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 did Aristotle not 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?
It is that "we are entirely guided by our beliefs."
What does that mean?
"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."
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."
This view will take some time to understand.
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 a misunderstanding of "irrational and often monstrous desires." These desires do not belong to a nonrational 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 in 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 the nonrational soul in children is transformed into a soul with reason that has 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
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 in animals and children?
The answer is not easy to see.
"[The Stoics] view [the desires or impulses of other animals] very much as Aristotle does."
This is not super helpful since Aristotle's view is not all that clear.
"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."
Whose view is this? Aristotle's? The Stoics? What is the view?
It seems to be that nature somehow makes animals so that the "coloring" of their impressions is part of a mechanism in which they maintain themselves in their natural state.
What is the mechanism?
Frede's idea, it seems, is that when an animal gets the impression that it is hungry, the experience is unpleasant. It dislikes being hungry. This impels it to search for something, say meat, that will relieve its hunger. When it gets the an impression of meat, the experience is pleasant. It likes seeing meat when it is hungry. This impels it to move to the meat.
Consider the lion example in terms of the AI model from the previous lecture. The initial
MG and KB is
MG: If I am hungry, I find food and eat it
This AI model makes no use of "coloring." For every perception, the corresponding belief is entered in the KB. A computation is run to determined if an antecedent in the set of maintenance goals, MG, is a logical consequence of the KB. If it is, the impression is passed to the MG. This, in turn, issues in an achievement goal.
Presumably what happens in the lion's mind is different.
The "coloring" somehow plays a role.
The lion is flooded with perceptions. Only some are important. If an impression has no coloring, nothing happens. If an impression has coloring, something happens.
The lion gets desires. I am not sure, though, that I understand this.
What is the desire that impels the animal to search for food?
One possibility is that it is the desire to lessen the unpleasantness of its experience and that given the nature of the animal, this desire moves the animal to search for food.
What about the desire the animal gets when it sees some food? What is this desire?
One possibility is that it is the desire to increase the pleasantness of its experience and that given the nature of the animal, this desire moves the animal move toward the food.
"And so they develop a liking for some things and a dislike of other things."
What does this mean?
The suggestion seems to be that animals acquire likings/dislikings in the course of their perceptions of things as pleasant/unpleasant.
This is puzzling because it is tempting to think that animals perceive things as pleasant/unpleasant because they have likings/dislikings. The lion, for example, dislikes being hungry. So the impression that it is hungry is disagreeable.
What are likings/dislikings?
“[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”
"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).
"...nature from birth has endowed us with certain natural inclinations and disinclinations..."
What are these "inclinations and disinclinations"? 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.
What is assent?
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. You might say, for example, "I have the impression that it is ...." The features of the object impress themselves 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
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, 1993-1994).
“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 does this mean?
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.
In adults, 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 you "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 you might die (because, say, you have been cut by a rusty knife) is impulsive. It is "alarming" and also "deeply disturbing," and assent to his impulsive impression issues in an "excessive impulse" (ὁρμὴ πλεονάζουσα). This 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." Impulses presuppose beliefs about what is good. We can specify later what, according to the Stoics, the true beliefs are. For now it is enough to say that if your beliefs about what is good are true, you do not 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 do not know whether nature has arranged things so that in your case you will avoid death, but given your understanding of the arrangement in nature generally, 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.
The conclusion about what nature has arranged for me, and hence what it is reasonable for me to do, is reached in an instance of defeasible reasoning. The argument has the form
1. Nature has generally arranged things so that P’s are Q’s.
2. I am a P.
3. Nature has arranged things so that I am a Q.
The conclusion is a defeasible, not a logical consequence, of the premises. (The same is true of the conclusion in this more familiar argument: Most P's are Q’s, this is a P, so this is a Q.) I might get new information that my death is part of how nature in its providence arranges things. If that happens, I am not upset because I have true beliefs about what is good.
This understanding of the good, obviously, makes it challenging to be a Stoic.
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"
Even prior to assent, what we might call the "impulsiveness" of the impression in the first case (in which you falsely believe that death is bad) is excessive. It 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 of assent to the impulsive impression, the Stoic fool, who has false beliefs about what is good and bad, experiences what the Stoics think of as "fear." The Stoic sage, who has true beliefs about what is good and bad, experiences what they think of as "concern."
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,
apathēs, adjective, "not suffering"
πάθος, páthos, noun, "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.
About fear and the other emotions that Plato and Aristotle explained in terms of a nonrational parts of the soul, the Stoics understand to be a matter of false beliefs about what is good.
The Stoics call 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 an 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 "disagreeable." This "character" of the impression, however, is not part of the propositional content of my impression. Someone might have an impression that frost is going to kill my tomato plants but believe their death is good. My impression and his impression have the same propositional content: that frost is going to kill my tomato plants. 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.
"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 overrides (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). "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 two things in the Stoics: (i) impulse and (ii) impulsive impression.
What, for the Stoics, plays the role of a desire that moves someone to action?
An impulse plays this role.
What, for the Stoics, plays the role of a desire that is overridden?
Frede puts this in a way that is confusing.
"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...."
He takes Plato and Aristotle sometimes to use the Greek equivalents to the term 'desire' for "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," depending on whether it is overridden.
What does this mean?
Suppose someone is thirsty. If appetite were in control, the person would desire to drink.
How does the phenomenon look to the Stoics?
One possibility is that the belief that "I am thirsty" is an impulsive impression. When someone fails to assent to it, he interrupts the process that would drive the person to drink.
This can be puzzling, though, because there seems no reason to think that the impression that "I am thirsty" is itself misleading and thus does not warrant assent.
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.
There is a lot going on here.
The Stoics think that every action in the adult (humans with reason) stems from a "willing." If the adult does something, it is because he assents. Assent belongs to reason. So, according to the Stoics, all actions in the adult stem from reason. Unlike in Plato and Aristotle, the adult never acts on the basis of a nonrational desire that is sufficient itself to move him when reason is not in control. For the Stoics, there are no such desires in the adult. This, however, does not mean that the adult can't have unreasonable desires. The Stoics think that the adult will have unreasonable desires if his beliefs about what is good and what is bad are unreasonable.
When are beliefs about what is good and what is bad unreasonable?
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"
learning to 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.
What is this "practice (askêsis) and exercise"?
The goal, it seems, is to have true beliefs about what is good and what is bad.
What does "practice (askêsis) and exercise" have to do with beliefs? Beliefs, or at least some beliefs, are formed or revised on the basis of evidence. Are there beliefs that are not formed or revised in this way? If so, how are they formed and revised?
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 how Epictetus understands προαίρεσις, it helps to keep in mind that although Aristotle uses the term, it "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 the personal pronoun ἡμεῖς ("we")
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
"What then is your own? The use of impressions (χρῆσις φαντασιῶν)"
"God had need of irrational animals to make use of impressions (χρωμένων ταῖς φαντασίαις), but of us to understand the use of impressions" (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, "appearance, impression" 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 uses προαίρεσις.
"To have voluntary control over something, we must be able to monitor it.
So mental operations over which we have voluntary control must be introspectible.
Furthermore, if we have voluntary control over something we must be able to decide
for ourselves whether to do it. Such decisions are performed by
weighing the consequences of doing it or not doing it, i.e., they are
made as a result of practical cognition. So we must be able to engage in practical
cognition regarding those mental operations that we perform deliberately.
To say that we can engage in cognition about some of our mental operations is
to say that we are reflexive cognizers"
(John Pollock, "Irrationality and Cognition," 253. In Epistemology: New Essays, edited by Quentin Smith, 249-275.
Oxford University Press, 2008).
"A very important feature of our cognitive architecture is that we are able to 'back out of the problem' without solving it. We don’t just go crazy, or believe everything. We“bracket” the reasoning, setting it aside and perhaps coming back to it later to try to figure out what is wrong. But notice that we don’t have to come back to it. We can decide that it is not worth our time to try to figure out what went wrong. ... This happens in philosophy all the time. We come upon arguments whose conclusions we find hard to believe. We don’t immediately accept the conclusions or reject the premises. We set the arguments aside. Often, when we return to them, we are able to pinpoint flaws" (John Pollock, "Irrationality and Cognition," 258). Instead of simply talking about giving and withholding assent, as in classical Stoicism, he talks about 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 a desire of reason. In Epictetus, προαίρεσις is prior in thinking to βούλησις. For Epictetus, willings result from προαίρεσις. As Frede puts the point, they are "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."
What is the argument?
I am not sure.
One possibility is that the philosophers before Epictetus did not think that when we exercise control over our mental life, we are making choices. They did not deny it. The point, it seems, is that it was not a focus of their attention in their attempt to understand human behavior.
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."
This is the crucial point.
"What then is your own? The use of impressions (χρῆσις φαντασιῶν)" (Epictetus, Manual 6).
What changes from early to late Stoicism so that Epictetus talks about the will?
The answer, it seems, which Frede does not make very clear, is that the early Stoics are not motivated to prove that we are sometimes responsible for what we do. They take it that we are sometimes responsible. So do all the Greek philosophers who come before them.
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 choose 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 nonrational parts.