Monday, July 27, 2015


Pierre Destrée, Ricardo Salles, Marco Zingano (ed.), What is Up to Us?: Studies on Agency and Responsibility in Ancient Philosophy. Studies in ancient moral and political philosophy, 1. Sankt Augustin: Academia Verlag, 2014. Pp. v, 372. ISBN 9783896656346. €39.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Peter Lautner, Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Piliscsaba-Budapest (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The volume brings together twenty-two papers (not twenty, as stated in the very first sentence of the introduction) discussing various views on moral responsibility from Democritus to Simplicius.

Monte Ransome Johnson argues that on Democritus' views about psychic processes, the plasticity of human nature allows us to improve or spoil ourselves by choosing what thoughts we are engulfed with and then act on. One has to yield to the necessities. To say this, however, we need a weak, less deterministic concept of necessity that seems to equate it with natural regularities. We yield to a necessity when we decide to have children (68 B278 DK), but our decision should be understood as a cause which is not determined by other causes such as nature, luck or the gods. Destrée's paper on the Myth of Er is a translation of a contribution to a volume reviewed in BMCR 2015.02.30. Dorothea Frede claims that although Aristotle lacks the notion of 'will', he regards human action as the result of βούλησις directed at an end together with προαίρεσις as the means to that end (EN III, 1111b26-30).1 Individuals must acquire the character-disposition to choose the proper means to achieve the aim that fits their own conception of life. Given his psychological determinism (once character-development reaches a point of no return) freedom in terms of moral indifference is not an option for Aristotle: choosing the means involves finding the most efficient way that is also the most appropriate from an ethical point of view. A virtuous person always chooses what is best from an ethical point of view, even if – theoretically – there are other options open to her as well. Susanne Bobzien examines NE 1113b7-8 (ἐν οἷς γὰρ ἐφ᾽ἡμῖν τὸ πράττειν, καὶ τὸ μὴ πράττειν, καὶ ἐν οἷς τὸ μή, καὶ τὸ ναί), with the intention of showing that the passage does not support an indeterminist interpretation of Aristotle. On her reading, the passage expresses a biconditional: doing something is up to us if and only if not doing it is up to us as well. The sentence is not about practical assent or denial, and thus we are not compelled to understand it as expressing causally undetermined choice either. Aristotle does claim that acting and refraining from acting is up to us, but that does not imply that we are causally undetermined in respect of whether we act. Susan Sauvé Meyer also discusses the notion of ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν, especially its two-sidedness, which means that what is up to us to do is also up to us not to do. Concentrating on EN III.5, EE II.8 and particularly EE II.6, she points out that contingency is not accorded any special status here since it is common to both human action and animal reproduction. Rather, the notion of ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν is intended to express the claim that the agent is in control of the action, which itself neither involves nor rules out determinism. Javier Echeñique analyses the various meanings of ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν and states that Aristotle's position can be characterized both as compatibilist and incompatibilist, although from different points of view. In treating appraisability and legal accountability as separate issues, he argues that the distinction imposes different conditions. Determinism is not a challenge from the perspective of ethical praise or blame, whereas accountability depends on more stringent conditions, ones which require us to be causes of our dispositions and hence of our conception of the good.

Discussion of the Hellenistic period starts with Katja Maria Vogt's analysis of early Stoic notion of ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν. If an agent gives the same assent as he did in earlier world-cycles, in what sense can we say that the action is up to him? He will do as he did in earlier world-cycles (and much the same as when faced with similar choices earlier within this particular cycle). The problem is that he would like to be able to act according to his occurrent reasoning. Vogt stresses that the norms of assent must fit into this picture; the agent must meet these norms in order to become a genuine cause of his actions. Laura Liliana Gómez addresses Chrysippus' compatibilism as a reaction to problems left unresolved in earlier Stoicism. Moral responsibility comprises three activities: contemplating different courses of action, examining them in terms of ethical views, and determining which of them to follow. She thinks that they are considered compatible with his deterministic theory, for he created a notion of alternative possibilities which sits well with determinism. Jean-Baptiste Gourinat focuses on the inherent ambiguities in the notion of "what is up to us" and argues that the expression in nostra potestate in Cicero does not match ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν, for which there is no direct evidence in Chrysippus anyway.2 Instead, the sources mention the terms παρ᾽ ἡμᾶς and ἐξ ἡμῶν, neither of them signifying strong commitment towards indeterminacy of actions. Chrysippus may have claimed that actions can be attributed not to the causal chain of fate, but to some other necessity that is no less co-fated than the order of the cosmos. Emmanuele Vimercati examines the link between self-knowledge and moral responsibility in Panaetius. Self-knowledge is based on oikeiôsis and serves as the condition for recognizing what belongs to us. On the basis of what Cicero says about the four personae in De officiis, Vimercati comes to the conclusion that in abandoning full-scale recurrence Panaetius left more room in the succession of events for chance and the wishes of individuals.

Ricardo Salles argues that Epictetus' theory of moral responsibility is essentially causal, as are his views on what is up to us (ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν). In order to be morally responsible for certain things we must be their cause. If (1) our beliefs cause our actions, and (2) we are responsible for our actions only if we are in control of their cause, and (3) we are in control of our beliefs, then we are responsible for our actions. With this view, Epictetus comes very close to Chrysippus. Marcelo D. Boeri shows that despite his lack of interest in theoretical matters Marcus Aurelius elaborated a detailed account of what the agent should care for in general. The link between the present and what is indifferent turns out to be crucial for finding out what is up to us. What is not in the present becomes indifferent and thus not up to the agent. Planning must be done with the awareness of the fact that future events are uncertain. Marco Zingano, concentrating on De fato 26-9, analyzes the views of Alexander of Aphrodisias on character and action. He shows that Alexander insisted that, even if our character cannot be changed, we are responsible for our actions because it was up to us to do or not to do the actions that led to the formation of our own character. Moreover, there is an important distinction between the ability to act otherwise and the ability to act differently, the former entailing the possibility of acting in the opposite way to that in which one actually does. It gives room for alternative possibilities, at least to a certain degree.

Pierre-Marie Morel emphasizes the self-evident nature of things that are ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν in Epicurus, which explains the lack of extant texts with a demonstration of the thesis. The Epicureans provided arguments against fatalism and descriptions of the physical processes corresponding to mental activities, but human responsibility remained a sheer fact to them. Stefano Maso discusses Cicero's presentation of the Epicurean thesis according to which the voluntary motion of the soul overlaps with the motion coming from atomic declination (De fato 24). But this gives rise to a further problem: since voluntary action happens because of us, it is not uncaused, and it is therefore unclear how one can associate it with the atomic swerve. If it was not Epicurus himself, then it was Cicero who first identified the problem of freedom and responsibility with that of free choice, the two-sided possibility to act.

Later Platonic material is very well represented in the collection. Lloyd P. Gerson examines the link between responsibility and ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν in Plotinus with a view to Galen Strawson's 'basic argument,' which amounts to a denial of moral responsibility. He argues that Plotinus has something to say on the issue in light of that argument. First of all, Plotinus needs to show that the phrase 'mental state' is ambiguous: it can either refer to endowment or to achievement and, while our choices are not necessarily determined by the former, they themselves determine the latter. In part, at least, Plotinus follows an Aristotelian argument in distinguishing 'first' and 'second' nature and in locating the source of responsibility in the latter. Daniela Patrizia Taormina discusses Porphyry's notion of choice, self-determination and the ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν. The fragments containing his interpretation of Plato's myth of Er indicate that he held that choice and self-determination determine one another. His reasoning was that choice is an exercise of self-determination, whereas self-determination is the capacity to choose without constraint. It is indeed up to us to choose what life-form we will inhabit; in embodied souls, however, what is ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν is not identical with self-determination, because each act that is up to us is a human act of self-determination, but not vice versa. Mauro Bonazzi points out that the Middle Platonists' doctrine of fate and human autonomy was made partly in response to the Stoic doctrine. Their notion of 'hypothetical fate' served to keep human action and divine providence apart. According to this notion, fate is a subordinate instrument of providence. It operates in the realm of nature (Apuleius, De Plat. I.12) but, unlike the infinity of the particular events in the physical world, fate is finite, as it is the expression of divine law. For this reason, it cannot control all events one by one, and this fact gives a basis for human autonomy and responsibility for actions.

Christoph Horn argues that Augustine's concept of will was innovative in relation to the traditional philosophy of action and will. His early views, especially in De libero arbitrio, are based on two ideas of the will, the appetitive and the decisional. The difference is between voluntas as an inclination and liberum arbitrium as a faculty to decide, the latter being the first and only cause of some states in the external, physical world. We are aware of its powers and contents and this is the way in which we are informed about what is "up to us." Carlos Steel discusses two facets of freedom, human and divine, in Proclus. In De providentia, Proclus stresses that ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν was never understood as an absolute power of self-determination, but used to designate the faculty of choosing what is good and avoiding what is bad. In this way, it differs from βούλησις which concerns the good only. The distinction is far from being obvious, but he must have been aware of the difference between βούλησις, as a desire with judgment and choice that may go in opposite directions, and natural βούλησις, which is our innate appetite for the good. Given the deterministic nature of the world, self-determination only has control of what is within us, what is the domain of our choices. It is a deeply Epictetan theme, and Christian Wildberg explores its survival in Simplicius. In interpreting Epictetus, Simplicus introduces a peculiar notion of the will that looks strikingly similar to the notion that we encounter in Christian tradition and that is still with us. On Simplicius' reading, προαίρεσις is a general capacity to concern ourselves with choices and to reflect on which general course of action is to take. The capacity seems to be backed by the god-given capacity of self-determined βούλησις (will) to choose for the good (in Epict. 67.18-22). The root of Simplicius' notion of an autonomous and free human will may be found, not necessarily in contemporary Christian thinking, but in common metaphysical commitments to superior realms of reality that give rise to a moral challenge of self-improvement. Michael Frede surveys various uses of ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν. As the first to make systematic use of the term and its cognates, Aristotle distinguished between three kinds of actions: those which are up to us to do, those done voluntarily, and those done by choice. By contrast the early Stoics concentrated on voluntary action with assent as a condition sine qua non. Occasionally assent may also lead to character formation. Epictetus modified the notion by emphasizing that the only thing that is up to us is what we do with our thoughts and impressions. In response to the Stoic doctrine, Alexander of Aphrodisias argued for a libertarian position according to which under the same circumstances the person even with the same mental state in which he now gives assent also could refuse to give assent. Frede closes with the general remark that, with the exception of Alexander of Aphrodisias, ancient conceptions of human freedom assume that freedom is for the good.

The volume is furnished with an index locorum. It is a fine collection of papers. A good start for a new series.


1.   One might raise doubts about such a sharp functional distinction between these activities: see D. Wiggins, 'Deliberation and practical reason,' in his Needs, Values, Truth, 3rd edn. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 215-37.
2.   The paper presents the much same thesis as his 'In nostra potestate', in S. Maso (ed.), Cicerone, De Fato. Seminario internazionale, Venezia 10-12 luglio 2006 (Venice: Libreria Editrice Cafoscarina-A. Hakkert, 2012), 143-50.

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