Free Will in Ancient Thought
Frede. Chapter Three: "The Emergence of a Notion of Will in Stoicism," 27-36
1. As we have seen, for Aristotle to have had a notion of the will, he would have had to have the appropriate notion of a choice. Although he did have a notion of a choice, he did not have the kind of notion which would allow him to say that whenever we do something of our own accord (hekontes), ἑκόντες, hekontes, adjective, plural form of ἑκών we do so because we choose or decide to act in this way. Aristotle did not have such a notion of choice since he assumed that we sometimes just act on a nonrational desire (i.e., a desire which has its origin in a nonrational part of the soul) without choosing to act in this way and in fact sometimes against our choice. He could assume this, since he supposed that there are nonrational parts of the soul which generate such nonrational desires and that these by themselves suffice to motivate us to act. The crucial assumption is that being hungry may be enough to make you have something to eat and that being angry may be enough to make you take out your anger on the person who made you angry or on someone else.
Aristotle did not have a notion of the "will."
He did not have "the appropriate notion of choice."
2. The underlying conception of the soul as bi- or tripartite, which we find in Plato and in Aristotle,
was rejected by the Stoics. Plato and Aristotle had developed their conception of the soul in part
in response to Socrates' denial of akrasia and his view that,
ἀκρασία, akrasia, noun, alternate spelling of ἀκράτεια.
ἀκράτεια, akrateia, "want of power, incontinence," in what we are doing, we are entirely guided by our beliefs. The Stoics took themselves to be reverting to Socrates' view, as they saw it represented in Plato's earlier dialogues, in particular, Plato's Protagoras. There is no indication in these dialogues, down to and including the Phaedo, of a division of the soul. Even in the Phaedo the soul in its entirety seems to be an embodied reason. So the Stoics took the soul to be a reason. They also called it, borrowing a term from Plato's Protagoras 352b, to hegemonikon, τὸ ἡγεμονικόν, to hēgemonikon.
ἡγεμονικόν, hēgemonikon, adjective, "of or for a leader, ready to lead or guide" the governing part of us. It is reason which governs us and our entire life. There is no nonrational part of our soul to generate nonrational desires which would constitute a motivation for us to act quite independent of any beliefs we have and could even over power reason and make us act against our beliefs. The way we behave is completely determined by our beliefs. If we act utterly irrationally, this is not because we are driven by nonrational desires but because we have utterly unreasonable beliefs.
Why didn't Aristotle have "the appropriate notion of choice"? He, following Plato, thought the soul was tripartite. In this, they both took themselves to correct Socrates.
The Stoics took themselves to revert to the Socratic view.
What is the Socratic view? That all desires are desires of reason.
3. To understand fully why the Stoics reject the partition of the soul, we have to take into account that the opposing view, that the soul has a nonrational part, naturally brings with it two further views: (1) that since it is by nature that the soul is divided, it is also by nature that we have these nonrational desires, and hence it is perfectly natural and acceptable to have such desires, and (2) that these desires, at least if properly conditioned and channeled, aim at the attainment of certain genuine goods, like the food and the drink we need, or at the avoidance of certain genuine evils, like death, mutilation, or illness. This is why we have these desires by nature.
Why do the Stoics reject the tripartite view?
One reason is their theory of the good.
On the tripartite view, nonrational desires, when they are "properly conditioned and channeled, aim at the attainment of certain genuine goods, like the food and the drink we need, or at the avoidance of certain genuine evils, like death, mutilation, or illness."
The Stoics reject this understanding of what is good.
4. Against this the Stoics argue that these supposedly natural desires, and quite generally all our emotions like anger or fear, are by no means natural. For it is not the case that they naturally aim at the attainment of certain goods and the avoidance of certain evils. According to the Stoics, it is not true that the things the supposedly natural desires and emotions aim to attain or to avoid are genuine goods or evils: the only good is wisdom or virtue, and the only evil is folly or vice. Everything else is indifferent. So it cannot be the case that by nature we have a nonrational part of the soul, so as to be motivated by its appetites and fears to attain certain goods and avoid certain evils. The cause of these appetites and fears is not to be looked for in a supposedly nonrational part of the soul, whose natural emotions they are, but rather in beliefs of reason, namely, in the beliefs that these things are good and hence desirable and that those things are evil and hence repulsive, when, in truth, they are all neither good nor evil but indifferent.
The Stoics think that "the only good is wisdom or virtue."
5. According to the Stoics, the division of the soul threatens the unity of the person and obscures the responsibility we have for our supposedly nonrational desires. It invites the thought that what we are essentially is only the rational part of the soul, which nevertheless cohabits in the body with an unruly, nonrational animal soul and its animal desires. It invites the thought that it is our responsibility to tame this unruly animal, establish the rule of reason in ourselves, and thus create a unified person. It is not our responsibility, but a mere fact of life, that we are confronted and have to deal with this often very strong and beastly animal soul and its crude desires. Against this the Stoics argue that this supposedly nonrational, animal part of our soul with its supposedly nonrational, animal desires is the creation of our mind in the following sense. It is not that we have these desires naturally, because we have a nonrational part of the soul. It is our mind which produces these irrational and often monstrous desires. It is a sheer piece of rationalization to invent a nonrational part of the soul and to devolve on it the responsibility for such desires. They are actually of our own making, because it is our mind or reason which produces them as a result of its beliefs and attitudes.
The Stoics think the tripartite theory is based on misunderstanding of "irrational and often monstrous desires." These desires do not belong to an irrational and animal part of the soul. They are products of reason and our false beliefs about what is and is not good.
6. Aristotle, unlike Plato, had believed that we are not born with reason but with a nonrational soul of the kind other animals have, except that (1) this nonrational soul has an extraordinary capacity to store and process perceptual information and thus to accumulate experience to a degree no other animal can, and that (2) it can not only discriminate recurrent features but also come to recognize them as such. Because of this ability, human beings in the course of their natural development also develop concepts and thus become rational. Reason, as it were,grows out of the nonrational soul with which we are born, to constitute together with this nonrational soul a bi- or tripartite soul. Our upbringing has already involved a conditioning and habituation of this nonrational soul, ideally in such a way as to make it have reasonable desires. Once we have reason, this will greatly affect the way our nonrational soul operates. For now, by having reason ourselves, we can bring it about that the nonrational part of the soul generates only desires which are reasonable. Or we can at least bring it about that when the nonrational part generates desires which are not reasonable, we do not act on these desires. But, however much our nonrational desires may be in line with reason, they in themselves remain the desires of the animal we were born, though now shaped and molded by upbringing and by our own reason. And so long as reason has not acquired perfect control over then on rational part of the soul, we shall also sometimes continue to act as the animals we were born, namely, to act on mere impulse or on a nonrational desire, instead of a desire of reason.
Aristotle thinks that human beings develop reason as they become adults. In this way, the soul of the adult consists in a part that does and parts that do not engage in reasoning.
7. In contrast, the Stoics believe that in the course of our natural development, we undergo a much more radical metamorphosis. When we are conceived and in our embryonic state, we are plantlike. Our behavior is governed by a nature (physis), φύσις, physis, noun, "nature" as the behavior of plants is. When the embryo is sufficiently developed, the shock of birth transforms this nature into a nonrational soul. We become like animals, acting on the prompting of nonrational desires, on nonrational impulse. But, as we grow up, we develop reason. We come to have concepts and begin to understand how we function and why we behave the way we do. But this reason is not, as in Aristotle and in Plato, a further, additional part of the soul. It is the product of a complete transformation of our innate and nonrational soul into a rational soul, a reason or a mind. This transformation also turns the nonrational desires, with which we grew up and which motivated us as children, into desires of reason. Once we are rational beings, there are no nonrational desires left. They have all become something quite different.
The Stoics too think that reason develops as children become adults, but they think that the nonrational soul in children is transformed into a soul with reason and no nonrational parts.
8. To say that these nonrational desires have become something quite different in becoming desires of reason
is to acknowledge that there is some continuity. To see what the continuity is, we have to look briefly
at how the Stoics understand the desires or impulses of other animals. They view them very much as
Aristotle does. Animals perceive things. This perception involves their having an impression
(phantasia) of the thing perceived.
ὁρμητικός, hormētikos, adjective, "impetuous, impulsive"
φαντασία, phantasia, noun, "appearing, appearance"
"impulsive impression" (φαντασία ὁρμητική) Now, animals also perceive things as pleasant, satisfying, and conducive to their maintaining themselves in their natural state or as unpleasant, unsatisfying, or detrimental to their maintenance. And so they develop a liking for some things and a dislike of other things. This has an effect on the impressions an animal has. If the animal now perceives something it likes or dislikes, the impression it has takes on a certain coloring. In one case it is an agreeable impression, in the other it is a disagreeable impression. Depending on the complexity of the animal, an agreeable or disagreeable impression may produce memories of past encounters with this sort of thing and expectations about the future. But, whether or not it does so, in the appropriate circumstances the impression in itself, given its coloring, will constitute an impulse either to go after the thing perceived or to avoid it. If a carnivorous animal like a lion feels depleted or hungry, and it has the agreeable impression of a nice piece of meat in reach, this impression in itself will suffice to make it go after the meat. If the little animal to whom the piece of meat belongs in its turn has the disagreeable impression of a lion it is in easy reach of, this disagreeable impression in itself will suffice to impel the little animal to avoid the lion and runaway. Such impressions are called “impulsive” (hormêtikai), since they impel the animal to act. It is these impressions which constitute the desire of an animal or a child to get something or to avoid something.
The Stoics think animals and children have impressions of things, that some of these impressions are "impulsive," and that these impressions impel animals and children to act.
What makes an impression impulsive?
Nature in its providence arranges things so that animals and children like and dislike the appropriate things. Some of these likings and dislikings are innate. Others are acquired. Impressions of the objects of these likings and dislikings are impulsive. In this way, nature in its providence, constructs animals and children so that they maintain themselves.
Frede discussion, though, can be a little confusing.
What view does Frede have in mind when he says an animal can "perceive things as pleasant, satisfying, and conducive to their maintaining themselves in their natural state or as unpleasant, unsatisfying, or detrimental to their maintenance"?
Animals are constructed by nature so that they have impulsive impressions that are "conducive to their maintaining themselves in their natural state." When an animal has the impression that it is thirsty, its experience is unpleasant. It dislikes being thirty, and the impression impels it search for what will relieve its thirst. When it has certain impressions of certain things that will relieve its thirst, these impressions impel it to drink. These impressions are of objects for which it has a liking, and its experience in the drinking that relieves its thirst is pleasant. This, it seems, is how animals "perceive things as pleasant, satisfying, and conducive to their maintaining themselves in their natural state or as unpleasant, unsatisfying, or detrimental to their maintenance."
“[T]he grownup, the animal soul having disappeared, does not have any instinctive impulses….
The only way for him to be moved is by assent to impulsive impressions. But
impulsive impressions presuppose an evaluation of the objects of our impulses. And
at this point ordinary human beings in ordinary human societies can hardly fail to make
the mistake which even philosophers like the Platonists and the Peripatetics make. They
think that since nature from birth has endowed us with certain natural inclinations and
disinclinations the objects of these natural impulses must be goods and evils. Hence
their behavior comes to be motivated, not by instinctive impulses, but by affections of
the soul, namely their assent to impulsive impressions in which the objects of the
natural inclinations with which we are born are represented as good or bad”
(Michael Frede, “The Stoic Doctrine of the Affections of the Soul,” 109.
The Norms of Nature (edited by Malcolm Schofield and Gisela Striker), 93-110.
Cambridge University Press, 1986).
There is a puzzle here.
When children become adults, they become "fools" in that they have false beliefs about what is good and what is bad. Yet, according to the Stoics, nature in its providence arranges things so that human beings can become "sages." 9. According to the Stoics, there is this much continuity between being a child and being a mature human being—that as grownup human beings we continue to have impulsive impressions. The discontinuity lies in the twofold fact that these impulsive impressions now have a completely different character and that in themselves they no longer constitute an impulse sufficient to impel us to do something. To move us they require an assent of, or acceptance by, reason. It is only if reason accedes to the impulsive impression that it will constitute an actual impulse. So a human impulse, a rational impulse, will have two elements: a certain kind of impulsive impression and an assent of reason to that.
Adults (humans with reason) have impulsive impressions too, but these impressions no longer constitute impulses to act. In adults, impulse requires assent to an impulsive impression.
10. Let us look at these two elements more closely and, to begin with, at the
impulsive impressions. According to the Stoics, all human impressions, whether impulsive or not,
differ from animal impressions in that they are rational. Animal impressions, being formed in
and by a nonrational soul, lack a certain distinctive character which all mature human impressions have,
given that they are formed in and by reason: mature human impressions do not
just represent something in some way or other but are articulated in such a way
as to have a propositional content. They are impressions to the effect that something is
the case. Hence they are true or false. Their formation involves the use of concepts, ways of
conceiving of things.Thus the Stoics also call such rational impressions “thoughts” (noeseis).
νοήσεις (noēseis) is a plural form of νόησις.
νόησις, noēsis, noun, "intelligence, understanding" Even the perceptual impressions we have when we see something, according to the Stoics, are such thoughts, albeit thoughts produced in a certain way, namely, through the senses.
Impressions in adults, as these are impressions in reason, "do not just represent something in some way or other but are articulated in such a way as to have a propositional content."
What does this mean?
11. There is a point here which needs to be emphasized. Clearly, the Stoic idea is that a
rational impulse is a compound which has a passive element, namely, the impression, and an
active element, the assent. An impression is something you find yourself with. The question is
what you do with the impression you find yourself with, for instance, whether you give assent to it.
To mark this passive, receptive character of an impression, Zeno, the founder of Stoicism,
characterized it as a typosis, an imprint or impression. Hence, Cicero sometimes translates
Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106 - 43 BCE
impressio, noun, "a pressing into, an impressing, impression"
τύπωσις, typōsis, "forming, moulding, impression" the standard Stoic term for an impression, phantasia, by impressio (see Acad. 2.58). This is how we have come to use the term impression.
Humans find themselves with impressions. When, for example, you look at something, you get an impression of how it looks. Its features impress on you in a certain way.
12. Already Chrysippus (just two generations after Zeno)
Zeno, late 4th to middle 3rd century BCE. Founded the Stoic school in about 300 BCE.
Chrysippus, early 3rd to late 3rd century BCE. Third and most influential head of the school in the early period. objected to this characterization of impressions. I take it that he did so because it is quite misleading in the following respect. It is true that we do not actively form an impression, a certain kind of representation of something, in the way in which we paint a painting or draw a map or describe a person. The impression is formed without our doing anything. But this should not obscure the fact that the way the impression is formed reflects the fact that it is formed in and by a mind. This is why the impressions animals form in their souls will differ from one another depending on the kind of animal in which they are formed, and this is why our impressions differ from the impressions of any other animal in having a propositional content, because they are formed in and by a mind or reason. But, given that, it is also easy to see why the impressions even of the same object will differ among different people, reflecting the difference between different minds. This is bound to be the case, for instance, because not all people have precisely the same concepts or the same habits of thinking about things, the same experiences, or the same beliefs. So it is perfectly true that an impression is something which we find ourselves with. But it is by no means true that we are completely innocent of the particular details of the impressions we individually form. They very much reflect the beliefs, habits, and attitudes of the particular mind in which and by which they are formed.
The impressions we get from things depend in part on our beliefs.
“Suppose that I am told that I am going to die next year. Also suppose that I think of death
in particular of my own death as something bad. In this case, the mere thought, the mere
impression, whether I actually believe it to be true or not, will have something disquieting,
disturbing, about it. This feature is a feature of the impression which distinguishes this
sort of impression from the impression, say, that 2 +2 = 4…. In fact it is this distinctive
feature which characterizes this sort of impression as an impulsive impression”
(Michael Frede, “The Stoic Conception of Reason,” 59. Hellenistic Philosophy
(edited by. K. Boudouris), 50-60. Athens: International Society for Greek Philosophy and Culture,
“We might have the impression that there is a spring of fresh water. Under the appropriate circumstances we might think of the water as something very appealing. Under these circumstances the mere thought that that there is a spring of fresh water, if thought of in this way, might stir us. But it is only when we give assent to the thought thus thought that we desire, are impelled to go after, the water and feel appropriately pleased and satisfied when we have managed to reach it. Similarly the thought that Socrates is going to die may be impulsive if we think of Socrates’ death as something to be averted. The mere thought might stir us. But, only when we are moved to accept the thought, will we be afraid and try to avert it, or be sad when Socrates’ death is no longer to be averted. …Now, there is an appropriate and reasonable way to think about fresh water, death, and the like; and one’s impulse will depend on the importance one attributes to these things which will be reflected by the way one thinks of them. But, as we saw earlier the affections are characterized by the fact that their objects are thought of as goods and evils. To think of something as good or evil is to attach to it the highest importance that can be attached to anything and which should only be attached to virtue, since, compared to virtue, nothing else is of any importance. But since people think of the objects of our ‘natural’ impulses as good or evils they give assent to the impulsive impressions which represent them as good or bad, and hence feel impelled towards them or away from them, with an intensity which stands in no comparison to their real value, and which hence is excessive. Thus the Stoics can define the affections of the soul as excessive impulses” (Michael Frede, “The Stoic Doctrine of the Affections of the Soul,” 107. The Norms of Nature (edited by Malcolm Schofield and Gisela Striker), 93-110. Cambridge University Press, 1986).
“[T]he Stoics seem to think that all emotions and passions are a matter of accepting thoughts thought in a certain way, and that the way these thoughts are thought is entirely a matter of certain further beliefs we have—in particular, beliefs about what is good and what is bad—which we draw on to represent the object of the impression and the feature attributed to it in the thought” (Michael Frede, “Stoics and Skeptics on Clear and Distinct Impressions,” 155. The Sceptical Tradition (edited by M. Burnyeat), 65-93. University of California Press, 1983. Reprinted in Essays in Ancient Philosophy (by Michael Frede), 151-176. University of Minnesota Press, 1987). 13. What is true of impressions in general is also true of impulsive impressions. They are thoughts which reflect your ways and habits of thinking about things. Let us now, though, focus on their impulsive character. Suppose you cut yourself badly with a rusty knife. Given your beliefs, the thought might occur to you that you got infected. And the further thought might occur to you that you might die from this infection. At this point this is a mere impression or thought which you find yourself with. It is a disagreeable, perhaps even disconcerting, thought; that is to say, the mere thought in itself is disconcerting. The question then arises: “What is the source and nature of this disquieting character of the impression?”
Impulsive impressions are "agreeable" or "disagreeable."
What is the source of this?
14. According to the Stoics, there are two possibilities. The first is this: you wrongly believe that death is an evil, perhaps even a terrible evil. No wonder, then, that the mere impression that you might die is very disturbing. The second is this: you rightly believe, not that death is an evil but that it is natural to try to avoid death, and that nature means you, other things being equal, to try to avoid death. So the impression that you might die has an alarming character; it puts you on alert. This has a teleological function. It alerts you to the need to be on your guard. And, by a natural mechanism, your whole body will go into a state of alert, ready to move as needed. But the impression, though alarming, is not deeply disturbing. For, after all, you have a clear mind, and you know that there are many false alarms; and even if there is reason for alarm, you as a Stoic know that all you have to do is try to do what you can to avoid death. This is what you are meant to do. You do not actually have to avoid death. That is a matter of divine providence. So the question of whether you are going to die or not in this sense does not affect you at all. This is God's problem, as it were.
The impulsiveness of impressions depends on beliefs about what is good and bad.
To understand this, there are two cases to consider.
The first (in which "wrongly believe that death is an evil, perhaps even a terrible evil") is the most straightforward to understand. Because you have this false belief about death and about your death in particular, the impression that might die is impulsive. It is "alarming" and also "deeply disturbing," and assent issues in an "excessive impulse" (ὁρμὴ πλεονάζουσα). The impulse to prevent your death is way out of proportion to the value of your death, which you wrongly believe "is an evil, perhaps even a terrible evil," when in fact it is indifferent.
In the second case, "you rightly believe, not that death is an evil but that it is natural to try to avoid death, and that nature means you, other things being equal, to try to avoid death." Impulse presupposes beliefs about what is good. The belief in this case can be specified later. For now it is enough to see that you don't have the false belief that death is an evil. Further, you understand that nature in its providence arranges things so that in general living things find food when they are hungry, recover from illness when they are ill, and so on. You don't know whether nature has arranged things so that in your case you will avoid death, but given your understanding of the arrangement in nature, it is reasonable "to do what you can to avoid death." So, as in the first case, you take steps to avoid death, but in this case your impulse is not excessive.
15. But in the case of the person who believes that death is a terrible evil, the alarming character of the impression, which teleologically is just a signal to be on one's guard, turns into a deeply disturbing experience, and as a consequence the whole body goes into a disturbed, perturbed, or excited state, which might affect the operation of reason. Later Stoics will call an impression with such a coloring, and perhaps with the attendant bodily state, a propatheia, an incipient passion. προπάθεια, propatheia, noun, "prepassion"
The impulsiveness of the impression in the first case is so "alarming" and "deeply disturbing" that "whole body goes into a disturbed, perturbed, or excited state...."
16. We have to firmly remember, though this might not be so clear to the person in a deeply disturbed state, that so far we are dealing with a mere impression or thought. Naturally, as the thought may occur to you, it may also be false. After all, we have not yet found out, or made up our mind, as to whether we actually got infected. And we have not yet considered whether we should believe that one may die from this infection. So far we have just the mere thought. Now, one cannot be afraid that one might die from this infection unless one believes that one got infected and that one could die from this infection. We clearly have to distinguish between concern and fear, on the one hand, and the alarming or disturbing character of the impression, on the other hand. The wise person will be concerned, but the foolish person who believes that death is an evil will be afraid. Thus fear, according to the Stoics, is nothing but the false belief that an evil is coming, or might come, one's way—a belief generated by assent to an impression which is deeply disturbing because one wrongly takes the situation to be an evil. Sometimes the Stoics also think of fear as the belief coupled with the attendant bodily state.
In the two cases above, the one with the false belief about death experiences fear.
17. In the same way in which the Stoics treat a fear, they also treat an appetite, the supposedly
natural desire of the nonrational part of the soul. In truth it is nothing but a belief of a certain
kind, a belief generated by assent to a highly agreeable impression to the effect that something one
conceives of as a good is coming or might come one's way; the highly agreeable and
impulsive character of the impression is the result of this mistaken belief that it is a good. The
Stoics treat all the emotions, like anger, which are supposed by Plato and Aristotle to originate
in a nonrational part of the soul, as misguided beliefs. They call them pathe, passions,
ἀπαθής, apathēs, adjective, "not suffering"
πάθος, noun, páthos, "passion" (Latin: perturbatio)
"[T]he Stoic sage does not gain his equanimity by shedding human concerns, but by coming to realise what these concerns are meant to be, and hence what they ought to be, namely the means by which nature maintains its natural, rational order. And we have to realize that in this order our concerns play a very, very subordinate role, and are easily overridden by more important considerations, though we may find it difficult to accept this. But it does not follow from the fact that they play a very subordinate role, that they play no role whatsoever. Nature is provident down to the smallest detail. Hence it must be a caricature of the wise man to think that he has become insensitive to human concerns and only thus manages to achieve his equanimity. Things do move him, but not in such a way as to disturb his balanced judgment and make him attribute an importance to them which they do not have" (Michael Frede, "The Stoic Affections of the Soul," 110. The Norms of Nature: Studies in Hellenistic Ethics, edited by M. Schofield and G. Striker (University of Cambridge Press, 1986), 93-110). that is to say, pathological affections, produced by the mind. The Stoic wise man does not experience any such passion. He is apathes. But this does not at all mean that he does not have any emotion. He knows concern, the counterpart of fear; he knows reasonable willing, the counterpart of appetite; and he knows joy, the elated satisfaction at the attainment of a real good, as opposed to gleefulness at the attainment of an imagined good. So much, then, about impulsive impressions and the way they heavily depend on one's own mind and reason.
The Stoics think that fear and the other emotions Plato and Aristotle explained in terms of a nonrational parts of the soul in fact result from your false beliefs about what is good.
The Stoics called these emotions "passions" (πάθη).
The Stoic sage does not suffer from these emotions. He is ἀπαθής.
18. As to assent, we can now be brief. Animals can do nothing, or at least very little, but rely on their impressions. They have little or no way to discriminate between trustworthy and misleading instances. But our impressions are true or false. We also have reason, which allows us to scrutinize our impressions critically before we accept them as true and reliable. Here it is important to remember that there is more to our impressions than their propositional content. This is obvious in the case of perceptual impressions. But we have also seen that a thought that one might die from a certain infection, though it has the same propositional content, might come in different colorings, and the coloring is regarded as part of the thought or impression. So, to give assent to an impression, while primarily a matter of taking its propositional content to be true, is also a matter of accepting it in all its detail, for instance, accepting it, though it is not a clear and distinct impression, and accepting it in its coloring. Given an impulsive impression, one might accept its propositional content but find its impulsive character inappropriate and therefore refuse to assent to the impression on that ground.
What is the "propositional content" of an impression?
This question raises a lot of difficult philosophical issues, but perhaps the following is right.
Suppose I have the impression that frost is going to kill my tomato plants. If I believe that their death is bad, this impression impulsive. It has a certain "coloring." It is "disagreeabe." This "character" of the impression, however, is not part of the proposition content of my impression. Someone else might have the impression that frost is going to kill my tomato plants but believe that their death is good. My impression and his impression have the same propositional content: that frost is going to kill my tomatoes. They are different in that one is mine and the other his. Further, given our different beliefs about whether the death of my plants is bad, these impressions do not have the same character. Mine is "disagreeable." His is "agreeable."
19. There is one last detail which I will merely touch on. The notion of assent, like its legal counterpart of consent, can be construed quite generously. Just as tacit acquiescence in being ruled or governed by somebody can be construed as assenting to the person's rule, so assenting to an impression does not have to involve an explicit act of acceptance. Not to revolt against an impression but simply acquiescing to it and in fact relying on it can constitute as much an assent as an explicit acceptance.
Assent need not "involve an explicit act of acceptance."
20. If we now return to the question of how the Stoics think of the desires Plato and Aristotle characterize as nonrational, it should be clear why the Stoics think that they are all rational, all the product of reason. For the Stoics there is an ambiguity in the term desire here. If by desire we mean an impulse which actually moves us to action, then, according to the Stoics, we are dealing with a belief of a certain kind that is constituted by reason's assent to an impulsive impression. If, on the other hand, by desire we mean, as Plato and Aristotle obviously sometimes do, a motive which might be overridden by a conflicting desire, something which just might move us to act but also may fail to do so, then, according to the Stoics, we must be talking about an impulsive rational impression. And this impulsive impression is formed by reason.
"For the Stoics there is an ambiguity in the term desire here."
What is the ambiguity?
The answer, it seems, is that desire in Plato and Aristotle maps to impulse and impulsive impression for the Stoics.
What, for the Stoics, has the role of a desire that moves one to action?
Impulse has this role.
What, for the Stoics, has the role of a desire that is overridden?
An impulsive impression has this role. It is "overridden" when someone fails to assent to it.
21. Whatever we make of the details of all this, there is one point which is absolutely crucial for
the emergence of the notion of the will. The case of the Stoics against Plato and Aristotle
would completely collapse without the assumption that any action, unless one is physically and
literally forced into doing something, presupposes an act of reason's assent to an appropriate
impulsive impression. This assent will constitute a rational impulse which prompts or drives,
as it were, the action. So any human desire (orexis) is a desire of reason.
ὄρεξις, orexis, noun, "appetency, conation"
βούλησις, boulēsis, noun, "willing"
επιθυμία, epithymia, noun, "appetite" Thus any desire of a grown-up human being is a willing, a boulêsis. Here, therefore, we do have the notion of a willing which was lacking in Plato and Aristotle, a notion which allows us to say that, when a person does not act by being forced or out of ignorance, the person acts voluntarily or willingly. Among such willings, though, the Stoics now distinguish between bouleseis in a narrower sense, namely, reasonable willings, the kind of willings only a wise person has, and appetites (epithymiai), unreasonable willings, which are what we who are not wise have.
The Stoics think that every action stems from a "willing."
22. So now we have the notion of assent, and hence the appropriate notion of a willing, but we do not yet have the notion of a choice, let alone of a will. To see how we get this, we have to step back a bit. It is clear from what we have said that, according to the Stoics, our whole life is entirely a matter of what we assent to and what not. For our beliefs are a matter of assent, and so are our desires, which are just special forms of belief. Ensuring our life will come out well is entirely a matter of giving assent when that is appropriate and refusing to give assent when it is inappropriate. This focus on our internal life is sharpened by the fact that, according to the Stoics, wisdom is the only good, that a wise life is a good life, and that nothing else matters. So long as one acts wisely, one lives a life of (for us) unimaginable satisfaction and bliss, whatever may happen to one, whether one gets tortured or maimed or killed. The wise person will normally be concerned to avoid such things, but, if they do happen, they will make no difference to him, as he is just concerned to act wisely, by giving assent when appropriate and refusing assent when inappropriate. So the whole focus of one's life now is on one's inner life. And there is a further factor which reinforces this focus, namely, the assumption that the course of the world outside is predetermined. All the wise person can do is try to avoid death, but if he does not manage that, he takes this as a sure sign that nature in her wisdom means him to die and that therefore it is a good thing for him to die. All he has to do, having failed in his attempts to avoid impending death, is to give assent to the thought that it must be a good thing that he is going to die.
The Stoics, though, at this point, do not have a notion of the "will."
They do not have the notion of choosing to assent.
23. Moreover, besides this increasing focus on one's inner life, we also have to take note of the
emphasis we find in later Stoics on the assumption that philosophical theory is not an end in
itself but a means to living one's life, and their insistence that the application of this theory to
one's life requires a great deal of attention to, and reflection on, how one as an individual
actually does function, including a great deal of practice (askêsis) and exercise in
ἄσκησις, askēsis, noun, "exercise, practice, training"
think about things in appropriate ways and to act accordingly. Hence later Stoics will turn to
this inner life in a way which is supposed to help us to learn to give assent appropriately. One
Epictetus, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Epictetus (50-135 CE) is a late Stoic. He wrote nothing. His Manual and Discourses were compiled by his student Arrrian. "I attempted to write down in his own words as nearly as possible, for the purpose of preserving them as memorials to myself afterwards of the thoughts and the freedom of speech of Epictetus" (Discourses. "Arrian to Lucius Gellius").
"[I]n a manner this is philosophizing (φιλοσοφεῖν), to seek how it is possible to employ desire and aversion without impediment" (Discourses III.14).
προαίρεσις, proairesis, noun, "choice"
"[Y]ou have a will free by nature from hindrance and compulsion (προαίρεσιν ἔχεις ἀκώλυτον φύσει καὶ ἀνανάγκαστον).... I will show you this first in the matter of assent. Can any man hinder you from assenting to the truth? No man can. Can any man compel you to receive what is false? No man can. You see that in this matter you have the faculty of the will free from hindrance, free from compulsion, unimpeded. Well then, in the matter of desire and pursuit of an object, is it otherwise? And what can overcome pursuit except another pursuit? And what can overcome desire and aversion except another desire and aversion? But, you object: 'If you place before me the fear of death, you do compel me.' No, it is not what is placed before you that compels, but your opinion that it is better to do so and so than to die. In this matter then it is your opinion that compelled you: that is, will compelled will" (Discourses I.17).
προαίρεσιν is an accusative form of προαίρεσις. of these philosophers is Epictetus at the turn from the first to the second century A.D., the most respected and influential Stoic of his time.
24. In Epictetus's Discourses the notion of prohairesis (choice) plays perhaps the central role. It is our prohairesis which defines us as a person, as the sort of person we are; it is our prohairesis which determines how we behave; it is our prohairesis which we need to concern ourselves with more than anything else; indeed, our prohairesis is the only thing which in the end matters. Now, given what has been said, we might think that we readily understand this. Since we aim at a good life, our concern should be to give assent to the right impressions and in particular to give assent to the right impulsive impressions, which assent will constitute a rational impulse or desire and make us act in the appropriate way. Therefore we might think that the assent to our impulsive impressions constitutes a choice to act in a certain way and that the prohairesis which stands at the center of Epictetus's thought is the disposition of the mind to make the choices which it makes to act in the way we do.
In Epictetus' Discourses, προαίρεσις "plays perhaps the central role."
How does he understand προαίρεσις?
25. But the matter is more complicated. This is already signaled by the very term prohairesis. It should strike us as curious that Epictetus makes such prominent use of a term which is strongly associated with Aristotle and Peripateticism and which had played almost no role in Stoic thought up to this point. We should also remember that in Aristotle willing and choosing are distinguished by the fact that choosing is a matter of willing something which is up to us and in our power.
To know who Epictetus understands προαίρεσις, it helps to keep in mind that although Aristotle uses the term, "played almost no role in Stoic thought up to" Epictetus.
In Aristotle, προαίρεσις "is a matter of willing something which is up to us and in our power."
26. Clearly, this is highly relevant in Epictetus. In classical Stoicism the phrase
“up to us”(eph'hēmin) is used in such a way
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." that an action is up to us if its getting done is a matter of our giving assent to the corresponding impulsive impression. Thus it is up to me to cross the street, because whether I cross the street is a matter of my giving assent to the impression that it would be a good thing to cross the street. But Epictetus uses “up to us” in a much narrower way. He insists on taking account of the fact that no external action in the world is entirely under our control. We may not succeed in crossing the street for any number of trivial reasons but ultimately because it may not be part of God's providential plan that we should cross the street. This had been assumed by the Stoics all along, so Epictetus's narrowing of the use of “up to us” hardly constitutes a change in doctrine but rather a shift in emphasis or focus. What Epictetus wants us to focus on is that it is up to us to give, or refuse to give, assent to the impulsive impression to cross the street but that it is not up to us to cross the street. So we can choose to give assent to the impression to cross the street, and we can thus will to cross the street, but we cannot choose or decide to cross the street. It is to make this point that Epictetus resorts to Aristotle's terminology, with its distinction of willing and choosing, and talks of choosing to give assent but of willing to cross the street.
"[C]lassical Stoicism" is the Stoicism of Chrysippus. What is the significance of "up to us" (ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν) in "classical Stoicism"?
In classical Stoicism, "an action is up to us if its getting done is a matter of our giving assent to the corresponding impulsive impression."
"Epictetus uses “up to us” in a much narrower way."
How does he use "up to us"?
For Epictetus, what is "up to us" is not the action in the world, for example, the walking across the street. What is up to us is "to give, or refuse to give, assent to the impulsive impression to cross the street but that it is not up to us to cross the street."
27. There is another important point which we should take note of. It is conspicuous that assent does
not play as central a role in Epictetus as we might expect. He prefers to talk more
generally of our “use of impressions” (chrēsis tōn phantasiōn) or of the way we deal with our
"What then is your own? The use of impressions (χρῆσις φαντασιῶν)"
"God had need of irrational animals to make use of appearances (χρωμένων ταῖς φαντασίαις), but of us to understand the use of appearances" (Discourses I.6).
χρῆσις τῶν φαντασιών, chrēsis tōn phantasiōn.
χρῆσις, noun, chrēsis, "employment, use made of a thing"
τῶν is the genitive plural of ὁ ("the").
φαντασιών is the genitive plural of φαντασία.
φαντασία, phantasia, noun, "appearing, appearance" impressions. Assenting to them is just one thing we can do with them, though the most important one. So now it becomes clear, and Epictetus makes this explicit, that what is up to us, what is a matter of our choice, is how we deal with our impressions. We can scrutinize them, reflect on them, try to deflate and dissolve them, dwell on them, and, of course, give assent to them. But giving assent is just one of the things which it is up to us to do, which we can choose to do. And our prohairesis, which defines us as the kind of person we are, is not a disposition, as we at first thought, to choose to act in a certain way, because we do not have that choice, but rather a disposition to choose to deal with our impressions in a certain way, most crucially to choose how to assent to impulsive impressions. This assent, which you choose to give, will constitute a willing, and this willing is the impulse which makes you act in a certain way. So this ability and disposition, insofar as it accounts for your willing whatever it is that you will to do, can be called “the will.” But the will is called prohairesis,
βούλησις, boulēsis, noun, "willing" rather than boulêsis, to mark that it is an ability to make choices, of which willings are just products. This indeed is the first time that we have any notion of a will.
Now we are in a position to understand how Epictetus understands προαίρεσις.
Instead of simply talking about giving and withholding assent, as in classical Stoicism, he talks in terms of the "use of impressions" (χρῆσις τῶν φαντασιών).
Epictetus understands προαίρεσις as the ability exercised in our "use of impressions."
"[H]ow we deal with our impressions [is something we choose]. We can scrutinize them, reflect on them, try to deflate and dissolve them, dwell on them, and, of course, give assent to them."
In this way, Epictetus understands προαίρεσις differently from Aristotle.
In Aristotle, προαίρεσις is a form of "willing" (βούλησις). Further, "willing" is the desire of the rational part of the soul. Epictetus inverts the relationship. In Epictetus, προαίρεσις is prior to βούλησις. For him, "willings are just products" of προαίρεσις.
"This assent, which you choose to give, will constitute a willing, and this willing is the impulse which makes you act in a certain way. So this ability and disposition, insofar as it accounts for your willing whatever it is that you will to do, can be called 'the will.'"
"This indeed [in Epictetus] is the first time that we have any notion of a will."
28. This notion of a will is clearly developed to pinpoint the source of our responsibility for our actions and to identify precisely what it is that makes them our own doings. Chrysippus had said that it is up to us, for instance, to cross the street or not. And he had explained this by saying that it is up to us to give, or refuse to give, our assent to the appropriate impulsive impression. We are now told, according to Epictetus, that the sense of “up to us” involved in the two cases is different. The second case is a narrower and stricter sense of “up to us,”whereby it is up to us to give or not to give assent to the impression. And we get an explanation of precisely what that means. We can choose or decide to give assent, but we can also choose or decide not to give assent. This choice is to be explained by the will. In explaining your choices, it also explains your willings. But it is not in the same sense up to you to do something or not to do something, since you cannot choose to do something in the way you can choose to give assent.
"This notion of a will is clearly developed to pinpoint the source of our responsibility for our actions and to identify precisely what it is that makes them our own doings."
"What then is your own? The use of impressions (χρῆσις φαντασιῶν)" (Manual 6).
29. There are various details here which I will not go into at the length they deserve but which I want to mention at least briefly. The will thus conceived can be a good will or a bad will, depending on whether the choices we make in virtue of it are good choices or bad choices. We may not like the choices we make and therefore not like the will we have. We may will to have a will which makes different choices. We may, for instance, will it to no longer choose to give assent to the tempting impressions we have when we are faced by a delicious piece of cake. So there are second- and higher-order willings which can give the will a great deal of structure and stability. We should also note that the will, as it is conceived here, can choose to give assent to an ordinary nonimpulsive impression, like the impression that it will rain a lot tomorrow, such that, given this assent, we believe that it will rain a lot tomorrow. So in this sense what we believe is a matter of our will, as thus conceived. However, this does not at all mean that we will to believe something. We can at best be said to choose to believe something. For we get a willing only if the will chooses to give assent, not to an ordinary but to an impulsive impression which leads to action. Put differently, not every act of the will is a willing or a volition. Moreover, nothing which has been said so far shows that the will is free in its choices. It can make a particular choice or fail to make a particular choice. But there is nothing in what has been said which forces us to assume, for instance, that it can freely choose whether to give assent or not, or whether to give assent to this impression or another impression. It can choose or decide to give assent to a given impression, but it also can fail to do so.
"[N]othing which has been said so far shows that the will is free in its choices."
30. This notion of the will as our ability to make choices and decisions includes the ability to choose to give assent to impulsive impressions and thus to choose to will to do something. Thus in this complex way it accounts for what other ancient philosophers and we ourselves would call our choosing or deciding to do something. In what follows I shall for the most part focus only on the will as an ability to make choices and decisions as to what to do.
"In what follows I shall for the most part focus only on the will as an ability to make choices and decisions as to what to do."
What ability is this?
The ability to give and withhold assent to impulsive impressions.
31. With [late] Stoicism, then, we get for the first time a notion of the will as an ability of the mind or of reason to make choices and decisions. This ability, though, which we all share, in the case of each of us is formed and developed in different ways. How it develops is crucially a matter of the effort and care with which we ourselves develop this ability, which we also might neglect to do. The will thus formed and developed accounts for the different choices and decisions different human beings make. As we have seen, the precise form in which the Stoics conceive of the will depends on their denial of a nonrational part or parts of the soul. Hence in this specific form the notion of a will was unacceptable to Platonists and to Aristotelians, who continued to insist on a nonrational part of the soul.
The notion of will in Epictetus is one the Platonists and Aristotelians cannot accept because they, unlike Epictetus and the Stoics, think the soul has a nonrational part.