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 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 we have or can have free will.

     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 Christianity. He argues that the notion of free will is not an ordinary notion but was first introduced in the late Stoics to account for what they took to be the fact that sometimes when we do something, we are responsible for what we do. Subsequently, according to Frede, under the influence of orthodox Christianity, the belief that we have free will became widespread. People who themselves did not understand Christian doctrine believed that we have free will even though they did not know what free will is. The term, in this way, came to be used as no more than a shorthand or abbreviation for the proposition that sometimes when we do something, we are responsible for what we do. On this understanding, to say that human beings have free will is not to say something about the human mind or psychology. It is not to say that human beings have a will that is or can be free. It is simply to say that sometimes when we do something, we are responsible for what we do. Frede thinks that "[W.D.] Ross and earlier scholars" (13) inherited this use of the the term "free will" but were unaware of how the notion of free will had changed over time. The proposition about responsibility is something Aristotle believed and presumably is something all the Greeks in the time of Plato and Aristotle believed. Because these scholars did know this, they thought that Plato and Aristotle believed in free will despite the fact that no where in their works do they use the Greek terms corresponding to "free will" to say that we have free will. Today, if Frede is right, because we now know more about the history of thought than scholars and philosophers knew in the not too distant past, we can see what in hindsight seems obvious: the reason that Plato and Aristotle no where in their works use the Greek terms corresponding to "free will" to say that we have or can have free will is that they did not have the notion of free will.





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