Free Will in Ancient Thought
Frede. Chapter Six: "Platonist and Peripatetic Criticisms and Responses," 58-64
*** These lecture notes are works in progress ***
LECTURE NOTES 6
This is not an easy chapter. Here are the main points.
The Main Points in the Chapter
• The Platonists and Aristotelians reject the Stoic doctrine of fate. The Platonists and Aristotelians thought that no action would be up to us if everything happens because of fate.
• Alexander of Aphrodisias (Aristotelian in the late 2nd, early 3rd century CE) adapts a notion of "up to us" from an argument Carneades pressed against Epicurus and Chrysippus.
• Alexander's understanding of free will is not an attractive alternative to Epictetus's.
Frede's Lecture (58-64)
1. If we now look at how the Stoic notion of a free will was received by the Stoics' contemporaries, we might think that, given the massive assumptions involved, it would not have much chance to be accepted at all. But it turns out that Christians just after the time of Epictetus were beginning to articulate their beliefs in what they themselves often thought of, and called, a new philosophy. For the most part they found these assumptions highly congenial. Almost immediately, with some modifications they adopted the Stoic notion of a free will. There is no doubt that the belief in a free will became so widespread, indeed for a long time almost universal, thanks to the influence of Christianity.
"Christians just after the time of Epictetus" were receptive to the Stoic notion of a free will.
"There is no doubt that the belief in a free will became so widespread, indeed for a long time almost universal, thanks to the influence of Christianity."
2. But we shall have occasion to consider this in detail when we discuss Origen
and Augustine. For now I will restrict myself to a consideration of the
Stoics' main philosophical rivals, the Platonists and the Peripatetics. They
were prepared to accept, as we have seen, a notion of a will. They were also
prepared to accept a notion of freedom and, with a great deal more
hesitation, the language of a free will. But they were not prepared to
accept many of the assumptions which went with this notion in Stoicism.
"By fate, I mean what the Greeks call εἱμαρμένῃ--an ordering and sequence
of causes, since it is the connextion of cause to cause which out of itself
produces anything. It is everlasting truth, flowing from all eternity. Consequently
nothing has happened which was not going to be, and likewise nothing is going
to be of which nature does not contain causes working to bring that very thing about.
This makes it intelligible that fate shoiuld be, not the fate of superstition, but
that of physics, an everlasting cause of things--why past things happened,
why present things are now happening, and why future things will be"
(Cicero, On Divination 1.125).
εἱμαρμένῃ is a perfect participle of μείρομαι
μείρομαι, meiromai, verb, "receive as one's portion" So these rivals had at best a highly modified notion of a free will. The main stumbling block was the Stoic doctrine of fate and an all-encompassing divine providence, or, as we regularly put the matter, the Stoic assumption of a universal determinism.
Frede discusses the Christian reception of the Stoic notion in the next chapter.
In this chapter, he considers "the Stoics' main philosophical rivals: the Platonists and the Peripatetics." They did not accept the "Stoic doctrine of fate."
What is this "Stoic doctrine of fate"?
In 28 in Chapter 1, Frede says that "[a]ccording to the Stoics, everything which happens has antecedent physical causes which form a chain reaching back as far as we care to trace it" and that "Stoic fate is the work of an agent, namely, God, whose plan dictates the way the world evolves and changes, including what we ourselves do,down to the smallest detail."
"God is one and the same with Mind, Fate, and Zeus (νοῦν καὶ εἱμαρμένην καὶ Δία)" (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers VII. 135).
3. To understand the ensuing dispute [about the Stoic doctrine of fate] we
have to go back a long time before there was any notion of a free will. The
dispute started as a debate about whether it can be said that our actions are
up to us (eph' hēmin), or in our power, if they, like everything else
ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν, eph᾽ hēmin, "up to us"
αὐτοπραγία, autopragia, noun happens in the world, are determined by fate. And for the most part it continued to be a debate about this point. But the Stoics' opponents completely disregarded the distinctive features of Stoic determinism, treating it as if it were the kind of determinism Epicurus had rejected. In particular, they paid no attention to the probably Chrysippean distinction between an action which is free (autopragia), and an action which, though not free, we are still responsible for because it was up to us to do it or not to do it and which depended for its getting done on our being this sort of person.
Why did the Platonists and Aristotelians reject the the "Stoic doctrine of fate"?
The debate was "about whether it can be said that our actions are up to us (eph' hēmin), or in our power, if they, like everything else which happens in the world, are determined by fate."
4. Presumably, the opponents disregarded these particular features of Stoic determinism, because they all rejected universal determinism as such, and so the particular form in which it came did not seem to matter much. Also, the particular features of Stoic determinism are so tied up with specifically Stoic beliefs, which the opponents would reject anyway, that they saw little reason to pay particular attention to them. Finally, because the Stoics themselves admitted that there are practically no wise people, the distinction between free actions and forced actions, which we are nevertheless responsible for, seemed rather academic. For all practical purposes the Stoics seemed to claim that, though our actions (inasmuch as we are fools) are not free but forced by fate through the external objects of our desire, we are nevertheless responsible for these actions. That is because, being the people we have become, we gave assent to the corresponding impressions. The opponents found this objectionable.
The Platonists and Aristotelians do not think we are responsible when our assent to impulsive impressions are forced because they do not think our assent is up to us in this case.
5. in nostra potestate ("in our power") is the standard Latin translation of ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν. They argued that it was a misuse of the notions of "up to us" (eph' hēmin) or “in our power” (in nostra potestate) to apply them to cases where our assent is forced. And they claimed that this Stoic sense of “up to us” was too weak to justify attribution of responsibility to a person. For how can a person be held responsible for something the person is forced to do?
What is the "Stoic sense of 'up to us'"?
The Stoics think that what is "up to us" is what happens or not because of us.
6. We can already see which direction the debate was bound to take. The opponents of the Stoics would try to specify a stronger notion of what is up to us, which in their view would justify our attribution of responsibility to a person. But in the end, to elucidate their notion of a responsible action, they would introduce notions of freedom, free action, and free will, which in one sense are much weaker than the corresponding, incredibly strong, Stoic notions.
Frede turns to an argument that predates the Stoic notion of free will.
7. If we try to trace the debate, we can follow it from Carneades' time, that
Carneades is an Academic.
Arcesilaus succeeded Crates (the fifth head of the Academy), changed the focus of the Academy (the school Plato founded), and initiated the "New" Academy. Carneades (214-129 BCE) is Arcesilaus' most distinguished successor.
De fato = Cicero, On fate is, the middle of the second century B.C. It needs to be said, though, that our evidence concerning this debate is extremely meager until we come to Alexander of Aphrodisias at the end of the second century A.D. Our main piece of evidence for Carneades and the intervening period is Cicero's short work De fato, which, moreover, is extant only in a highly mutilated form. On the evidence of Cicero, it seems that Carneades tried to do precisely what the opponents had to do, namely, give a new, alternative account of what it is for something to be up to us, which made this a stronger notion.
Carneades offers an "alternative account of what it is for something to be up to us." As an Academic, he offers this account not because he believes it is true but as part of an argument against an opponent. In this, he takes himself to follow Socrates.
Frede's discussion of what Carneades does can be confusing.
"The reason why Epicurus brought in this theory [of the swerve] was his fear lest,
if the atom were always carried along by the natural necessity,
we should have no freedom whatever, since the movement of the mind was controlled
by the movement of the atom. ... Carneades showed greater insight: his doctrine was
that the school of Epicurus could have maintained its cause without this
fictitious swerve. For it would have been better for the dogma of the
possibility of some voluntary (voluntarium) movement of the mind to be maintained than for them
to introduce the swerve, especially as they were unable to invent a cause for it;
and by maintaining that dogma they could easily have withstood Chrysippus, for
in admitting that no motion is uncaused they would not have been admitting that
all events are due to antecedent causes, as they would have said that there are no
external and antecedent causes of our volition. Therefore when we use the expression
‘Somebody wishes (or does not wish) something without cause,’ we
are perverting the accepted convention of language; for we are using the
phrase ‘without cause’ in the sense of ‘without an external and antecedent cause,’
not ‘without a cause of some kind.' ... Similarly when we say that the mind moves
without cause we mean that it moves without an antecedent external cause,
not without any cause at all"
(Cicero, On fate 23).
"Whom, after all, do you consider superior to the man who ... would deride the fate which some introduce as overlord (δεσπότιν) of everything, but sees that some things are necessitated, others are due to fortune, and others through ourselves (ἡμᾶς διὰ), since necessity is accountable to no one, and fortune is an unstable thing to watch, while our actions, with which culpability and its opposite are naturally associated, are without an overlord (ἀδέσποτον)? For it would be better to follow the mythology about gods than be a slave to the fate of the natural philosophers: the former at least hints at the hope of begging the gods off by means of worship, whereas the latter involves an inexorable necessity" (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus X.133).
"Moreover, if all movements are invariably linked, if new movement arises from old in unalterable succession, if there is no atomic swerve to initiate movement that can annul the decrees of destiny and prevent the existence of an endless chain of causation, what is the source of this freedom (libera) possessed by living creatures all over the earth? What, I ask, is the course of this volition (voluntas) wrested from destiny, which enables us to advance where pleasure leads us, and to alter our movements not at a fixed time or place, but at the direction of our minds? For undoubtedly in each case it is the individual volition that gives the initial impulse to such actions and channels movements though the limbs" (Lucretius, De Rerum Natura II.251). In considering Carneades' account, we have to keep in mind that he was an Academic skeptic, and that the kind of Academic skepticism he espoused excludes the possibility that he himself endorsed his account. This was part of a dialectical argument to neutralize whatever inclination one may have to accept the Stoic account and so was offered as an equally viable alternative. According to Cicero (XI.23), Carneades criticized Epicurus for introducing a motion without a cause, namely, the swerve of the atoms. In common parlance, Carneades argues, we do say that something happens without a cause or even that somebody wants something or does not want something without a cause. But this is just a manner of speaking. What we mean is that there is no external antecedent cause for what one is doing. This does not mean that there is no cause at all. There is always a cause. It is just that sometimes the cause is internal. For instance, in the case of atoms it is true that they do not need an external antecedent cause to move, let us say, something which gives them a push; rather, they can move all by themselves. But this motion, when they move by themselves, is not without a cause and explanation altogether. The cause lies in the nature of the atom, which is such that the atom can move by itself, on account of its weight. And, Carneades continues, according to Cicero (XI.25), there similarly are voluntary motions of the soul. These are not motions which have their explanation in some antecedent external cause but in some internal cause.
Why did Epicurus think that atoms "swerve"?
Like Democritus (the Presocratic who founded the atomist tradition in which Epicurus works), Epicurus thinks that regularity is the way the random motion of the atoms appear to us.
He also suggests (in the passage I quote in the sidenote) that we would have an "overlord" and thus would not be responsible for our actions if the atoms did not swerve.
Carneades, in his role as Academic, seems to argue that Epicurus's conclusion does not follow. We can accept that all motions have causes (and thus that the atoms do not swerve) but deny that there is an "overlord" over us and our actions. This is possible if we accept that all motions have causes but deny that all motions have have "antecedent external cause[s]."
Carneades's strategy, if we are not too concerned with the formulation of the Stoic doctrine of fate, also constitutes a challenge to Chrysippus and the Stoics. We can admit that all motions have causes but deny that there are "external and antecedent causes of our volition."
9. Now, given the analogy of the atoms, Cicero is surely wrong when he identifies this internal cause as the nature of these voluntary motions. Given the analogy of the atoms, Carneades must have said that these voluntary motions have their origin in the nature of the soul or the organism. It is easy to see what his point must have been. The nature of the soul or the organism is such that, if the organism is depleted, it will want to have something to eat or drink and hence will go to look for something to eat or drink. If, on the other hand, the organism is satiated, it naturally will not want to have something to eat or drink, and, accordingly, it will not go out to look for something. So the organism's or the soul's wanting to have something to eat and its going to get something to eat are not due to any external antecedent cause, an appetizing object out there, which makes it want to have something to eat.
What is the internal cause of the "voluntary motions" of the soul?
[T]hese voluntary motions have their origin in nature of the soul or the organism."
So these motions do not have an external cause, but they do have a cause. The "voluntary motions" are part of "the nature of the soul."
ἑκούσιοι (hekousioi) is a plural form of ἑκούσιος
motus voluntarii = "voluntary motions"
in nostra potestate = "in our power"
ἑκούσιος, hekousios, substantival adjective from ἑκών
ἑκών, hekōn, adjective, "of own's own accord" In trying to interpret these remarks, we should not be misled by Cicero's term motus voluntarii ["no external cause need be sought to explain the voluntary movements of the mind" (XI.25)]. This expression does not refer to a will, let alone a free will, which causes these motions. For we are told what causes them: the nature of the soul or the organism. If they are called voluntary (I presume the Greek would be hekousioi), it is because they are not produced by an external, antecedent cause and in this sense forced on us. They are produced by the nature of the organism. And they are in that sense up to us (see Cicero's expression in nostra potestate [(XI.25)].). If we need something to eat, our nature is such that we will want to have something to eat and will go and get something to eat; if we do not need something to eat, our nature is such that we will not want to have something to eat, and we will not move.
The "voluntary motions" are "voluntary" because "they are not produced by an external, antecedent cause and in this sense forced on us." Instead, they "are produced by the nature of the organism. And they are in that sense up to us" and hence we are responsible for them.
(This new "sense [of] up to us" is not the sense of Chrysippus and the Stoics. They deny that what makes our action up to us is that it lacks an "external, antecedent cause.")
11. But, to return to Carneades, having a rough idea of his dialectical position, we next have to see how this is supposed to constitute a challenge to Chrysippus's view. The way we have characterized the Stoic view, as described in Cicero's De fato and the way Carneades will have understood it, is this: An appetizing object is out there; this object is an external, antecedent cause, for it evokes in us an agreeable impression; this too is an antecedent cause, for it evokes in us an assent to the impression; and we are responsible, because, given the sort of person we are, we give assent, whether we can help it or not.
For the Stoics, there two cases. There is the case of the wise and the case of the fool. In both, something in the world is an external, antecedent cause of the impulsive impression. The impulsive impression, in turn, is an antecedent cause of the assent. In the wise, though, unlike in the fool, these antecedent causes do not force the assent and thus the action.
12. Carneades cleverly shifts the Chrysippean paradigm. Having already, in reference to Epicurus, drawn a clear distinction between forced and natural motions of atoms, he seems to assume similarly that the motus voluntarii ["voluntary motions"] of the soul or the organism are to be contrasted with forced motions, meaning motions caused by an external antecedent cause. Whereas Chrysippus had said that giving assent to the appropriate impression makes all ensuing actions up to us or in our power, Carneades distinguishes between those actions in which assent is forced and those in which assent has its origin in our nature, namely, those instances in which it is natural for us to want a certain kind of object. He thus considerably restricts the scope of what is hekousion, or voluntary, and thereby reduces the scope of what we are responsible for, not only in comparison with Chrysippus but also in comparison with Aristotle. In effect, Carneades allows for psychological compulsion to be exculpating in a way it was not for Aristotle.
"Carneades cleverly shifts the Chrysippean paradigm."
"Carneades distinguishes between those actions in which assent is forced and those in which assent has its origin in our nature, namely, those instances in which it is natural for us to want a certain kind of object [food, for example, when we are hungry]."
What does "forced" mean here?
It means, as Frede says in 13, that we are "under the spell of the object of [our] desire."
13. In this way Carneades also narrows the notion of what is up to us, in relation to both Aristotle and Chrysippus. When Aristotle had said that you can only choose to do what it is up to you to do or not to do, what he had in mind was simply that in these cases the world is such that it depends entirely on you, is completely in your control, whether something gets done or not done. For this it was entirely irrelevant whether you were or were not under such psychological compulsion that you could not but choose to do what you did. All that mattered was that it would not get done unless you did it. But this is now ruled out by Carneades. For something to be up to you, to be in your power, you must not be under the spell of the object of your desire. And this correspondingly narrows down the notion of a choice. You now have a choice only if you are not compelled to want something. But there is still no sign in Carneades of a notion of a will or a notion of freedom or a notion of free will.
Carneades "narrows the notion of what is up to us."
When our desire is forced because we are "under the spell of the object of [our] desire," our action no longer counts as up to us and thus we are not responsible for it.
ἑκόντες, hekontes, adjective, plural form of ἑκών
ἀβίαστος συγκατάθεσις (abiastos synkatathesis)
ἀβίαστος, abiastos, adjective, "unforced, without violence"
συγκατάθεσις, synkatathesis, "approval, assent"
De fato, Alexander of Aprhodisias, On fate
"In late antiquity and beyond [Alexander of Aprhodisias] was regarded as a commentator on Aristotle, and many let themselves be guided by him in what they took to be Aristotle's views. But Alexander looked back on a long tradition of discussing Aristotle and the question of what is in our power, a discussion which also involved the Stoics and Academics like Carneades. As a result his view on what is in our power, as expressed in his De fato is not quite Aristotle's anymore, but heavily reflects this later discussion" (Michael Frede, "The ἐφ ̓ἡμῖν in Ancient Philosophy," 120. ΦΙΛΟΣΟΦΙΑ 37 (2007) 110-23. Reprinted in What is Up to Us?: Studies on Agency and Responsibility in Ancient Philosophy, edited by Pierre Destrée, Ricardo Salles, Marco Zingano. Academia Verlag, 2014).
"As an Aristotelian [Alexander of Aprhodisias] distinguishes between what we do voluntarily and we do by choice. But he draws this distinction in what seems to me a rather un-Aristotelian way. He characterizes voluntary action as due to our giving unforced assent (ἀβίαστος συγκατάθεσις) to an appropriate impression (183, 26-28). But Aristotle did not talk at all about assent. He had talked about something you do which is not forced on you, though you know all the relevant details you can be expected to know. What is more, Alexander seems to identify something we do by choice with something which is in our power in that we have deliberated about it and given it our assent on the basis of a critical scrutiny of reason" (Michael Frede, "The ἐφ ̓ἡμῖν in Ancient Philosophy," 120). Things are different when we now make a jump and look at Alexander of Aphrodisias at the end of the second century A.D. Both Carneades and Chrysippus, it seems, had regarded the notion of what is up to us and the notion of the voluntary (hekousion) as coextensive, except that Carneades had limited both notions by excluding actions done under psychological compulsion. In the case of Alexander, we have a philosopher who can look back on more than two centuries of serious and almost scholastic study of Aristotle by philosophers who regard him as an authority. Aristotle, as we have seen, clearly distinguishes between what we do of our own accord (hekontes) and what we do by choice, because it is up to us. Hence, of course, Alexander will also insist on this distinction, which non-Peripatetics by now had forgotten and were easily confused about. Thus we find Alexander drawing the distinction in a passage we have looked at before (De fato XIV, p. 183, 27ff). But now we should note that he characterizes an action as voluntary (hekousion) if it is due to an unforced assent (abiastos synkatathesis) to an impression. This is clearly Carneades' notion of the voluntary. Furthermore Alexander proceeds to characterize "what is up to us" (to eph' hēmin) more narrowly, as a matter of assent based on a rational evaluation of one's impression. Hence, for Alexander, something's being in our power involves not only, as in Carneades, our assent's not being forced, it also involves a critical scrutiny of our impression.
Frede interprets Alexander of Aphrodisias in terms of the distinction Carneades offers.
I am not sure why Frede uses "voluntary" rather than "of our own accord" for ἑκούσιον. He uses "of our own accord" when he preveiously (in 15 in chapter 4) discussed this passage in Alexander. Further, he had said (in 12 in chapter 2) that using "voluntary" and "involuntary" to translate Aristotle's distinction between ?? and ?? is "highly misleading."
Here is the passage from Alexander where he draws the distinction.
"For up to us is not to be found creatures yielding of their own accord to an appearance when it impinges on them and exercising impulse towards what has appeared, but this perhaps is what constitutes and indicates the voluntary. But the voluntary and up to us are not indeed the same thing (οὐ μὴν ταὐτὸν τό τε ἑκούσιον καὶ τὸ ἐφ’ ἡμῖν). For the voluntary is what comes about from assent that is not enforced (ἀβιάστου γινόμενον συγκαταθέσεως), but the what is up to us comes about with an assent that is in accordance with reason and judgment. And for this reason, if something is up to us it is also voluntary, but not everything that is voluntary is up to us. For the irrational living creatures too, which act in accordance with the impulse and assent in them, act volunatarily; but it is peculiar to man that some of things that are brought about by him are up to him" (Alexander of Aphrodisias, De fato XIV).
In terms of the distinction Carneades offers in his argument, Alexander's unforced assent corresponds to the "voluntary motions" that are part of "the nature" of the soul."
Here is how Frede put this part of Carneades's disinction in 9.
"[T]hese voluntary motions [the motions in the soul that have no external, antecedent cause] have their origin in the nature of the soul or the organism. ... The nature of the soul or the organism is such that, if the organism is depleted, it [will have voluntary motions to replenish itself. The organism] will want to have something to eat or drink and hence will go to look for something to eat or drink [to replenish itself]. If, on the other hand, the organism is satiated, it naturally will not want to have something to eat or drink, and, accordingly, it will not go out to look for something. So the organism's or the soul's wanting to have something to eat and its going to get something to eat are not due to any external antecedent cause, an appetizing object out there, which makes it want to have something to eat."
Alexander, because he thinks that in the adult all action requires the assent of reason, thinks this "unforced assent" in adults is a matter of making a choice. It is "an [unforced] assent that is in accordance with reason and judgment." Giving this assent, he thinks, is "up to us."
Alexander's argument against the Stoics crucially relies on the claim that,
given their doctrine of fate, they abuse the notion of “what is up to us” by
disregarding the fact that, if something is up to us, its happening or not
happening cannot already be settled by the state of the world; in this regard
they rely on Aristotle's view of choice. But he also argues that, since the
Stoics use the notion of “what is up to us” even when assent is forced (as,
according to the Stoics, it invariably is, so long as we are fools), they are
misusing the expression “up to us” (De fato XXXVIII, p. 211, 27ff)
and doing away with freedom (to eleutheron). In this connection
Alexander repeatedly also uses the term autexousion. His treatise
almost ends with the remark that a person is in charge (kyrios) of
only those actions of which he himself (autos) also has the power
(exousia) not to do them. So Alexander explicitly makes freedom a
condition for voluntariness and thus for responsibility. In fact, he does so
in the sentence referred to in the very terms the Stoics use to define
freedom. He thereby also makes freedom a condition for what is up to us. This
freedom, though, is not the freedom of the Stoics. That freedom presupposes
"According to [the Stoics], ...
of men the greatest number are bad, or rather there are one or two whom they speak of as
having become good men as in a fable, a sort of incredible creature as it were and contrary
to nature and rarer than the Ethiopian phoenix; and the others are all wicked and are so
to an equal extent, so that there is no difference between one and another, and all who
are not wise are alike mad"
(Alexander of Aprodisias, De fato XXVIII).
(For the Ethiopian phoenix, see Herodotus, Histories II.73.1 and Pliny the Elder, The Natural History X.2.)
"[T]hose of us who ask [the Stoics] how is it possible for what is up to us to be preserved if all things are in accordance with fate do not ask this putting forward only the name of what is up to us, but also that thing which it signifies, that which is in our power (τὸ αὐτεξούσιον)" (Alexander of Aprodisias, De fato XIV).
"[T]hey say they preserve what is free and in our power (τὸ ἐλεύθερόν τε καὶ αὐτεξούσιον)..." (Alexander of Aprodisias, De fato XVIII).
"The [Stoics] would have ceased from their combativeness in argument and would have concede that what is up to us is free and in our own power and in control of the choice (τὸ ἐφ’ ἡμῖν ἐλεύθερόν τε καὶ αὐτεξούσιον καὶ κύριον τῆς τῶν κειμένων αἱρέσεώς) and doing of opposites in the same circumstances, if they paid attention to what is agreed by all" (Alexander of Aprodisias, De fato XIX).
"There are, then, several sorts of cause, and they say it is equally true of all of them that it is impossible that, when all the circumstances surrounding both the cause and that for which it is a cause are the same, the matter should sometimes not turn out in a particular and way sometimes should. For if this happens there will some motion without cause" (Alexander of Aprodisias, De fato XXII). that nothing whatsoever can force one's assent. This is why only the wise man is free and why, as Alexander notes (De fato XXVIII, p. 199, 16ff), for the Stoics only one or two people have ever been wise and free. In contrast, Alexander's freedom is of a more limited kind. For him it suffices that over a sufficiently large range of objects which we try to attain or avoid, our action is not compelled by them, and that our assent, in such cases, is not forced.
"It has already many times been stated and shown in the earlier parts of this work that [the Stoics] do not preserve the up to us (ἐφ ̓ἡμῖν)..." (Alexander of Aprodisias, De fato XXXVIII).
"In this connection, Alexander repeatedly also uses the term autexousion."
A TLG search shows that αὐτεξούσιον occurs three times in De fato (On fate).
"His treatise almost ends with the remark that a person is in charge (kyrios) of only those actions of which he himself (autos) also has the power (exousia) not to do them."
"For man in is only in control (κύριός) of those things over which he himself (αὐτὸς) has the power (ἐξουσίαν) not to do them" (Alexander of Aprodisias, De fato XXXIX).
16. The notion of freedom involved here is a relative one. To be responsible for going after a certain object of desire, one must be free relative to that object of desire. There is, of course, nothing in the notion of freedom that Alexander is using which would prevent somebody from being free relative to all objects of desire. Then we would have a will which is entirely free in Alexander's sense of free. But this is not the Stoic sense of free. For in the Stoic sense of freedom, any inappropriate attachment would deprive you of freedom altogether. Nevertheless, one might think that Alexander's notion was more realistic in that it allowed for degrees of being free.
Why is Alexander's "notion of freedom" a "relative one"?
Because he also allows for "forced assent." This assent, in Carneades's terms, is assent when we are "under the spell of the object of [our] desire" (13).
17. What is more problematic is how he tries to give positive content to his notion of freedom. If we are not forced by the object of desire to go after that object, what are we positively free to do? Here again Alexander relies on Aristotle's notion that something is up to us if whether it gets done entirely depends on us. But this claim admits of two interpretations. We already saw in the case of Aristotle that the fact that it is up to you to do or not to do something does not mean that you have a choice. It means that you can choose to do something but can also fail to choose to do it, and failing to choose to do something does not mean that you choose not to do it. Yet Alexander now, in explicating his notion of freedom, seems to understand freedom precisely in this sense: you can choose to do it, and you can also choose not to do it.
"What is more problematic [than that there are degrees of being free] is how Alexander tries to give positive content to his notion of freedom. If we are not forced by the object of desire to go after that object, what are we positively free to do?"
Epictetus thinks that our will is free just in case nothing can force our choice and thus that we can, if our will is free, make the choices and do what we need to in order to live a good life.
In what does Alexander think our freedom consists?
One might think that he could say that it consists in the fact that our choices have no antecedent, external causes and thus that they are not forced.
This, though, gives his notion of freedom no "positive content."
The "positive content," according to Alexadner as Frede understands him, is that our freedom consists in the fact that when we choose to assent, we can also choose not to assent.
Even if this is what Alexander does this our freedom is, it seems worth wondering whether it is what he must think. Frede, though, does not do this.
"For nature and habit seem to be the causes in us of choice; but, to the extent to
which there is not-being in these, so to this extent there is not-being also in choice.
And for this reason we sometimes choose those things of which the cause has not
been laid down in us beforehand, on account of the weakness and slackness of mortal
Mantissa is a supplement to Alexander's On the soul. There is some dispute about whether the author is Alexander or one a compilation of notes by one of his students. In trying to explicate this, Alexander seems to be driven into a hopeless tangle. He is perfectly aware that, according to Aristotle, the virtuous person cannot choose otherwise. This is what it is to be virtuous, to have no trace of a motivation left to act other than virtuously. So Alexander recurs to the fact that there was a point before the virtuous person was virtuous at which he could have chosen otherwise. But this has the consequence that now human freedom, if it involves the ability to choose otherwise, looks like a sign of human weakness, an inference actually drawn by a follower of Alexander's, the author of the Mantissa (chapter XXII). It is clear, at least in part, what motivates Alexander's position. He is so eager to reject determinism that he not only wants to reject determinism from the outside in the form of objects which force our assent. He also wants to reject determinism from the inside. And so, prompted by a Stoic claim to the contrary, he is willing to claim that under identical conditions, both internal and external, that is to say, under the same external circumstances and the same internal conditions of the mind, it is still possible to choose and to act otherwise (De fato [XXII] 192, 22ff). Here we have come very close to Dihle's favored notion of a will which decides or chooses in some mysterious way that is independent not only of the external objects of desire but also of the desires and beliefs of the person.
What is this "a hopeless tangle"?
Aristotle thought that "the virtuous person cannot choose otherwise." So Alexander, who is an Aristotelian, faces the prospect of committing himself to the proposition that the virtuous are not responsible for their actions because these actions are not free for them.
Alexander also faces a philosophical problem. He "is willing to claim that under identical conditions, both internal and external, that is to say, under the same external circumstances and the same internal conditions of the mind, it is still possible to choose and to act otherwise."
19. I am inclined to think, though, that Alexander's position is also the result of what I take to be another confusion. Alexander lived in an age in which there was an enormous concern for justice, a concern that each get what he deserves, instead of some getting what they do not deserve and most not getting what they deserve. When we go back to Aristotle, responsibility, praise, blame, reward, and punishment were not a matter of desert in the way this came to be understood later. Aristotle's idea, like Chrysippus's, is clearly that we take somebody to task for what he is doing, because we want to change his motivation. For this purpose it is quite irrelevant how the person came to be thus motivated or whether he could have helped being thus motivated. We have to keep in mind that Aristotle's notion of responsibility also applies to children and to animals. And we surely are not concerned about whether the animal had much choice in doing what it did. We are concerned that it has still not learned its lesson. We do not ask how it came about that it has failed to do so. We give it another lesson. We encourage and discourage animals, children, and grown-ups for as long as it is appropriate. That is no longer appropriate for the person who is wise and virtuous, who has learned his lesson, but this does not mean that we cannot find what the virtuous person is doing quite wonderful and admirable or that his action lacks merit, just because there is no longer any need for encouragement.
Frede suggests that "Alexander's position is also the result of ... another confusion."
It has to do with what we are doing in praising and blaming.
"Aristotle's idea, like Chrysippus's, is clearly that we take somebody to task for what he is doing, because we want to change his motivation. For this purpose it is quite irrelevant how the person came to be thus motivated or whether he could have helped being thus motivated."
Alexander does not have this "idea."
20. When we encourage a child, we are telling the child that it is doing pretty well. By this we mean that it is well on its way to becoming wise and virtuous. Indeed, the child's action is a further step on this road. This is why it has merit. We think that the child for its age is doing admirably. And we think this against the background of what other children of this age in this situation might have done. This does not at all mean that we think that the child's merit lies in the fact that it could also have behaved miserably, as other children might have done, but chose not to behave in this way. It might not even have occurred to the child that it could act otherwise. The merit does not lie in its having made the right choice, when it could have chosen otherwise, let alone in its choice not to act otherwise. The merit lies in its having done remarkably well for a child of this age in this situation, raising expectations about the future. This is why we encourage and reward it.
This can be confusing.
The question is what are we doing when we praise or blame a child.
Frede's answer, in the case of praise, is that we are reinforcing the child's motivation by telling it that "it is well on its way to becoming wise and virtuous." In telling the child this, we are not telling the child that it "made the right choice, when it could have chosen otherwise."
21. Just think of a builder who has still not quite mastered the art. Yet the house he has now built is actually pretty good, and so we might praise and reward him. The merit lies in his having done an admirable job for somebody at his stage of mastering the art of building. We are not going to ask whether he could have helped doing this. And we would be positively stunned if he came to ask a reward for having not built a bad house, when he could have chosen to do so.
Frede gives an example against the view he attributes to Alexander.
Consider "a builder who has still not quite mastered the art." Suppose that for the "job" he has done, he tells us that he deserves praise because he could have chosen to build a bad house but did not. Frede thinks that we "would be positively stunned" to hear this.
Why would we be "positively stunned"?
We would be "positively stunned" because the builder completely misunderstands what he did to deserve praise. He thinks he deserves praise because, say, he resisted the temptation to build a substandard house that would increase his profit at our expense. It might be true that he did resist this temptation, but the praise would be for building a "pretty good" house.
22. But the notion Alexander seems to have is precisely this—that there is no merit or demerit in what you are doing, unless you could have acted otherwise, indeed unless you could have chosen to act otherwise. You now earn praise and a reward, because you chose to act in the right way, when you could have chosen to act in the wrong way. And from here it will not be a long step to the completely un-Aristotelian, or un-Platonic, idea that what makes your action so virtuous and praiseworthy is that you did not choose such a tempting and appealing alternative, when it was on offer. Indeed, it seems to be Alexander's view that what is meritorious about the virtuous person's virtue and virtuous action is that it is a product of the meritorious choices the person made earlier in his life, when he could still have chosen otherwise.
It is interesting to think about how Alexander came to think that resisting the "temptation" of an "appealing alternative" is what deserves praise. Frede, though, does not provide an explanation. Instead, he returns to the problem Alexander faces as an Aristotelian.
Alexander needs to understand what a virtuous person does to deserve praise. The virtuous person, as Aristotle understands him, does not have any trace of motivation to act differently than he does. Alexander, as Frede understands him, thinks that what the virtuous person does is praiseworthy because earlier in his life he resisted various temptations to act incorrectly. It is these facts that makes what he does praiseworthy now that he is virtuous.
23. This is simply wrong. The merit of the virtuous action lies in the action, the choice which led to it, and the motivation which led to this choice. Any earlier actions have merit to the extent that they show the person to be well on the way towards becoming virtuous. They decidedly do not derive their merit from the fact that at this point the person did not choose to take an alternative course of action when it was open for him to do so.
Frede rejects Alexander's view of the praiseworthiness of the virtuous person.
24. Hence it seems to me that Alexander's notion of freedom as a matter of being, in the same circumstances, able to act and to choose to act otherwise is due in good part to his mistaken notion of due desert. In any case, it is in Alexander that we find the ancestor of the notion that to have a free will is to be able, in the very same circumstances, to choose between doing A and doing B. Unfortunately, though, but also as we would expect, Alexander is not able to provide a coherent account of how such a free will is supposed to be possible.
"It is in Alexander that we find the ancestor of the notion that to have a free will is to be able, in the very same circumstances, to choose" to do something and to choose not to do it.
25. "It should be clear from what I have said that when the Stoics said that it is in our power, or depends on us, whether we act in a certain way or not, they do not mean at that time when we act a certain way, at that time also we could have acted otherwise. For otherwise there would be no explanation for why we act the way we do, and in particular no explanation in terms of us, of who we are, or what we are like. But what is true is that, when we act in a certain way, another person in the same circumstances would or could have acted otherwise. And more importantly, we ourselves could have acted otherwise, if we had not become the sort of person we did become. In fact, we perhaps within limits, still could become the sort of person who would not act in this way in this sort of situation" (Michael Frede, "The ἐφ ̓ἡμῖν in Ancient Philosophy," 118). Alexander got into this tangle mainly for two reasons. First, he did not sufficiently understand Stoic determinism, so he did not see that a choice might be no less free for having a perfectly good explanation in terms of antecedent causes. The wise person would have to be crazy not to make the choice he does, even though that choice is not impossible. But this does not make his choice unfree. Second, Alexander has a mistaken notion of merit, as if merit were a matter of not choosing to act otherwise. If somebody does something remarkable, surely the merit lies in the accomplishment, not in the fact that the person could have chosen to do something quite unremarkable instead. If one writes a review of a book, it surely would be misunderstood if one said that the merit of the book lay in the fact that the author, instead of choosing to write this book, could have chosen to spend the time on the beach. We deserve no credit for not being crazy or for not choosing to do crazy things, and we have no reason for complaint, if we are not free to do crazy things.
Frede ends the chapter with a bit that many contemporary Academics would find amusing.
"If one writes a review of a book [something Academics are asked to do these days], it surely would be misunderstood if one said that the merit of the book lay in the fact that the author, instead of choosing to write this book, could have chosen to spend the time on the beach."
This probably would not be "misunderstood," at least if this means that the
reader would miss the implication. The reader would probably understand the remark as a sarcastic
way to say that the book was no good and that author deserves no praise for having written it.