Free Will in Ancient Thought

Frede. Chapter Two: "Aristotle on Choice without a Will," 21-26

βούλεσθαι, boulesthai, present middle passive infinitive of βούλομαι, boulomai, verb, "wish, will"

βούλησις, boulēsis, noun, "willing"
1. 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 boulêsis.

What is this notion of "willing"? Why is it not a notion of a "will"?

2. In Plato and Aristotle [the notion of "willing" in 1] 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. We tend to think of "reason" as no more than an ability to make inferences and to form beliefs. For Plato and Aristotle willing, as I will call it, is a form of desire which is specific to reason. 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. ... 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. What view does Frede have in mind when he says that "reason" to be "attracted to the truth and the good"?

Consider the attraction to the good first.

The answer, it seems, is that reason includes a process of forming beliefs about what things are good and for forming desires for these things.

If the "attraction to the truth" is similar, reason includes a process of forming beliefs about the way things are.
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.

According to "Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and their later followers," in human beings there is a kind of cognition called "reason." (We should not assume that we know what this cognition is, despite the familiarity with the words 'reason' and 'reasoning.')

Beliefs about what is good are part of this cognition.

Desires are part of this cognition. These desires are for what is believed to be good.

Frede calls these desires "willings."

3. In Plato and Aristotle but not in the Stoics, this view of willing, as a form of In the Republic, Socrates argues that the soul is tripartite.

He argues that the soul has "the reasoning part" (τὸ λογιστικὸν) but that it also has two parts that do not engage in reasoning: "the spirited part" (τὸ θυμοειδές) and "the appetitive part" (τὸ ἐπιθυμητικόν).

In this way, in Frede's terms, the soul has a "rational" part (reason) and a "nonrational" part (appetite and spirit).
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. Thus one may be hungry, and in this way desire something to eat, and hence desire to get something to eat. επιθυμία, epithymia, noun, "appetite" This sort of desire is called appetite (epithymia). 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.

In Plato and Aristotle, not all desires are "willings."

Some desires are appetitive. These desires are not part of reason. Why? They do not depend on "what one thinks or believes."

The desires of reason and the desires of appetite may conflict.

Frede's terminology can be confusing.

Rational desires are the desires of reason (where, in Plato's tripartite theory of the soul, this is the part of the soul that engages in reasoning). Nonrational desires are the desires that do not belong to reason. They belong to appetite or spirit (where, in Plato's tripartite theory, these are the other two parts of the soul, the parts that do not engaging in reasoning). Rational desires are reasonable if the beliefs in reason about what is good and what is bad are reasonable. Nonrational desires are reasonable if they are in accord with beliefs in reason about what is good and what is bad.

What is "reasoning"?

What is it for beliefs to be "reasonable"?

4. [T]he 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. 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 nonrational desire. ἀκρασία, akrasia, noun, alternate spelling of ἀκράτεια, akrateia, "want of power, incontinence," 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.

“[Socrates’] view [is] that the way we act is completely determined by our beliefs, in particular our beliefs concerning the good and related matters” (Michael Frede, "The Philosopher," 9. Greek Thought. A Guide to Classical Knowledge (edited by Jacques Brunschwig and Geoffrey E. R. Lloyd), 1-18. Harvard University Press, 2000).

“The Stoics revert to Socrates' extreme intellectualism. They deny an irrational part of the soul. The soul is a mind or reason. Its contents are impressions or thoughts, to which the mind gives assent or prefers to give assent. In giving assent to an impression, we espouse a belief. Desires are just beliefs of a certain kind, the product of our assent to a so-called impulsive impression” (Michael Frede, "The Philosopher," 12).

"[The Stoics thought that r]ecognizing something as a good, or even just believing to recognize something as a good, allows one to act, and nothing else does. … The transformation of our animal soul into human reason would render us inactive, if, as part of reason, we did not also acquire a notion of the good. It is only because we now judge certain things to be good that we are motivated to act” (Michael Frede, “On the Stoic Conception of the Good,” 75. Topics in Stoic Philosophy (edited by Katerina Ierodiakonou), 71-94. Oxford University Press, 1999).
Socrates didn't recognize "nonrational" desires. He thought all desires, or perhaps all desires in adults, are a matter of belief about what is good and what is bad.

This view about desire is sometimes called "Socratic intellectualism."

Could Socrates really think that all desires, and so the desires in animals and children too, are or stem from beliefs about what is good and what is bad?

That seems unlikely to me. In the Platonic dialogues, the discussion is in the context of adults when Socrates seems to commit himself to Socratic intellectualism.

5. Now, in looking at this discussion [of akrasia] 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.

What is this "conception of the mind which we project onto Aristotle"?

6. 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.

In what Frede calls "impetuous akrasia," you react to the situation without considering whether the reaction is "appropriate." Further, had you considered whether it is appropriate, you would have thought that it wast not. "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."

Consider another case: you think it is not appropriate to react, but you do so anyway.

What is going on here?

Is this a case in which "conflicting desires ... pull us in opposite directions"?

7. 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.

This case is similar to the one Frede calls "impetuous akrasia."

8. 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. 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.

Even if "acute" conflict is possible, Aristotle does not think that reason adjudicates between the two desires. "[C]ertainly it is not the case that one chooses or decides between acting on one's belief and acting on one's nonrational desire."

9. More important, Aristotle himself explicitly characterizes these cases as ones in which one acts against one's choice (prohairesis), προαίρεσις, proairesis, noun, "choice" rather than as cases in which one chooses to act against reason. 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 action.

What explains why someone acts against a desire of reason is a fact about his past: namely, he "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."

10. 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.

The will is one thing in the mind that explains everything a human being does.

Aristotle does not understand human action this way. He recognizes two sources of motivation: what Frede calls "rational" desires and "nonrational" desires.

11. What Aristotle does have is a distinction between things we do hekontes and things we do akontes. ἑκόντες, hekontes, adjective, plural form of ἑκών

ἄκοντες, akontes, adjective, plural form of ἄκων

ἄκων, akōn, is the Attic contraction for ἀέκων

ἀεκούσιος, aekousios, Attic contraction for ἀκούσιος, akousios, substantival adjective from ἀέκων

ἀέκων, aekōn, adjective, "not of one's own accord"

ἑκούσιος, hekousios, substantival adjective from ἑκών

ἑκών, hekōn, adjective, "of own's own accord"

ἑκών behaves like a participle, but no verb exists.

When ἑκών is in the predicate position and agrees with the subject, it is translated as an adverb.
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.

If Aristotle does not have the notion of free will, how does he understand responsibility?

He draws a distinction between things we do ἑκόντες and things we do ἄκοντες.

What is this distinction?

12. Traditionally, and highly misleadingly, Aristotle's distinction is represented as the distinction between the voluntary and the involuntary, and Aristotle's terms hekōn and akōn are translated accordingly. This tradition is ancient. Already Cicero translates hekōn in this way. It reflects a projection of a later conception of the mind onto Aristotle.

Traditionally, Aristotle's distinction between things we do ἑκόντες and things we do ἄκοντες is understood as a distinction between things we "voluntarily" and things we do "involuntarily."

This, however, is "highly misleading."

"It reflects a projection of a later conception of the mind onto Aristotle."

What is the "later conception of mind"?

Why is the traditional interpretation "highly misleading" as opposed to false?

13. 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.

There is an argument here against the interpretation of "Aristotle's distinction" [set out in 12].

If acting voluntarily is acting willingly, and acting willingly is acting in terms of a rational desire, then the actions of nonhuman animals and children are all involuntary because all of their actions are in terms of nonrational desires. (Aristotle thinks that reason is not present in nonhuman animals and that it becomes present in human beings only when they become adults.) It follows, then, that they are never responsible for their actions. This, however, is false.

14. 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. 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 hekōn,
ἐκ προαιρέσεως (ek proaireseōs). προαιρέσεως is a genitive form of προαίρεσις.

ἐκ , ek, preposition, "from, out of"

προαιρεῖσθαι (proaireisthai) is an infinitive of προαιρέω.

προαιρέω, proaireō, verb, "bring forth, produce from one's stores"
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.

Aristotle "distinguishes choosing from willing."

What is his distinction?

Frede provides the answer in 15 and 16.

15. 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' hēmin), if it is in our hands, ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν, eph᾽ hēmin, "up to us"

ἐπί (epi) is a proposition

ἡμῖν is the dative of ἡμεῖς (first person plural of ἐγώ (egō))

When ἐπί is used with the dative it, means "with reference to." Hence the traditional translation "up to us."


"In Aristotle [ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν] becomes something like a technical philosophical term. It will remain in philosophical use throughout antiquity and beyond. But in the course of this history the term comes to be used and to be understood as meaning or at least implying something about the psychological make-up of human beings about the way they act in the way they do, an understanding which means far beyond what it had meant or implied in ordinary language or, I think, in Aristotle. It came to be thought that it meant or implied some kind of freedom of choice or even a free will" (Michael Frede, "The ἐφ ̓ἡμῖν in ancient philosophy," 110. ΦΙΛΟΣΟΦΙΑ 37 (2007) 110-123. Reprinted in What is up to us? : studies on agency and responsibility in ancient philosophy, edited by Pierre Destrée, Ricardo Salles, Marco Zingano. Academia Verlag, 2014).

What does it mean in Aristotle?

"[W]hat is in our power or depends on us and hence is something we can deliberate about, is defined [in Aristotle] mainly negatively by the fact that it is not already settled, one way or the other, by the causes mentioned [in Nicomachean Ethics 1112a] and positively only by the fact that it is something which can be done or brought about through ourselves (δι᾽ αὑτῶν πρακτῶν, 1112a43)" (Michael Frede, "The ἐφ ̓ἡμῖν in ancient philosophy," 115).
if whether it gets done or not or happens or not depends on us. 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.

What is this "model of the mind"? It is a conception that understands reason to be only a matter of making inferences and forming beliefs, not forming desires.

Aristotle thinks that "choosing is a very special form of willing."

16. 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.

Choosing "is a form of willing." In choosing, as Frede understands Aristotle, one (i) has a rational desire for something he believes is good, (ii) thinks, on the basis of deliberation, that the way to get this good is to do some specific thing, and (iii) desires to do this thing.

17. 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 under determined 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. They should be a source of inspiration for us. They certainly are not a hindrance to our life [as they are in Gnostic thought].

The point is a little unclear to me, but it seems to be that if Aristotle had a notion of free will, we would expect him to make some effort to claim that human beings either are free or are not free to do what they need to do to live good lives. Aristotle, however, does neither.

18. 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.

The point here is a little unclear too. It seems to be something Frede has already established, that action in terms of "nonrational" desires are not actions in terms of "choice."

19. 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 for 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.

Again, the point is not completely clear. It seems to be that Aristotle does not think that a human being is responsible only if he could have chosen to do otherwise.

What is the argument?

A human being with "virtue" is responsible for his actions but has no motivation to act other than how he does act. If he did, according to Aristotle, he would not be virtuous.

20. 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.

What is this "hard work and hard thought"?




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