The Ancient Philosophy of Free Will

The Views of Ancient Philosophers on the Concept of Free Will

Although the topic of free will was debated avidly among ancient philosophers, a direct reference to the term is difficult to find. Free will did not originate until much later. However, the schools of thought that underline free will; determinism, libertarianism, and compatibilism, have been formed for over 2000 years.

Before we start, it is useful to define the terms mentioned, as these form the basis of the philosophical debate of choice.

  • Determinism, the theory that all events, including moral choices, are determined by previously existing causes. This theory is based on the presumption that humans cannot act otherwise than they do.
  • Libertarianism, in the context of free will, is the belief that free will is incompatible with causal determinism, and agents have free will. They, therefore, reject causal determinism.
  • Compatibilism is the belief that free will and determinism are mutually compatible and that it is possible to believe in both without being logically inconsistent.

Now that we understand the terminology within the philosophy of free will, we can explore the debate of choice in antiquity.

Plato — The Republic

Plato is perhaps most famous for his writing on justice, the just man, and the order and character of the just city-state. He summarises these writings in his Socratic dialogue — The Republic.

In Book IV of this dialogue, Plato describes, through Socrates, the various aspects of the human soul. He states that the wise person strives for ‘inner justice’. Plato believed that there is a constant battle with one’s base desires. To achieve inner justice, an individual must liberate themselves from these impulses by acquiring the virtues of wisdom, courage, and temperance. Once an individual has mastered one’s self, only then can that individual express free will.

While Plato never expressly mentions free will, we can presume this is his meaning with the mastery of one’s self, overcoming desires which prohibit our reasoned mind.

It would be reasonable to surmise that Plato believed in the possibility of free will, though only once certain conditions had been overcome. If one cannot overcome their base desires then one is left enslaved to their emotions, prohibiting their ability to make decisions freely. It is interesting that Plato separates these emotions from the self as if they were that of another disruptive being. It is this principle that stoicism, which we will revisit later in this article, is based on.

Aristotle — Nicomachean Ethics

While Aristotle holds value in the development of virtues, he does not agree with Plato that unless one achieves inner justice then they are a slave to themselves. While not having a definitive view on free will, he applies particular attention to the role of choice. These choices, over time, culminating in the development of habits.

Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, describes an individual as having the power to do or not to do. He believes we can act voluntarily, and the essence of these decisions lie within us.

Aristotle states that mature humans will deliberate about potential courses of action, and decide based on their personal experiences and beliefs. He proposes that individuals develop consistency in their decisions, either deciding consistently well or consistently poorly. From this, they develop into either a virtuous or vicious character, though at no point are they not in control of their decisions.

The Hellenistic era

In the subsequent years of the Hellenistic Era, concepts proposed by Plato and Aristotle were developed by the Epicureans, Stoics, and Academic Skeptics. The debates between these areas of thought dominated the era. Most notably, Stoics and Epicureans believed that the human soul was corporeal and adhered to natural laws and principles.

Zeno of Citium, the father of Stoicism, built on the causal chain, a principle originally postulated by Aristotle. Zeno believed that all events had a cause, given the same circumstances, the cause would always result in the same event.

It is impossible that the cause be present yet that of which it is the cause not obtain — Zeno of Citium

Uncomfortable with the restricted nature of this theory, Chrysippus, adapted it in such a way as to allow for freedom of will, attempting to unshackle the bonds of absolute determinism.

Chrysippus wanted to strengthen the argument for moral responsibility. While he accepted that the past is unchangeable, Chrysippus argued that future events do not occur from external factors alone, but may also depend on the individual. Importantly, Chrysippus argued that one can assent or not to act.

Essentially, Chrysippus believed that our actions are determined and fated. While these may seem by their very nature, mutually exclusive, it is qualified. The determined is made up, in part, of the self as a cause, and the fated being that of God’s foreknowledge. While he allows room for religious belief of the era within his theory, he reiterates that these actions are not necessitated — meaning they are not predetermined by a distant past. Many believe Chrysippus’ theory to be the earliest example of compatibilism.

I will not spend long discussing the theories of Epicurus as they lack detail and his meaning is still the matter of philosophical debate. Essentially, Epicurus and his followers believed that all things, including the human soul, were built from atoms. These atoms adhered to fixed rules restricting the behaviour of all objects made of such atoms.

Despite this, Epicurus opposed determinism. Epicurus proposed that these atoms were susceptible to ‘swerves’ from their usual path. It is this explanation that some have used as proof of Epicurus’ belief in free will, though there is a distinct lack of detail on the matter and to discuss further would be pure conjecture.

Alexander of Aphrodisias

The most famous ancient commentator of Aristotle’s philosophy, Alexander of Aphrodisias, wrote in the era of the Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics. He is viewed by many as the founder of the libertarian view on moral responsibility, otherwise known as libertarianism.

Alexander drew a delineation between Aristotle and the Stoics, believing that Aristotle was not a strict determinist, as were the Stoics. He argued that man is responsible for self-caused decisions and that events do not always have predetermined causes. He believed that man is capable of a choice whether or not to act, much like Chrysippus. However, Alexander rejected the concept of foreknowledge of events attributed to God. This foreknowledge is central to the Stoic identification of God and Nature and is a key differentiator between the schools of thought.

The View of the Ancient’s

As with most things, the various schools of thought in ancient philosophy disagreed on one’s ability to act with free will.

Both Plato and Aristotle appear to have an unclear view of free will. Although Plato set conditions on the ability of choice, some may argue his belief in free will for the enlightened to be an example of libertarianism. He seemed to think it an ability of only a few individuals, those who had achieved inner justice. In fact, In Plato’s Gorgias, he goes as far as to say that nobody does wrong willingly. This seems to indicate that Plato believed to act with poor intent is to act without intent at all, rather one who acts in such as way is a slave to their base desires, void of the enlightenment that spawns an individuals ability to choose.

The Stoics, however, held a deterministic view, as was necessary for their core belief — that natural law governed all things, including the mind. Zeno’s core mantra, that every event had a cause, and that cause necessitates the event, may bring comfort to some. Although, unless you hold yourself to the most strict doctrine of Stoicism, it risks inevitable apathy. If all is predetermined, as with determinism, then to what extent should we strive outside of our natural will, as to do so should not change the course of a predetermined outcome.

To combat this inevitable outcome of the Stoic view, Chrysippus provided a more palatable theory. He combined the views of determinists and libertarians, stating that one does not have to exist in the absence of the other. An individuals choice is both determined and fated, one has the ability to choose, but within the restrictions of a deities predetermination.

This article is part of the free will series by Dr. Matt. To follow this series, you can subscribe by clicking on the link below. You’re of course free to make your decision… unless you’re not?

Medical Doctor | Medical Technology | Neurology | Published Researcher | While I have your attention, you may as well scroll down.

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