Free Will in Ancient Thought

PHI 420/581: Free Will in Ancient Thought. Welcome to the Course!

Instructor: Thomas A. Blackson

PHI 328 (History of Ancient Philosophy) or its equivalent is helpful but not necessary to do well (get an A) in this course.

In 1997-98, Michael Frede was the Sather Professor of Philosophy of Classical Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. The Sather professor gives lectures the University of California Press later publishes. Frede died in 2007 before he put his lectures in their final form. In 2011, because of the importance of his lectures for understanding the history of the notion of free will, the University of California Press published them as A Free Will. Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought.

"The notion of a free will first arises in late Stoicism in the first century A.D. It is a notion we clearly find in Epictetus [50-135 CE]. The notion is the conception of an ability to make choices and decisions, in particular choices and decisions which amount to one's willing to do something. And this ability is supposed to be potentially or actually free in the sense that, if it actually is free, there is nothing in the world, no force or power in the world outside us which can prevent us in virtue of this ability from making the choices or decisions we need to make to attain a good life. It is an ability which at least is potentially free in the sense that one in principle can attain this freedom. Whether we have a will which actually is free depends on our not enslaving ourselves to the world and in this way giving the world, and the powers and forces which govern the world, power over us, power even over our choices and decisions. The notion was regarded as helpful, because there was a widespread but vague fear, especially as antiquity advanced, to put it in Plotinus's terms, that 'we might be nothing' (μή ποτε οὐδέν ἐσμεν, Enneads VI.8.1.26–27) and ultimately have no control whatsoever over our life. This fear was fed by the belief that one lived in a world full of forces and powers, many, if not most, of them hidden from us, which seemed to leave little or no room for the free pursuit of our own interests. These were either blind forces or forces which pursued their own interests without regard to us or downright hostile and malicious forces, out to tyrannize, enslave, or seduce us. The Stoics themselves had greatly contributed to giving some respectability to such fears by developing a theory that everything which happens in the world, including our actions, happens according to a divine providential plan. So it seemed particularly incumbent upon the Stoics to explain how such a seamless divine providential order was compatible with human choices. They tried to do this with their doctrine of freedom and a free will" (102).

"Platonists and Peripatetics adopted notions of a will, of freedom, and of a free will suitably modified to fit their theories. But those who were particularly eager to adopt a doctrine of a free will were the Christians. ... They shared with the Stoics the view that the world down to the smallest detail is governed by a divine providential order. So they too had to explain how this left any room for human freedom. But, more important, they were confronted, often within their own ranks, with theories that the order of the world we live in cannot be due to God, precisely because it systematically prevents many of us from attaining a good life, whereas others cannot fail to attain a good life. We found that in answer to such views the Christians by no means developed a distinctive doctrine of a free will of their own, let alone a radically new view. They largely relied on the Stoic view" (102-103).

Michael Frede— A Bibliography

Essays in Ancient Philosophy, Michael Frede

Michael Johannes Frede. 1940–2007, John Cooper
Michael Frede (1940–2007), Pavel Gregorić

Some reviews of A Free Will: Susanne Bobzien, Charles Kahn, Jaap Mansfeld, Susan Sauvé Meyer, Katja Vogt.

Other online resources:

Free Will, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Compatibilism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Free Will, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Course Objective

Michael Frede argues that the notion of "free will" originates in late Stoicism.

"The notion of a free will was originally introduced within the context of a particular theory, namely, a late Stoic theory, in a way specific to this theory, to account for this presumed fact [that sometimes when we do something, we are responsible for what we are doing]" (Michael Frede, A Free Will, 13).

Our objective is to understand and evaluate Frede's argument for this conclusion.

Course Readings

We will read the first six chapters of Frede's A Free Will Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought. For each chapter, I provide a set of lecture notes to explain the main points in Frede's argument.

These lecture notes are linked through this syllabus. This syllabus and the lectures notes are in the Tufte CSS sytle. Links are underlined, match the body text in color, and do not change on mouseover or when clicked.

In the spirit of open access, I make the lecture notes available to anyone on the internet. The cloud service provider I use is Digital Ocean. The server I rent from them is located in San Francisco.

Course Assignments

This course admits undergraduates and graduate students in philosophy.

For undergraduates, this is a capstone course in the Philosophy major. For graduates, it is a seminar.

For undergraduates, the assignments are of three types: prompts for each unit, discussion posts for each unit, and a bibliography project. Answers to the prompts for a unit total to 10 points. The first first five discussion posts are each worth 6 points. The last post is worth 5 points. The bibliography project is worth 15 points.

In each of the six discussion posts, you are to call attention to something in the reading for the unit you found interesting and you are to explain why you found it interesting. These posts must be thoughtful. Discussion posts written with little apparent care and attention to detail will not receive full credit.

For the each of the prompts for a unit, you are to demonstrate that you understand the historical and philosophical issues in the prompts. The best way to demonstrate your understanding is to provide answers to the prompts that would be helpful to someone who is not already familiar with these issues. Take this advice seriously. Answers short on explanation of the historical and philosophical issues will not receive full credit.

In the bibliography project, you are to analyze three journal articles or book chapters from the scholarly literature in the history of Ancient philosophy on issues related to points Frede makes in A Free Will. Academic journal articles and book chapters can cover a lot of ground and be hard to understand. Your analyses need not discuss everything in the article or book chapter. Focus on the thesis and a main point in the argument.

For graduate students, the assignments are different. There are prompts for each unit, a bibliography project, and a term paper. The answer to the prompts are each worth 10 points. The bibliography project is worth 25 points. In the bibliography project, you are to analyze five academic journal articles or book chapters from the scholarly literature on issues related to points Frede makes in A Free Will. The term paper is worth 25 points.

Course Letter Grade

The assignments in the course total to 100 points. I am happy to work with students on independent projects, but there is no possibility for extra credit in this course. I do not accept late work without good reason. I accept more reasons as good reasons if you contact me before the due date for the assignment.

The point total for the assigments determines the letter grade: A+ (100-97), A (96-94), A- (93-90), B+ (89-87), B (86-84), B- (83-80), C+ (79-77), C (76-70), D (69-60), E (59-0). I give incompletes only to accommodate serious illnesses and family or other emergencies, which you must adequately document.

I work with Barrett students on Honors Enrichment Contracts. Email me the first week in the semester.

Course Schedule

During the semester, we will work through the first six chapters of A Free Will.


Frede's argument in his lectures is not always easy to follow (in part because the lectures are work he did not release for publication). I try to anticipate and answer questions in the lectures and videos, but I am sure I have not succeeded completely. It is possible too that I have misunderstood parts of Frede's argument and the history he discusses. I encourage you to press me on points you want to understand better or think I have misunderstood.

I am happy too to have conversations by zoom. Email me to set up a time.


A Free Will, Chapter One: "Introduction," 12-20 (page numbers are for the digital copy)
Lecture Notes 1

Main Points:
• Free will is a technical notion
• A schema for finding the notion in Ancient philosophy

(Ancient philosophy, in this course, refers to the philosophical discussion that took place in Athens and other parts of the ancient Greek and Roman world in the period from 585 BCE to 529 CE.)

Video 1

Writing Assignment:
You are free to discuss the assignments and to post questions about them.
Assignment #1


A Free Will, Chapter Two: "Aristotle on Choice without a Will," 21-26
Lecture Notes 2

Main Points:
• The Tripartite Theory of the Soul in Plato (429?–347 BCE) and Aristotle (384–322 BCE)
• Reason in their versions of this theory does not appear in two roles
• This is incompatible with the will

Video 2

Writing Assignment:
You are free to discuss the assignment and to post questions about it.
Assignment #2


A Free Will, Chapter Three: "The Emergence of a Notion of Will in Stoicism," 27-36
Lecture Notes 3

Main Points:
The Stoics are Hellenistic philosophers.

The Hellenistic Age (the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE to the end of the Roman Republic in 27 BCE) is not a period in the history of Ancient philosophy, but the critical reaction the philosophers in this time show toward the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle makes it reasonable to think of them as a group within Ancient philosophy.

This critical reaction began to disintegrate in about 100 BCE as non-skeptical forms of Platonism underwent a resurgence and eventually gave rise to Christianity. This marks the end of the Period of Schools.

Stoicism has a long history. It begins in about 300 BCE in the Period of Schools and ends in not longer after Epictetus (50-135 CE).
• The Stoic theory of the soul
• All action stems from the assent of reason
• Epictetus makes this assent a matter of choice
• This gives him the first notion of a will

Video 3a, Video 3b

Writing Assignment:
You are free to discuss the assignment and to post questions about it.
Assignment #3

Plato's immediate successors as head of the Academy were Speusippus, Xenocrates, Polemo, and Crates. Arcesilaus became head after Crates in about 265 BCE. He refocused the Academy on the questioning Socrates pursued. This continued through Philo of Larissa to about 100 BCE.

The Academy is the school Plato founded in about 387 BCE.

Middle Platonism traditionally begins with Antiochus of Ascalon (130-68 BCE). He broke with the Academy under Philo and initiated a more eclectic approach that synthesized ideas from the prior traditions.

Other important Middle Platonists are Philo of Alexandria (30 BCE-45 CE), Plutarch of Chaeronea (45-125 CE), and Numenius of Apamea (2nd century CE). The period traditionally ends with Numenius.

Gnosticism is a movement in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE and so is within the time frame of Middle Platonism.

Neoplationism begins with Plotinus (204-270 CE).

Aristotle's followers are called Peripatetics (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 school Aristotle founded in about 335 BCE).

Alexander of Aphrodisias (2nd to 3rd century CE) is the most important Peripatetic and Ancient defender of Aristotle's philosophy.

A Free Will, Chapter Four: "Later Platonist and Peripatetic Contributions," 37-45
Lecture Notes 4

Main Points:
• Peripatetics and Platonists develop their own notion of the will
• Why reason assents to nonrational impulsive impressions

Video 4

Writing Assignment:
You are free to discuss the assignment and to post questions about it.
Assignment #4


A Free Will, Chapter Five: "The Emergence of a Notion of Free Will in Stoicism," 46-57
Lecture Notes 5

Main Points:
• Only the wise are free
• We enslave ourselves because we rashly assent
• What the freedom of the will is

Video 5

Writing Assignment:
You are free to discuss the assignment and to post questions about it.
Assignment #5


A Free Will, Chapter Six: "Platonist and Peripatetic Criticisms and Responses," 58-64
Lecture Notes 6

Main Points:
• The Platonists/Aristotelians reject the Stoic doctrine of fate
• Free will according to Alexander of Aphrodisias


You are free to discuss the bibliography project and to post questions about it.

Bibliography Project

FINAL PAPER (for graduate students only)

Final Paper

Contact Information:

Thomas A. Blackson, Philosophy Faculty
School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies
Lattie F. Coor Hall, room 3356
PO Box 874302
Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ. 85287-4302
Academic Webpage: