Free will in antiquity

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Free will in antiquity was not discussed in the same terms as used in the modern free will debates, but historians of the problem have speculated who exactly was first to take positions as determinist, libertarian, and compatibilist in antiquity.[1] There is wide agreement that these views were essentially fully formed over 2000 years ago. Candidates for the first thinkers to form these views, as well as the idea of a non-physical "agent-causal" libertarianism, include Democritus (460-370), Aristotle (384-322), Epicurus (341-270), Chrysippus (280-207), and Carneades (214-129).

Pre-Socratic thought

Early religious accounts of man's fate explored the degree of human freedom permitted by superhuman gods. A strong fatalism is present in tales that foretell the future, based on the idea that the gods have foreknowledge of future events. Anxious not to annoy the gods, the myth-makers rarely challenged the idea that the gods' foreknowledge is compatible with human freedom.

The first thinkers to look for explanatory causes (ἀιτία) in natural phenomena (rather than gods controlling events) were the Greek Pre-Socratic philosophers (physiologoi). The reasons or rules (λόγοι) behind the physical (φύσις) world became the ideal "laws" governing material phenomena. Anaximander (610-546) coined the term physis (φύσις) and perhaps even the cosmological combination of cosmos (κόσμος), as organized nature, and logos (λόγοσ), as the law behind nature. The Greeks had a separate word for the laws (or conventions) of society, nomos (νόμος). Heraclitus (535-475) claimed that everything changes ("you can't step twice into the same river") but that there were laws or rules (the logos) behind all the change. The early cosmologists imagined that the universal laws were all-powerful and must therefore explain the natural causes behind all things, from the regular motions of the heavens to the mind (νοῦς) of man. These physiologoi transformed pre-philosophical arguments about gods controlling the human will into arguments about pre-existing causes controlling it.

Democritus and Leucippus

The materialist philosophers Democritus and his mentor Leucippus were the first determinists. They claimed that all things, including humans, were made of atoms in a void, with individual atomic motions strictly controlled by causal laws. Democritus said:

"By convention (nomos) color, by convention sweet, by convention bitter, but in reality atoms and a void."

νόμῳ χροιή, νόμῳ γλυκύ, νόμῳ πικρόν, ἑτεῇ δ’ ἄτομα καὶ κενόν[2]

Democritus wanted to wrest control of man's fate from arbitrary gods and make us more responsible for our actions. But ironically, he and Leucippus originated two of the great dogmas of determinism, physical determinism and logical necessity, which lead directly to the traditional and modern problem of free will and determinism.

Leucippus dogmatically declared an absolute necessity which left no room in the cosmos for chance.

"Nothing occurs at random (maten), but everything for a reason (logos) and by necessity."

οὐδὲν χρῆμα μάτην γίνεται, ἀλλὰ πάντα ἐκ λόγου τε καὶ ὑπ’ ἀνάγκης[3]

The consequence is a world with but one possible future, completely determined by its past. The Pythagoreans, Socrates, and Plato attempted to reconcile an element of human freedom with material determinism and causal law, in order to hold man responsible for his actions.



The first major philosopher to argue convincingly for some indeterminism was probably Aristotle. He elaborated the four possible causes (material, efficient, formal, and final). Aristotle's word for these causes was ἀιτία, which translates as causes in the sense of the multiple factors responsible for an event. Aristotle did not subscribe to the simplistic "every event has a (single) cause" idea that was to come later. Then, in his Physics and Metaphysics, Aristotle also said there were "accidents" caused by "chance (τυχή)." In his Physics, he noted that the early physicists had found no place for chance among their causes.

Aristotle opposed his accidental chance to necessity:

Nor is there any definite cause for an accident, but only chance (τυχόν), namely an indefinite (ἀόριστον) cause.[4]

It is obvious that there are principles and causes which are generable and destructible apart from the actual processes of generation and destruction; for if this is not true, everything will be of necessity: that is, if there must necessarily be some cause, other than accidental, of that which is generated and destroyed. Will this be, or not? Yes, if this happens; otherwise not.[5]

Tracing any particular sequence of events back in time will usually come to an accidental event - a "starting point" or "fresh start" (Aristotle calls it an origin or arche (ἀρχῆ) - whose major contributing cause (or causes) was itself uncaused.

Whether a particular thing happens, says Aristotle, may depend on a series of causes that

goes back to some starting-point, which does not go back to something else. This, therefore, will be the starting-point of the fortuitous, and nothing else is the cause of its generation.[6]

In general, many such causal sequences contribute to any event, including human decisions. Each sequence has a different time of origin, some going back before we were born, some originating during our deliberations. Beyond causal sequences that are the result of chance or necessity, Aristotle felt that some breaks in the causal chain allow us to feel our actions "depend on us" (ἐφ' ἡμῖν). These are the causal chains that originate within us (ἐv ἡμῖν).

Richard Sorabji's 1980 Necessity, Cause, and Blame surveyed Aristotle's positions on causation and necessity, comparing them to his predecessors and successors, especially the Stoics and Epicurus. Sorabji argues that Aristotle was an indeterminist, that real chance and uncaused events exist, but never that human actions are uncaused in the extreme libertarian sense that some commentators mistakenly attribute to Epicurus.

Aristotle accepted the past as fixed, in the sense that past events were irrevocable. But future events cannot be necessitated by claims about the present truth value of statements about the future. Aristotle does not deny the excluded middle (either p or not p), only that the truth value of p does not exist yet. Indeed, although the past is fixed, the truth value of past statements about the future can be changed by the outcome of future events. This is the problem of future contingents.[7]

Although he thinks Aristotle was not aware of the "problem" of free will vis-a-vis determinism (as first described by Epicurus), Sorabji thinks Aristotle's position on the question is clear enough. Voluntariness is too important to fall before theoretical arguments about necessity and determinism.

I come now to the question of how determinism is related to involuntariness. Many commentators nowadays hold one or more parts of the following view. Determinism creates a problem for belief in the voluntariness of actions. Regrettably, but inevitably, Aristotle was unaware of this problem, and so failed to cope with it. Indeed, the problem was not discovered until Hellenistic times, perhaps by Epicurus, who was over forty years junior to Aristotle, and who reached Athens just too late to hear his lectures. In Aristotle's time no one had yet propounded a universal determinism, so that he knew of no such theory. His inevitable failure to see the threat to voluntariness is all the more regrettable in that he himself entertained a deterministic account of actions, which exacerbated the problem of how any could be voluntary. I shall argue that this account misrepresents the situation[8]



It is with Epicurus and the Stoics that clearly indeterministic and deterministic positions are first formulated. Writing one generation after Aristotle, Epicurus argued that as atoms moved through the void, there were occasions when they would "swerve" (clinamen) from their otherwise determined paths, thus initiating new causal chains. Epicurus argued that these swerves would allow us to be more responsible for our actions (libertarianism), something impossible if every action was deterministically caused.

Epicurus did not say the swerve was directly involved in decisions. But following Aristotle, Epicurus thought human agents have the autonomous ability to transcend necessity and chance (both of which destroy responsibility), so that praise and blame are appropriate. Epicurus finds a tertium quid, beyond necessity (Democritus' physics) and beyond chance. His tertium quid is agent autonomy, what is "up to us."

...some things happen of necessity (ἀνάγκη), others by chance (τύχη), others through our own agency (παρ’ ἡμᾶς).

...necessity destroys responsibility and chance is inconstant; whereas our own actions are autonomous, and it is to them that praise and blame naturally attach.[9]

Lucretius (1st century BC), a strong supporter of Epicurus, saw the randomness as enabling free will, even if he could not explain exactly how, beyond the fact that random swerves would break the causal chain of determinism.

Again, if all motion is always one long chain, and new motion arises out of the old in order invariable, and if the first-beginnings do not make by swerving a beginning of motion such as to break the decrees of fate, that cause may not follow cause from infinity, whence comes this freedom (libera) in living creatures all over the earth, whence I say is this will (voluntas) wrested from the fates by which we proceed whither pleasure leads each, swerving also our motions not at fixed times and fixed places, but just where our mind has taken us? For undoubtedly it is his own will in each that begins these things, and from the will movements go rippling through the limbs.

In 1967, Pamela Huby suggested that Epicurus was the original discoverer of the "freewill problem." Huby noted that there had been two main free will problems, corresponding to different determinisms, namely theological determinism (predestination and foreknowledge) and the physical causal determinism of Democritus.

It is unfortunate that our knowledge of the early history of the Stoics is so fragmentary, and that we have no agreed account of the relations between them and Epicurus. On the evidence we have, however, it seems to me more probable that Epicurus was the originator of the freewill controversy, and that it was only taken up with enthusiasm among the Stoics by Chrysippus, the third head of the school.[10]

In 2000 Susanne Bobzien challenged Pamela Huby's 1967 assertion that Epicurus discovered the "free will problem."

In 1967 Epicurus was credited with the discovery of the problem of free will and determinism. Among the contestants were Aristotle and the early Stoics. Epicurus emerged victorious, because — so the argument went — Aristotle did not yet have the problem, and the Stoics inherited it from Epicurus. In the same year David Furley published his essay 'Aristotle and Epicurus on Voluntary Action', in which he argued that Epicurus' problem was not the free will problem. In the thirty-odd years since then, a lot has been published about Epicurus on freedom and determinism. But it has only rarely been questioned whether Epicurus, in one way or another, found himself face to face with some version of the free will problem.

Bobzien thinks Epicurus did not have a model of what she calls "two-sided freedom," because she believes that Epicurus

"assumed....a gap in the causal chain immediately before, or simultaneously with, the decision or choice, a gap which allows the coming into being of a spontaneous motion. In this way every human decision or choice is directly linked with causal indeterminism....To avoid misunderstandings, I should stress that I do believe that Epicurus was an indeterminist of sorts — only that he did not advocate indeterminist free decision or indeterminist free choice.

A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, however, agree with Pamela Huby that Epicurus was the first to notice the modern problem of free will and determinism.

Epicurus' problem is this: if it has been necessary all along that we should act as we do, it cannot be up to us, with the result that we would not be morally responsible for our actions at all. Thus posing the problem of determinism he becomes arguably the first philosopher to recognize the philosophical centrality of what we know as the Free Will Question. His strongly libertarian approach to it can be usefully contrasted with the Stoics' acceptance of determinism.[11]

The question remains how random swerves can help to explain free action. In her 1992 book, The Hellenistic Philosophy of Mind, Julia Annas wrote:

...since swerves are random, it is hard to see how they help to explain free action. We can scarcely expect there to be a random swerve before every free action. Free actions are frequent, and (fairly) reliable. Random swerves cannot account for either of these features. This problem would be lessened if we could assume that swerves are very frequent, so that there is always likely to be one around before an action. However, if swerves are frequent, we face the problem that stones and trees ought to be enabled to act freely. And even in the case of humans random swerves would seem to produce, if anything, random actions; we still lack any clue as to how they could produce actions which are free.[12]

One view, going back to the 19th century historian Carlo Giussani, is that Epicurus' atomic swerves are involved directly in every case of human free action, not just somewhere in the past that breaks the causal chain of determinism.[13] In 1928 Cyril Bailey agreed with Giussani that the atoms of the mind-soul provide a break in the continuity of atomic motions, otherwise actions would be necessitated. Bailey imagined complexes of mind-atoms that work together to form a consciousness that is not determined, but also not susceptible to the pure randomness of individual atomic swerves, something that could constitute Epicurus' idea of actions being "up to us" (πὰρ' ἡμάς).[14] Bailey states that Epicurus did not identify freedom of the will with chance.

It may be that [Giussani's] account presses the Epicurean doctrine slightly beyond the point to which the master had thought it out for himself, but it is a direct deduction from undoubted Epicurean conceptions and is a satisfactory explanation of what Epicurus meant: that he should have thought that the freedom of the will was chance, and fought hard to maintain it as chance and no more, is inconceivable.[15]

In 1967 David Furley de-emphasized the importance of the swerve in both Epicurus and Lucretius so as to defend Epicurus from the "extreme" libertarian view that our actions are caused directly by random swerves. (Bailey had also denied this "traditional interpretation.") Furley argues for a strong connection between the ideas of Aristotle and Epicurus on autonomous actions that are "up to us."

If we now put together the introduction to Lucretius' passage on voluntas and Aristotle's theory of the voluntary, we can see how the swerve of atoms was supposed to do its work. Aristotle's criterion of the voluntary was a negative one: the source of the voluntary action is in the agent himself, in the sense that it cannot be traced back beyond or outside the agent himself. Lucretius says that voluntas must be saved from a succession of causes which can be traced back to infinity. All he needs to satisfy the Aristotelian criterion is a break in the succession of causes, so that the source of an action cannot be traced back to something occurring before the birth of the agent.

The swerve, then, plays a purely negative part in Epicurean psychology. It saves voluntas from necessity, as Lucretius says it does, but it does not feature in every act of voluntas.[16]

On the other hand, in his 1983 thesis, "Lucretius on the Clinamen and 'Free Will'," Don Paul Fowler defended the ancient claim that Epicurus proposed random swerves as directly causing our actions.

I turn to the overall interpretation. Lucretius is arguing from the existence of voluntas to the existence of the clinamen; nothing comes to be out of nothing, therefore voluntas must have a cause at the atomic level, viz. the clinamen. The most natural interpretation of this is that every act of voluntas is caused by a swerve in the atoms of the animal's mind....There is a close causal, physical relationship between the macroscopic and the atomic. Furley, however, argued that the relationship between voluntas and the clinamen was very different; not every act of volition was accompanied by a swerve in the soul-atoms, but the clinamen was only an occasional event which broke the chain of causation between the σύστασις of our mind at birth and the 'engendered' state (τὸ ἀπογεγεννημένον) which determines our actions.Its role in Epicureanism is merely to make a formal break with physical determinism, and it has no real effect on the outcome of particular actions. (p.338).[17]

In a 1999 Phronesis article, Purinton agreed with Fowler that random swerves directly cause volitions and actions:

"since they do not make volition itself a fresh start of motion, and Sedley's view does not do justice to his atomism...It seems to me, therefore, that there is no good reason to reject the thesis that Epicurus held that swerves cause volitions from the bottom up. And there are a number of good reasons to accept it."[18]


It was the Stoic school of philosophy that solidified the idea of natural laws controlling all things, including the mind. Zeno of Citium, the original founder of Stoicism, had a simple but powerful idea of the causal chain compared to Aristotle. Zeno said that every event has a cause, and that cause necessitates the event. Given exactly the same circumstances, exactly the same result will occur.

It is impossible that the cause be present yet that of which it is the cause not obtain.

ἀδύνατον δ’ εἴναι τὸ μὲν αἴτιον παρεῖναι, οὖ δέ ἐστιν αἴτιον μὴ ὑπάρχειν.


The major developer of Stoicism, Chrysippus, took the edge off strict necessity. Like Democritus, Aristotle, and Epicurus before him, he wanted to strengthen the argument for moral responsibility, in particular defending it from Aristotle's and Epicurus' indeterminate chance causes.

Whereas the past is unchangeable, Chrysippus argued that some future events that are possible do not occur by necessity from past external factors alone, but might (as Aristotle and Epicurus maintained) depend on us. We have a choice to assent or not to assent to an action. Chrysippus said our actions are determined (in part by ourselves as causes) and fated (because of God's foreknowledge), but he also said that they are not necessitated, i.e., pre-determined from the distant past. Chrysippus would be seen today as a compatibilist.

R. W. Sharples describes the first compatibilist arguments to reconcile responsibility and determinism by Chrysippus

The Stoic position, given definitive expression by Chrysippus (c. 280-207 B.C.), the third head of the school, represents not the opposite extreme from that of Epicurus but an attempt to compromise, to combine determinism and responsibility. Their theory of the universe is indeed a completely deterministic one; everything is governed by fate, identified with the sequence of causes; nothing could happen otherwise than it does, and in any given set of circumstances one and only one result can follow — otherwise an uncaused motion would occur.

Chrysippus was concerned to preserve human responsibility in the context of his determinist system. His position was thus one of 'soft determinism', as opposed on the one hand to that of the 'hard determinist' who claims that determinism excludes responsibility, and on the other to that of the libertarian who agrees on the incompatibility but responsibility by determinism. The Greek to eph' hemin, 'what depends on us', like the English 'responsibility', was used both by libertarians and by soft determinists, though they differed as to what it involved; thus he occurrence of the expression is not a safe guide to the type of position involved. The situation is complicated by the fact that the debate is in Greek philosophy conducted entirely in terms of responsibility (to eph' hemin) rather than of freedom or free will; nevertheless it can be shown that some thinkers, Alexander among them, have a libertarian rather than a soft-determinist conception of responsibility, and in such cases I have not hesitated to use expressions like 'freedom'.[19]

Alexander of Aphrodisias

Alexander of Aphrodisias (c. 150-210), the most famous ancient commentator on Aristotle, wrote in the age of Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics. He defended a view of moral responsibility we would call libertarianism today. Greek philosophy had no precise term for "free will" as did Latin (liberum arbitrium or libera voluntas). The discussion was in terms of responsibility, what "depends on us" (in Greek ἐφ ἡμῖν).

Alexander believed that Aristotle was not a strict determinist like the Stoics, and Alexander himself argued that some events do not have pre-determined causes. In particular, man is responsible for self-caused decisions, and can choose to do or not to do something, as Chrysippus argued. However, Alexander denied the foreknowledge of events that was part of the Stoic identification of God and Nature.

R. W. Sharples described Alexander's De Fato as perhaps the most comprehensive treatment surviving from classical antiquity of the problem of responsibility (τὸ ἐφ’ ἡμίν) and determinism. It especially shed a great deal of light on Aristotle's position on free will and on the Stoic attempt to make responsibility compatible with determinism.[20]


  1. Susanne Bobzien, Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy; Timothy O'Keefe, Epicurus on Freedom, R. W. Sharples, Alexander of Aphrodisias On Fate , David Furley, Two Studies in the Greek Atomists, Richard Sorabji, "Necessity, Cause, and Blame "
  2. Diels Kranz, fragment B125
  3. Leucippus, Fragment 569 - from Fr. 2 Actius I, 25, 4
  4. Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book V, 1025a25
  5. Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book VI, 1027a29
  6. Aristotle, Metaphysics Book VI 1027b12-14
  7. Richard Sorabji, Necessity, Cause, and Blame, p.ix
  8. Richard Sorabji, Necessity, Cause, and Blame, p.243
  9. Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus, §133
  10. Pamela Huby, "The First Discovery of the Freewill Problem", Philosophy, 42 (1967), p.353
  11. Long and Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, section 20, "Free Will," p.107
  12. Julia Annas, The Hellenistic Philosophy of Mind, pp.184
  13. "The complete conception of the will according to Epicurus comprises two elements, a complex atomic movement which has the characteristic of spontaneity, that is, is withdrawn from the necessity of mechanical causation: and then the sensus, or self-consciousness in virtue of which the will, illuminated by previous movements of sensation, thought, and emotion, profits by the peculiar liberty or spontaneity of the atomic motions, to direct or not to direct these in a direction seen or selected." -- Carlo Giussani, Studi Lucreziani 1896 (p.126) (Cyril Bailey translation)
  14. It is a commonplace to state that Epicurus, like his follower Lucretius, intended primarily to combat the 'myths' of the orthodox religion, to show by his demonstration of the unfailing laws of nature the falseness of the old notions of the arbitrary action of the gods and so to relieve humanity from the terrors of superstition. But it is sometimes forgotten that Epicurus viewed with almost greater horror the conception of irresistible 'destiny' or 'necessity', which is the logical outcome of the notion of natural law pressed to its conclusion. This conclusion had been accepted in its fulness by Democritus, but Epicurus conspicuously broke away from him: 'it were better to follow the myths about the gods than to become a slave to the "destiny" of the natural philosophers: for the former suggests a hope of placating the gods by worship, whereas the latter involves a necessity which knows no placation'. -- Cyril Bailey, The Greek Atomists and Epicurus, p.318
  15. Cyril Bailey, The Greek Atomists and Epicurus p.437
  16. David Furley, Two Studies in the Greek Atomists, p.232
  17. Don Fowler, "Lucretius on the Clinamen and 'Free Will'", Συζήτησισ: Studi sull'epicureismo greco e romano offerti a Marcello Gigante, (Naples, 1983) 329-52
  18. Jeffrey Purinton, "Epicurus on 'Free Volition' and the Atomic Swerve,'" Phronesis, 44, pp.256
  19. R. W. Sharples, Alexander of Aphrodisias On Fate
  20. R. W. Sharples, translation and commentary Alexander of Aphrodisias On Fate (1983)

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