Free Will in Ancient Thought

Syllabus. PHI 420: Topics in Philosophy. Free Will in Ancient Thought

Instructor: Thomas A. Blackson

PHI 328 (History of Ancient Philosophy) or its equivalent is helpful but not necessary for this course.

This course is conducted through the Learning Management System that ASU uses for its online programs.







"So here [in Epictetus in late Stoicism] we have our first actual notion of a free will. It is a notion of a will such that there is no power or force in the world which could prevent it from making the choices one needs to make to live a good life or force it to make choices which would prevent us from living a good life" (A Free Will, 77).

"God must set things up in such a way that neither human nature nor our individual nature nor the circumstances into which we are born, either separately or jointly, prevent us from become wise and free. Indeed, the Stoics not only assume this, they also assume that God sets things up in such a way that we all, in the course of our natural development, could acquire the understanding and the insight to make the right choices. God constructs human beings in such a way that they could naturally acquire true beliefs. ... Hence our having the true beliefs we have does not require an explanation.... What does require explanation is our having false beliefs. They must be due to the fact that something went wrong, interfering with the natural process which would have led to our having just true beliefs. And the Stoics identify what wrong with out giving assent to a false impression, when we should give assent only to those true impressions which are recognizably true. ... What needs an explanation is why we do not get there, because something went wrong. And the answer again is that we ourselves abort this natural development by being rash, careless, or impatient in the way we give assent. Here, then, we have, for the first time in history, a notion of free will, a will which is not forced in its choices and decision and hence is free to make the right choices" (A Free Will, 84-85).

"Now, though I do not presuppose a specific notion of a free will, let alone want to endorse or advocate some specific notion of it, I do rely on something like a general idea of a free will,something like a schema which any specific notion of a free will or any particular version of the notion of a free will, at least in antiquity, will fit into. I do not arrive at this general idea or schema on the basis of some philosophical view as to what any notion of a free will has to look like but rather with the benefit of historical hindsight. That is to say, I have looked at the relevant ancient texts and have abstracted this schema from those texts which explicitly talk of a will, the freedom of the will, or a free will. In having such a schema, we shall at least have a general idea of what we are looking for when we investigate the origins of the notion of a freewill but without having to commit ourselves to any particular view, ancient or modern, as to what a free will really is" (A Free Will, 6-7).
In 1997-98, Michael Frede was the Sather Professor of Philosophy of Classical Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. It is a requirement of the professorship that its holder give lectures later to be published by the University of California Press. Frede's death in 2007 prevented him from putting the lectures in their final form. Because of the interest in the lectures, A.A. Long agreed to edit them so that they could be published. In 2011, the University of California Press published the edited lectures as A Free Will. Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought.

Course Objective

Frede argues that the notion of "free will" originates with the Stoics.

"Let us assume that it is a fact that, at least sometimes when we do something, we are responsible for what we are doing, as nothing or nobody forces us to act in this way; rather, we ourselves desire or even choice or decide to act in this way. Let us also assume, as is reasonable enough, that this is what the Greeks believed all along. ... 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" (Frede, A Free Will, 3).

In this course, we will evaluate Frede's argument for this conclusion.

Course Readings

In addition to A Free Will, we will read (in translation) some of the ancient texts that provide the evidence on which Frede depends for his conclusion. We will also read some of Frede's other work in which he sets out in greater detail some of the points he makes in A Free Will.

All the readings are linked through this syllabus and are available either to anyone on the internet or to through the ASU library to those who have an ASURITE ID.

Course Assignments

The letter grade for the course is a function of the point grades on four writing assignments, five discussion posts, and a bibliography project. Each writing assignment is worth 10 points. Each discussion post is worth 8 points. The bibliography project is worth 20 points.

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

In the writing assignments, your answer should demonstrate that you understand the historical and philosophical issues related to the question. The best way to demonstrate your understanding is to provide answers helpful to someone who does not already know the answer.

In the bibliography project, you are to analyze five academic journal articles or book chapters from the scholarly literature on issues related to the debate between the Stoics and the Academics. At most two of the articles or book chapters can be from the syllabus. The bibliography project consists in the notes you take in the research your conduct prior to writing a paper.

The assignments (40 points), discussions (40 points), and bibliography project (20 points) total to 100 points. There is no extra credit, and late work is not accepted without good reason. The point total 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). Incompletes are given only to accommodate serious illnesses and family emergencies, which must be adequately documented.

Course Schedule

UNIT 1
SOCRATIC INTELLECTUALISM

Frede makes "choice or decision" necessary for the will. This provides the basis for an argument that the notion of a will in ancient philosophy is subsequent to Socrates.

"In order to get any notion of a will at all, one must assume the following. Unless one is forced or made to do something in such a manner that what one is doing is in no way one's own action (as when one is pushing something over because one is pushed oneself), one does what one does because something happens in one's mind which makes one do what one does. Moreover, one has to assume that what happens in one's mind which makes one do what one does is that one chooses or decides to act in this way. Or at least one has to assume that there is something going on in the mind which can be construed as a choice or decision" (Frede, A Free Will, 7).

Readings:
A Free Will, Chapter One: "Introduction," 1-18
Plato, Protagoras 351b-358e

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


UNIT 2
THE TRIPARTITE THEORY OF THE SOUL

Readings:
Plato, Republic IV.435c-441c

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


UNIT 3
ARISTOTLE ON CHOICE

Frede takes a "wish" to be a "willing," but he stresses that it is misleading to represent Aristotle’s distinction between what human beings do ἑκόντες and ἄκοντες as a distinction between "willing" and "unwilling" action. When a human being acts on a non-rational desire, he acts on his own accord and hence ἑκόντες. His desire, however, is not a βούλησις. As Frede explains, "there is no notion of willing in Aristotle such that somebody could be said to act voluntarily or willingly whether he acts on a rational or a non-rational desire" (A Free Will, 26).

"[T]he notion of the will, at least in antiquity, involves a notion of the mind such that the mere fact that one feels hungry will not yet explain why one is having something to eat. This is supposed to be so, because, even if one does feel hungry or does feel like having something to eat, one might choose or decide not to have anything to eat because one thinks that it would not be a good thing to have something to eat now. One might also decide to have something to eat,though one does not feel hungry at all, because one thinks that it would be a good thing to have something to eat. But, in any case, for there to be an action that is one's own action, there is supposed to be an event in one's mind, a mental act, a choice or decision which brings about the action. The notion of a will, then, is the notion of our ability to make such choices or decisions which make us act in the way we do" (A Free Will, 8). This provides the basis for an argument that the notion of a will in ancient philosophy is subsequent to Aristotle. Aristotle explains some actions in terms of "choice or decision," but this is not enough. He must explain everything a human being does of his own accord as the product of "something going on in the mind which can be construed as a choice or decision" (A Free Will, 7). Hence Frede concludes that "Aristotle does not have a notion of a will" (A Free Will, 31).

Readings:
A Free Will, Chapter Two: "Aristotle on Choices without a Will," 19-30
Nicomachean Ethics III.1-4
On the Soul III.3, III.9-10

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


UNIT 4
EARLY STOICISM

The Stoics, like the Hellenistic philosophers generally, tried to correct what they saw as mistakes in the prior classical tradition of Plato and Aristotle. Plato and Aristotle thought that the soul has both a rational and a non-rational part and that Socrates had wrongly overlooked the non-rational part. The Stoics thought that Socrates was right. They thought that although a human being begins life with a non-rational soul, this soul ceases to exist when a human being acquires reason (by age fourteen) and becomes rational. Thus, according to the Stoics, Plato and Aristotle failed to realize that the non-rational soul is transformed and replaced by a rational soul. In adult human beings, the Stoics thought that all motivation is completely a matter of reason.

"[A]ny desire of a grown-up human being is a willing, a boulesis. Here, therefore, we do have a notion of a willing which was lacking in Plato and Aristotle, a notion which allows us to say that, when a person does not act by being forced or out of ignorance, the person acts voluntarily or willingly. ... So now we have the notion of assent, and hence the appropriate notion of a willing, but we do not yet have a the notion of a choice, let alone of a will" (A Free Will 42-43).

Readings:
A Free Will, Chapter Three: "The Emergence of a Notion of Will in Stoicism," 31-48
"The Stoic Conception of Reason," Michael Frede.
"The Stoic Doctrine of the Affections of the Soul," Michael Frede
"The Stoic Conception of the Good," Michael Frede

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


UNIT 5
LATE STOICISM

Frede says that explicit discussion of "a notion of a will" first appears in the late Stoics in the work of Epictetus. He says that Epictetus thought that the "will" (προαίρεσις) consists in the "use of impressions" (χρῆσις τῶν φαντασιῶν). This "use" is something in the mind that can be construed a decision or choice that explains everything a human does. Epictetus, according to Frede, thought that assenting is just one of the many things human beings can do with their impressions. "[Epictetus] prefers to talk more generally of our "use of impressions" (χρῆσις τῶν φαντασιῶν) or of the way we deal with our impressions. Assenting to them is just one thing we can do with them, though the most important one. So now it becomes clear, and Epictetus makes this explicit, that what is up to us, what is a matter of our choice, is how we deal with our impressions. We can scrutinize them, reflect on them, try to deflate and dissolve them, dwell on them, and, of course, give assent to them. ... And our προαίρεσις ... [is] a disposition to choose to deal with our impressions in a certain way, most crucially to choose how to assent to impulsive impressions. This assent, which you choose to give, will consistute a willing, and this willing is the impulse which makes you act in a certain way. So this ability and disposition, insofar as it accounts for your willing whatever it is that you will do, can be called 'the will.' But the will is called προαίρεσις, rather than βούλησις, to mark that it is an ability to make choices, of which which willings are just products. This indeed is the first time that we have any notion of a will" (A Free Will, 46). Epictetus thought, to use Frede’s words, that human beings "can scrutinize them, reflect on them, try to deflate and dissolve them, dwell on them, and, of course, give assent to them," and hence that the "will" is a "disposition [of reason] to deal with impressions in a certain way, most crucially to choose how to assent to impulsive impressions" (A Free Will, 46).

Readings:
A Free Will, Chapter Five: "The Emergence of a Notion of Free Will in Stoicism," 66-88

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





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
blackson@asu.edu, tab.faculty.asu.edu, www.public.asu/~blackson