Free Will in Ancient Thought

Syllabus. PHI 420: Studies in Ancient Greek Philosophy.

Instructor: Thomas A. Blackson

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

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 his lectures in their final form. In 2011, the University of California Press published the lectures (edited on Frede's behalf by A. A. Long) 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]" (Frede, A Free Will, 102).

"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" (Frede, A Free Will, 102).

"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' (me pote ouden esmen [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" (Frede, 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" (Frede, A Free Will, 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

Other resources:

Myles Burnyeat, Ancient Freedoms (video lecture)
handout list

(Paper handouts used to be standard in lectures.)

Course Objective

Michael 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 choose 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, 13).

We will try to understand and evaluate Frede's argument for this conclusion.

Course Readings

A Free Will. Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought
• Lecture notes for each unit. They are linked through the syllabus.

This is an online course that is conducted through the Learning Management System that Arizona State University uses for its online programs, but most of the materials that comprise the course are available on the internet and through the ASU library with an ASURITE ID.

This syllabus and the lecture notes are in the Tufte CSS style. In this style, links are underlined, match the body text in color, and do not change on mouseover or when clicked.

The server for the lecture notes is in San Francisco. DigitalOcean is the cloud provider.

I welcome suggestions for additional notes and links, as well as for changes to existing ones to clarify them, correct outright mistakes in the interpretations, fix broken links, or correct other problems, such as typos (which I know exist but are difficult for me to find).

Course Assignments

The letter grade for the course is a function of the point grades on 5 writing assignments, 6 discussion posts, and a bibliography project. Each writing assignment is 10 points. The first discussion posts are 6 points. The last is 5 points. The bibliography project is 15 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 three academic journal articles or book chapters from the scholarly literature on issues related to points Frede makes in A Free Will.

Course Letter Grade

The five assignments (50 points), six discussions (35 points), and bibliography project (15 points) total to 100 points. There are no do-overs for any of the work, there is no extra credit, and late work is not accepted without good reason. The point total determines the letter grade for the course: 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

Frede's argument in his lectures is not always easy to follow, but his lectures repay the effort to understand them. The development of the notion of free will is one of the most interesting events in ancient philosophy, and no one knew more about this line of thought than Frede.


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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: