Thursday, October 13, 2011


Michael Frede, A Free Will: Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought. Sather Classical Lectures 68. Berkeley/Los Angeles/Oxford: University of California Press, 2011. Pp. xiv, 206. ISBN 9780520268487. $49.95.

Reviewed by J. J. Mulhern, University of Pennsylvania (

Version at BMCR home site

This posthumous volume memorializes Frede's 1997 Sather lectures on the origins of the notion of the will. The editor, A. A. Long, has redeployed the six lectures in ten chapters, has given them a new title in the belief that Frede's main concern was the notion of a free will (xiii), and has added notes and a bibliography. In these lectures, Frede was attempting to displace the approach presented in Albrecht Dihle's 1974 Sather lectures,1 according to which "St. Augustine was, in fact, the inventor of our modern notion of will" (Dihle 144). Dihle found Augustine's sources in the Old Testament, where God can do whatever he wants, whether it seems rational to us or not, as in Isaiah 55.8-9 (Dihle 14-15), and in the Trinitarian controversies of the Fourth Century (Dihle 116-119), which developed the notion of the will of God. This Scriptural notion of the will apparently interested Dihle at least in part because of its influence in later ages. Dihle recognized a novel introspective method in Augustine (Dihle 127) and suggested that Augustine "was greatly helped and tacitly guided by the Latin vocabulary of his time" (Dihle 144). Frede differs with Dihle's use of this notion of the will which is, Frede says, "dangerously close to the kind of notion which philosophers have been attacking, a notion which is supposed to do justice to the presumed fact that we can do something by sheer volition, by a sheer act of the will (5)." Frede's challenge was to reframe the discussion in a way that would allow for a gradual emergence of a notion of the will from sources earlier than St. Augustine and would rehabilitate the notion of the will by detaching it from "sheer volition." In the introductory chapter, Frede, in an effort to avoid fixing at the outset the notion of a free will, presents what he describes as "something like a schema which any specific notion of a free will or any particular version of the notion of a free will, at least in antiquity, will fit into" (6-7). This schema, which Frede derives from "historical hindsight," has two parts: "The notion of a will,..., is the notion of our ability to make such choices or decisions which make us act in the way we do" (8); and "To say that human beings are free is to say that the world does not put such constraints on us from the outside as to make it impossible for us to live a good life" (11).

Chapter Two undertakes to show how Aristotle can have choice without a will or a free will. Frede allows that, for Plato and Aristotle, "willing, as I will call it, is a form of desire which is specific to reason. It is the form in which reason desires something" (20). The case in which "reason desires something" and the case of "nonrational desire" (24) suffice for Aristotle, who finds no need for the will as an ability distinct from these. Frede then suggests that, for Aristotle, choosing "is a form of willing" (27), that is, presumably, of desiring, if willing is a form of desire. Again, Frede finds that, "Just as there is no notion of a will in Aristotle, there is also no notion of freedom" (27). The reason is character: "a wise and virtuous person cannot but make the choices he makes" (29).

In Chapter Three, Frede considers the background of the notion of the will in early Stoicism (Zeno and Chrysippus) and the appearance of the notion of the will in Epictetus. The pertinent Stoic background, according to Frede, is that the soul of the mature human being is wholly rational in the sense that "the way we behave is completely determined by our beliefs" (32),which may be either reasonable or unreasonable beliefs; the rational is not the same as the reasonable in Frede's explanation of Stoicism. For the Stoics, impressions have, according to Frede, a "propositional content" (37), and so these impressions can be true or false. One can assent to these impressions, and the result is a rational (logical) impulse, a "desire of reason" (42). Frede goes on here to consider the notion of what is up to us or eph' hēmin; as he notes, the expression had been used in earlier authors, including Aristotle. In Epictetus, the notion of what is up to us is narrowed to giving or refusing to give assent to an impulsive impression (46) such as to cross the street; it is not up to us to cross the street, since we may not be able to cross the street despite giving assent to the appropriate impulsive impression. Frede concludes: "With Stoicism, then, we get for the first time a notion of the will as an ability of the mind or of reason to make choices and decisions" (48), whatever happens in the world with respect to our actions. At this point, for Frede, the status of the will as a distinct ability seems to be firmly in place.

In Chapter Four, Frede argues that later Aristotelians and Platonists incorporated the Stoic doctrine of assent into their views (52). Here Frede also addresses Christian writers (Origen and Evagrius), for whom the notion of a free will became important for reasons connected, as he notes, with daemonology, since it was thought that daemons might keep one from making the right choices and decisions so that one might not be free.

Chapter Five returns to Stoicism with an emphasis on freedom or the free will. For Epictetus, there is "no force or power in the world which can force your will so long as it is free" (76). For Frede, then, in Epictetus there appears "the first actual notion of a free will" (77). Here we find also the familiar view of the Stoics that "not all human beings in fact have a free will" because some human beings "become compulsive about things and thus lose their freedom" (77). In the Stoic view, according to Frede, the freedom of the will requires "the assumption that the world down to the smallest detail is governed by a good and provident God and that this God, in creating the world, has made sure that neither human nature nor our individual nature and constitution nor the circumstances into which we were born, nor the conjunction of these three factors, would prevent us from developing in such a way as to be able to make the right choices and decisions in our life" (85)."

Chapter Six suggests that later Peripatetics and Platonists, while receptive to Stoic notions of the will and freedom, were unreceptive to the Stoic assumptions of providence and determinism and wanted a stronger notion of what is up to us which "would justify our attribution of responsibility to a person (91)." Here Frede is concerned especially with Carneades, for whom something that is up to you must not be a matter of psychological compulsion (94). Frede ultimately finds that Carneades does not have "a notion of a will or a notion of freedom or a notion of free will" (95). The discussion then skips ahead to Alexander of Aphrodisias, who, according to Frede, departs from Aristotle's views in favor of a notion of freedom according to which, "under the same external circumstances and the same internal conditions of the mind, it is still possible to choose and to act otherwise" (98). He finds Alexander's notion "very close" to Dihle's "sheer volition."

Chapter Seven returns to Origen. Frede attributes the spread of the ideas of will and free will largely to Christianity and especially to Origen. He argues here that freedom and free will cannot be found in either the Septuagint or the New Testament and must have come to the Christians mainly from Stoicism (103). Although Origen apparently was trained as a Platonist by Ammonius Saccus (105), his explanation of freedom, according to Frede, "proceeds along standard Stoic lines" (112).

In Chapter Eight, Frede considers Plotinus, for whom the divine will and divine freedom are the models for the corresponding human versions. The issue here has to do, Frede explains, with whether God must, like the demiurge of the Timaeus, look to the forms, or whether "absolutely everything is up to him to do or not to do" (129), as Plotinus would have it. Here again Frede finds the influence of Stoicism (130). As Plotinus develops his notion of being up to you, according to Frede, he restricts it to the case in which an action motivated by a desire of reason "has to be generated by your rational considerations as to what would be a good thing to do" (137).

Chapter Nine is focused on St. Augustine. Frede suggests that Augustine relies on Epictetus for his notion of the will (157), especially in the matter of choosing or willing to believe. Augustine's attention to the notions of freedom and a free will is explained by his opposition to the Manichaeans, in which he adduces the original sin, which was a matter of free choice, to show how we are not free anymore because of that choice and so must be liberated by grace (168- 9).

The conclusions are presented in Chapter Ten. Frede argues that the Stoic notion of the will is not "basically flawed," since "to be free, to have a free will, we have to liberate ourselves from these false beliefs and from attachments and aversions which are not grounded in reality. We can do this, moreover, because the world does not systematically force these beliefs, attachments, and aversions on us" (178). At the end, Frede is interpreting the history of the notions of a will and of a free will largely from the perspective of Stoicism.

If Frede had finished this book himself, he might have addressed the use of "willing" in treating authors who are thought to lack any concept of "will." An alternative expression for "willing" might have made his account somewhat easier to follow. Also, he might have addressed more fully the methodological issues associated with resorting to "something like a schema" which is not entirely schematic after all; it rules in some things and rules out others on nonlogical grounds. As well, he might have taken up at greater length the "the kind of notion [of will] which philosophers have been attacking" and the arguments against it; and, in doing so, he might have made clearer how far he thought he had achieved his project of rehabilitating the notion of free will. In what he has left, he seems ambivalent, noting in conclusion that the Stoic notion of free will, though not "basically flawed...without being developed not much of an idea" (178). All the same, this is a challenging book throughout and not least in its attempt, so different from Dihle's, to replace Scriptural sources for the notions of the will and free will with Stoic ones. Readers who follow the argument closely are likely to learn much by considering both the positions Frede takes and the issues he raises.


1.   Albrecht Dihle, The Theory of Will in Classical Antiquity, Sather Classical Lectures, 48. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

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