Free Will In Antiquity

Free will in antiquity is a philosophical and theological concept. 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 deterministlibertarian, and compatibilist in antiquity. 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 BC), Aristotle (384–322 BC), Epicurus (341–270 BC), Chrysippus (280–207 BC), and Carneades (214–129 BC).

Ancient Greek philosophy


Early Hellenistic religious accounts of man’s fate explored the degree of human freedom permitted by the 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 Moirai (the Fates) were thought to determine every person’s destiny at birth.

The first thinkers to look for explanatory causes (ἀιτία) in natural phenomena (rather than gods controlling events) were the Pre-Socratic philosophers (physiologoi). The reasons or rules (λόγοι) behind the physical (φύσις) world became the ideal “laws” governing material phenomena. Anaximander (610–546 BC) 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 BC) 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.

A photo showing a boy jumping into a body of water. It is widely believed that humans make decisions (e.g. jumping in the water) based on free will.

A photo showing a boy jumping into a body of water. It is widely believed that humans make decisions (e.g. jumping in the water) based on free will.

Democritus and Leucippus

The materialist philosophers Democritus and his mentor Leucippus are considered to be 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.

Democritus’s philosophy wrested control of man’s fate from the gods, 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 declared an absolute necessity that left no room in the cosmos for chance.

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

The consequence is a world with but one possible future, completely determined by its past.


In Plato’s Gorgias (and in the Protagoras 345c4-e6), Socrates argues that no one does wrong willingly, one of the most famous doctrines to be associated with him. When framed in modern (Western) terms, the implication is that it is ignorance, rather that free individual agency, that is responsible for morally wrong actions.



Aristotle, 384–322 BC.

Michael Frede typifies the prevailing view of recent scholarship, namely that Aristotle did not have a notion of free-will.

Aristotle 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.

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.

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 (ἀρχή) – 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.

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.

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.



Roman marble bust of Epicurus

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 (a third option), beyond necessity (Democritus’ physics) and beyond Aristotle’s chance. His tertium quid is agent autonomy, what is “up to us”. Here is the first explicit argument for libertarian free will.

…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.

Lucretius (1st century BCE), 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 “free-will 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.

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.

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.

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. 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). 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.

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.

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).

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.”


The Stoics solidified the idea of natural laws controlling all things, including the mind. Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, saw that every event had a cause, and that cause necessitated 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.

The major developer of Stoicism, Chrysippus, took the edge off of strict necessity. 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 BC), 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 (ἐφ΄ ἡμῖν), ‘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’.

Alexander of Aphrodisias

The Peripatetic philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias (c. 150–210), the most famous of the ancient commentators on Aristotle, 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 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.

Ancient Abrahamic religion

Ancient Judaism

The ancient Hebrews distinguished between voluntary (willful) choices and actions, versus compelled actions, but the Hebrew scriptures are permeated with the notion that the will is always bound to the heart, and determined by the condition of one’s heart. For the Ancient Hebrews, the “heart” (levav) is the “seat of volition,” the locus of a person’s desires, preferences, proclivities, inclinations, and motives. Humans will and choose, and do so voluntarily, but they do what they do according to the status of their hearts, which determines their desires, preferences, proclivities, inclinations, and motives. For the will to be changed, according to Ezekiel, God must first change the heart (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

The way the heart compels the will is exemplified in the book of Exodus (among others), referring to gifts and offerings:

Exodus 35:21 Every man and woman whom their heart hath made willing to bring in for all the work which Jehovah commanded to be done by the hand of Moses of the sons of Israel brought in a willing-offering to Jehovah.

The words above, “willing offering,” is the single Hebrew word nedabah. It was translated in 1611 by King James’ bible translators “freewill offering.” The Hebrew nedabah “freewill offering” was “free” only insofar as it was free from compulsion by the legal requirement; free only applies to the nature of the offering in the legal sense. But the word “free” is not part of the word “nedabah.” In fact, the meaning of nadab is to be compelled/incited/impelled by one’s heart. The will or choice is moved by the condition of the heart. It is willing, it happens voluntarily, because the heart impels it so. The adjective “freewill” set this kind of offering apart from other offerings (nederim) that were required by law and not, therefore, given by freewill. The word “freewill” in this context is not, therefore, referring to the metaphysical powers of the soul, but rather simply distinguishing voluntary offerings from compulsory offerings. This is not what philosophers today refer to as libertarian free will.

Isaiah the prophet painted a picture of God as a grand potter, with humans as passive clay in His hands. Isaiah said that man should not question the fact that God sovereignly controls him like passive inanimate dirt (Isaiah 29:16, 45:9). A central theme of Judaism to this day is that the Jews are God’s “chosen” people, not because they freely chose God, but because of God’s oath to Abraham (See Deuteronomy 9:5-6).


Main article: Free will in theology § Christianity

Insofar as Jesus and his disciples were Hebrew in their orientation, they embraced the notions of the heart articulated in the Hebrew Bible (see above). Hence, Jesus was reported to have said,

A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. (Luke 6:45)

The term “free will” is absent from scholarly translations of the New Testament. Cambridge Professor, Dr. McGrath, writes, “The term ‘free will’ is not biblical, but derives from Stoicism. It was introduced into Western Christianity by the second-century theologian Tertullian.”

Early church fathers prior to Augustine refuted non-choice predeterminism as being pagan. Out of the fifty early Christian authors who wrote on the debate between free will and determinism, all fifty supported Christian free will against Stoic, Gnostic, and Manichaean determinism and even Augustine taught traditional Christian theology against this determinism for twenty-six years prior to 412 CE. When Augustine started fighting the Pelagians he aligned his view with the Gnostic and Manichaean view and taught that humankind has no free will to believe until God infuses grace, which in turn results in saving faith.

In 529, at the Second Council of Orange, the question at hand was whether a moderate form of Pelagianism could be affirmed, or if the doctrines of Augustine were to be affirmed. The determination of the Council could be considered “semi-Augustinian”. It defined that faith, though a free act of man, resulted, even in its beginnings, from the grace of God, enlightening the human mind and enabling belief. The Council of Orange affirmed the necessity of prevenient grace and the free will of the unregenerate to repent in faith.

The leaders of the Protestant Reformation largely echoed Augustine’s later views on free will (see Augustinian Calvinism), while Tridentine Catholicism leaned towards Pelagianism. The Arminian Remonstrants, and Wesleyan (Methodism) view on free will is a reclamation of early Church theological consensus and is aligned with Semi-Augustinianism on free will as per the canons of the Second Council of Orange.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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