Free Will in Ancient Thought

PHI 420. Writing Assignments, Bibliography Project, Final Paper.


Example Answer to a Writing Assignment


Frede says that not long ago scholars (such as W. D. Ross) "On the whole we must say that [Aristotle] shared the plain man's belief in free will but that he did not examine the problem very thoroughly, and did not express himself with perfect consistency" (W. D. Ross, Aristotle (Methuen & Company, Limited; London, 1923), 201). wrongly thought that Plato and Aristotle had the notion of free will because they "went on the assumption that the notion of a free will is an ordinary notion." Explain how Frede thinks these scholars got this notion of free will and how it allowed them to think that Plato and Aristotle believed in free will despite the fact that they did not use the Greek terms corresponding to free will to say that our will is free.

Frede thinks that earlier scholars went wrong because they were unaware of the history of the notion of free will in the late Stoics and in early Christianity. He argues that the notion of free will is not an ordinary notion in terms which human beings have always understood themselves but was first introduced in late Stoicism in the work of Epictetus as a technical notion to account for what they took to be the fact that sometimes when we do something, we are responsible for what we do. The Christians took over the notion of free will the Stoics invented. This, in turn, caused the belief that we have free will to spread widely in the ancient world. People who themselves did not understand Christian doctrine believed that we have free will even though they themselves did not know what free will is. In this way, belief in free will came to be identified with the belief that sometimes when we do something, we are responsible for what we do. Scholars thought, reasonably enough, that this belief about responsibility is a belief human beings have had about themselves long before the time of Plato and Aristotle. They realized too that no where in their writing do Plato and Aristotle use the Greek terms corresponding to free will to say that our will is free, but this did not bother them enough to conclude that Plato and Aristotle did not have a notion of free will because they were convinced that free will is something human beings have always thought themselves to possess.





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