A Free Will: Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought / Edition 1 available in Paperback
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A Free Will
Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought
By Michael Frede, A. A. Long
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
The standard Greek term for the will is prohairesis, literally, "choice" or "disposition to choose." Later boulesis and, in particular, thelesis 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.
Excerpted from A Free Will by Michael Frede, A. A. Long. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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