Free Will in Ancient Thought

Syllabus. PHI 420/581: Free Will in Ancient Thought.

Instructor: Thomas A. Blackson

PHI 328 (History of Ancient Philosophy) or its equivalent is helpful but not necessary to do well 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's untimely death in 2007 prevented him from putting his lectures into 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 [of free will] 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 [of free will] 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:

Free Will, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Course Objective

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

"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 we are sometimes responsible for what we do]" (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. It is conducted through the Learning Management System 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).

The lectures are a work in progress. Refresh your browser to ensure you get the latest version.

Course Assignments

This course admits undergraduates and graduates.

Undergraduate Students

The letter grade is a function of the point grades on 5 writing assignments, 6 discussion posts, and a bibliography project. Each writing assignment is worth 10 points. The first five discussion posts are each worth 6 points. The last is worth 5 points. The bibliography project is worth 15 points. Because 420 is a capstone course in the Philosophy major, the standard for good work is high.

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 apparent 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 this is to provide answers that would be helpful to someone who does not already know the answer. Answers short on explanation of the historical and philosophical issues will not receive full credit.

In the bibliography project, you are to analyze 3 journal articles or book chapters from the scholarly literature on issues related to points Frede makes in A Free Will. Journal articles and book chapters can cover a lot of ground and be hard to understand. Your analyses need not cover everything in the article or book chapter. Focus on the thesis and a main point in the argument.

Graduate Students

The letter grade is a function of the point grades on 5 writing assignments, a bibliography project, and a final paper. Each writing assignment is worth 10 points. The bibliography project is worth 25 points. You are to analyze 5 academic journal articles or book chapters from the scholarly literature on issues related to points Frede makes in A Free Will. The final paper is worth 25 points.

There are weekly discussions via Zoom.

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 extra credit. 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

We will work through the first six chapters of A Free Will.

Questions

Frede's argument in his lectures is not always easy to follow (in part because the lectures are drafts 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. Post questions about the points you want to understand better or think I have misunderstood. This helps me improve the lectures and videos. (The videos are harder to improve because they cannot easily be edited, so they need more work than the lectures.) Do not worry if you have trouble expressing your question or argument as clearly as you would like. This is natural. The important thing is to get the conversation started, especially in an online course.

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


UNIT 1
INTRODUCTION

Readings:
A Free Will, Chapter One: "Introduction," 12-20 (page numbers are for the electronic copy)
Lecture Notes 1
Video. Points in Lecture Notes 1. Part 1
Video. Points in Lecture Notes 1. Part 2
Video. Points in Lecture Notes 1. Part 3

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 in Athens and other parts of the ancient Greek and Roman world from 585 BCE to 529 CE.)

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


UNIT 2
ARISTOTLE ON CHOICE WITHOUT A WILL
Ancient philosophy, in this course, refers to the philosophy discussed in Athens and in other parts of the ancient Greek and Roman world from 585 BCE to 529 CE. Within this roughly 1000 years of philosophy, historians now commonly recognize three periods: the Presocratic Period, the Period of Schools, and the Period of Scholarship and Syncreticism.

Socrates (470–399 BCE)

Plato (429?–347 BCE)

Aristotle (384–322 BCE)

Plato and Aristotle belong to the Period of Schools. Their schools are the Academy and the Lyceum.

Socrates is the most important philosopher before Plato and Aristotle. He, though, did not write anything. So most of what we know about his thought comes from Plato.

Readings:
A Free Will, Chapter Two: "Aristotle on Choice without a Will," 21-26
Lecture Notes 2
Video. Points in Lecture Notes 2. Part 1
Video. Points in Lecture Notes 2. Part 2
Video. Points in Lecture Notes 2. Part 3

Main Points:
• The Tripartite Theory of the Soul in Plato and Aristotle
• Reason in their versions of this theory does not appear in two roles
• This is incompatible with the will

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


UNIT 3
THE EMERGENCE OF A NOTION OF WILL IN STOICISM
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 around 100 BCE as non-skeptical forms of Platonism underwent a resurgence and eventually gave rise to Christianity. This disintegration traditionally marks the end of the Period of Schools.

Stoicism has a long history. It begins in about 300 BCE and ends in the middle of the 3rd century CE.

Epictetus (50-135 CE) is the last important Stoic.

Readings:
A Free Will, Chapter Three: "The Emergence of a Notion of Will in Stoicism," 27-36
Lecture Notes 3
Video. Points in Lecture Notes 3. Part 1
Video. Points in Lecture Notes 3. Part 2
Video. Points in Lecture Notes 3. Part 3
Video. Points in Lecture Notes 3. Part 4

Main Points:
• 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

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


UNIT 4
LATER PLATONIST AND PERIPATETIC CONTRIBUTIONS
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 renewed the interest the school took in the questioning Socrates pursued. This continued through Philo of Larissa to about 100 BCE.

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

In addition to Antiochus, 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 tradionally ends with Numenius.

Gnosticism is a movement in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE and so 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.

Alexander of Aphrodisias (2nd to 3rd century CE) is the most important Peripatetic in Frede's argument.

Readings:
A Free Will, Chapter Four: "Later Platonist and Peripatetic Contributions," 37-45
Lecture Notes 4
Video. Points in Lecture Notes 4. Part 1
Video. Points in Lecture Notes 4. Part 2

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

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


UNIT 5
THE EMERGENCE OF A NOTION OF FREE WILL IN STOICISM

Readings:
A Free Will, Chapter Five: "The Emergence of a Notion of Free Will in Stoicism," 46-57
Lecture Notes 5
Video. Points in Lecture Notes 5. Part 1
Video. Points in Lecture Notes 5. Part 2
Video. Points in Lecture Notes 5. Part 3

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

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


UNIT 6
PLATONIST AND PERIPATETIC CRITICISMS AND RESPONSES

Readings:
A Free Will, Chapter Six: "Platonist and Peripatetic Criticisms and Responses," 58-64
Lecture Notes 6
Video. Points in Lecture Notes 6. Part 1

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


BIBLIOGRAPHY PROJECT

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
Email: blackson@asu.edu
Academic Webpage: tomblackson.com