Frede on the Development of Free Will for the Stoics
Michael Frede’s posthumously published A Free Will: Origins of the Notion of Ancient Thought  features two chapters of particular interest concerning the development of the notion of will and of free will according to the ancient Stoics: chapter three, “The Emergence of a Notion of Will in Stoicism” and chapter five, “The Emergence of a Notion of Free Will in Stoicism.” Stoicism got its roots in Greece and followed, roughly 400+ years of popularity. From the Greeks on to the Romans, Stoicism endured for such a long time because it is a practical way of living one’s life. The philosophy of Stoicism offers to help people lead a better life through wisdom, instead of getting swept up in the contingencies of life, and henceforth becoming foolish.
This book was put together by A.A. Long after Frede’s tragic death in 2007. It is based on a series of lectures Frede delivered during the 1997-98 fall semester, as the Sather Professor of Classical Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. It reads like a lecture and less like an academic document, meaning that, Frede didn’t include copious notes and textual analysis. Instead, the ideas are offered from a knowledgeable professor to his students. It is obvious from the reading that Frede has an extensive working knowledge of Stoicism, enough to convey it is this matter of fact way. Frede put down a clear rendering of how the Stoics, not only identified the notion of will in the actions and thoughts of man, but also, how the Stoics identified and developed the will into a nuanced conception of free will. The goal of this post will be to identify a few of the major steps this Stoic development had to take to become one of the first conceptions of free will in the ancient world, starting with the will and carrying that conception to a notion of free will.
The first thing to do is look at the development of will in Stoicism. Believe it or not, Aristotle and Plato did not have a complete notion of free will. As Frede says, Plato and Aristotle thought of the soul as bi or tripartite, this view was rejected by the Stoics (32). Socrates was the role-model for the Stoics, at least how Socrates is depicted in the early dialogues of Plato—namely Plato’s Protagoras and The Pheado (32). Socrates placed a premium on reason, and so did the Stoics. For the Stoics, reason was their guide. Aristotle had the idea that there were irrational parts of man’s soul that impel people to act. The irrational part of man’s soul can develop into a rational way of knowing the world. The irrational part of the soul doesn’t leave. The Stoics had a slightly different take on this, because they believed that partitioning off of the soul had undesirable consequences. If the soul is divided, one might come to think that the irrational parts of the soul are alright, and that if we just enhance these irrational drives, we might get what we want, enough to become fooled into thinking that these irrational things are good and better than the rational.
The Stoics, according to Frede, argued that such things as anger and fear are not necessarily natural. Anger and fear do not help us with attaining genuine good and evil outright. The only good someone attains should be aimed at wisdom, and evil is a result of foolishness. Anger and fear are not irrational—they are products of bad reasoning. There are things to reject, for instance, anger which is bad, and there are good things to accept like temperance, which we can aspire to. It is not the soul that creates the assumed irrational part of us. The person who accepts this is prone to mistakes. Our goals are mistaken if we are not guided by wisdom. Wisdom itself will be looked at more in depth later. Although the Stoics rejected Plato and Aristotle’s ‘bi or tripartite’ divisions of the soul, according to Frede, their idea has more to do with a growth of the person’s reason out of the irrational. When we were born, we were more plantlike (for the Stoics) and our growth was governed by nature (by physis / φύσις), from here we grow and develop out of this plantlike state into a rational being, thus leaving the irrational behind (35). Anything like a rational desire for anger should be supplanted by the rational, and wise, desire to move away from anger. The irrational is then left behind for the rational.
On a fundamental level, the Stoics believed that cognitive perception involves incoming “impressions” from the outside world. Some impressions entice us and other things repel us. This, in turn, causes an initial impulse to either act on the impulse toward the impression, to grab it, to throw it down or to talk about it, etc. The impressions are thought to contain propositional content, either they are considered to be true or false (37). What this means is that the veracity or falsity of the multitude of impressions requires one to place concepts to the particular way the impressions come and go—i.e. we learn by experience how to deal with things on this fundamentally practical level. How one deals with these things is basically conceived of as thought itself. The main question has to do with what to do with the impressions. The active way in which we deal with the impressions is: assent (37). The way in which with give assent to any number of given impressions forms our beliefs and attitudes about the world. In other words, when we have an impression, we choose to give assent to the impression. The ways in which we do this form a basis for the particularity in the ways we each do things as individuals, rationally.
Appetites and passions are not to be confused with beliefs. And emotions for the Stoics are simply misguided beliefs. To draw this out a little more, Frede gives an example of what we do when we cut our hand with a knife. In this case, we have two possibilities. One is to become paranoid. Leading us into thinking and believing that the knife cut will get infected, and from the infection you’ll die. The base problem with this belief is the fear of death. The Stoics thought that death is inevitable, and therefore death should not be feared. This doesn’t mean that Stoic entices or hastens death, rather he’ll be, because he is careful, alerted by the cut to care for it so as to maintain the life he has, in order to continue fulfill the good. If he is wise, and not foolish he’ll take care of himself without panicking. So, this means that the second possibility is to not get all emotional over the knife cut with a misguided belief that death is evil, and therefore to be avoided at all cost. It is foolish to think that one will not be rational and tenacious in the face of adversity. As a Stoic, you will, and can do something about the knife cut, and the best thing is to not get too worked up over it. To be a Stoic is to be unmoved by the passions, it is this quality that defines what it means to be a Stoic today. The rational side of emotions is to be enhanced and cultivated. To be sure, they were not trying to do away with emotions. They wanted to exert control over them. Life would be better led without an overflow of misguided beliefs, emotive and passionate solutions to cloud your view. The Stoics certainly didn’t want to become pathological in the way one deals with the problems that are inevitable to living. Everyday problems are a given, it is how problems are dealt with that determines the wisdom of any given situation. Stoical wisdom will be looked at in part II of this paper.
For the Stoics, all desires are rational, which means that they are products of reason. Probably the plainest way to put it would be to say that desire is the assent to an impulsive impression. To assent to a given desirable impression is to give in to the impression (good or bad), and this is governed by our reason. One has the ability to see that the choice a person makes determines the outcomes. Reason provides the guide by which to direct the impulse in the right direction. Beginning to emerge, for the first time in history, is a conception of the will as it was realized in Stoic philosophy. This doesn’t mean that the Stoics ‘invented’ the will, rather, they identified a conceptualization of it for the first time. The will is conceived of in relation to the ways by which one gives assent to impressions. An act of will presupposes a reasonable assent to any given impression (42). The will is clearly what drives our actions. Yet, there are more distinctions to be made from this simple assertion. One important point is to show that the Stoics, were not just rolling with any kind of will. After all, there can be unreasonable acts of willing that are seen as unwise (foolish) as much as there can be reasonable acts of willing that are thought of as wise. The will puts things into action with wisdom or with folly, but both manifestations consist of willing something, and the Stoics were not advocating acting foolishly. Their conception of the will is set up as a means to promote prudentially wise actions. One decides to act in a certain way to an impression, the rational way we do this is a matter of choice—it is up to us how to assent with the day-to-day impressions. The way we do this is a matter of our own choosing. It is a matter of will.
The Stoics believed that focusing on the inner life of man, and how man maximizes his ability to implement wisdom in any particular situation was the way to be wise in the world. A Stoic life is stable and temperate against the changing winds of fate. Frede names the Greek slave philosopher Epictetus as the first to identify the notion of free-will, which is closely identified with the idea of choice or in Greek prohairesis (προαίρεσις) (44). By use of this word, Epictetus was influenced by Aristotle, who also made good use of the term prohairesis, it is translated as: choice and/or will (but for Aristotle it meant choice). But it might be better thought of as a ‘higher order’ choice and will, whereby it means to choose in a certain way, specifically, how to assent to impulsive impressions. Basically, it is up to us how we’ll react to a given impression. It is up to us how we act in the world, but this doesn’t mean everything will go our way. It is also up to us to decide how to manage ourselves. A Stoic, like Epictetus, is not swayed by emotion or passion, but it is still his rational choice to be swayed for better or for worse. So, for example, when he chooses to cross the street, he wills to cross the street, but this does not mean that just because he willed it, that it’ll happen. No choice is entirely up to us. Frede tells us that Epictetus didn’t favor assent as much as the other Stoics did. It is not clear if this affects Frede’s points on the conception of will for the Stoics on the whole. But, one thing is clear, how we specifically choose to give in or assent to impressions is a matter of prohairesis, primarily if we are choosing in such a way so as to indicate that we were in no way coerced, manipulated or something of the sort.
The will can, nevertheless, be made to be good or bad according to the kinds of choices we make. One still might find such a thing as a non-impulsive impression. This means that when a person believes something will happen, say an inclement weather event, he does not have to will to believe it, in order to give assent to it. The assent one gives, generally speaking, has to be directed to an impression, that enables an impulse, and this leads to an active volition (48). There is an explicitly active component to willing for the Stoics when someone chooses to give assent to an impulse. With the Stoics, Frede shows that they were the able to establish this conception of the will as an ability of the man to implement reason to make careful choices and decisions in his life—to lead the life of a Stoic.
II. Free Will
In order to help people with the wisdom of making the right choices, the Stoics also warn that man’s beliefs can be corrupted, and that his choices, if ill-chosen, are foolish. The Stoics, in this sense, wanted to shake us out of our day to day complacency (66). A Stoical way of stating this would be this: a wise man is free whereas the foolish man is a slave. But what does this really mean? Frede writes that for the Stoic Chrysippus, freedom meant that a person acts on his own, according to one’s own account, and he is able to act with discretion (66-67). The fool thinks that a lot of things are good and bad without much wise reflection, and it is for this reason that the fool becomes dominated by misguided impressions of what is good, and likewise, what is bad.
In order to expand on this conception, that a foolish man is dominated by his bad and unwise choices, the Stoics expanded the notion of what it meant to be forced or compelled or made to do something. This means that freedom had to account for the idea that one does something on one’s own accord, and is not coerced into doing so. A foolish man is usually able to choose otherwise, as much as a wise man is able to choose (with apt forbearance).
Interestingly, this discussion of freedom, (as it relates to free will) for the Stoics, has to include God, or better said a Demiurge, (δημιουργός), a divine craftsman. If people are acting within the world that God created, then they are acting according to the order of things. When they act-out in spite of God’s order, they are acting foolishly. This means that, if they are foolish, they are thoroughly enslaved. The world contains valuable and preferential things like health, well being, etc. that can be preferred over the less desirable things like illness, suffering etc. But, because these are preferred things, doesn’t make them good things, in and of themselves. For the Stoics, health is a preferred thing, and to tend to one’s state of health is good because it contributes to the way things are set out to be, in the way God intended it, as he created it. The way that one deals with things makes them good or bad. The Stoic notion of the rational is teleological, meaning that the rational is ultimately geared and oriented toward the good. When we are acting in a good way, we are acting rationally. Aside from the Stoics, this idea has its problems, but the problems will have to stay put, since we do not have the time to challenge the good of rationality, i.e. the questionable thesis that rationally always good, is just too big to tackle here.
The Demiurge, (a.k.a. God) created man as a self-sustaining creature, similar to the animals, Frede tells us that animals act on impressions in much the same way we do, yet with one critical difference: we, as humans, recognize what we need to do to maintain ourselves. People have a choice, and their natural ability to choose comes from their rational means of understanding. In short, God created man with the innate capacity to reason. It is because of this rationality that we as humans have an understanding of the good, and what it means to do good things. We are able to do these things according to how God created us, and most importantly, we can do these things of our own accord. Man is also able to recognize, for the Stoics, that he (man) contributes to the order of God’s creation. Freedom in this sense, means that man is capable of doing what needs to be done, and it is guided by understanding and rational ability. We give form to this world according to the good God has made us capable for. The Stoics believed in a kind of freedom that enabled man to act on what needs to be done toward the good. This is done on man’s own accord, instead of being forced to do it by an outside force, including the force of God’s will. Man’s free will is not controlled by God, it is controlled by man. Man by nature is made for the good in the Stoical sense of the word. As was indicated earlier, man is born irrational, and he develops into a fully rational being. This emphasizes the notion that man is created by God to become a reasonable free agent with an ability to make up his mind in the day to day situations life presents one with—without an irrational component and coercion.
The Stoics thought that all man’s beliefs, desires and ways of thinking, comprise of a cohesive whole, i.e. a single system. Yet, if misguided attachments are allowed in, one has relinquished freedom. Any false beliefs and foolish ways corrupt the whole, they serve to not only undermine freedom itself, but also the integrity of all that is good in a person. This, of course implies a striving for the purity of the freedom we create for ourselves. Stoicism is very strict. One false belief undercuts all true beliefs. Inappropriate attachments signify that the will is not absolutely free.
How are will and freedom brought together in Frede’s account of Stoicism? Frede writes that Epictetus wanted people to focus all their efforts on refining the will (76). Man’s integrity depends on the unbending goodness of his will. Not only should the will be good, but it should also be in accordance with nature. Basically God has given you a will, yet it is up to you to decide for yourself what you’ll do with it. In a Stoical universe, God doesn’t force one to make the right choices. In the same sense, one is still subject, and can fall prey, and become enslaved by their compulsive passions and appetites. The idea that we have the ability to do otherwise, one way or another, has everything to do with free will. Still, the wise man is really the only one who is said to be free, and is therefore, not enslaved like the foolish man who succumbs to the whimsy of his emotions and appetites. The wise man is free, where the fool is enslaved. Sometimes the foolish man will do things that are good for the wrong reasons, showing that even with his rational will he is able to freely choose foolishly or wisely. The foolish man harms himself, but not God. God purposely left it up to man to decide what to do with his life. In the same sense, the wise man’s compliance toward the good is not within God’s power to change or affect either. The wise man willfully makes better choices, where the fool willfully doesn’t (79).
The wisdom a man possesses enables him to aim for the good in accordance with God’s plan. The wise man acts in accordance with the good because it is in his nature to do so, God created him that way. As mentioned before, the Stoics believed that God created man with a capacity to be rational, and God geared man’s rationality toward the good, and to do good deeds. It is the voluntary imperative of the wise man to propel the good things into action. Frede tells us that free actions, for the Stoics, are motivated by an attachment we have for the good (79). We wish to maintain the good because we are able to recognize that this is the order of things, that is, if we are Stoical. Our actions must be appropriate to the good. Frede doesn’t clarify precisely what the good actually is, one will openly assume that it is essentially rational, meaning that the good thing to do is the rational thing to do.
Someone has the ability to give assent to an impression that he sees will bring about good—this constitutes his freedom. Yet, along with this, one might think that this predisposition determines the way a wise man will act all the time. For the Stoics, this is not the case, since one can still choose to do otherwise. One is free to be the fool. Then there’s the issue of being forced to do something against one’s will, this is the case where foolishness dominates a person’s decisions to otherwise. The fool is not free to when he is subject to his insatiable appetites. In this case, it is not made evident by Frede why the foolish man cannot reform his ways and why he has to always succumb to his passions. It should be that he can choose to negate his passions as much as the wise man is able to. With practice one can reform. This is not always the case, but it happens often enough to make a case for it, in contrast to the view that a fool is doomed or fated to be foolish. Similarly the wise man is not dominated by the good, in such a way so as to imagine that good forces him to act in certain ways. The wise man can also become a fool. Frede describes the Stoic’s notion that an un-wise man is forced by his unruly impressions, whereas the wise man’s assent is brought about by measured knowledge and his wise understanding, only if he is willing to do so.
Because the wise man can act within the scope of rationality, doesn’t mean that he’s forced to do so against his will. He is free because he is equipped with the appropriate understanding and insight, enough to make the right choices up and against the possibility of doing otherwise in any given circumstance. For these reasons he is free—he has free will. In a Stoical conception of the world, God set up a situation whereby man, throughout the stages of his development, acquires the ability and capacity for wisdom to make the right decisions. Man goes wrong when he has false impressions, misguided beliefs and when he gives improper, foolish assent to an impression.
We give credit to the Stoics for recognizing and identifying a notion of free will. This is a free will because one is not forced into making decisions and choices contrary to one’s own volitions. There are slight problems with this picture, since we can’t always have a precise idea what is actually good, or what constitutes a good actions. One can always be fooled into thinking that a particular action is a wise action when it is not wise. For instance, when we set out to help someone whom we might think is in need of our help, and who, with our help is actually hindered from helping himself. We don’t always know the wise choice, no matter how much reasoning we surround it with. One doesn’t always make the right choices. Still, to a certain degree, it is cynical to believe that we cannot make the right choices.
From Aristotle and Plato’s ‘bi or tripartite’ conception of the soul which included the irrational, the Stoics refined this conception of the soul. The soul for the Stoics, leaves the irrational behind to make room for the rational. The impressions, re: the sensual input, are important for the Stoics because they were the raw material from which a person had the opportunity to act rationally. From these impressions we learn, by experience, how to deal with things on a fundamentally practical level. The way a person gives assent to impressions is rational, it is propositional. There is a right way and a wrong way to deal with things for the Stoics. The trick is to not get carried away, or to get distracted with misguided beliefs, emotions, and over-passionate solutions. This means that desires are rational in a Stoical way of thinking. Desires are products of reason because of they manner in which we give assent to the impulse of any given impressions. This is propositional. In Frede’s analysis, the first known development, or better said, conception of the will, is from the Stoics. One is given a choice with how to contend with the impulses one has from impressions. But, this is not just any choice, it is a prohairesis, a higher order will. This kind of will is only free if it is not coerced, or manipulated into action by another person, force, etc.
A wise man is free, and a foolish man is enslaved. The fool reacts to his impressions without adequate attention to the rationality of his actions. Although the fool might act rationally, his actions are not geared toward the good—his rationales are foolish. The fool, in a way, is the best example of free will. Because it is fool who shows by his actions that he is free. This means that a Stoical conception of freedom has to account for the idea that one does something of one’s own accord, and hence, is not coerced into doing so. The fool doesn’t (necessarily) need to be coerced into acting like a fool. He freely chooses to do so by his own free will. For the Stoics, God made us fully capable of reason. We are free to do with this what we will. Only when the will is directed with wisdom, i.e. rationally, are people acting in such a way so as to be in accordance with God’s plan, God’s telos (τέλος). Again, God created man with the innate capacity for reason, and still, one does things of one’s own accord. Because God does not intervene, humans are free from divine intervention and will. Man is capable of understanding what the good is, enough to know that he can rationally aspire to. A wise man is free and a foolish man is enslaved.
The Stoics had the idea that there are basic truths by with to live by, as indicated above, living a rational life, propelling your action toward the good, and recognizing that God’s plan is good enough to follow. The point being that, yes, there are general truths, and no set rules, but we as humans are able to get along creatively and ingeniously to progress with living a life in confidence with our ability to do these things. All is not hopeless.
 Michael Frede, A Free Will: Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought, ed A.A. Long (Berkeley: University of California Press).