Free Will in Ancient Thought

Frede. Chapter Four: "Later Platonist and Peripatetic Contributions," 37-45

1. By the second century A.D. Aristotelianism and Platonism had begun to eclipse Stoicism, and by the end of the third century Stoicism no longer had any followers. All philosophers now opted for some form of Platonism, as a rule a Platonism which tried to integrate large amounts of Aristotelian doctrine, including Aristotle's ethical principles. Hence the notion of the will Aristotle's followers were called Περιπατητικοί (Peripatētikoi) because he discussed philosophy while he was walking and his students were following him in the περίπατος or "covered walk" of the Lyceum.

The Lyceum (Λύκειον) was the site of Aristotle's school.

Peripateticus is the Latin translation of Περιπατητικός.

"[T]the associates of Aristotle were called the Peripatetics (Peripatetici), because they used to debate while walking in the Lyceum (Cicero, Academica I.4.17).
might have easily disappeared from the history of philosophy if Platonists and Peripatetics [Aristotelians] had not developed their own such notion. This involved retaining the idea that the soul is bi- or tripartite but also taking the crucial step, not envisioned by Plato or Aristotle, that everything we do of our own accord (hekontes) presupposes the assent of reason. Now the word hekōn has indeed come to mean voluntary or willing.

Plato died in 347 BCE. About 50 years later, Stoicism begins with Zeno of Citium. After Medius (250 CE), Stoicism has no defenders. "All philosophers now opted for some form of Platonism."

Since the notion of free will is Stoic in origin, it "might have easily disappeared from the history of philosophy if Platonists and Peripatetics had not developed their own such notion."

The Platonic and Peripatetic notion of free will is part of a "bi- or tripartite" theory of soul. In this theory of soul, there are "rational" desires (desires of reason) and "nonrational" desires (desires in other parts of the soul). Further, unlike the theory in Plato and Aristotle, ἑκόντες, hekontes, adjective, plural form of ἑκών

ἑκών, hekōn, adjective, "of own's own accord"
"everything we do of our own accord (hekontes)[, and thus in terms of a desire,] presupposes the assent of reason."

What is the "assent of reason"? Frede's answer comes later.

2. This change was greatly facilitated by certain remarks in Aristotle and particularly in Plato. We have a tendency, or at least for a very long time have had a tendency, to understand Plato and Aristotle as if they claimed that it were the task of reason to provide us with the right beliefs or, better still, knowledge and understanding, while the task of the nonrational part of the soul is to provide us with the desires to motivate us to act virtuously in light of the knowledge and understanding provided by reason. But we have already seen that this is not the view of Plato and Aristotle. According to them, it is not the task of reason to provide us only with the appropriate knowledge and understanding; it is also its task to provide us with the appropriate desires. To act virtuously is to act from choice, and to act from choice is to act on a desire of reason. The cognitive and the desiderative or conative aspects of reason are so intimately linked that we may wonder whether in fact we should distinguish, as I did earlier, between the belief of reason that it is a good thing to act in a certain way and the desire of reason which this belief gives rise to, or whether, instead, we should not just say that we are motivated by the belief that it is a good thing to act in this way, recognizing this as a special kind of belief which can motivate us, just as the Stoics think that desires are nothing but a special kind of belief.

"I shall endeavour to prove first, that reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will; and secondly, that it can never oppose passion in the direction of the will" (David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, T 2.3.3.1, SBN 413 ). Historians have not always understand the theory of soul in Plato and Aristotle. They have thought that reason provides beliefs and that desires neither are nor stem from beliefs.

The Stoics (following in the general tradition of Plato and Aristotle) think that desires are beliefs.

3. Further, the modern scholarly view, that according to Plato and Aristotle, reason provides the beliefs and the nonrational part of the soul provides the motivating desires, is grossly inadequate in that it overlooks their view that, just as reason has a desiderative aspect, so the nonrational part of the soul and its desires have a cognitive aspect. This should not be surprising, given that the nonrational part of the soul is supposed to be a close analogue of the kind of soul animals have. Animals have cognition. Indeed, Aristotle is willing to attribute to animals such enormous powers of cognition that some of them, according to him, can display good sense and foresight. Hence we naturally wonder why Aristotle denies reason to animals. The answer is that he, like Plato, has a highly restrictive notion of reason and knowledge, a notion which involves understanding why what one believes one knows is, and cannot but be, the way it is. Reason is the ability in virtue of which we have such knowledge and understanding. It is this kind of understanding which animals are lacking. Obviously, this leaves a lot of conceptual space for less elevated cognitive states which a nonrational soul, and hence an animal, is capable of.

"[T]he nonrational part of the soul and its desires have a cognitive aspect."

What does this mean? Frede's explanation follows.

4. We shall understand this better if we take into account that Plato and Aristotle distinguish three forms of desire, corresponding to the three different parts of the soul, and also, at least sometimes, seem to assume that each of these forms of desire has a natural range of objects which it naturally latches on to. Appetite aims at pleasant things, which give bodily satisfaction; spirit (thymos) aims at honorable things; and reason aims at good things. θυμός, thymos, noun, "strong feeling or passion" Since both Plato and Aristotle, unlike the Stoics, assume that pleasure and honor are genuine goods, reason can also aim at them, insofar as they are goods. The assumption seems to be that the appetitive part of the soul, though nonrational, can discriminate between the pleasant and the unpleasant. This, presumably, is supposed to serve a purpose. By and large an organism which is not spoiled or corrupted will perceive wholesome food or drink as pleasant, and unhealthy food and drink as unpleasant. So the ability to discriminate between the pleasant and the unpleasant will help the organism to sustain itself, if it is not corrupted in its tastes. When we see a delicious piece of cake, it will be appetite which has the impression that it would be very pleasant to have this piece of cake. Since appetite lacks reason, it has no critical distance from its impression. For it to have this impression amounts to the same as its having this belief. Similarly, the spirited part (thymos), being sensitive to what is honorable, will have the impression that it would be shameful to have yet another piece of cake.

"Appetite aims at pleasant things, which give bodily satisfaction; spirit (thymos) aims at honorable things; and reason aims at good things."

What does this mean?

Consider "reason" first. The idea, it seems, is that in reason there is a process of forming of beliefs about what is good. When this process results in a belief that something is good, it forms a desire for this believed good. It is in this way that "reason aims at good things."

Now consider "appetite." How does it "aim at pleasant things"?

Frede says that the appetite has impressions.

Further, he says that its impressions "amount to the same as" its having beliefs.

"Since appetite lacks reason, it has no critical distance from its impression. For it to have this impression amounts to the same as its having this belief."

What does this mean?

Consider the idea that the appetite (one of nonrational parts of the soul) has impressions. We can begin to understand this if we think about an example.

The Müller-Lyer Illusion.
The second horizontal line appears longer than than the first, but in fact the two lines are the same in length.

Müller-Lyer Illusion


"[T]hings about which we have at the same time a true belief may have a false appearance; for instance the sun appears to measure a foot across, but we are convinced that it is greater than the inhabited globe..." (Aristotle, On the Soul III.428b).
In Book X of the Republic, Socrates says that sometimes although reason "has measured and declares that certain things are larger or that some are smaller than the others or equal, the opposite appears (φαίνεται) to it at the same time" (Plato, Republic X.602e).

Suppose, then, that two lines are arranged in such a way that it appears that one is longer but that measurement reveals they are equal in length. Suppose further that even after we have measured and know the lines are equal in length, the unequal appearance persists.

It is true, it seems, that this unequal appearance of the lines is not the result of reasoning and thus does not have its origin in reason. It is the result of perception and how the lines look. So it seems that this appearance is the result of a process that begins in the nonrational parts of the soul.

Given this understanding of how the appetite has impressions, to know how "[a]ppetite aims at pleasant things, which give bodily satisfaction," we need to know how these impressions or appearances that have their origin in the appetite are connected to pleasure.

Frede gives the following explanation.

"The assumption seems to be that the appetitive part of the soul, though nonrational, can discriminate between the pleasant and the unpleasant. This, presumably, is supposed to serve a purpose. By and large an organism which is not spoiled or corrupted will perceive wholesome food or drink as pleasant, and unhealthy food and drink as unpleasant. So the ability to discriminate between the pleasant and the unpleasant will help the organism to sustain itself, if it is not corrupted in its tastes."

We can make some progress in understanding this explanation if we consider behavior in terms of maintenance and achievement goals. Maintenance goals introduce achievement goals.

When they are hungry animals tend to try find food and eat it. In this case, the maintenance goal has the form of a conditional: "If I am hungry, I find food and eat it." When the animal registers the truth of the antecedent, it has the achievement goal to find and eat food. When the animal has impressions of its food, it moves to eat it. In eating it, it takes pleasure. In this way, the animal has a disliking for being hungry and likings for eating certain foods.

This, it seems, is how "[a]ppetite aims at pleasant things, which give bodily satisfaction."

Further, this understanding explains what it means for the animal "to have this impression amounts to the same as its having this belief." The role the impression plays in "appetite aims at pleasant things" is the same as the role belief plays in "reason aims at good things."

If this is right, then it can be a leading misleading to say, as Frede says, that "[w]hen we see a delicious piece of cake, it will be appetite which has the impression that it would be very pleasant to have this piece of cake." This, it seems, misstates the content of the impression.

5. "If a living thing has the capacity for perception, it has the capacity for desire. For desire (ὄρεξις) comprises appetite (ἐπιθυμία), spirit (θυμὸς), and wish (βούλησις). All animals have at least one of the senses, touch. Where there is perception, there is pleasure and pain ..., and where there are these, there is appetite: for this is desire for what is pleasant" (Aristotle, On the Soul II.3.414b1).


ἀκρασία, akrasia, noun, alternate spelling of ἀκράτεια, akrateia, "want of power, incontinence,"

φαντασία, phantasia, noun, "appearing, appearance"
We should also remember that Aristotle explains nonrational desire as originating in the fact that animals not only can perceive things but also perceive them as pleasant or unpleasant. So if you perceive the kind of thing you have experienced as pleasant, without the intervention of reason you have the agreeable impression that there is something pleasant within reach, something which you expect to give you pleasure if you get hold of it. This is an impression and an expectation produced by the nonrational part of the soul. In his remarks on impetuous akrasia—cases in which the spirited part of the soul, for instance, in its anger, rashly preempts the deliberation of reason—Aristotle says that those who are prone to this kind of condition do not wait for reason to come to a conclusion but tend to follow their phantasia, that is, their impression or disposition to form impressions, rather than their reason (EN 7, 1150b19–28).

EN = Ethica Nicomachea.
Nicomachean Ethics is the English translation of the Latin title.
So the akratic sort of person follows an impression formed by or in the spirited part of the soul rather than reason.

What makes an impression "agreeable"?

The answer, it seems, is that an impression is "agreeable" just in case it is of "the kind of thing you have experienced as pleasant." When the appetite has such an impression (and reason does not intervene), there is a motivation to get the object of the impression.

6. Later Peripatetics and Platonists, then, were following Plato and Aristotle in thinking that a nonrational desire consisted of a certain kind of agreeable or disagreeable impression, with its origin in a nonrational part of the soul. They could preserve the division of the soul by supposing that different kinds of impulsive impressions have their origin in different parts of the soul, rather than in reason or the mind, as the Stoics had assumed. But they could now agree with the Stoics (though this in fact meant a significant departure from Plato and Aristotle) that any impression, however tempting it may be, needs an assent of reason to turn it into an impulse that can move us to action. So now reason does appear in two roles. It has or forms its own view as to what would be a good thing to do, and it judges whether to assent or refuse to assent to the impulsive impressions which present themselves. Thus we get the division of reason or the intellect into two parts, as we find in later traditions, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for instance, in Thomas Aquinas: a cognitive part and the will.

In "[l]ater Peripatetics and Platonists," agreeable and disagreeable impressions in the nonrational parts of the soul are impulsive and require the assent of reason to result in impulses.

In this theory of the soul, the will is part of reason.

7. Another factor which could facilitate this move, as I indicated earlier, is that assent could be construed rather generously as involving simple acceptance of, or acquiescence to, an impression, ceding to it, giving in to it, rather than an active, explicit act of assent. This is why many philosophers were now prepared to say that even nonhuman animals assent to their impressions in that they cede to them and rely on them in their action.

"[M]any philosophers were now prepared to say that even nonhuman animals assent to their impressions in that they cede to them and rely on them in their action.

Who are these philosophers?

The Stoic view is that nonhuman animals lack reason and that assent belongs to reason.

8. There is an important development in the first century B.C. which further facilitated this change. It is usually claimed that the Stoic Posidonius early in the first century B.C. criticized Chrysippus's doctrine that the passions of the soul have their origin in reason and that he reverted to a tripartite division of the soul. The evidence for this comes from Galen of Pergamum is a Greek physician and philosopher.

De Placitis Hippocratis et Platonis = On the Doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato.

Galen wrote the first six (of the nine) books of On the Doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato in the period from 162 to 166 CE. His aim is to show that Hippocrates and Plato agreed and were correct about the faculties of animals. The work is largely polemical. In books III-V, he attacks Chrysippus' understanding of the soul and conception of the passions.
Galen, in particular, Galen's De Placitis Hippocratis et Platonis, but it has to be treated with great caution. Galen is an extremely polemical author who shows few scruples in defending or advancing a good cause. He is firmly set against Stoicism and eager to show that on a matter dear to him, such as the division of the soul, the great authority of the school, Chrysippus, who denies this doctrine, has been contradicted by another major Stoic, Posidonius. Hence I have great sympathy with John Cooper's attempt to show that Galen was simply wrong to interpret Posidonius as having thought that there is an irrational part of the soul. On the other hand, it is obvious that Posidonius did criticize Chrysippus and must have said things which allowed Galen to interpret him in this way. What was at issue between Chrysippus and Posidonius?

The "passions" are excessive impulses. The early Stoic view (the view in Chrysippus) is that excessive impulses stem from false beliefs about what is good and what is bad.

Chrysippus (Stoic, 3rd century BCE).

Posidonius of Apameia, early 2nd to middle 1st century BCE, a polymath whose writings have survived only in fragments. Posidonius (Stoic, 2nd to 1st century BCE).

Galen (130-210 CE).

Galen says that Posidonius argued against Chrysippus and against the classical Stoic view that the soul in the adult is reason, with no nonrational parts.

"[Chrysippus contradicts himself] in his account of the definition of passion (πάθος), when he says that passion is an irrational and unnatural movement of the soul and an excessive impulse (πλεονάζουσαν ὁρμήν).... These are both in conflict with his statement that passions are judgments (κρίσεις εἶναι τὰ πάθη)" (On the Doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato IV.2.8-9).

"[I]t is not surprising that he [Chrysippus] was perplexed about the origin of vice (άπορεῖ περὶ τῆς κατὰ τὴν κακίαν γενέσεως). He could not state its cause (αίτίαν) or the ways in which it comes to exist; and he could not discover how it is that children err. On all these points it was reasonable, I think, for Posidonius to censure and refute him. For if from the start children felt a kinship with excellence (τὸ καλὸν), their misconduct could not arise internally or from themselves, but necessarily come to them only from the outside. But even though they are brought up in good habits and are give the education that they ought to have, yet they are invariably observed doing something wrong; and Chrysippus acknowledges this fact. ... [H]e granted that even if children were raised under the exclusive care of a philosopher and never saw or heard any example of vice, nevertheless they would not necessarily become philosophers. There are two causes (he says) of their corruption; one arises in them from the conversation of the majority of men, the other from the very nature of things (ἐξ αὐτῆς τῶν πραγμάτων τῆς φύσεως). "When a rational (λογικὸν) being is perverted, this is due to the deceptiveness of external pursuits (πραγματειῶν πιθανότητας) or sometimes to the influence of associates. For the starting-points of nature are never perverse" (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers VII.1.89). I have objections to both of these causes, beginning with that arises from associations. It occurs to me to wonder why it is that when they have seen and heard an example of vice, they do not hate it and flee from it, since they no kinship with it; and I wonder all the more that they should be corrupted when they neither seen nor hear such examples and are deceived by the very things themselves. What necessity it there that children be enticed by pleasure as a good thing, when they feel no kinship with it, or that they avoid and flee from pain if they are not by nature also alienated from it? ... [W]hen he says that corruption arises in inferior men in regard to good and evil because of the persuasiveness of impressions (πιθανότητα τῶν φαντασιῶν) and the talk of me, we must ask him why it is that pleasure projects the persuasive impression that it is good, and pain that it is evil" (On the Doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato V.5.9-20).

9. From the information we have about Chrysippus and the earlier Stoics, we get the impression that human beings in the course of their natural development would turn into virtuous and wise human beings, if only this development were not interfered with from the outside through corruption from those who raise us and by the society we grow up in. As it is, though, we are made to believe that all sorts of things are good and evil which in fact are neither, and so we develop corresponding irrational desires for or against these things which are entirely inappropriate but which come to guide our life.

What is the "course of ... natural development" for human beings?

Part of it consists in the development of reason. The Stoic view is that reason is not inborn, but develops in human beings as they mature from children into adults.

"[W]e get the impression [from the historical evidence] that [Chrysippus and the earlier Stoics thought that] human beings in the course of their natural development would turn into virtuous and wise human beings, if only this development were not interfered with from the outside through corruption from those who raise us and by the society we grow up in."

This explanation is not easy to believe, since it seems to presuppose what it is explaining: that in their natural development, human being acquire false beliefs about what is good.

10. I take it that Posidonius questioned this picture. He had an interest in the history of mankind, and he seems to have assumed that there was an idyllic original state of innocence in which people lived peacefully together without coercion, freely following those who were wise. But this original paradisiacal state was lost through corruption, greed, envy, and ambition. Now, this corruption cannot have come from the outside, from society, as society was not yet corrupt. It must have come from the inside, then. If we look for the weak spot on the inside, it must lie in the misguided but tempting impulsive impressions which we find hard to resist. Take, for instance, the case in which one wants to run away because one fears for one's life. For a Stoic this is an unreasonable, inappropriate, and misguided desire, because only evils are to be feared, and death is not an evil. According to the classic Stoic account, the source of this inappropriate desire is the belief that death is an evil. This is not a belief we develop naturally. We acquire it from the outside, because we grow up in a society which believes that death is an evil. Given this belief, the impulsive impression that one might die from an infection takes on a very disturbing coloring and is difficult not to assent to.

Posidonius, as Frede understands him, says that the beliefs do not come from the "outside." Instead, they come from the "inside." The question, then, is how.

11. Posidonius seems to have asked whether the coloring of the impression must be due to a belief of reason or whether, instead, it could have its origin in a nonrational part of the soul or even in the body and its constitution and state. It could be a natural, nonrational reaction of an organism which sees its life threatened. Similarly, it might be more plausible to refer the coloring of the impulsive impression, not to the mistaken belief that this piece of cake is something good but rather to the body of an organism which is depleted and craving some carbohydrates. It does not matter for our purposes whether Posidonius believed in a nonrational part of the soul. What matters is his suggestion that the impulsive character of at least some of our impressions does not originate in reason's beliefs and thus, ultimately, in some sense, outside us but seems to have its origin in us, for instance, in the particular constitution or state of our body which makes us crave certain things. Peripatetics and Platonists would have gladly taken such considerations as a confirmation of the view that nonrational desires are constituted by impressions which have their origin not in reason but in a nonrational part of the soul.

What is "the coloring of the impression"? Frede is not completely clear, but I assume that "coloring" is a matter of whether the impression is "agreeable" or "disagreeable."

Posidonius, as Frede understands him, suggests "that the impulsive character of at least some of our impressions does not originate in reason's beliefs and thus, ultimately, in some sense, outside us but seems to have its origin in us, for instance, in the particular constitution or state of our body which makes us crave certain things."

What is this suggestion?

In part, it is that "the impulsive character of at least some of our impressions [whether the impression is agreeable or disagreeable]" is not a matter of reason (and thus is contrary to the view in Chrysippus) because it does not stem from a belief about what is good or what is bad.

Much less clear is from what this "character" is supposed to stem. The idea, it seems, is that the impulsiveness of some impressions somehow carries over from childhood.

How, though, is not easy to see.

12. The second, probably closely connected, development has to do with Stoic analysis of the emotions. If we look, for instance, at Seneca's treatise on anger, Seneca, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy we easily get confused, and commentators used to get confused. This is because anger (ira)

ira, noun, "ire, anger"

ἀπάθεια, apatheia, noun, (ἀ "not" +‎ πάθος, noun, páthos, "passion"), "without passion,"

"[The ruler in the just city] makes the least lament and bears it most mildly when any such misfortune overtakes him" (Republic III.387e). The Platonic and Aristotelian ideal is μετριοπάθεια, not ἀπάθεια.

πάθος, noun, páthos, "passion" (Latin: perturbatio)

προπάθεια, propatheia, noun, "prepassion"
and other terms for emotions, desires, or passions of the soul, are systematically used ambiguously. In classical Stoic doctrine anger refers to the desire or impulse one has which makes one act in anger because one has assented to, accepted, and yielded to the relevant impulsive impression. But Seneca also uses ira to refer to the mere impression. Later Stoics clarified this ambiguous use of terms like anger or fear by distinguishing between a propatheia, an incipient passion, which is the mere impulsive impression not yet assented to, and a pathos, the passion in full force, when the impulsive impression has received assent. This distinction may very well go back to Posidonius. In any case, it would allow Peripatetics and Platonists more easily to identify their nonrational desires with the impulsive impressions they took to be generated by the nonrational part of the soul. They could do this all the more readily since for them, unlike the Stoics, having a desire in itself did not mean that one acted on it. Otherwise they could not have assumed that there could be an acute conflict of desires and that one could act in such a case by following either reason or appetite.

An "incipient passion" (προπάθεια) is an impulsive impression based on a false belief about what is good or bad. A "passion" (πάθος) is the result of assent to a προπάθεια.

13. I have so far talked only about what Platonists and Peripatetics would have had to do to get a notion of the will which preserved their assumption of a bi- or tripartite soul and how they could easily have done this, once they accepted the assumption that any action, any doing which we are not made to do by force, presupposes an act of assent. I have not yet done anything to show that this is what Platonists and Peripatetics actually did. Let us begin with assent.

In the prior paragraphs, Frede has considered "what Platonists and Peripatetics would have had to do to get a notion of the will which preserved their assumption of a bi- or tripartite soul."

Now he tries to show that they in fact did do this.

First he tries to show that the Platonists and Peripatetics take over the Stoic notion of assent.

14. We find this Stoic notion taken over by Platonists in many texts. We know from a fragment of Numenius, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Plotinus, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Porphyry, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Porphyry's work On the Powers of the Soul (ap. Stob., Ecl. 1349.19ff) that Longinus doubted whether there was such a thing as the soul's power to give assent. But it seems that Longinus here, as in other respects, was rather singular in his conservatism. I take it that he knew his Plato extremely well and criticized what his fellow Platonists, like Numenius, presented as Plato's philosophy. It was this, I assume, which earned Longinus Plotinus's rebuke that he was a philologos, rather than a philosopher (Porphyry, VP 14). At a time when Plato was about to become “the divine Plato,” Longinus still had no difficulty constantly criticizing Plato's style (see Proclus, in Tim. 1.14.7). Longinus was the only significant Platonist of his time who held on to a unitarian rather than a binitarian or trinitarian conception of God. And so we should not be surprised that Longinus, quite rightly, doubted that Plato's philosophy had envisaged a doctrine of assent. But Numenius, the most important Platonist before Plotinus, adopted such a doctrine (see Stobaeus), as did, at least at times, Plotinus and also Porphyry, the student of Longinus and Plotinus (see Porphyry ap. Stob., Ecl. II.167.9ff)

The Stoic notion of assent is in the Platonists.

φιλόλογος, philologos, adjective, "lover of words, talkative"

φιλόσοφος, philosophos, adjective, "lover of wisdom"
Porphyry reports that "Longinus doubted whether there was such a thing as the soul's power to give assent." Frede takes Longinus, in this doubt, to side against his fellow Platonists, such as Numenius who misunderstand what Plato says. For his interpretation of Plato, Plotinus rebukes Longinus as a philologos (φιλόλογος) as opposed to a philosophos (φιλόσοφος).

Numenius (2nd century CE), Platonist philosopher.

Longinus (3rd century CE), Platonist philosopher.

Plotinus (3rd century CE), Platonist philosopher.

Porphyry (3rd to 4th century CE), Platonist philosopher, studied with the Platonist philosopher Longinus, towards the end of his life he edited Plotinus' writings, the Enneads.

15. We also find this doctrine of assent in the Peripatetics. Thus, for instance, Alexander of Aphrodisias Alexander of Aphrodisias, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

De fato = On fate
in the De fato (XI, p. 178, 17ff Bruns) explains that human beings, unlike animals, do not just follow their impressions but have reason which allows them to scrutinize their impressions in such a way that they will proceed to act only if reason has given assent to an impression. A bit later in the same text (XIV, p. 183, 27ff), Alexander distinguishes between what we do of our own accord (hekousion) and what we do because it is up to us (eph' hmin). Obviously, he has in mind Aristotle's distinction between what we do of our own accord (hekontes) and what we do by choice. We remember that the latter class is restricted to actions we will and choose to do, whereas the former also includes those actions which we do when motivated by a nonrational desire (see p. 26). But Alexander now, unlike Aristotle, characterizes this former class as involving a merely unforced assent of reason to an impression, whereas the latter class is supposed to involve an assent of reason based on a critical evaluation of the impression. So it is clear that Alexander takes even an action done on impulse, for instance, an akratic action, to involve the assent of reason to the appropriate impression.

The Stoic notion of assent is in the Aristotelians.

Alexander of Aphrodisias (2nd to 3rd century CE), Aristotelian philosopher and commentator

16. Let us return to the Platonists. There are any number of passages which show that Platonists construe following a nonrational desire rather than reason in a similar way. Thus Plotinus (Enn. VI.8.2) raises the question of how we can be said to be free, if it would seem that the impression and desire pull us wherever they lead us. It is clear from the context that Plotinus is speaking about nonrational desires. And it is clear from the curious expression (hē te phantasia...he te orexis, with the subsequent verb forms in the singular) that he is identifying the nonrational desire with an impression.

Plotinus understands action in the same way as Alexander of Aphrodisias.

17. Porphyry (ap. Stob., Ecl. II.167.9ff) tells us that somebody whose natural inclinations lead him to act in a certain way could also act otherwise since the impression does not force him to give assent to it. Calcidius, in his commentary on the Timaeus, Plato's Timaeus, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


adsensus is an alternative form of assensus

assensus, noun, "assent"

voluntas, noun, "will"

φαντασία, phantasia, noun, "appearing, appearance"
which is taken to reflect a pre-Plotinian source, claims (in section 156) that the soul is self-moved and that its motion consists in assent (adsensus) or desire but that this presupposes an impression (or the ability to form impressions) which the Greeks call phantasia. Sometimes, though, he continues, this impression is deceptive, corrupts assent, and brings it about that we choose the bad instead of the good. In this case, Calcidius says, we act by being lured by the impression to act in this way, rather than by voluntas. So Calcidius, just like Alexander of Aphrodisias (De fato XIV, p. 183) and other Platonist and Peripatetic authors, is preserving the distinction between willing (boulêsis) to do something, in Plato's and Aristotle's narrow sense, and giving assent in such away that one can be said to do something willingly in a wider sense, simply because one has assented to it.

Porphyry and Calcidius understand action similarly.

Calcidius (4th century CE) translated Plato's Timaeus from Greek to Latin.

18. It is this wider notion of willing, that is, assenting to an impulsive impression, whether following reason or going against reason, which gives rise to the notion of the will as the ability and disposition to do things by assenting to impressions, whether they have their origin in reason or in the nonrational part of the soul and whether they are reasonable or Aspasius (2nd century CE). His commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, of which six books are extant, is the oldest surviving Greek commentary on any of Aristotle’s works. unreasonable. In this way we come to have a notion of a will in Platonist and Peripatetic authors as, for instance, in Aspasius (Commentary on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics).

The Platonists and Aristotelians have a notion of the will.

What is this notion?

The Platonists and Aristotelians understand the will to be "the ability and disposition to do things by assenting to impressions, whether they have their origin in reason or in the nonrational part of the soul and whether they are reasonable or unreasonable."

How does this notion differ from the one in Stoicism?

In Stoicism, no impressions (in the adult) have their origin in the nonrational part of the soul. According to Stoicism, adults have no nonrational part of the soul.

19. Obviously, this change in the way of looking at nonrational desire has considerable consequences. It is one thing to think of human beings as sometimes being overwhelmed by a powerful desire for something or even to think that reason sometimes is overwhelmed by a powerful desire for something; we readily understand, or believe we understand, how this might happen. It is quite another thing to relocate this conflict as a conflict within reason or the mind. That refocuses our attention on thoughts or impressions. But what is so powerful about these impressions that reason may not be able to resist them?

The Platonist and Aristotelian notion of the will raises a question about reason.

What is the question?

It is not very clear, but it becomes a little clearer in 20.

20. Classical Stoicism has a relatively easy answer. If impressions have such a power over you, it is because they are formed by reason in a way which reflects your beliefs, and, given these beliefs, it is not surprising if you assent to these impressions. If you think that death is a terrible evil, it is not surprising that you cannot resist the thought to run as fast as you can, if you see death coming your way. It is your reason, your beliefs, which give your impressions their power. But if you do not think that these impressions have their origin in reason and that their power is due to your beliefs, it becomes rather difficult to understand how they would have such a power over reason that, even if they have little or nothing to recommend them rationally, reason can be brought to assent to them. At this point we have to beware of the danger of just covering up the problem by appealing to the free will, by claiming that this is precisely what it is to have a free will—to be able to give assent not only to impressions which with good reason we find acceptable but also to impressions which have no merit rationally. Instead I want to look briefly at some ancient attempts to explain the appealing or tempting character of impressions we wrongly give assent to. Needless to say, we are talking about temptations and about the origins of the very notion of a temptation.

"Classical Stoicism" is the Stoicism of Chrysippus.

"It is your reason, your beliefs, which give your impressions their power."

What does this mean?

Consider Frede's "death" example. One way to understand it as follow.

You have the belief that death is bad. You have the impression that "death [is] coming your way." Because of your belief that death is bad, this impression is impulsive. If you assent to it, you have the impulse "to run [away from death] as fast as you can." Further, this impulse is excessive because it stems from a false belief about what is good and what is bad.

What, though, is the "power" of the impression?

The answer, it seems, is that it is a power to make reason assent.

What power is this?

The idea seems to be that given the beliefs about what is good and what is bad, not assenting to the impulsive impression is difficult. In this way, the impression has "power" over reason.

In what, though, does this "difficultness" consist?

21. We get a relatively simple and straightforward view in Origen. Origen (2nd to 3rd century CE), Christian theologian.

Origen, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


ἄσκησις, askēsis, noun, "exercise, practice, training"

προπάθεια, propatheia, noun, "prepassion"

ἐρεθισμός, erethismos, noun, "irritation"

γαργαλισμός, gargalismos, noun, "tickling"
It is based on the idea that impulsive impressions in themselves have an agreeable or disagreeable character which, in the case of unreasonable impressions, turns them into incipient passions (propatheiai). There maybe something titillating about the very impression itself. Origen (De princ. III.1.4) speaks of the tickles (gargalismoi) and provocations (erithismoi) and also the smooth pleasure produced by the impression. Now, you might enjoy the impression and dwell on it. And so it will retain its force or even grow in force. It is perhaps not too far-fetched (though Origen does not say so explicitly) to assume that your ability to form impressions, your imagination, gets encouraged by the way you dwell on the impression, to embellish it and make it seem even more attractive. What Origen does say is that, if you have the appropriate knowledge and practice (asksis), then, instead of dwelling on the agreeable impression, you will be able to make the impression go away and dissolve the incipient lust. So nonrational and indeed unreasonable impulsive impressions gain some force by our dwelling on and enjoying the agreeable character of them mere fantasy.

What is this "simple and straightforward view"? I am unsure.

Frede seems to say is that thinking about getting something good can be pleasurable. This, it seems, is what he means when he says "you might enjoy the impression and dwell on it."

He says because of the enjoyment, the impression "will retain its force or even grow in force."

He says that this "force" makes the impression "attractive." Further, presumably this "attractiveness" makes withholding assent difficult.

Again, though, we need to know in what this "difficultness" consists.

22. When we turn to one of the most influential ascetic writers among the Desert Fathers, Desert Fathers

Evagrius of Pontus (4th century CE).


λογισμός, logismos, noun, "counting, calculation"
Evagrius Ponticus (whose allegiance to Origen stood in the way of his having a greater influence in theology but could not prevent his influence as a spiritual guide), these tempting impressions are referred to as logismoi (literally, “reasonings,” but here better translated as “thinkings” or “considerations”). This is extremely puzzling at first sight, as these impressions have their origin in the nonrational part of the soul or even the body, neither of which can reason. But I have already pointed out that we have to be careful not to overlook the fact that Aristotle, though he denies reason to animals, does not deny animals considerable cognitive abilities and even something which we would call thinking, namely, inferences based on experience. It is just that Aristotle, given his elevated notion of reason as involving understanding, does not call this “thinking.” Something similar, mutatis mutandis, can be argued for the Stoics and even for Plato. Correspondingly, while the nonrational part of the soul has no understanding or insight, it is sensitive to experience and can form a view as to how pleasant it would be to obtain something and how, to judge from experience, one might attain it. What it lacks is understanding, especially understanding of the good, which would allow it to understand why it would not be a good thing to indulge in this pleasure.

There is a lot going on here.

"Animals are by nature born with the power of sensation, and from this some acquire the faculty of memory, whereas others do not. ... The other animals live by impressions and memories, and have but a small share of experience (ἐμπειρίας); but the human race lives also by art and reasoning (τέχνῃ καὶ λογισμοῖς). It is from memory that men acquire experience, because the numerous memories of the same thing eventually produce the effect of a single experience. Experience seems very similar to science and art, but actually it is through experience that men acquire knowledge and art. ... Art is produced when from many notions (ἐννοημάτων) of experience a single universal (καθόλου) judgment is formed with regard to like objects. To have a judgement that when Callias was suffering from this or that disease this or that benefited him, and similarly with Socrates and various other individuals, is a matter of experience; but to judge that it benefits all persons of a certain form (εἶδος) , considered as a class, who suffer from this or that disease (e.g. the phlegmatic or bilious when suffering from burning fever) is a matter of art" (Metaphysics I.1.980a). Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, as Frede interprets them, understand the cognition that constitutes reason (where, in the case of Plato and Aristotle, this the rational part of the soul) in such a way that it excludes cognition that we would think belongs to reason.

What is the cognition their understanding excludes?

"Inferences based on experience."

Frede's interpretation is perhaps easiest to understand for Aristotle.

Aristotle distinguishes "reason" from "experience." When he does this in the Metaphysics, he explains the difference in terms of the medical practitioner and the medical theorist. The practitioner judges, as matter of experience, that patients who look a certain way will benefit from a certain medicine. The practitioner has the ability to make this judgement because he is part of a tradition of observing patients and the outcomes of their treatments.

Aristotle does not think that the cognition involved in the judgement is "reasoning," where this is understood to be the cognition that belongs to the rational part of the soul. For Aristotle, it is the cognition involved in the judgement of the medical theorist that belongs to "reason."

Aristotle thinks that no nonhuman animals have "reason," but that some have "experience."

Frede takes the cognition in the nonrational part of the soul to include "experience."

"[T]he nonrational part ... is sensitive to experience and can form a view as to how pleasant it would be to obtain something and how, to judge from experience, one might attain it."

Even given all this, it remains unclear whether a judgement "as to how pleasant it would be to obtain something" is a judgement it is possible to make on the basis of "experience."

This is not to say that something more than "experience" is necessary for the development of likings and dislikings. An animal can be understood to have and to develop likings and dislikings without attributing to it "a view as to how pleasant it would be to obtain something."

23. How can there be logismoi which have their origin in the nonrational soul, or even the body, and are able to persuade reason? One way in which this might happen is if reason believes that some pleasures are a good but is not entirely clear about whether this pleasure is a good after all. Whereas the nonrational part of the soul is not sensitive to reasons or to reasoning in this sense, reason itself is sensitive to experience and to considerations based on experience. Still, the nonrational part of the soul may learn to become quite persuasive. It might point out how pleasant it would be to obtain a certain object and how easy it would be to obtain it in this circumstance. Reason, as we know, does not require proof, let alone the kind of proof which involves understanding and insight, to be persuaded. So here is the beginning of a view as to how reason might be persuaded to give assent to a nonrational and even unreasonable impression. The nonrational part of the soul offers it considerations, things to be considered in making a choice, which might persuade reason.

Frede here is answering a question he posed in 22.

The question occurs in the context of trying to understand what the Platonists and Aristotelians would have to think to take on the Stoic notion of the soul. They would have to think that reason can assent both to "rational" and "nonrational" impulsive impressions. The "rational" impulsive impressions are impressions whose impulsiveness derives from the beliefs of reason about what is good and what is bad. The "nonrational" impulsive impressions are impressions who have their impulsiveness other way. These impressions are the problem case.

This problem is really two problems. It is not clear what makes these impressions impulsive. It is not clear why these impressions have "power" over reason.

Frede (in 22, 23, 24, and 25) is considering a solution to the second problem. The solution he is considering is one he attributes to Evagrius Ponticus.

According to the solution, because reason "is sensitive to experience and to considerations based on experience," there "is the beginning of a view as to how reason might be persuaded to give assent to a nonrational and even unreasonable impression."

How might reason be persuaded? The nonrational part of the soul offers it considerations, things to be considered in making a choice, which might persuade reason."

What are these "considerations"?

The answer is how pleasant or unpleasant it would be to do something.

24. There is still some puzzle as to how this is supposed to work. We have to explain how reason can be persuaded because it takes these considerations, offered by the nonrational part of the soul, to have some bearing on its own view that it would not be good to indulge in this pleasure. To take the most simple and straightforward case, we need to see why reason, when it thinks that it would not be a good thing to indulge in this pleasure, should in any way be moved by the consideration that it would be very pleasant to indulge in this pleasure. For it to be moved, the nonrational considerations would have to have, or would have to be thought by reason to have, some bearing on its own view.

"To take the most simple and straightforward case, we need to see why reason, when it thinks that it would not be a good thing to indulge in this pleasure, should in any way be moved by the consideration that it would be very pleasant to indulge in this pleasure."

What is going on here?

We can make some progress by considering an example. Frede's "case" involves the appetite. Suppose, then, that I have strong likings for certain foods. When I was hungry, because I believed that it is good to eat food when I am hungry, impressions of food are impulsive for me. Further, over time as I ate those foods, I experienced different amounts pleasure and displeasure. On this basis, I came to believe that certain foods were good and that others were bad. Assent to impressions of the good foods resulted in the impulse to eat them and thus in the pleasure I experience in eating them. In this way, I developed strong likings for certain foods.

Now suppose that I come to believe (because my doctor tells me) that a food for which I have a strong liking is in fact bad. Suppose further that I have an impression of one of these foods, that I assent to this impression, and that this assent issues in the impulse to eat this food.

How is this possible?

Frede's suggestion seems to be that in the example "nonrational considerations" lead me to abandon my belief that the food is bad and to adopt the believe that it is good.

What are these "nonrational considerations"?

Given his remarks in 22 and 23, Frede would seem to think that the "nonrational consideration" in the example is the impression in appetite that eating the food is pleasurable.

There is, however, no such impression in the example as I have set it out.

25. But now it looks as if reason, to give assent to the nonrational impression, would have to change its own view, in the sense that it rationalizes into a rational impression the nonrational impression that it would be pleasant to indulge in this pleasure—an impression of reason that it would be good to indulge and so give assent to this rational impression and thus, indirectly, to the nonrational impression.

What is the "nonrational impression"?

It is the impression of appetite "that it would be pleasant to indulge in this pleasure."

What is it for reason to "rationalize" this impression into a "rational impression"?

Frede's answer, it seems, is that reason "rationalizes" the impression when it forms the belief that indulging in the pleasure is good. Further, reason abandons its belief (if it has the belief) that indulging in the pleasure is bad. It is in this way that reason "changes its own view."

26. We do find a view like this in Plotinus (Enn. VI.8.2). The question here is in what sense we are free to do what we want to do and are not just driven and made to do what we do by the things around us. If these things produce impressions and nonrational desires in us, and these desires make us act the way we do, these actions are not our actions in any substantial sense but things we are made to do, things which just happen to us. If we say that our actions are not simply the product of desire but also of the considerations of reason (logismoi), we have to ask whether the considerations of reason produce the desire or whether the desire produces the considerations of reason. If the latter, our action again will not be ours in the substantial sense we are looking for, because, though it involves rational considerations on our part, these are just rationalizations of our nonrational desire, which in turn is produced by the object of desire.

Frede thinks that in Plotinus there is evidence for his "rationalization" interpretation.

27. This way of looking at things produces yet another notion of the will: the impressions the will assents to, or refuses to endorse, as in Stoicism, are all impressions of reason. But there is a crucial distinction between these impressions. Some are just the reflection of our grasp on, or our understanding of, our insight into reality, whereas others are the result of our rationalization of our nonrational desires. Plotinus calls the state of the soul in which we have such pure rational impressions “intellectualization” (VI.8). We shall return to Plotinus later in detail. What is of interest here is that Plotinus's view would make it intelligible how reason would not simply fall silent and cave in to a nonrational desire but would, as the notion of a will requires, actively endorse it by assenting to an impression which is due to rationalization of the desire or the corresponding impulsive impression.

There is "yet another notion of the will" in the Platonists and the Aristotelians.

The first is the one Frede outlines in 18: that the will is "the ability and disposition to do things by assenting to impressions, whether they have their origin in reason or in the nonrational part of the soul and whether they are reasonable or unreasonable."

What is the "other" notion?

"[T]he impressions the will assents to, or refuses to endorse, as in Stoicism, are all impressions of reason. But there is a crucial distinction between these impressions. Some are just the reflection of our grasp on, or our understanding of, our insight into reality, whereas others are the result of our rationalization of our nonrational desires."

It looks like this second notion corrects a problem in the first. In the first, it is unclear why reason assents to impulsive impressions that have their origin in the nonrational part of the soul. In the second, it is becomes clear that reason does not assent to such impressions.

It might seem that, according to the second notion, there are no such impressions, but Frede talks about the "rationalization of the desire or the corresponding impulsive impression."

If we put the point in terms of desires, in the nonrational part of the soul there are desires that have their basis in "nonrational" "considerations" of pleasure and displeasure. These "considerations" can persuade reason to believe that something is good or bad. This, in turn, makes certain impressions impulsive, and reason can assent to these impressions.

When reason is so persuaded, it "rationalizes" the nonrational desire.

Is such "rationalization" ever reasonable?

In everyday life, it seems that one might reasonably revise a believe that some activity is bad because one has learned that the activity promises to be extremely pleasant.

28. The world of later antiquity is populated not only by all the things we can see and touch but also by myriads of transparent and intangible beings or even incorporeal beings—in short, daemons of various kinds. They are not necessarily rational beings, but especially if they are, they might take an interest in us, as we might take an interest in them. For, given their mobility or their form of presence or just their sheer power of mind, they do, or easily can, know lots of things hidden from us. They can also be extremely powerful; given their knowledge of how the physical world works, they can manipulate nature. Some of them are good and benevolent; these are angels. Others are downright evil and malevolent. These daemonic beings may or may not have any direct power over our intellect, as our intellect (nous) is not part of nature or at least not subject to natural necessity. But, thanks to their knowledge of how nature works, they do have power over our bodies. And since in late antiquity one more and more comes to think that the state of the nonrational part of our souls not only to some extent depends on one's bodily state but is even more or less a function of it, these daemons also have considerable power over the nonrational part of the soul. They can induce in you nonrational impressions and desires. These are the temptations of the devil. If your reason works in such a way that it follows these desires, for instance, by rationalizing them, they can also in this way manipulate your reason. And they are extremely good at this, because your mind or your soul is an open book to them.

In later antiquity (after the 3rd century CE), people believed in "daemonic beings."

"[T]hese daemons also have considerable power over the nonrational part of the soul. They can induce in you nonrational impressions and desires. These are the temptations of the devil. If your reason works in such a way that it follows these desires, for instance, by rationalizing them, they can also in this way manipulate your reason."

29. Augustine (Contra Academicos I.17) tells us the following story. There was in his student Saint Augustine, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Contra Academicos = Against the Academics
days in Carthage a man called Albicerius, who possessed an uncanny knowledge which one should not confuse with wisdom. One could go and consult this man about where one had misplaced one's silver spoon or what happened to money which had disappeared. Albicerius always knew the answer, though he had little education. One day Flaccianus, who did not believe in such superstition, went to test Albicerius. He asked Albicerius what he, Flaccianus, had been doing in the morning. Stunned by getting the correct answer in full detail, he went onto ask Albicerius what he, Flaccianus, was thinking right now. Albicerius could tell him not only “a verse of Vergil” but also which verse, uneducated though he was.

How did Albicerius always know the answer?

30. Now one might think that Augustine, and his young friends too, especially after their conversion, would not believe any of this. But, to the contrary, they, like most of their contemporaries, had no difficulty in believing that Albicerius was availing himself of daemons who had access to one's thoughts. It is no wonder that in a world like this, in which even a little insignificant daemon might have such powers, people might wonder whether our choices and decisions were free. And this all the more so, as there was also the widespread belief that we, in turn, if only we knew how, might make daemons or even gods do what we want them to do, rather than what they would want to do, if they had not been coerced. So we will next turn to the question of how the notions of freedom and a free will emerged.

He was "was availing himself of daemons."




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