Free Will in Ancient Thought
Frede. Chapter Two: "Aristotle on Choice without a Will," 21-26
*** These lecture notes are works in progress ***
LECTURE NOTES 2
Frede's chapter on Aristotle presupposes a fairly deep understanding of the prior history of philosophy as well as a familiarity with the details of Aristotle's thought.
Here, though, are the main points we need to grasp to follow the argument.
The Main Points in the Chapter
• Plato and Aristotle understand human beings in terms of a tripartite theory of the soul. According to this theory, human beings do what they do because of their souls. The soul has three parts (reason, spirit, and appetite), and each part can give rise to desire.
• The tripartite theory is part of an explanation of what makes an event our action. An event is our action only if it stems from a desire from one of the three parts of our soul. So when we contribute nothing, because, say, the wind moves us, the event is not our action.
• Plato and Aristotle do not have a notion of the will because (in their versions of the tripartite theory of the soul) they do not make reason appear in two roles.
Frede's Lecture (21-26)
βούλομαι, boulomai, verb, "wish, will."
βούλεσθαι, boulesthai, infinitive of βούλομαι.
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"] 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
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. And, if it thinks
it is a good thing to do something, it wills or desires to do it. 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" is "attracted
to the truth and the good"?
Consider the attraction to the good first.
The answer to this question, it seems, is that reason includes a process of forming beliefs about what things are good and bad and for forming desires and aversions 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 faculty of mind these philosophers call (in translation) "reason."
This conception of reason as attracted to the good is in part an answer to a question about what contemporary philosophers sometimes call "intrinsic desires."
"There is relatively little mystery about the generation of instrumental and realizer desires. These desires are generated by (conscious or unconscious) reasoning processes.... The generation of intrinsic desires is a matter of much more controversy and interest" (Desire, section "3.2 The Origins of Desires," in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
"[Here are] caricatures of four possible theories of moral motivation, which they label instrumentalist, cognitivist, sentimentalist, and personalist... (72). According to the instrumentalist, 'people are motivated when they form beliefs about how to satisfy preexisting [intrinsic] desires' (74), which lead in turn to the formation of nonintrinsic desires to take specific actions aimed at satisfying their intrinsic desires. When a person has an intrinsic desire, D, and comes to believe that φ-ing will satisfy D, she comes to desire (nonintrinsically) to φ" (Moral Motivation, "5. 5. Moral Motivation and Experimental Psychology," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
The instrumentalist view is also called the Humean view. We should not immediately think that we agree with these philosophers about what "reason" is, despite our familiarity with the use of words 'reason' and 'reasoning' in English.
They think, for example, that reason by "itself suffices to motivate us to do something."
Their idea, as I understand it, is that because human beings have reason, they have beliefs about what is good and what is bad. These beliefs allow them to evaluate their present circumstances and possible future circumstances. I might for example, if I am hungry and believe that being hungry is bad, reason that I can change my circumstances the most for the better if I change them so that I have food and eat it. So I form the desire to have food and eat it.
Why does this mean that "reason by itself suffices to motivate us to do something"?
It is part of having reason that we have beliefs about what is good and bad and that we engage in thinking to make our circumstances better. Desires arise out of this thinking.
Frede calls these desires of reason "willings." In this, he is introducing a technical term. He is not trying to conform to an ordinary use of the word in English if there is one.
It is important to see that this conception of reason and action is not inevitable.
We might think that beliefs provide information only, not motivation, and hence that desires must be explained in some other way than in terms of reason.
3. In Plato and Aristotle but not in the Stoics, this view of willing, as a
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 two "nonrational" parts (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 do not come from reason.
They do not depend on "what one thinks or believes."
What, if anything, do they depend on?
When Frede says that these desires do not depend on "what one thinks or believes," this seems to be short for "what one thinks or believes about what is good or what is bad."
This leaves open that these desires depend on some beliefs, just not beliefs about what is good and what is bad. We will not worry too much about this.
Frede's terminology for the two kinds of desires can be confusing.
Rational desires and nonrational desires are respectively what Frede calls the desires that come from reason and the desires that do not come from reason. In Plato's tripartite theory of the soul, reason is the part of the soul that engages in reasoning. Nonrational desires come from appetite or spirit. In the tripartite theory, these are the parts of the soul that do not engage in reasoning.
(We can think of the soul as the mind. The Greek word for soul is ψυχή. It transliterates as psychē and forms part of the root of the English word "psychology.")
Remember, though, that this "reasoning" in which these two parts of the soul do not engage is what Plato understands as "reasoning." What we think of as reasoning might be different.
Rational desires are reasonable just in case the beliefs they stem from are reasonable. Nonrational desires are reasonable just in case they accord with beliefs of reason that are 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.
against the account [knowledge to be in someone, but
be mastered by something else, and dragged around like a slave], in the belief there is no incontinence"
(Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics VII.2).
"[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 did not recognize the existence of "nonrational" desires. This means, in Frede's terminology, that he thought that all desires are rational desires. They all come from reason. Further, he thought these desires are a matter of beliefs about what is good and what is bad.
This view about desire is sometimes called "Socratic intellectualism."
Why is it misleading to translate ἀκρασία as "weakness of the will"?
Frede thinks that although Plato and Aristotle believe that there is ἀκρασία, they do not have a notion of the will. So this translation is misleading because it can make it appear as if Plato and Aristotle thought that human beings have a will and that this will can be strong or weak.
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 "certain conception of the mind which we project onto Aristotle"?
I am not sure.
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.
Frede seems to have in mind the following passage in Aristotle.
"There are two forms incontinence (ἀκρασίας): impetuousness and weakness. ... The impetuous incontinent is led on by his feelings because he has not deliberated. ... Quick-tempered and ardent people are most prone to be impetuous incontinents. For in quick-tempered people the appetite is so fast, and in ardent people so intense, that they do not wait for reason, because they tend to follow appearance" (Nicomachean Ethics VII.9.1150b).
In "impetuous akrasia," someone reacts to the situation without considering whether the reaction is "appropriate." Had he considered whether it is appropriate, he would have thought it was 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."
This "you would have" can be puzzling.
One possibility is that only one part of the soul can be in control at any given time. In the case of "impetuous akrasia," it is the spirited part. When you react to the insult, the desire on which you act stems from the spirited part of the soul. This desire is not reasonable because it is not in accord with the beliefs about what is good and what is bad that belong to reason.
In this case of "impetuous akrasia," does the part with reason have a desire?
The answer, it seems, is that it does not.
Reason has beliefs about what is good and what is bad. These beliefs would produce a desire if reason were in control, but reason is not in control in "impetuous akrasia."
What is it for a part of the soul to be in control?
We will need an answer if we are to understand this theory of the soul.
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." The difference is that involves a different nonrational part of the soul. It involves the appetitive part.
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.
This is important for Frede's argument.
Frede claims that Aristotle does not think that reason chooses between two desires, its desire and the desire of the spirited part (in the case of "impetuous akrasia") or the appetitive part (in the case of "akrasia" of the appetite). "[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."
Notice that if reason did "choose," then Aristotle would appear to have a notion of the will according to the schema for the will Frede sets out (in 15 in lecture 1).
One point in favor of Frede's interpretation is that other than past "training," Aristotle provides no explanation for whether the person acts on a rational desire or acts on a nonrational desire.
Is this Plato's view too?
The claim that there are "rational" and "nonrational desires" enters the philosophical tradition with the following argument in his Republic. Socrates is the speaker.
Maybe a model from AI helps provide some insight. As primitive model
of an animal behavior, we can think of the animal mind as consisting of a KB and a
MG. The KB contains beliefs. The MG contains maintenance goals. A maintenance goal is a conditional.
The antecedent is some state of depletion. The consequent is
an achievement goal.
Before the animal is thirty, its mind looks like this
MG: If I am thirsty, I drink
After the animal perceives it is thirsty, its mind becomes
MG: If I am thirsty, I drink
KB: I am thirsty
The antecedent of the maintenance goal is now a logical consequence of the KB. This triggers the maintenance goal and gives the animal the achievement goal "I drink."
The animal uses its KB to figure out what to do to make the achievement goal "I drink" true. Once it knows, it acts to achieve the goal and thus to maintain itself.
In human beings, reason can override the "animal" mechanism. How this happens, though, is not very clear.
One possibility is that reason prevents the maintenance goal from being triggered. The KB changes so that it has "I am thirsty," but this does not trigger the maintenance goal.
Another possibility is that the maintenance goal triggers but reason prevents the achievement of the achievement gaol.
On this second possibility, there seems to be both a rational and nonrational desire. The nonrational desire is the achievement goal to drink. The rational desire is the desire not to drink. Reason stops the achievement goal as part of its attempt to satisfy its desire that "I do not drink" is true. "Thirst itself is in its nature only for drink itself.
Hence the soul of the thirsty person, insofar as he is thirsty, is does not wish anything else but to drink, and it wants this and is impelled toward it.
Clearly" (Republic IV.439b).
"Are we to say that some men sometimes though thirsty refuse to drink?
We are indeed, many and often.
What then, should one affirm about them? Is there something in the soul of those who are thirsty but refuse to drink, something bidding them to drink and something different forbidding them, that masters (κρατοῦν) the thing that bids them to drink?
I think so.
And is it not the fact that that which inhibits such actions arises when it arises from the calculations of reason, but the impulses which draw and drag come through passions (παθημάτων) and diseases?
Not unreasonably, shall we claim that they are two and different from one another, naming that in the soul whereby it reckons and reasons the reasoning part (λογιστικὸν) and that with which it loves, hungers, thirsts, and gets passionately excited by other desires, the unreasoning and appetitive part (ἐπιθυμητικόν)—companion of various repletions and pleasures.
It would not be unreasonable but quite natural" (Republic IV.439c).
These passages do not initially appear consistent with Frede's interpretation.
Socrates seems to say that there two desires (a nonrational desire to drink and a rational desire not to drink) present in the soul at the same time, but maybe instead he is talking two about motives. In this case, there is only one desire. It is the rational desire not to drink that gives rise to what one does. The motive in appetite does not give rise to a desire because reason "masters" appetite.
Socrates goes onto give an example involving Leontius as part of an argument to establish the existence of spirit. The example comes to closer to a case of "acute" conflict.
"Don’t we often notice on other occasions that when desires force someone contrary to his calculation (βιάζωνταί τινα παρὰ τὸν λογισμὸν ἐπιθυμίαι), he reproaches himself and feels anger at the thing in him that is doing the forcing; and just as if there were two warring factions, such a person’s spirit becomes the ally of his reason? But spirit partnering with the appetites to do what reason has decided should not be done—I do not imagine you would say that you had ever seen that, either in yourself or in anyone else.
No, by Zeus, I would not, Socrates" (Republic IV.440a).
βιάζω, biazō, verb, "constrain, force"
Cf. Euripides, Medea 1079. First performed in 431 BCE.
"So in the soul, there is the spirited part (θυμοειδές), which is the helper of reason by nature (ἐπίκουρον ὂντῷ λογιστικῷ φύσει) unless it is corrupted by bad nurture?
We have to assume it as a third, Socrates.
Yes, provided it shall have been shown to be something different from the reasoning, as it has been shown to be other than the appetitive.
That is not hard to be shown, Socrates. For that much one can see in children, that they are from their very birth chock-full of rage and high spirit, but as for reason, some of them, to my thinking, never participate in it, and the majority quite late.
Yes, by heaven, excellently said, and further, one could see in animals that what you say is true" (Republic IV.441a). "Of the spirit (θυμοῦ), that with which we feel anger (θυμούμεθα), is it a third, or would it be the same as [one of] these we have distinguished, reason and appetite]?
Perhaps with one of these, the appetitive.
But I once heard a story which I believe, that Leontius the son of Aglaion, on his way up from the Peiraeus under the outer side of the northern wall, becoming aware of dead bodies that lay at the place of public execution knew a desire to see them and at the same time was disgusted and turned away. For a time he struggled and veiled his head, but finally, overpowered (κρατούμενος) by his desire, he pushed his eyes wide open, rushed up to the corpses, and cried, ‘There, you wretches, take your fill of the fine spectacle!'
I too have heard the story.
Yet, surely, this anecdote signifies that anger sometimes fights against desires, as one thing against another.
Yes, it does, Socrates" (Republic IV.439e).
What is the sequence of events in this example?
Leontius became aware of the dead bodies, "knew a desire to see them," and was "disgusted." This suggests that he is thinking about the future. He does not approve of looking at the bodies but thinks that unless he takes steps to prevent it, he will look at them. So he "turned away" and "veiled his head" in an effort to to make the world such that he does not look at the bodies.
There is a desire that moves him to take these steps. How does this desire arise?
It seems to arise from reason and spirit working together. Reason believes it is bad to take pleasure in looking at dead bodies. Spirit is disgusted at the thought of doing so.
Leontius, however, ends up looking at the bodies.
How does this happen?
Somehow appetite becomes in control in the soul.
The suggestion seems to be that the process in which the desire to see the bodies arises is not easy to stop. Maybe it is a little like flinching when, say, we are boxing. Our natural behavior is to flinch when we see a punch coming, but we can learn with practice to prevent this reaction.
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 on an unreasonable nonrational desire is a fact about his past: namely, that 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."
This is crucial for Frede's argument that Plato and Aristotle do not have a notion of the will.
"In children the first childish sensations are pleasure and pain, and that it is in these first that goodness and badness come to the soul; but as to wisdom and settled true opinions, a man is lucky if they come to him even in old age and; he that is possessed of these blessings, and all that they comprise, is indeed a perfect (τέλεος) man. I term, then, the goodness that first comes to children 'education.' When pleasure and love, and pain and hatred, spring up rightly in the souls of those who are unable as yet to know by reason; and when, after grasping the reason, they consent (συμφωνήσωσι) thereunto that they have been rightly trained in fitting practices (ὀρθῶς εἰθίσθαι ὑπὸ τῶν προσηκόντων ἐθῶν):—this consent, viewed as a whole, is goodness, while the part of it that is rightly trained in respect of pleasures and pains, so as to hate what ought to be hated, right from the beginning up to the very end, and to love what ought to be loved, if you were to mark this part off in your definition and call it 'education,' you would be giving it, in my opinion, its right name" (Plato, Laws II.653a; cf. II.659d). Here is some evidence from Aristotle for Frede's view of the tripartite theory. "Hence the importance, as Plato points out, of having been definitely trained from childhood to like and dislike (χαίρειν τε καὶ λυπεῖσθαι) the proper things" (Nicomachean Ethics II.3.1104b).
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.
Aristotle does not understand human action in terms of a will.
Aristotle recognizes main two possibilities for the causal history of any action for someone in which there is conflict among the parts of his soul. The action can come from reason, or it can come from one of the nonrational parts of the soul. If we ask what determines whether the action comes from reason or from one of the nonrational parts, the answer is not that something happens in the mind that makes the human being perform the action. Rather, it is failure in "training, practice, exercise, discipline, and reflection" that “happened in the past, perhaps the distant past.”
11. What Aristotle does have is a distinction between things we do
hekontes and things we do akontes
[Nicomachean Ethics III.1.1111a].
aekousios, adjective from ἀέκων
ἀκούσιος is the Attic contraction for ἀεκούσιος
ἀέκων aekōn, adjective, "not of one's own accord"
ἄκων is the Attic contraction for ἀέκων
ἄκοντες, akontes, adjective, plural form of ἄκων
ἑκών, hekōn, adjective, "of own's own accord"
ἑκούσιος, hekousios, adjective from ἑκών
ἑκόντες, hekontes, adjective, plural form of ἑκών
ἑκών looks like a participle (word formed from a verb and used as an adjective), but no verb exists.
When ἑκών is in the predicate position and agrees with the subject, it is translated as an adverb.
"Virtue is about passions and actions. These receive praise or blame when they are of our own doing, but pardon, sometimes even pity, when they are not of our own doing" (Nicomachean Ethics III.1.1109b).
"Now in fact he does it of his own accord; for in these sorts of actions [such as throwing cargo overboard in a storm to prevent the ship form sinking] he has within him the origin of the movement of the limbs that are the instruments of the action" (Nicomachean Ethics III.1.1110a).
"What is forced, then would seem to be what has its origin outside the person forced, who contributes nothing" (Nicomachean Ethics III.1.1110b).
"Since, then, what is not of one's own accord is what is forced or is caused by ignorance, what is of one's own accord seems to be what has its origin in the agent himself when he knows the particulars that that the action consists in" (Nicomachean Ethics III.1.1111a). 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.
How does Aristotle understand responsibility?
Frede's answer can be confusing.
Aristotle distinguishes between what we do ἑκόντες and do ἄκοντες.
It is a problem to know the right way to translate these words in this context in Aristotle. One possibility is "of our own doing" and "not of our own doing."
For Aristotle, what is it to do something "of our own doing"?
What we do has "to somehow reflect our motivation." For that to be true, it must be that what happens stems from a desire from one of the parts of the soul.
So, for example, if "we are literally forced to do" what we do because, say, the wind moves us, then we do not do what we do ἑκόντες and thus are not responsible for doing it.
The same is true, according to Aristotle, if we are ignorant of the particulars of what do.
So it follows that the condition that what we do stems from our desire is necessary but not sufficient for doing something ἑκόντες or "of our own doing."
"Here first of all he [Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism] made some new pronouncements about sensation itself, which he held to be a combination a of a sort of impact offered from outside (which he called φαντασία and we may call an impression, and let us retain this term at all events, for we shall have to employ it several times in the remainder of my discourse),—well, to these impressions received by the senses he joins the act of assent which he makes out to reside within us and to be a voluntary act (in nobis positam et voluntariam)" (Cicero, Academica I.40).
The dictionary entry for Latin adjective voluntarius is "willing, of his or its own free-will, voluntary." 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.
According to Frede, historians have traditionally understood Aristotle's distinction between things we do ἑκόντες and things we do ἄκοντες as a distinction between things we do "voluntarily" and things we do "involuntarily." This, however, Frede claims, is "highly misleading."
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.
This is confusing.
The point seems to be that we cannot identify voluntary and willing for Aristotle.
Because a willing is a rational desire (a desire from reason), but some things we do stem from nonrational desires (desires from the nonrational parts of the soul). These things, though, can be "voluntary" insofar as no one forced us to do them.
How does Cicero's translation project "a later conception of the mind onto Aristotle"?
I am not sure.
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
ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν, eph᾽ hēmin, "up to us"
ἐπί (epi) is a proposition
ἡμῖν is the dative of the personal pronoun ἡμεῖς ("we")
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).
Aristotle, it seems, takes something to be "up to us" (ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν) just in case it happens or not because of us and not because of one of the other "causes" he mentions.
"[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, 1112a34)" (Michael Frede, "The ἐφ ̓ἡμῖν in ancient philosophy," 115).
"In these sorts of actions [such as when someone throws cargo overboard in a storm], he as within him the origin of the movement of the limbs that are the instrument of the action, and when the origin of the actions is in him, it is also up to him to do them or not to do them" (Nicomachean Ethics III.1.1110a).
"Choice is not willing, though they appear closely akin. .... We will ends, but choose the means to our end; for example we will to be healthy, but choose things to make us healthy" (Nicomachean Ethics III.4.1111b).
"We deliberate about things that are up to us, about actions we can do. This is what is left. For causes seem to include nature, necessity, and luck, but besides them mind and everything that can be done through ourselves (Nicomachean Ethics III.5.1112a).
"If our conclusion appears true and we cannot refer our actions back to other origins beyond those in ourselves, then it follows that whatever has its origin in us is itself up to us and according to ourself" (Nicomachean Ethics III.5.1113b).
"When acting is up to us, so is not acting; and when no is up to us, so is yes. So if acting when it is fine is up to us, not acting when it is shameful is up to us" (Nicomachean Ethics III.5.1113b). 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"?
Frede seems to have in mind a contemporary conception that understands reason to be only a matter of making inferences and forming beliefs, not having desires. Beliefs, on this "model of the mind," are not sources of motivation. They only supply information.
This is not Aristotle's conception of mind. He thinks that willing is the form of desire that belongs to reason and "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."
What does this mean?
In choosing, someone (i) has beliefs about what is good and what is bad, (ii) has, on the basis of these beliefs, a goal to achieve in the circumstances he faces, (iii) thinks that there are things up to him he can do to achieve this goal; (iv) thinks, on the basis of deliberation, that doing such-and-such is the thing to do to achieve the goal, and (v) does such-and-such.
Aristotle uses προαίρεσις for this kind of "choice."
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].
"Just as there is no notion of a will in Aristotle, there is also no notion of freedom."
Aristotle does not think that human beings are free to do what they need to do to live a good life.
Not because he thinks that "[w]hether [the action] gets done or not is not already settled by some regularity in the world" or that the "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"
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.
Frede does not give the answer. Instead, he returns to Aristotle's theory of choice.
Being "up to us" is necessary for "choice," but Aristotle, according to Frede, does not think that "if something is up to us, we have a choice to do it or not to do it." He only thinks that we can choose to do it and can fail to choose to do it. To fail to choose is not the same as to choose not to do it. What happens when we fail to choose to do it is that we act on a nonrational desire instead, and the explanation for why we do this consists in some fact about our past.
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.
Aristotle does not share the now apparently common thought that if someone is responsible for what he does, then he could have acted otherwise.
The virtuous, he thinks, are counterexamples.
For Aristotle, a human being with "virtue" is responsible for his actions but could not act otherwise if this means he has a motivation to act other than how he does act.
Now Frede returns to the answer to the question in 17.
Aristotle thinks "that most human beings are such imperfect realizations of human nature that they have little or no hope of becoming virtuous and wise."
How can a human being be an "imperfect realization of human nature?
Aristotle thinks that human beings naturally develop in certain ways over time. One way is that they naturally acquire what he calls "reason" as they become adults. So it must be that he thinks that this process sometimes does not reach its natural but not inevitable end.
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.
So Aristotle has no notion of free will because he has no notion of the will. Nor does he think that all human beings are free to do what they need to do to live a good life. Arisotle thinks that if a human being lives a good life, it is because he had "the proper realization of human nature," "a good upbringing," and did the "hard work and hard thought."
What is this "hard work and hard thought"?
The "hard work," it seems, is the work involved in training one's nonrational parts of the soul.
The "hard thought," it seems, is in understanding what is good and what is bad.