Free Will in Ancient Thought

Frede. Chapter Two: "Aristotle on Choice without a Will," 21-26


βούλεσθαι, boulesthai, present middle passive infinitive of βούλομαι, boulomai, verb, "wish, will"

βούλησις, boulēsis, noun, "willing"
1. Neither Plato nor Aristotle has a notion of a will. What they do have, though, is a closely related notion, namely, the notion of somebody's willing or wanting something, in particular, somebody's willing or wanting to do something, the notion of boulesthai or of a boulêsis.

What is this notion of "willing"? Why is it not a notion of a "will"?

2. In Plato and Aristotle [the notion of "willing"] refers to a highly specific form of wanting or desiring, in fact, a form of wanting which we no longer recognize or for which we tend to have no place in our conceptual scheme. We tend to think of "reason" as no more than an ability to make inferences and to form beliefs. 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. If reason recognizes, or believes itself to recognize, something as a good, it wills or desires it. If reason believes itself to see a course of action which would allow us to attain this presumed good, it thinks that it is a good thing, other things being equal, to take this course of action. And, if it thinks it is a good thing to do something, it wills or desires to do it. Thus it is assumed that there is such a thing as a desire of reason and hence also that reason by itself suffices to motivate us to do something. What view does Frede have in mind when he says that "reason" is "attracted to the truth and the good"?

Consider the attraction to the good first.

The answer to this question, it seems, is that reason includes a process of forming beliefs about what things are good and for forming desires for these things.

If the "attraction to the truth" is similar, reason includes a process of forming beliefs about the way things are.
This is an assumption which is made by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and their later followers. They all agree that reason, just as it is attracted by truth, is also attracted by, and attached to, the good and tries to attain it.

According to "Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and their later followers," in human beings there is a kind of cognition these philosophers called "reason."

"There is relatively little mystery about the generation of instrumental and realizer desires. These desires are generated by (conscious or unconscious) reasoning processes.... The generation of intrinsic desires is a matter of much more controversy and interest" (Desire, section "3.2 The Origins of Desires," in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Cf. Moral Motivation, "5. 5. Moral Motivation and Experimental Psychology," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. "Schroeder et al. sketch what they describe as caricatures of four possible theories of moral motivation, which they label instrumentalist, cognitivist, sentimentalist, and personalist... (72). According to the instrumentalist, 'people are motivated when they form beliefs about how to satisfy preexisting [intrinsic] desires' (74), which lead in turn to the formation of nonintrinsic desires to take specific actions aimed at satisfying their intrinsic desires. When a person has an intrinsic desire, D, and comes to believe that φ-ing will satisfy D, she comes to desire (nonintrinsically) to φ."

The instrumentalist view is also called the Humean view.
We should not immediately assume we know what these philosophers thought this cognition is, despite our familiarity with the use of words 'reason' and 'reasoning' in English.

They think that some desires are part of this cognition.

How does this work?

Frede's answer is a little confusing.

"If reason recognizes, or believes itself to recognize, something as a good, it wills or desires it. If reason believes itself to see a course of action which would allow us to attain this presumed good, it thinks that it is a good thing, other things being equal, to take this course of action. And, if it thinks it is a good thing to do something, it wills or desires to do it."

It is worth trying to understand how "reason by itself suffices to motivate us to do something."

The idea, it seems, is that I have beliefs about what is good and what is bad. These beliefs allow me to evaluate my present circumstances and possible future circumstances. For example, I reason that I can improve my present circumstances the most if I change things in such a way that I have food and eat it. So I form the desire to have food and eat it. This desire might lead to subsequent desires, say the desire to look in the refrigerator for food.

Why is it true that "reason by itself suffices to motivate us to do something"?

It is part of having reason that we engage in thinking to make our circumstances better. No desire sets this thinking in motion. Desires arise out of this thinking.

Frede calls these desires of reason "willings." In this, he is introducing a technical term. He is not trying to conform to an ordinary use of 'willings' in English.

We might think that beliefs provide information only, not motivation. If this is what we do think, then it represents a major difference from the point of view in the ancients.

3. In Plato and Aristotle but not in the Stoics, this view of willing, as a form of

In the Republic, Socrates argues that the soul is tripartite.

He argues that the soul has "the reasoning part" (τὸ λογιστικὸν) but that it also has two parts that do not engage in reasoning: "the spirited part" (τὸ θυμοειδές) and "the appetitive part" (τὸ ἐπιθυμητικόν).

In this way, in Frede's terms, the soul has a "rational" part (reason) and two "nonrational" parts (appetite and spirit).
desire distinctive of reason, is closely bound up with the view that the soul is bipartite or, rather, tripartite, meaning that, in addition to reason, it consists of a nonrational part or parts. (I will, for our purposes, disregard their specification of two nonrational parts.) This division of the soul is based on the assumption that there are radically different forms of desire, and correspondingly radically different forms of motivation, which may even be in conflict with each other and which therefore must have their origin in different capacities, abilities, or parts of the soul. Thus one may be hungry, and in this way desire something to eat, and hence desire to get something to eat.
επιθυμία, epithymia, noun, "appetite"
This sort of desire is called appetite (epithymia). It is clearly a nonrational desire. One may be hungry, no matter what one thinks or believes. One may be hungry, even though one believes that it would not be a good thing at all to have something to eat. One might be right in believing this. Hence a nonrational desire may be a reasonable or an unreasonable desire. Similarly, though, it might be quite unreasonable for one to believe that it would be a good thing to have something to eat. Hence a desire of reason too might be a reasonable or an unreasonable desire. Therefore the distinction between reasonable and unreasonable desires is not the same as the distinction between desires of reason, or rational desires, and desires of the nonrational part of the soul, or nonrational desires. It is also assumed that, just as one may act on a rational desire, one may act on a nonrational desire. What is more, one may do so, even if this nonrational desire is in conflict with a rational desire.

In Plato and Aristotle, not all desires are willings.

Some desires are "appetitive." These desires are not part of reason.


They do not depend on "what one thinks or believes."

What, if anything, do they depend on?

When Frede says that these desires do not depend on "what one thinks or believes," this seems to be short for "what one thinks or believes about what is good or what is bad." This leaves open that these desires depend on some beliefs, just not beliefs about what is good and what is bad.

Frede's terminology for the two kinds of desires can be confusing.

Rational desires and nonrational desires are respectively what Frede calls the desires that belong to reason and the desires that do not belong to reason. In Plato's tripartite theory of the soul, reason is the part of the soul that engages in reasoning. Nonrational desires belong to appetite or spirit. In the tripartite theory, these are the parts of the soul that do not engage in reasoning.

Remember, though, that this "reasoning" in which these parts of the soul do not engage is the cognition Plato understands as "reason" and "reasoning." It might be that the cognition in which he thinks they do engage is something we would recognize as reasoning.

Rational desires are reasonable just in case the beliefs about good and bad that they stem from are reasonable. So, for example, if you believe doing x is good, this belief is reasonable, and see nothing better in the circumstances, then the desire to do x is reasonable.

It is harder to understand how nonrational desires are reasonable or unreasonable.

4. [T]he assumption that, if there is a conflict, one may follow either reason or appetite amounts, of course, to a denial of Socrates' claim that nobody ever acts against his better knowledge or, indeed, against his mere beliefs. So, according to Socrates, if you really believe, whether rightly or wrongly, that it is not a good thing to have something to eat now, you will not be driven by appetite, as if your reason were a slave dragged around by the passions, and have something to eat. Plato's and Aristotle's doctrine of a tripartite soul and different forms of motivation, with their possible conflict and the resolution of such conflict, constitutes an attempt to correct Socrates' position, in order to do justice to the presumed fact that people sometimes, in cases of conflict, do act, against their better knowledge, on their nonrational desire. ἀκρασία, akrasia, noun, alternate spelling of ἀκράτεια, akrateia, "want of power, incontinence," In any event, Aristotle in his famous discussion of this presumed phenomenon, called akrasia, or, rather misleadingly, “weakness of will,” is explicitly attacking Socrates' position.

"For it would be astonishing, Socrates thought, for knowledge to be in someone, but be mastered (κρατεῖν) by something else, and dragged around like a slave. Socrates fought against the account, in the belief there is no incontinence (ἀκρασίας)" (Nicomachean Ethics VII.2).

"[Socrates’] view [is] that the way we act is completely determined by our beliefs, in particular our beliefs concerning the good and related matters" (Michael Frede, "The Philosopher," 9. Greek Thought. A Guide to Classical Knowledge (edited by Jacques Brunschwig and Geoffrey E. R. Lloyd), 1-18. Harvard University Press, 2000).

“The Stoics revert to Socrates' extreme intellectualism. They deny an irrational part of the soul. The soul is a mind or reason. Its contents are impressions or thoughts, to which the mind gives assent or prefers to give assent. In giving assent to an impression, we espouse a belief. Desires are just beliefs of a certain kind, the product of our assent to a so-called impulsive impression” (Michael Frede, "The Philosopher," 12).

"[The Stoics thought that r]ecognizing something as a good, or even just believing to recognize something as a good, allows one to act, and nothing else does. … The transformation of our animal soul into human reason would render us inactive, if, as part of reason, we did not also acquire a notion of the good. It is only because we now judge certain things to be good that we are motivated to act” (Michael Frede, “On the Stoic Conception of the Good,” 75. Topics in Stoic Philosophy (edited by Katerina Ierodiakonou), 71-94. Oxford University Press, 1999).
Socrates did not recognize "nonrational" desires. He thought all desires, or perhaps all desires in adults, are a matter of beliefs about what is good and what is bad.

This view about desire is sometimes called "Socratic intellectualism."

Why is it misleading to translate ἀκρασία as "weakness of the will"?

Frede thinks that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle do not have a notion of the will. He does not say so explicitly, but the suggestion is that the translation is misleading because it can project a later view of the mind onto Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The translation can wrongly make it appear as if Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had a notion of the will.

5. Now, in looking at this discussion [of akrasia] in the Nicomachean Ethics, it is important to notice that it is not focused, as modern readers apparently can hardly help thinking, on cases of acute mental conflict, that is to say, on cases in which we sit there anguished, tormented, torn apart by two conflicting desires which pull us in opposite directions, while we try to make up our mind which direction to take. We tend to read Aristotle in this way, because we have a certain conception of the mind which we project onto Aristotle. But the cases on which Aristotle is focusing are rather different.

What is this "certain conception of the mind which we project onto Aristotle"?

6. Take the case of impetuous akrasia. Somebody insults you, and you get so upset and angry that you let your anger preempt any thought you would have, if you took time to think about an appropriate response. You just act on your anger. Once you have calmed down, you might realize that you do not think that this is an appropriate way to respond to the situation. In general, you think that this is not a good way to act. But at the time you act, you have no such thought. The conflict here is a conflict between a nonrational desire and a rational desire which you would have, if you gave yourself or had the space to think about it.

"One type of incontinence (ἀκρασίας) is impetuosity. ... The impetuous is led on by his feelings because he has not deliberated. ... Quick-tempered and ardent people are most prone to be impetuous incontinents. For in quick-tempered people the appetite is so fast, and in ardent people so intense, that they do not wait for reason, because they tend to follow appearance" (Nicomachean Ethics VII.9.1150b).

In "impetuous akrasia," someone reacts to the situation without considering whether the reaction is "appropriate." Further, had he considered whether it is appropriate, he would have thought that it was not. "The conflict here is a conflict between a nonrational desire and a rational desire which you would have, if you gave yourself or had the space to think about it."

This "you would have" can be puzzling. To understand the view Frede attributes to Aristotle, we need a clearer understanding of how the parts of the soul together produce action.

One possibility is that only one part can be in control and so can produce desire at any given time. So in the case of "impetuous akrasia," reason is not in control. There is only one desire. It is the desire that stems from the spirited part of the soul. This nonrational desire is not reasonable. It is not in accord with the beliefs about what is good and is bad that belong to reason.

What is it for a part of the soul to be in control?

7. Or look at the very different case of akrasia of appetite. You have the rational desire not to eat any sweets. At some point you decided not to have any sweets. But now a delicious sweet is offered to you, and your appetite may be such that, at least for the moment, it does not even come into your mind that you do not want to eat sweets any more. This again is not a case of acute conflict.

This case is similar to the one Frede calls "impetuous akrasia."

8. But, whichever cases of akrasia we consider, Aristotle's view is never that, if we are confronted with such a conflict, whether it is acute or not, and act on a nonrational desire against reason, we do so because there is a mental event, namely, a choice or a decision to act in this way. And certainly it is not the case that one chooses or decides between acting on one's belief and acting on one's nonrational desire. For, as we have seen, the way Aristotle describes these cases, they often, if not for the most part, do not even involve an occurrent thought to the effect that it would not be a good thing to act in this way.

Even if "acute" conflict is possible, Frede claims that Aristotle does not think that reason adjudicates between the two desires. "[C]ertainly it is not the case that one chooses or decides between acting on one's belief and acting on one's nonrational desire."

Frede's point is that reason does not decide or choose which desire is more worthy, "my" desire (the desire that belongs to reason) or the nonrational desire.

Notice that if reason did "choose," then Aristotle would have a notion of the will.

One point in favor of this interpretation is that other than past "training," Aristotle provides no explanation for which desire (the rational or nonrational desire) becomes the one on which the agent acts. Reason does not decide this. The nonrational parts do not either.

Maybe a model from AI helps provide some insight. As primitive model of an animal behavior, we can think of the animal mind as consisting as a KB and a MG. The KB contains beliefs. The MG contains maintenance goals. A maintenance goal is a conditional. The antecedent is some state of depletion. The consequent is an achievement goal.

Before the animal is thirty, its mind is

MG: If I am thirsty, I drink

After the animal perceives it is thirsty, its mind is

MG: If I am thirsty, I drink
KB: I am thirsty

The antecedent of the maintenance goal is now a logical consequence of the KB. This triggers the maintenance goal and gives the animal an achievement goal.

The animal uses its KB to figure out what to do to make the achievement goal "I drink" true. Once it knows, it acts to achieve the goal and thus to maintain itself.

Human beings also have reason. Reason can override the "animal" mechanism. What happens is not very clear.

One possibility is that reason prevents the maintenance goal from being triggered. The KB changes so that it cans "I am thirsty," but this does not trigger the maintenance goal.

Another possibility is that the maintenance goal triggers but reason prevents the achievement of the achievement gaol.

On this second possibility, there is both a rational and nonrational desire. The nonrational desire is the achievement goal to drink. The rational desire is the desire not to drink. Reason, if it is in control, stops the achievement goal as part of satisfy its desire that "I do not drink" is true.
The claim that there are "rational" and "nonrational desires" enters the philosophical tradition with the following argument in Plato's Republic. Socrates is the speaker.

  "Thirst itself is in its nature only for drink itself.
  Hence the soul of the thirsty person, insofar as he is thirsty, is does not wish anything else but to drink, and it wants this and is impelled toward it.
  Clearly" (Republic IV.439b).

  "Are we to say that some men sometimes though thirsty refuse to drink?
  We are indeed, many and often.
  What then, should one affirm about them? Is there something in the soul of those who are thirsty but refuse to drink, something bidding them to drink and something different forbidding them, that overrides (κρατοῦν) the thing that bids them to drink?
  I think so.
  And is it not the fact that that which inhibits such actions arises when it arises from the calculations of reason, but the impulses which draw and drag come through passions (παθημάτων) and diseases?
  Not unreasonably, shall we claim that they are two and different from one another, naming that in the soul whereby it reckons and reasons the reasoning part (λογιστικὸν) and that with which it loves, hungers, thirsts, and gets passionately excited by other desires, the unreasoning and appetitive part (ἐπιθυμητικόν)—companion of various repletions and pleasures.
  It would not be unreasonable but quite natural" (Republic IV.439c).

This is not a case in which someone is "anguished, tormented, torn apart by two conflicting desires which pull [him] in opposite directions," Socrates seems to say that there are two desires: a rational desire to not drink and a nonrational desire to drink.

The Leontius example comes to closer to a case of "acute" conflict.

  "And don’t we often notice on other occasions that when desires force someone contrary to his rational calculation (βιάζωνταί τινα παρὰ τὸν λογισμὸν ἐπιθυμίαι), he reproaches himself and feels anger at the thing in him that is doing the forcing; and just as if there were two warring factions, such a person’s spirit becomes the ally of his reason? But spirit partnering the appetites to do what reason has decided should not be done—I do not imagine you would say that you had ever seen that, either in yourself or in anyone else.
  No, by Zeus, I would not" (Republic IV.440a).

βιάζω, biazō, verb, "constrain, force"

Euripides, Medea 1079-1080. First performed in 431 BCE.
  "Of the spirit (θυμοῦ), that with which we feel anger (θυμούμεθα), is it a third, or would it be the same as these [, reason and appetite, that we have distinguished]?
  Perhaps with one of these, the appetitive.
  But I once heard a story which I believe, that Leontius the son of Aglaion, on his way up from the Peiraeus under the outer side of the northern wall, becoming aware of dead bodies that lay at the place of public execution knew a desire to see them and at the same time was disgusted and turned away. For a time he struggled and veiled his head, but finally, overpowered (κρατούμενος) by his desire, he pushed his eyes wide open, rushed up to the corpses, and cried, ‘There, you wretches, take your fill of the fine spectacle!'
  I too have heard the story.
  Yet, surely, this anecdote signifies that anger sometimes fights against desires, as one thing against another.
  Yes, it does, Socrates" (Republic IV.439e).

What is the sequence of events in this example?

Leontius becomes aware of the dead bodies and "knew a desire to see them." He was "disgusted." This suggests that he also has a desire not to see them. He acts on this desire. He "turned away." Then, to get by the bodies without looking at them, he "veiled his head." So his "struggle" is his effort to make the world such that he does not look at the bodies. In this effort, however, Leontius is not successful. He ends up looking at the bodies.

What happens, however, according to Frede's interpretation, is not that Leontius chooses or decides to look at the bodies. Rather, reason ceases to be in control. It is not easy to understand what this means, but the suggestion seems to be that the process of triggering the maintenance goal and achieving the achievement goal is a motion that is not easy to stop.

Maybe it is like flinching when, say, we are boxing. Our natural behavior is to flinch when we see a punch coming, but we can learn with practice to override this reaction.

9. More important, Aristotle himself explicitly characterizes these cases as ones in which one acts against one's choice (prohairesis), προαίρεσις, proairesis, noun, "choice" rather than as cases in which one chooses to act against reason. What in Aristotle's view explains that one is acting against one's own beliefs is not a choice which causes the action. It is, rather, a long story about how in the past one has failed to submit oneself to the training, practice, exercise, discipline, and reflection which would ensure that one's nonrational desires are reasonable, that one acts for reasons, rather than on impulse, and hence that, if there is a conflict, one follows reason. It is this past failure, rather than a specific mental event, a choice or decision, which in Aristotle accounts for akratic action.

What explains why someone acts against reason is a fact about his past: namely, that he "has failed to submit oneself to the training, practice, exercise, discipline, and reflection which would ensure that one's nonrational desires are reasonable, that one acts for reasons, rather than on impulse, and hence that, if there is a conflict, one follows reason."

10. It should now be clear why Aristotle does not have a notion of a will. One's willing, one's desire of reason, is a direct function of one's cognitive state, of what reason takes to be a good thing to do. One's nonrational desire is a direct function of the state of the nonrational part of the soul. One acts either on a rational desire, a willing, or on a nonrational desire, an appetite. In the case of conflict, there is not a further instance which would adjudicate or resolve the matter. In particular, reason is not made to appear in two roles, first as presenting its own case and then as adjudicating the conflict by making a decision or choice. How the conflict gets resolved is a matter of what happened in the past, perhaps the distant past.

The will is some one thing in the mind that is part of everything a human being does.

This follows from the "schema" of the will Frede has set out.

Aristotle does not understand human action in terms of a will, given this conception of what a will is. He recognizes two sources of motivation: the "rational" and "nonrational" parts of the soul. So for Aristotle, as Frede understands him, it is not true that all human action stems from some one thing in the mind. Rational desires are from reason. Nonrational desires are not.

11. What Aristotle does have is a distinction between things we do hekontes and things we do akontes. ἑκόντες, hekontes, adjective, plural form of ἑκών

ἄκοντες, akontes, adjective, plural form of ἄκων

ἄκων, akōn, is the Attic contraction for ἀέκων

ἀεκούσιος, aekousios, Attic contraction for ἀκούσιος, akousios, adjective from ἀέκων

ἀέκων, aekōn, adjective, "not of one's own accord"

ἑκούσιος, hekousios, adjective from ἑκών

ἑκών, hekōn, adjective, "of own's own accord"

ἑκών looks like a participle (word formed from a verb and used as an adjective), but no verb exists.

When ἑκών is in the predicate position and agrees with the subject, it is translated as an adverb.
The distinction he is aiming at is the distinction between things we do for which we can be held responsible and things we do for which we cannot be held responsible. Aristotle tries to draw the distinction by marking off things we do only because we are literally forced to do them or because we act out of ignorance, that is to say, because we are not aware, and could not possibly be expected to be aware, of a crucial feature of the situation, such that, if we had been aware of it, we would have acted otherwise. If somebody offers you a chocolate, he might not be aware, and there may have been no way for him to know, a crucial fact involved, namely, that the chocolate is poisoned, such that, if he had known this, he would not have offered it to you. We are, then, responsible for those things we do which we do neither by force nor out of ignorance. Put positively, for us to be responsible for what we do, our action has to somehow reflect our motivation. We must have acted in this way, because in one way or another we were motivated to act in this way, that is, either by a rational desire or a nonrational desire or both.

If Aristotle does not have the notion of free will, how does he understand responsibility?

He draws a distinction between things we do ἑκόντες and things we do ἄκοντες. These words are hard to translate. We can use "of our own accord" and "not of our own accord."

We are responsible for the things we do ἑκόντες.

Now, if this explanation is to be at all illuminating, we need to know what happens in the mind when we do something "of our own accord."

It seems clear that what we do of our own accord is not what "we are literally forced to do." What we do of our own accord must "somehow reflect our motivation."

For Aristotle, motivation is a matter of a rational or nonrational parts of the soul. So the view, it seems, is that we are responsible for something we have done just in case we desired to do it.

This also helps explain why "choice" in Aristotle does not play the role of "will."

The point of thinking that human beings have a "will" is to explain why it is true that human beings are sometimes responsible for what they do. For Aristotle, however, as Frede understands him, the "choices" human beings make are only part of what we are responsible for. Aristotle, as Frede understands him, also thinks that human beings are are responsible for actions they do not because they made a "choice" but because they had a nonrational desire.

"Here first of all he [Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism] made some new pronouncements about sensation itself, which he held to be a combination a of a sort of impact offered from outside (which he called φαντασία and we may call a presentation, and let us retain this term at all events, for we shall have to employ it several times in the remainder of my discourse),—well, to these presentations received by the senses he joins the act of mental assent which he makes out to reside within us and to be a voluntary act (in nobis positam et voluntariam)" (Cicero, Academica I.40).

voluntarius, "willing, of his or its own free-will, voluntary."
12. Traditionally, and highly misleadingly, Aristotle's distinction is represented as the distinction between the voluntary and the involuntary, and Aristotle's terms hekōn and akōn are translated accordingly. This tradition is ancient. Already Cicero translates hekōn in this way. It reflects a projection of a later conception of the mind onto Aristotle.

Traditionally, according to Frede, historians of ancient philosophy have understood Aristotle's distinction between things we do ἑκόντες and things we do ἄκοντες as a distinction between things we do "voluntarily" and things we do "involuntarily."

This, however, Frede claims, is "highly misleading."

"It reflects a projection of a later conception of the mind onto Aristotle."

What is the "later conception of mind"?

Why is the traditional interpretation "highly misleading" rather than simply false?

13. To begin with, we have to keep in mind that Aristotle's distinction is supposed to apply to all beings—for instance, domestic animals, children, and mature human beings—who have been trained or taught or have learned to behave in a certain way and whom we can therefore expect to behave in a certain way. If we hold an animal responsible, scold and punish it to discourage it or praise and reward it to encourage it, we do so not because we think that it made the right choice or that it had any choice. At least Aristotle assumes that the animal, whatever it does, just acts on a nonrational desire, albeit one which may be the product of conditioning and habituation, which may or may not have been fully successful. The same, more or less, according to Aristotle, is true of children. But children begin to have and act on rational desires, and mature human beings should have, and should act on, rational desires rather than on impulse. But when they nevertheless do act on a nonrational desire, again it is not by choice. The nonrational desire in and by itself suffices to motivate us, even when we are grown up. And, as we have seen, even if we act against our rational desire, this does not involve a choice. Thus there is no notion of a will, or a willing, in Aristotle, such that somebody could be said to act voluntarily or willingly, whether he acts on a rational or a nonrational desire. Hence for Aristotle responsibility also does not involve a will, since any form of motivation to act in a given way suffices for responsibility.

The reasoning in the last couple of sentences is hard to follow.

The premise is that a nonrational desire "suffices to motivate us." From this it is supposed to follow that "there is no notion of a will, or a willing, in Aristotle, such that somebody could be said to act voluntarily or willingly, whether he acts on a rational or a nonrational desire."

What is going on?

Maybe the idea is that when, in respect to the Stoic Zeno's view about assent, Cicero says the assent is "in us and a voluntary act," he is misleadingly equating acting "of our own accord" with what the other schools take to be an instance of such acting.

This translation can seem to have the consequence that there are no nonrational desires, or that reason has to accept a nonrational desire before this desire can move us to action.

Aristotle thinks there are nonrational desires. Further, he does not have the conception of mind according to which nonrational desires can move us only if reason accepts them.

So later philosophers who read Cicero got confused. They understood Aristotle to think there are nonrational desires and that they can move us to action if reason accepts them.

This, it seems, is why Frede says the traditional translation of ἑκών and ἀέκων as 'voluntary' and 'involuntary' is "highly misleading" and "reflects a projection of a later conception of the mind onto Aristotle." Since it is clear that Aristotle thinks there are nonrational desires, this translation can tempt us to think he understands these desires in a way he does not.

Who has this "later conception of mind"?

Frede will (as we will see in lecture 4) identify these philosophers as the Platonists and Peripatetics who try to incorporate the Stoic notion of the will into their own philosophies.

14. But, as I have already indicated, this does not mean that Aristotle does not have a notion of choice. For he says that if one acts on a nonrational desire against one's better knowledge, one acts against one's choice. Indeed, the notion of a choice plays an important role in Aristotle. For he thinks that if an action is to count as a virtuous action, it has to satisfy a number of increasingly strict conditions. It must not only be the right thing to do, one must be doing it hekōn,
ἐκ προαιρέσεως (ek proaireseōs). προαιρέσεως is a genitive form of προαίρεσις.

ἐκ , ek, preposition, "from, out of"

προαιρεῖσθαι (proaireisthai) is an infinitive of προαιρέω.

προαιρέω, proaireō, verb, "bring forth, produce from one's stores"
of one's own accord; indeed, one must will to do it. What is more, one must do it from choice (ek prohaireseōs), that is, one must choose (prohaireisthai) to do it, and the choice itself must satisfy certain conditions. Hence Aristotle explains what it is to choose to do something. In doing so, given what we have said, he also distinguishes choosing from willing. This has contributed to a widespread misunderstanding of what Aristotle takes choosing to be. It is often thought that willing and choosing are two entirely different things, that choice is a composite desire, consisting of a nonrational desire to do something and a belief, arrived at by deliberation, that it would be a good thing to act in this way in this situation.

Aristotle "distinguishes choosing from willing."

What is his distinction?

Frede provides the answer in 15 and 16.

15. I hardly need point out that this interpretation in part is driven by a model of the mind according to which our actions are determined by our beliefs and our nonrational desires, and in any case are motivated by our nonrational desires. But this clearly is not Aristotle's view, given his notion of willing. The reason why he distinguishes willing and choosing is not that willing and choosing are altogether different but that choosing is a very special form of willing. One may will or want something which is unattainable. One may will to do something which one is unable to do. One may will something without having any idea as to what one should do to attain it. Choosing is different. We can choose to do something only if, as Aristotle puts it, it is up to us (eph' hēmin), if it is in our hands, ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν, eph᾽ hēmin, "up to us"

ἐπί (epi) is a proposition

ἡμῖν is the dative of the personal pronoun ἡμεῖς ("we")

When ἐπί is used with the dative it, means "with reference to." Hence the traditional translation "up to us."

"In Aristotle [ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν] becomes something like a technical philosophical term. It will remain in philosophical use throughout antiquity and beyond. But in the course of this history the term comes to be used and to be understood as meaning or at least implying something about the psychological make-up of human beings about the way they act in the way they do, an understanding which means far beyond what it had meant or implied in ordinary language or, I think, in Aristotle. It came to be thought that it meant or implied some kind of freedom of choice or even a free will" (Michael Frede, "The ἐφ ̓ἡμῖν in ancient philosophy," 110. ΦΙΛΟΣΟΦΙΑ 37 (2007) 110-123. Reprinted in What is up to us? : studies on agency and responsibility in ancient philosophy, edited by Pierre Destrée, Ricardo Salles, Marco Zingano. Academia Verlag, 2014).

What does it mean in Aristotle?

"[W]hat is in our power or depends on us and hence is something we can deliberate about, is defined [in Aristotle] mainly negatively by the fact that it is not already settled, one way or the other, by the causes mentioned [in Nicomachean Ethics 1112a] and positively only by the fact that it is something which can be done or brought about through ourselves (δι᾽ αὑτῶν πρακτῶν, 1112a43)" (Michael Frede, "The ἐφ ̓ἡμῖν in ancient philosophy," 115).
if whether it gets done or not or happens or not depends on us. Thus one cannot choose to be elected to an office, since whether one is elected depends on others. But one can will or want to be elected to an office.

What is this "model of the mind"? It is a conception that understands reason to be only a matter of making inferences and forming beliefs, not as a source of desires. Beliefs, on this "model of the mind," are not sources of motivation. They only supply information.

Aristotle thinks that "choosing is a very special form of willing."

16. Yet choosing still is a form of willing. In Aristotle's view there is a certain good which we all will or want to attain in life, namely, a good life. As grown-up human beings, we have a certain conception, though different people have rather different ones, of what this final good consists of. So in a particular situation we shall, as mature human beings, choose what to do in light of our conception of this final good, because we think, having deliberated about the matter, that acting in this way will help us to attain this good. But this is what willing to do something is: desiring to do something, because one thinks that it will help one to attain something which one considers a good and which one therefore wills or wants. Hence choosing is just a special form of willing. So in Aristotle's account choice does play an important role. But choices are not explained in terms of a will but in terms of the attachment of reason to the good, however it might be conceived of, and the exercise of reason's cognitive abilities to determine how in this situation the good might best be attained.

Choosing "is a form of willing." In choosing, as Frede understands Aristotle, one (i) has a rational desire for something he believes is good, (ii) thinks, on the basis of deliberation, that the way to get this good is to do some specific thing, and (iii) desires to do this specific thing.

17. Just as there is no notion of a will in Aristotle, there is also no notion of freedom. This does not at all mean that Aristotle has a view of the world which entails that we are not free. Aristotle's view of the world is such that the behavior of things in the celestial spheres is governed by strict regularity dictated by the nature of the things involved. But once we come to the sublunary, grossly material sphere in which we live, this regularity begins to give out. It turns into a regularity “for the most part,” explained by the imperfect realization of natures in gross matter. What is more, these regularities, dictated by the natures of things, even if they were exceptionless, would leave many aspects of the world undetermined. This is not to say that there is anything in the world which, according to Aristotle, does not have an explanation. But the way Aristotle conceives of explanation, the conjunction of these explanations still leaves the world under determined in our sense of casual determination. So in Aristotle's world there is plenty of space left for human action which does not collide with, or is excluded by, the existing regularities. Aristotle appeals to this, for instance, when he explains that choosing presupposes that it is up to us, depends on us, whether something gets done or not. Whether it gets done or not is not already settled by some regularity in the world. What is more, Aristotle's universe is not populated by sinister powers who try to thwart us in trying to live the kind of life which is appropriate for beings of our nature. There is a God whose thought determines the natures and thus the regularities in the world as far as they go, and there are truly angelic intellects who move the planets. They should be a source of inspiration for us. They certainly are not a hindrance to our life [as they are in Gnostic thought].

"Just as there is no notion of a will in Aristotle, there is also no notion of freedom."

This is a little unclear.

The point, it seems, that Aristotle does not think that all human beings are free to make the choices they need to make to live a good life.


Not because "[w]hether [the action] gets done or not is not already settled by some regularity in the world."

Not because the "universe is not populated by sinister powers who try to thwart us in trying to live the kind of life which is appropriate for beings of our nature."

So why?

18. This bright view of the world with plenty of space for free action should not delude us into thinking that we have, according to Aristotle, much of a choice in doing what we are doing. Let us look at Aristotelian choice again. We can choose to do something, if it is up to us to do it or not to do it. This notion of something's being up to us will play a crucial role in all later ancient thought. And it will often be interpreted in such a way that, if something is up to us, we have a choice to do it or not to do it. But, if we go back to Aristotle, this is not quite so. All Aristotle is committed to is that, if something is up to us, we can choose to do it. We can also fail to choose to do it. But to fail to choose to do it, given Aristotle's notion of choice, is not the same as choosing not to do it. We saw this in the case of akrasia. One can choose to follow reason. But if one fails to follow reason and acts on a nonrational desire, it is not because one chooses not to follow reason and, rather, chooses to do something else. So the choice one makes in Aristotle is not, at least necessarily, a choice between doing X and not doing X, let alone a choice between doing X and doing Y. It is a matter of choosing to do X or failing to choose to do X, such that X does not get done.

This can be confusing.

Aristotle thinks that being "up to us" is necessary for "choice." We can only choose to do things that are "up to us." Aristotle, however, according to Frede, does not think that "if something is up to us, we have a choice to do it or not to do it."

Aristotle only thinks that if something is up to us, we can choose to do it and can fail to choose to do it. For Aristotle, however, to fail to choose is not the same as to choose not to do it. What happens when we fail to choose is that we act on a nonrational desire instead, and the explanation for why we do this consists in some explanation about our past.

19. What is more, Aristotle's and, for that matter, Socrates', Plato's, and the Stoics' view of the wise and virtuous person is that such a person cannot fail to act virtuously and wisely, that is to say, fail to do the right thing for the right reasons. But this means for Aristotle that a wise and virtuous person cannot but make the choices he makes. This is exactly what it is to be virtuous. Hence the ability to act otherwise or the ability to choose otherwise, if construed in a narrow or strong sense, is not present in the virtuous person, because it is a sign of immaturity and imperfection to be able to act otherwise, narrowly construed. So long as one can choose and act otherwise, one is not virtuous. So Aristotle's virtuous person could act otherwise only in an attenuated sense, namely, in the sense that the person could act otherwise, if he had not turned himself into a virtuous person by making the appropriate choices at a time when he could have chosen otherwise in a less attenuated sense. Unfortunately, this more robust, less attenuated, sense is not a sense Aristotle is particularly concerned with. And the reason for this is that Aristotle thinks rather optimistically that the ability to make the right choices comes with human nature and a good upbringing. But he also, given the age he lives in and his social background, has no difficulty with the assumption that human nature is highly complex and thus extremely difficult to reproduce adequately in gross matter. Thus he has no difficulty in assuming that most human beings are such imperfect realizations of human nature that they have little or no hope of becoming virtuous and wise. He also has no difficulty with the assumption that most human beings lack a good upbringing. We shall see that this way of thinking will increasingly offend the sensibilities of later antiquity.

One point Frede makes is that for Aristotle a human being with "virtue" is responsible for his actions but has no motivation to act other than how he does act.

Another point is that "that most human beings are such imperfect realizations of human nature that they have little or no hope of becoming virtuous and wise."

What does this mean?

The claim, it seems, is that there are human beings who imperfectly realize human nature and that these human beings cannot make the choices they need to make to live a good life.

This, then, is part of the answer to the question I pose in 17.

How, according to Aristotle, is it possible to imperfectly realize human nature?

Aristotle thinks that human beings naturally develop in certain ways over time. One way is that they naturally acquire reason as they become adults. So it must be that he thinks that this process sometimes does not reach its natural but not inevitable end.

20. Aristotle's view leaves plenty of space for unconstrained human action, but it is hardly hospitable, even in principle, to a notion of a free will. In any case, he lacks this notion. For Aristotle a good life is not a matter of a free will but of hard work and hard thought, always presupposing the proper realization of human nature in the individual, and a good upbringing, which unfortunately many are without.

So Aristotle has no notion of free will. He has no notion of the will. Nor does he think that all human beings are free to make the choices they need to make to live a good life. Arisotle thinks that if a human being lives a good life, it is because he had "the proper realization of human nature," "a good upbringing," and did the "hard work and hard thought."

What is this "hard work and hard thought"?

The "hard work," it seems, is the work involved in training one's nonrational parts of the soul.

The "hard thought," it seems, is in understanding what is good and what is bad.

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