice like this: having your children killed or betraying your friends; or killing your child or being condemned for not obeying the order to kill your child. This too, though, would hardly suffice to explain the emphasis on freedom of the will.
This was the original problem that Democritus saw. He wanted deterministic laws to eliminate arbitrary interference by the gods.
A still more promising connection is this. As soon as we think of a world run by a cosmic tyrant or by planetary intellects and their daemonic minions who have access to our mind, perhaps can manipulate it, and perhaps can systematically try to prevent us from gaining the knowledge we would need to live a good life, we can see that there is a special point in emphasizing the freedom of the will. No cosmic power has such a force over our minds as to prevent the will from making the choices it needs to make.
There is, though, yet a further connection. By the time we come to late antiquity, most people think that in one important sense our freedom is reduced to the freedom of the mind and in particular the will. For, even if we choose to act in a certain way, we have no control over whether we shall succeed in doing out there in the world what we decided to do in our mind. We may decide to cross the street but be run over as we try to do so. We may decide to raise our arm, but the arm does not rise. The doctrine of a free will is certainly not a doctrine to explain how we manage to raise our arm or cross the street. It is, rather, a doctrine of how we are responsible for raising our arm, if we do raise our arm, irrespective of the fact that the world out there is populated by agents of various kinds who might thwart our endeavor." At least for Stoics, Christians, and, to a lesser degree, Platonists, there is also divine providence, which already has settled ab initio whether what we decide to do fits into its plan for the best possible world and hence will be allowed to come to fruition.
This, then, is the general schema for a notion of a free will. Our next major step will be to see how the notion of a specific and actual will first emerged in Stoicism. But before we can turn to this, we have to take a look at Aristotle.
Aristotle on Choice
without a Will
There are at least three reasons why we should begin our detailed study with Aristotle. First, the Stoics can only develop a notion of a will, because they have a certain notion of the mind. But they have developed this notion of the mind in opposition to Plato's and Aristotle's notion of the mind, or rather of the soul. Second, we should reassure ourselves that we have understood not only that Aristotle does not have a notion of a free will but also why he does not have a notion of a free will. Third, there will come a time in late antiquity when Aristotle is studied again with great care by philosophers and when at least some of his writings are recommended, if not required, reading for any highly educated person. What we find as a result, if we look at certain philosophical authorsóbut also at some influential Christian writers like Nemesius of Emesaóis that they reimport into a discussion, which by this point has moved far beyond Aristotle, certain doctrines from the Nicomachean Ethics
in a way that confused, rather than clarified, matters.
Neither Plato nor Aristotle has a notion of a will. What they do have, though, is a closely related notion, namely, the notion of somebody's willing or wanting something, in particular, somebody's willing or wanting to do something, the notion of boulesthai
or of a boulēsis
. Indeed, this notion plays a fundamental role in their thought about human beings and their behavior, and it will continue to play a crucial role throughout antiquity. But the term boulesthai
will be a source of confusion, and hence it is important to be clear about what it means in Plato and in Aristotle. It will be a source of confusion in part because the word is the Greek version of a verb which we seem to find in many, if not all, Indo-European languages, for example, velle
in Latin and its derivatives in the Romance languages, and wollen
in German, or "to will" in English. These languages also form a corresponding noun, like voluntas
in Latin, or "will" in English, which from a certain point onwards will also be used to refer to the will, though the Greeks are rather late and hesitant in using boulēsis in this way.
Yet the intimate etymological connection should not confuse us into thinking that boulesthai
, at least as used in Plato and Aristotle and in later Greek philosophy, has the same rather broad use as Latin velle
or German wollen
or English "to will" in the sense of "to want." In Plato and Aristotle it refers to a highly specific form of wanting or desiring, in fact, a form of wanting which we no longer recognize or for which we tend to have no place in our conceptual scheme. For Plato and Aristotle willing, as I will call it, is a form of desire which is specific to reason.1
It is the form in which reason desires something. If reason recognizes, or believes itself to recognize, something as a good, it wills or desires it. If reason believes itself to see a course of action which would allow us to attain this presumed good, it thinks that it is a good thing, other things being equal, to take this course of action. And, if it thinks that it is a good thing to do something,
it wills or desires to do it. Thus it is assumed that there is such a thing as a desire of reason and hence also that reason by itself suffices to motivate us to do something. This is an assumption which is made by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and their later followers. They all agree that reason, just as it is attracted by truth, is also attracted by, and attached to, the good and tries to attain it.
In Plato and Aristotle but not in the Stoics, this view of willing, as a form of desire distinctive of reason, is closely bound up with the view that the soul is bipartite or, rather, tripartite, meaning that, in addition to reason, it consists of a nonrational part or parts. (I will, for our purposes, disregard their specification of two nonrational parts.) This division of the soul is based on the assumption that there are radically different forms of desire, and correspondingly radically different forms of motivation, which may even be in conflict with each other and which therefore must have their origin in different capacities, abilities, or parts of the soul.2
Thus one may be hungry, and in this way desire something to eat, and hence desire to get something to eat. This sort of desire is called appetite
). It is clearly a nonrational desire. One may be hungry, no matter what one thinks or believes. One may be hungry, even though one believes that it would not be a good thing at all to have something to eat. One might be right in believing this. Hence a nonrational desire may be a reasonable or an unreasonable desire. Similarly, though, it might be quite unreasonable for one to believe that it would be a good thing to have something to eat. Hence a desire of reason too might be a reasonable or an unreasonable desire. Therefore the distinction between reasonable and unreasonable desires is not the same as the distinction between desires of reason, or rational desires, and desires of the nonrational part of the soul, or nonrational desires. It is also assumed that, just as one may act on a rational desire, one may act on a nonrational desire. What is more, one may do so, even if this nonrational desire is in conflict with a rational desire.
Now, the assumption that, if there is a conflict, one may follow either reason or appetite amounts, of course, to a denial of Socrates' claim that nobody ever acts against his better knowledge or, indeed, against his mere beliefs. So, according to Socrates, if you really believe, whether rightly or wrongly, that it is not a good thing to have something to eat now, you will not be driven by appetite, as if your reason were a slave dragged around by the passions, and have something to eat.3
Plato's and Aristotle's doctrine of a tripartite soul and different forms of motivation, with their possible conflict and the resolution of such conflict, constitutes an attempt to correct Socrates' position, in order to do justice to the presumed fact that people sometimes, in cases of conflict, do act, against their better knowledge, on their non-rational desire. In any event, Aristotle in his famous discussion of this presumed phenomenon, called akrasia
, or, rather misleadingly, "weakness of will," is explicitly attacking Socrates' position.4
Now, in looking at this discussion in the Nicomachean Ethics
, it is important to notice that it is not focused, as modern readers apparently can hardly help thinking, on cases of acute mental conflict, that is to say, on cases in which we sit there anguished, tormented, torn apart by two conflicting desires which pull us in opposite directions, while we try to make up our mind which direction to take. We tend to read Aristotle in this way, because we have a certain conception of the mind which we project onto Aristotle. But the cases on which Aristotle is focusing are rather different.
Take the case of impetuous akrasia
. Somebody insults you,
and you get so upset and angry that you let your anger preempt any thought you would have, if you took time to think about an appropriate response. You just act on your anger. Once you have calmed down, you might realize that you do not think that this is an appropriate way to respond to the situation. In general, you think that this is not a good way to act. But at the time you act, you have no such thought. The conflict here is a conflict between a nonrational desire and a rational desire which you would have, if you gave yourself or had the space to think about it. Or look at the very different case of akrasia
of appetite. You have the rational desire not to eat any sweets. At some point you decided not to have any sweets. But now a delicious sweet is offered to you, and your appetite may be such that, at least for the moment, it does not even come into your mind that you do not want to eat sweets any more. This again is not a case of acute conflict. But, whichever cases of akrasia
we consider, Aristotle's view is never that, if we are confronted with such a conflict, whether it is acute or not, and act on a nonrational desire against reason, we do so because there is a mental event, namely, a choice or a decision to act in this way.
It certainly sometimes is this case!
And certainly it is not the case that one chooses or decides between acting on one's belief and acting on one's nonrational desire. For, as we have seen, the way Aristotle describes these cases, they often, if not for the most part, do not even involve an occurrent thought to the effect that it would not be a good thing to act in this way.
More important, Aristotle himself explicitly characterizes these cases as ones in which one acts against one's choice (prohairesiss), rather than as cases in which one chooses to act against reason.5
What in Aristotle's view explains that one is acting against one's own beliefs is not a choice which causes the action. It is, rather, a long story about how in the past one has failed to submit oneself to the training, practice, exercise, discipline, and reflection which would ensure that one's nonrational desires are reasonable, that one acts for reasons, rather than on impulse, and hence that, if there is a conflict, one follows reason. It is this past failure, rather than a specific mental event, a choice or decision, which in Aristotle accounts for akratic
It should now be clear why Aristotle does not have a notion of a will. One's willing, one's desire of reason, is a direct function of one's cognitive state, of what reason takes to be a good thing to do. One's nonrational desire is a direct function of the state of the nonrational part of the soul. One acts either on a rational desire, a willing, or on a nonrational desire, an appetite. In the case of conflict, there is not a further instance which would adjudicate or resolve the matter. In particular, reason is not made to appear in two roles, first as presenting its own case and then as adjudicating the conflict by making a decision or choice. How the conflict gets resolved is a matter of what happened in the past, perhaps the distant past.
What Aristotle does have is a distinction between things we do hekontes
and things we do akontes
The distinction he is aiming at is the distinction between things we do for which we can be held responsible and things we do for which we cannot be held responsible. Aristotle tries to draw the distinction by marking off things we do only because we are literally forced to do them or because we act out of ignorance, that is to say, because we are not aware, and could not possibly be expected to be aware, of a crucial feature of the situation, such that, if we had been aware of it, we would have acted otherwise. If somebody offers you a chocolate, he might not be aware, and there may have been no way for him to know, a crucial fact involved, namely, that the chocolate is poisoned, such that, if he had known this, he would
not have offered it to you. We are, then, responsible for those things we do which we do neither by force nor out of ignorance. Put positively, for us to be responsible for what we do, our action has to somehow reflect our motivation. We must have acted in this way, because in one way or another we were motivated to act in this way, that is, either by a rational desire or a nonrational desire or both.
Traditionally, and highly misleadingly, Aristotle's distinction is represented as the distinction between the voluntary and the involuntary, and Aristotle's terms hekon
are translated accordingly. This tradition is ancient. Already Cicero translates hekon
in this way.7
It reflects a projection of a later conception of the mind onto Aristotle. To begin with, we have to keep in mind that Aristotle's distinction is supposed to apply to all beings - for instance, domestic animals, children, and mature human beings - who have been trained or taught or have learned to behave in a certain way and whom we can therefore expect to behave in a certain way. If we hold an animal responsible, scold and punish it to discourage it or praise and reward it to encourage it, we do so not because we think that it made the right choice or that it had any choice. At least Aristotle assumes that the animal, whatever it does, just acts on a nonrational desire, albeit one which may be the product of conditioning and habituation, which may or may not have been fully successful. The same, more or less, according to Aristotle, is true of children. But children begin to have and act on rational desires, and mature human beings should have, and should act on, rational desires rather than on impulse. But when they nevertheless do act on a nonrational desire, again it is not by choice. The nonrational desire in and by itself suffices to motivate us, even when we are grown up. And, as we have seen, even if we act against our rational desire, this does not involve a choice. Thus there is no notion of a will, or a willing, in Aristotle, such that somebody could be said to act voluntarily or willingly, whether he acts on a rational or a nonrational desire. Hence for Aristotle responsibility also does not involve a will, since any form of motivation to act in a given way suffices for responsibility.8
But, as I have already indicated, this does not mean that Aristotle does not have a notion of choice. For he says that if one acts on a nonrational desire against one's better knowledge, one acts against one's choice. Indeed, the notion of a choice plays an important role in Aristotle.9
For he thinks that if an action is to count as a virtuous action, it has to satisfy a number of increasingly strict conditions. It must not only be the right thing to do, one must be doing it hekon
, of one's own accord; indeed, one must will to do it. What is more, one must do it from choice (ek prohaireseōs
), that is, one must choose (prohaireisthai
) to do it, and the choice itself must satisfy certain conditions. Hence Aristotle explains what it is to choose to do something. In doing so, given what we have said, he also distinguishes choosing from willing. This has contributed to a widespread misunderstanding of what Aristotle takes choosing to be. It is often thought that willing and choosing are two entirely different things, that choice is a composite desire, consisting of a nonrational desire to do something and a belief, arrived at by deliberation, that it would be a good thing to act in this way in this situation.
I hardly need point out that this interpretation in part is driven by a model of the mind according to which our actions are determined by our beliefs and our nonrational desires, and in any case are motivated by our nonrational desires. But this clearly is not Aristotle's view, given his notion of willing. The
reason why he distinguishes willing and choosing is not that willing and choosing are altogether different but that choosing is a very special form of willing. One may will or want something which is unattainable. One may will to do something which one is unable to do. One may will something without having any idea as to what one should do to attain it. Choosing is different. We can choose to do something only if, as Aristotle puts it, it is up to us (eph' hemin
), if it is in our hands, if whether it gets done or not or happens or not depends on us.10
Thus one cannot choose to be elected to an office, since whether one is elected depends on others. But one can will or want to be elected to an office.
Yet choosing still is a form of willing. In Aristotle's view there is a certain good which we all will or want to attain in life, namely, a good life. As grown-up human beings, we have a certain conception, though different people have rather different ones, of what this final good consists of. So in a particular situation we shall, as mature human beings, choose what to do in light of our conception of this final good, because we think, having deliberated about the matter, that acting in this way will help us to attain this good. But this is what willing to do something is: desiring to do something, because one thinks that it will help one to attain something which one considers a good and which one therefore wills or wants. Hence choosing is just a special form of willing. So in Aristotle's account choice does play an important role. But choices are not explained in terms of a will but in terms of the attachment of reason to the good, however it might be conceived of, and the exercise of reason's cognitive abilities to determine how in this situation the good might best be attained.11
Just as there is no notion of a will in Aristotle, there is also no notion of freedom. This does not at all mean that Aristotle has a view of the world which entails that we are not free. Aristotle's view of the world is such that the behavior of things in the celestial spheres is governed by strict regularity dictated by the nature of the things involved. But once we come to the sublunary, grossly material sphere in which we live, this regularity begins to give out. It turns into a regularity "for the most part," explained by the imperfect realization of natures in gross matter. What is more, these regularities, dictated by the natures of things, even if they were exceptionless, would leave many aspects of the world undetermined. This is not to say that there is anything in the world which, according to Aristotle, does not have an explanation. But the way Aristotle conceives of explanation, the conjunction of these explanations still leaves the world underdetermined in our sense of casual determination. So in Aristotle's world there is plenty of space left for human action which does not collide with, or is excluded by, the existing regularities. Aristotle appeals to this, for instance, when he explains that choosing presupposes that it is up to us, depends on us, whether something gets done or not. Whether it gets done or not is not already settled by some regularity in the world. What is more, Aristotle's universe is not populated by sinister powers who try to thwart us in trying to live the kind of life which is appropriate for beings of our nature. There is a God whose thought determines the natures and thus the regularities in the world as far as they go, and there are truly angelic intellects who move the planets.12
They should be a source of inspiration for us. They certainly are not a hindrance to our life.
This bright view of the world with plenty of space for free action should not delude us into thinking that we have, according to Aristotle, much of a choice in doing what we are doing. Let us look at Aristotelian choice again. We can choose to do something, if it is up to us to do it or not to do it. This notion of something's being up to us will play a crucial role in all later ancient thought. And it will often be interpreted in such a way that, if something is up to us, we have a choice to do it or not to do it. But, if we go back to Aristotle, this is not quite so. All Aristotle is committed to is that, if something is up to us, we can choose to do it. We can also fail to choose to do it. But to fail to choose to do it, given Aristotle's notion of choice, is not the same as choosing not to do it. We saw this in the case of akrasia
. One can choose to follow reason. But if one fails to follow reason and acts on a nonrational desire, it is not because one chooses not to follow reason and, rather, chooses to do something else. So the choice one makes in Aristotle is not, at least necessarily, a choice between doing X and not doing X, let alone a choice between doing X and doing Y. It is a matter of choosing to do X or failing to choose to do X, such that X does not get done.
What is more, Aristotle's and, for that matter, Socrates', Plato's, and the Stoics' view of the wise and virtuous person is that such a person cannot fail to act virtuously and wisely, that is to say, fail to do the right thing for the right reasons. But this means or Aristotle that a wise and virtuous person cannot but make the choices he makes. This is exactly what it is to be virtuous. Hence the ability to act otherwise or the ability to choose otherwise, if construed in a narrow or strong sense, is not present in the virtuous person, because it is a sign of immaturity and imperfection to be able to act otherwise, narrowly construed. So long as one can choose and act otherwise, one is not virtuous. So Aristotle's virtuous person could act otherwise only in an attenuated sense, namely, in the sense that the person could act otherwise, if he had not turned himself into a virtuous person by making the appropriate choices at a time when he could have chosen otherwise in a less attenuated sense. Unfortunately, this more robust, less attenuated, sense is not a sense Aristotle is particularly concerned with. And the reason for this is that Aristotle thinks rather optimistically that the ability to make the right choices comes with human nature and a good upbringing. But he also, given the age he lives in and his social background, has no difficulty with the assumption that human nature is highly complex and thus extremely difficult to reproduce adequately in gross matter. Thus he has no difficulty in assuming that most human beings are such imperfect realizations of human nature that they have little or no hope of becoming virtuous and wise. He also has no difficulty with the assumption that most human beings lack a good upbringing. We shall see that this way of thinking will increasingly offend the sensibilities of later antiquity.
Aristotle's view leaves plenty of space for unconstrained human action, but it is hardly hospitable, even in principle, to a notion of a free will. In any case, he lacks this notion. For Aristotle a good life is not a matter of a free will but of hard work and hard thought, always presupposing the proper realization of human nature in the individual, and a good upbringing, which unfortunately many are without.
The Emergence of a Notion
of Will in Stoicism
REASON, IMPRESSION, IMPULSE, AND ASSENT
As we have seen, for Aristotle to have had a notion of the will, be would have had to have the appropriate notion of a choice. Although he did have a notion of a choice, he did not have the kind of notion which would allow him to say that whenever we do something of our own accord (hekontes
), we do so because we choose or decide to act in this way. Aristotle did not have such a notion of choice since he assumed that we sometimes just act on a nonrational desire (i.e., a desire which has its origin in nonrational part of the soul) without choosing to act in this way and in fact sometimes against our choice. He could assume this, since he supposed that there are nonrational parts of the soul which generate such nonrational desires and that these by themselves suffice to motivate us to act. The crucial assumption is that being hungry may be enough to make you have something to eat and that being angry may be enough to make you take out your anger on the person who made you angry or on someone else.
The underlying conception of the soul as bi- or tripartite, which we find in Plato and in Aristotle, was rejected by the Stoics.1
Plato and Aristotle had developed their conception of the soul in part in response to Socrates' denial of akrasia
and his view that, in what we are doing, we are entirely guided by our beliefs. The Stoics took themselves to be reverting to Socrates' view, as they saw it represented in Plato's earlier dialogues, in particular, Plato's Protagoras
There is no indication in these dialogues, down to and including the Phaedo
, of a division of the soul. Even in the Phaedo
the soul in its entirety seems to be an embodied reason. So the Stoics took the soul to be a reason. They also called it, borrowing a term from Plato's Protagoras
352b, to hēgemonikon
, the governing part of us.3
It is reason which governs us and our entire life. There is no nonrational part of our soul to generate nonrational desires which would constitute a motivation for us to act quite independent of any beliefs we have and could even overpower reason and make us act against our beliefs. The way we behave is completely determined by our beliefs. If we act utterly irrationally, this is not because we are driven by nonrational desires but because we have utterly unreasonable beliefs. To understand fully why the Stoics reject the partition of the soul, we have to take into account that the opposing view, that the soul has a nonrational part, naturally brings with it two further views: (1) that since it is by nature that the soul is divided, it is also by nature that we have these nonrational desires, and hence it is perfectly natural and acceptable to have such desires, and (2) that these desires, at least if properly conditioned and channeled, aim at the attainment of certain genuine goods, like the food and the drink we need, or at the avoidance of certain
genuine evils, like death, mutilation, or illness. This is why we have these desires by nature.
Against this the Stoics argue that these supposedly natural desires, and quite generally all our emotions like anger or fear, are by no means natural. For it is not the case that they naturally aim at the attainment of certain goods and the avoidance of certain evils. According to the Stoics, it is not true that the things the supposedly natural desires and emotions aim to attain or to avoid are genuine goods or evils: the only good is wisdom or virtue, and the only evil is folly or vice. Everything else is indifferent. So it cannot be the case that by nature we have a nonrational part of the soul, so as to be motivated by its appetites and fears to attain certain goods and avoid certain evils. The cause of these appetites and fears is not to be looked for in a supposedly nonrational part of the soul, whose natural emotions they are, but rather in beliefs of reason, namely, in the beliefs that these things are good and hence desirable and that those things are evil and hence repulsive, when, in truth, they are all neither good nor evil but indifferent.
According to the Stoics, the division of the soul threatens the unity of the person and obscures the responsibility we have for our supposedly nonrational desires. It invites the thought that what we are essentially is only the rational part of the soul, which nevertheless cohabits in the body with an unruly, nonrational animal soul and its animal desires. It invites the thought that it is our responsibility to tame this unruly animal, establish the rule of reason in ourselves, and thus create a unified person. It is not our responsibility, but a mere fact of life, that we are confronted and have to deal with this often very strong and beastly animal soul and its crude desires. Against this the Stoics argue that this supposedly nonrational, animal part of our soul with its supposedly nonrational, animal desires is the creation of our mind in the following sense.4
It is not that we have these desires naturally, because we have a nonrational part of the soul. It is our mind which produces these irrational and often monstrous desires. It is a sheer piece of rationalization to invent a nonrational part of the soul and to devolve on it the responsibility for such desires. They are actually of our own making, because it is our mind or reason which produces them as a result of its beliefs and attitudes.
Aristotle, unlike Plato, had believed that we are not born with reason but with a nonrational soul of the kind other animals have, except that (1) this nonrational soul has an extraordinary capacity to store and process perceptual information and thus to accumulate experience to a degree no other animal can, and that (2) it can not only discriminate recurrent features but also come to recognize them as such. Because of this ability, human beings in the course of their natural development also develop concepts and thus become rational. Reason, as it were, grows out of the nonrational soul with which we are born, to constitute together with this nonrational soul a bi- or tripartite soul.5
Our upbringing has already involved a conditioning and habituation of this nonrational soul, ideally in such a way as to make it have reasonable desires. Once we have reason, this will greatly affect the way our nonrational soul operates. For now, by having reason ourselves, we can bring it about that the nonrational part of the soul generates only desires which are reasonable. Or we can at least bring it about that when the nonrational part generates desires which are not reasonable, we do not act on these desires. But, however much our nonrational desires may be in line with reason, they in themselves remain the desires of the animal we were born, though now shaped and molded by upbringing and by our own reason. And so long as reason has not acquired perfect control over the nonrational part of the soul, we shall also sometimes continue to act as the animals we were born, namely, to act on mere impulse or on a nonrational desire, instead of a desire of reason.6
In contrast, the Stoics believe that in the course of our natural development, we undergo a much more radical metamorphosis.7
When we are conceived and in our embryonic state, we are plantlike. Our behavior is governed by a nature (physis
), as the behavior of plants is. When the embryo is sufficiently developed, the shock of birth transforms this nature into a nonrational soul. We become like animals, acting on the prompting of nonrational desires, on nonrational impulse. But, as we grow up, we develop reason. We come to have concepts and begin to understand how we function and why we behave the way we do. But this reason is not, as in Aristotle and in Plato, a further, additional part of the soul. It is the product of a complete transformation of our innate and nonrational soul into a rational soul, a reason or a mind. This transformation also turns the nonrational desires, with which we grew up and which motivated us as children, into desires of reason. Once we are rational beings, there are no nonrational desires left. They have all become something quite different.
To say that these nonrational desires have become something quite different in becoming desires of reason is to acknowledge that there is some continuity. To see what the continuity is, we have to look briefly at how the Stoics understand the desires or Impulses of other animals. They view them very much as Aristotle does. Animals perceive things. This perception involves their having an impression (phantasia
) of the thing perceived.' Now, animals also perceive things as pleasant, satisfying, and conducive to their maintaining themselves in their natural state or as unpleasant, unsatisfying, or detrimental to their maintenance. And so they develop a liking for some things and a dislike of other things. This has an effect on the impressions an animal has. If the animal now perceives something it likes or dislikes, the impression it has takes on a certain coloring. In one case it is an agreeable impression, in the other it is a disagreeable impression. Depending on the complexity of the animal, an agreeable or disagreeable impression may produce memories of past encounters with this sort of thing and expectations about the future. But, whether or not it does so, in the appropriate circumstances the impression in itself, given its coloring, will constitute an impulse either to go after the thing perceived or to avoid it. If a carnivorous animal like a lion feels depleted or hungry, and it has the agreeable impression of a nice piece of meat in reach, this impression in itself will suffice to make it go after the meat. If the little animal to whom the piece of meat belongs in its turn has the disagreeable impression of a lion it is in easy reach of, this disagreeable impression in itself will suffice to impel the little animal to avoid the lion and run away. Such impressions are called "impulsive" (hormetikai
), since they impel the animal to act.9
It is these impressions which constitute the desire of an animal or a child to get something or to avoid something.
According to the Stoics, there is this much continuity between being a child and being a mature human being - that as grownup human beings we continue to have impulsive impressions. The discontinuity lies in the twofold fact that these impulsive impressions now have a completely different character and that in themselves they no longer constitute an impulse sufficient to impel us to do something. To move us they require an assent of, or acceptance by, reason. It is only if reason accedes to the impulsive impression that it will constitute an actual impulse. So a human impulse, a rational impulse, will have two elements: a certain kind of impulsive impression and an assent of reason to that.
Let us look at these two elements more closely and, to begin with, at the impulsive impressions. According to the Stoics, all human impressions, whether impulsive or not, differ from animal impressions in that they are rational.10
Animal impressions, being formed in and by a nonrational soul, lack a certain distinctive character which all mature human impressions have, given that they are formed in and by reason: mature human impressions do not just represent something in some way or other but are articulated in such a way as to have a propositional content. They are impressions to the effect that something is the case. Hence they are true or false. Their formation involves the use of concepts, ways of conceiving of things. Thus the Stoics also call such rational impressions "thoughts" (noēseis
). Even the perceptual impressions we have when we see something, according to the Stoics, are such thoughts, albeit thoughts produced in a certain way, namely, through the senses.
There is a point here which needs to be emphasized. Clearly, the Stoic idea is that a rational impulse is a compound which has a passive element, namely, the impression, and an active element, the assent. An impression is something you find yourself with. The question is what you do with the impression you find yourself with, for instance, whether you give assent to it. To mark this passive, receptive character of an impression, Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, characterized it as a typōsis
, an imprint or impression." Hence, Cicero sometimes translates the standard Stoic term for an impression, phantasia
, by impressio
. 2.58). This is how we have come to use the term impression.
Already Chrysippus (just two generations after Zeno) objected to this characterization of impressions.12
I take it that he did so because it is quite misleading in the following respect. It is true that we do not actively form an impression, a certain kind of representation of something, in the way in which we paint a painting or draw a map or describe a person. The impression is formed without our doing anything. But this should not obscure the fact that the way the impression is formed reflects the fact that it is formed in and by a mind. This is why the impressions animals form in their souls will differ from one another depending on the kind of animal in which they are formed, and this is why our impressions differ from the impressions of any other animal in having a propositional content, because they are formed in and by a mind or reason. But, given that, it is also easy to see why the impressions even of the same object will differ among different people, reflecting the difference between different minds. This is bound to be the case, for instance, because not all people have precisely the same concepts or the same habits of thinking about things, the same experiences, or the same beliefs. So it is perfectly true that an impression is something which we find ourselves with. But it is by no means true that we are completely innocent of the particular details of the impressions we individually form. They very much reflect the beliefs, habits, and attitudes of the particular mind in which and by which they are formed.
What is true of impressions in general is also true of impulsive impressions. They are thoughts which reflect your ways and habits of thinking about things. Let us now, though, focus on their impulsive character. Suppose you cut yourself badly with a rusty knife. Given your beliefs, the thought might occur to you that you got infected. And the further thought might occur to you that you might die from this infection. At this point this is a mere impression or thought which you find yourself with. It is a disagreeable, perhaps even disconcerting, thought; that is to say, the mere thought in itself is disconcerting. The question then arises: "What is the source and nature of this disquieting character of the impression?"
According to the Stoics, there are two possibilities. The first is this: you wrongly believe that death is an evil, perhaps even a terrible evil. No wonder, then, that the mere impression that you might die is very disturbing. The second is this: you rightly believe, not that death is an evil but that it is natural to try to avoid death, and that nature means you, other things being equal, to try to avoid death. So the impression that you might die has an alarming character; it puts you on alert. This has a teleological function. It alerts you to the need to be on your guard. And, by a natural mechanism, your whole body will go into a state of alert, ready to move as needed. But the impression, though alarming, is not deeply disturbing. For, after all, you have a clear mind, and you know that there are many false alarms; and even if there is reason for alarm, you as a Stoic know that all you have to do is try to do what you can to avoid death. This is what you are meant to do. You do not actually have to avoid death. That is a matter of divine providence. So the question of whether you are going to die or not in this sense does not affect you at all. This is God's problem, as it were.
But in the case of the person who believes that death is a terrible evil, the alarming character of the impression, which teleologically is just a signal to be on one's guard, turns into a deeply disturbing experience, and as a consequence the whole body goes into a disturbed, perturbed, or excited state, which might affect the operation of reason. Later Stoics will call an impression with such a coloring, and perhaps with the attendant bodily state, a propatheia
, an incipient passion.13
We have to firmly remember, though this might not be so clear to the person in a deeply disturbed state, that so far we are dealing with a mere impression or thought. Naturally, as the thought may occur to you, it may also be false. After all, we have not yet found out, or made up our mind, as to whether we actually got infected. And we have not yet considered whether we should believe that one may die from this infection. So far we have just the mere thought. Now, one cannot be afraid that one might die from this infection unless one believes that one got infected and that one could die from this infection. We clearly have to distinguish between concern and fear, on the one hand, and the alarming or disturbing character of the impression, on the other hand. The wise person will be concerned, but the foolish person who believes that death is an evil will be afraid. Thus fear, according to the Stoics, is nothing but the false belief that an evil is coming, or might come, one's way - a belief generated by assent to an impression which is deeply disturbing because one wrongly takes the situation to be an evil. Sometimes the Stoics also think of fear as the belief coupled with the attendant bodily state.
In the same way in which the Stoics treat a fear, they also treat an appetite, the supposedly natural desire of the non-rational part of the soul. In truth it is nothing but a belief of a certain kind, a belief generated by assent to a highly agreeable impression to the effect that something one conceives of as a good is coming or might come one's way; the highly agreeable and impulsive character of the impression is the result of this mistaken belief that it is a good. The Stoics treat all the emotions, like anger, which are supposed by Plato and Aristotle to originate in a nonrational part of the soul, as misguided beliefs. They call them pathē
, passions, that is to say, pathological affections, produced by the mind. The Stoic wise man does not experience any such passion. He is apathēs
. But this does not at all mean that he does not have any emotion. He knows concern, the counterpart of fear; he knows reasonable willing, the counterpart of appetite; and he knows joy, the elated satisfaction at the attainment of a real good, as opposed to gleefulness at the attainment of an imagined good.14
So much, then, about impulsive impressions and the way they heavily depend on one's own mind and reason.
As to assent, we can now be brief. Animals can do nothing, or at least very little, but rely on their impressions. They have little
or no way to discriminate between trustworthy and misleading instances. But our impressions are true or false. We also have reason, which allows us to scrutinize our impressions critically before we accept them as true and reliable. Here it is important to remember that there is more to our impressions than their propositional content. This is obvious in the case of perceptual impressions. But we have also seen that a thought that one might die from a certain infection, though it has the same propositional content, might come in different colorings, and the coloring is regarded as part of the thought or impression. So, to give assent to an impression, while primarily a matter of taking its propositional content to be true, is also a matter of accepting it in all its detail, for instance, accepting it, though it is not a clear and distinct impression, and accepting it in its coloring. Given an impulsive impression, one might accept its propositional content but find its impulsive character inappropriate and therefore refuse to assent to the impression on that ground.
There is one last detail which I will merely touch on. The notion of assent, like its legal counterpart of consent, can be construed quite generously. Just as tacit acquiescence in being ruled or governed by somebody can be construed as assenting to the person's rule, so assenting to an impression does not have to involve an explicit act of acceptance. Not to revolt against an impression but simply acquiescing to it and in fact relying on it can constitute as much an assent as an explicit acceptance.
If we now return to the question of how the Stoics think of the desires Plato and Aristotle characterize as nonrational, it should be clear why the Stoics think that they are all rational, all the product of reason. For the Stoics there is an ambiguity in the term desire here. If by desire
we mean an impulse which actually moves us to action, then, according to the Stoics, we are dealing with a belief of a certain kind that is constituted by reason's assent to an impulsive impression. If, on the other hand, by desire
we mean, as Plato and Aristotle obviously sometimes do, a motive which might be overridden by a conflicting desire, something which just might move us to act but also may fail to do so, then, according to the Stoics, we must be talking about an impulsive rational impression. And this impulsive impression is formed by reason.
Whatever we make of the details of all this, there is one point which is absolutely crucial for the emergence of the notion of the will. The case of the Stoics against Plato and Aristotle would completely collapse without the assumption that any action, unless one is physically and literally forced into doing something, presupposes an act of reason's assent to an appropriate impulsive impression. This assent will constitute a rational impulse which prompts or drives, as it were, the action. So any human desire (orexis
) is a desire of reason. Thus any desire of a grown-up human being is a willing, a boulēsis
. Here, therefore, we do have the notion of a willing which was lacking in Plato and Aristotle, a notion which allows us to say that, when a person does not act by being forced or out of ignorance, the person acts voluntarily or willingly.15
Among such willings, though, the Stoics now distinguish between boulēsis
in a narrower sense, namely, reasonable willings, the kind of willings only a wise person has, and appetites (epithymiai
), unreasonable willings, which are what we who are not wise have.16
So now we have the notion of assent, and hence the appropriate notion of a willing, but we do not yet have the notion of a choice, let alone of a will. To see how we get this, we have to step hack a bit. It is clear from what we have said that, according to the Stoics, our whole life is entirely a matter of what we assent to and what not. For our beliefs are a matter of assent, and so are our desires, which are just special forms of belief. Ensuring our life will come out well is entirely a matter of giving assent when that is appropriate and refusing to give assent when it is inappropriate. This focus on our internal life is sharpened by the fact that, according to the Stoics, wisdom is the only good, that a wise life is a good life, and that nothing else matters. So long as one acts wisely, one lives a life of (for us) unimaginable satisfaction and bliss, whatever may happen to one, whether one gets tortured or maimed or killed. The wise person will normally be concerned to avoid such things, but, if they do happen, they will make no difference to him, as he is just concerned to act wisely, by giving assent when appropriate and refusing assent when inappropriate.
So the whole focus of one's life now is on one's inner life. And there is a further factor which reinforces this focus, namely, the assumption that the course of the world outside is predetermined. All the wise person can do is try to avoid death, but if he does not manage that, he takes this as a sure sign that nature in her wisdom means him to die and that therefore it is a good thing for him to die. All he has to do, having failed in his attempts to avoid impending death, is to give assent to the thought that it must be a good thing that he is going to die.
Moreover, besides this increasing focus on one's inner life, we also have to take note of the emphasis we find in later Stoics on the assumption that philosophical theory is not an end in itself but a means to living one's life, and their insistence that the application of this theory to one's life requires a great deal of attention to, and reflection on, how one as an individual actually does function, including a great deal of practice (askēsis
) and exercise in learning to think about things in appropriate ways and to act accordingly. Hence later Stoics will turn to this inner life in a way which is supposed to help us to learn to give assent appropriately. One of these philosophers is Epictetus at the turn from the first to the second century A.D., the most respected and influential Stoic of his time.
EPICTETUS AND THE FIRST NOTION OF A WILL
In Epictetus's Discourses the notion of prohairesis
(choice) plays perhaps the central role!17
It is our prohairesis
which defines us as a person, as the sort of person we are; it is our prohairesis
which determines how we behave; it is our prohairesis
which we need to concern ourselves with more than anything else; indeed, our prohairesis
is the only thing which in the end matters. Now, given what has been said, we might think that we readily understand this. Since we aim at a good life, our concern should be to give assent to the right impressions and in particular to give assent to the right impulsive impressions, which assent will constitute a rational impulse or desire and make us act in the appropriate way. Therefore we might think that the assent to our impulsive impressions constitutes a choice to act in a certain way and that the prohairesis
which stands at the center of Epictetus's thought is the disposition of the mind to make the choices which it makes to act in the way we do.
But the matter is more complicated. This is already signaled by tbe very term prohairesis
. It should strike us as curious that Epictetus makes such prominent use of a term which is strongly associated with Aristotle and Peripateticism and which had played almost no role in Stoic thought up to this point. We should also remember that in Aristotle willing and choosing are distinguished by the fact that choosing is a matter of willing something which is up to us and in our power.
Clearly, this is highly relevant in Epictetus. In classical Stoicism the phrase "up to us" (eph' hemin
) is used in such a way that an action is up to us if its getting done is a matter of our giving assent to the corresponding impulsive impression. Thus it is up to me to cross the street, because whether I cross the street is a matter of my giving assent to the impression that it would be a good thing to cross the street. But Epictetus uses "up to us" in a much narrower way.18
He insists on taking account of the fact that no external action in the world is entirely under our control. We may not succeed in crossing the street for any number of trivial reasons but ultimately because it may not be part of God's providential plan that we should cross the street. This had been assumed by the Stoics all along, so Epictetus's narrowing of the use of "up to us" hardly constitutes a change in doctrine but rather a shift in emphasis or focus. What Epictetus wants us to focus on is that it is up to us to give, or refuse to give, assent to the impulsive impression to cross the street but that it is not up to us to cross the street. So we can choose to give assent to the impression to cross the street, and we can thus will to cross the street, but we cannot choose or decide to cross the street. It is to make this point that Epictetus resorts to Aristotle's terminology, with its distinction of willing and choosing, and talks of choosing to give assent but of willing to cross the street.
There is another important point which we should take note of. It is conspicuous that assent does not play as central a role in Epictetus as we might expect. He prefers to talk more generally of our "use of impressions" (chrēsis tōn phantasiōn
) or of the way we deal with our impressions. Assenting to them is just one thing we can do with them, though the most important one. So now it becomes clear, and Epictetus makes this explicit, that what is up to us, what is a matter of our choice, is how we deal with our impressions. We can scrutinize them, reflect on them, try to deflate and dissolve them, dwell on them, and, of course, give assent to them. But giving assent is just one of the things which it is up to us to do, which we can choose to do. And our prohairesis
, which defines us as the kind of person we are, is not a disposition, as we at first thought, to choose to act in a certain way, because we do not have that choice, but rather a disposition to choose to deal with our impressions in a certain way, most crucially to choose how to assent to impulsive impressions. This assent, which you choose to give, will constitute a willing, and this willing is the impulse which makes you act in a certain way. So this ability and disposition, insofar as it accounts for your willing whatever it is that you will to do, can be called "the will." But the will is called prohairesis
, rather than boulesis
, to mark that it is an ability to make choices, of which willings are just products. This indeed is the first time that we have any notion of a will.
This notion of a will is clearly developed to pinpoint the source of our responsibility for our actions and to identify precisely what it is that makes them our own doings. Chrysippus had said that it is up to us, for instance, to cross the street or not. And he had explained this by saying that it is up to us to give, or refuse to give, our assent to the appropriate impulsive impression. We are now told, according to Epictetus, that the sense of "up to us" involved in the two cases is different. The second case is a narrower and stricter sense of "up to us," whereby it is up to us to give or not to give assent to the impression. And we get an explanation of precisely what that means. We can choose or decide to give assent, but we can also choose or decide not to give assent. This choice is to be explained by the will. In explaining your choices, it also explains your willings. But it is not in the same sense up to you to do something or not to do something, since you cannot choose to do something in the way you can choose to give assent.
There are various details here which I will not go into at the length they deserve but which I want to mention at least briefly. The will thus conceived can be a good will or a bad will, depending on whether the choices we make in virtue of it are good choices or bad choices. We may not like the choices we make and therefore not like the will we have. We may will to have a will which makes different choices. We may, for instance, will it to no longer choose to give assent to the tempting impressions we have when we are faced by a delicious piece of cake. So there are second- and higher-order willings which can give the will a great deal of structure and stability. We should also note t hat the will, as it is conceived here, can choose to give assent to :in ordinary nonimpulsive impression, like the impression that it will rain a lot tomorrow, such that, given this assent, we believe t hat it will rain a lot tomorrow. So in this sense what we believe is a matter of our will, as thus conceived. However, this does Hot at all mean that we will to believe something. We can at best be said to choose to believe something. For we get a willing only if the will chooses to give assent, not to an ordinary but to an impulsive impression which leads to action. Put differently, not every act of the will is a willing or a volition. Moreover, nothing which has been said so far shows that the will is free in its choices. It can make a particular choice or fail to make a particular choice.19 But there is nothing in what has been said which forces us to assume, for instance, that it can freely choose whether to give assent or not, or whether to give assent to this impression or another impression. It can choose or decide to give assent to a given impression, but it also can fail to do so.
This notion of the will as our ability to make choices and decisions includes the ability to choose to give assent to impulsive impressions and thus to choose to will to do something. Thus in this complex way it accounts for what other ancient philosophers and we ourselves would call our choosing or deciding to do something. In what follows I shall for the most part focus only on the will as an ability to make choices and decisions as to what to do.
With Stoicism, then, we get for the first time a notion of the will as an ability of the mind or of reason to make choices and decisions. This ability, though, which we all share, in the case of each of us is formed and developed in different ways. How it develops is crucially a matter of the effort and care with which we ourselves develop this ability, which we also might neglect to do. The will thus formed and developed accounts for the different choices and decisions different human beings make. As we have seen, the precise form in which the Stoics conceive of the will depends on their denial of a nonrational part or parts of the soul. Hence in this specific form the notion of a will was unacceptable to Platonists and to Aristotelians, who continued to insist on a nonrational part of the soul.