The history of free will thought – the beginning – with wisdom for today

Summary:  A previous post has already discussed the thoughts of the theologians regarding the topic of free will, and distinguished the defense provided here from their attempts.  However, the theologians represent the middle of a history.  When and where did discussions of free will first begin?  What did the great philosophers think about the topic?  This post reviews the ideas of the greatest of the ancients – Aristotle – on the subject.  Do you know what he said at the beginning that is as relevant today as it was 2300 years ago?

Up until the time of Aristotle, there was virtually no discussion of the issue of free will as we mean it today.  Socrates, in urging others to follow the good life, and to think carefully about philosophical issues (especially the meaning of concepts), implicitly accepted free will.  On the other hand, some of his passages, especially those discussed earlier from the dialog Protagoras, may be taken to reject free will:  On that view, if a person had the knowledge of what was a good action, he would necessarily perform the good action and not the evil one.  Neither did Plato say anything directly about free will – its nature or existence.  However, as implied by his emphasis on virtue and law in his dialogues, he also took free will for granted.

The philosophies most associated with challenging free will (Stoicism and Atomism) post-date Aristotle.  Those systems will be discussed in a future post.

Aristotle made the first attempt to discuss free will at length.  In addition, his more fundamental discoveries in the field of logic have an important implication for defending free will.  As mentioned in a previous post, Aristotle was the philosopher who discovered the method of “re-affirmation through denial,” by means of which any attempt to reject the most primary underlying ideas (such as free will) can be refuted.  The attempt is refuted (or the ideas it rejects are “re-affirmed”) by showing the attempt must rely on those ideas for its argument.  An earlier post on the hierarchical nature of ideas elaborated on the fundamental fallacy implicit in denying free will.

Beyond his superlatively important contribution in logical hierarchy, Aristotle discusses free will directly.  In Nichomachean Ethics, Book III, chapters 1-5, he investigates the nature of free will, but not whether it exists.  Its existence he accepted fully.  Nonetheless, his thought is enlightening even on the question of free will’s existence, because getting the nature of free will correct is key to a proper defense of it (as argued in several prior posts – the introductory post, the post critiquing a free-will denier and the post about a good article on free will).

What is considered choice or free will today is a combination of two of Aristotle’s categories – the “voluntary” and the “chosen.”  Consider each of these in turn.

Voluntary vs. Involuntary

Aristotle first distinguishes between the “voluntary” and the “involuntary.”  (All quotes, here and below, are from the W.D. Ross translation).  “Voluntary [is] that of which the moving principle is in the agent himself, he being aware of the particular circumstances of the action.”  The involuntary are those things “which take place under compulsion or owing to ignorance; and [something] is compulsory of which the moving principle is outside, being a principle in which nothing is contributed by the person …, e.g. if he were to be carried somewhere by a wind, or by men who had him in their power.”

Aristotle rejects the idea that men are acting involuntarily when they are caught in the sway of emotion:  He says that “…it is absurd to make external circumstance responsible, and not oneself, [if one is] easily caught by such attractions.”  Here, Aristotle is making a distinction between the truly involuntary and what seems involuntary in the present moment.  It only seems involuntary now because the actor has in some way set himself up by his own prior choices to act in this way, now.

Aristotle makes the same point with respect to ignorance, distinguishing between “acting by reason of ignorance,” and “acting in ignorance.”  “Acting by reason of ignorance” is the case in which a person is truly unaware of key facts that would change his action.  “Acting in ignorance” is the case in which a person has made himself unaware by his own responsibility.  “… [T]he man who is drunk or in a rage is thought to act as a result not of ignorance … but in ignorance.”  The man is “in ignorance” because he put himself in that state, by not taking sufficient care to think about the consequences of his action, or to control his action despite what emotion he experienced.

As Aristotle states in Book III, ch. 5,

“…we punish a man for his very ignorance, if he is thought responsible for the ignorance, as when penalties are doubled in the case of drunkenness; for the moving principle is in the man himself, since he had the power of not getting drunk and his getting drunk was the cause of his ignorance.  And we punish those who are ignorant of anything in the laws that they ought to know and that is not difficult, and so too in the case of anything else that they are thought to be ignorant of through carelessness; we assume that it is in their power not to be ignorant, since they have the power of taking care.

“But perhaps a man is the kind of man not to take care.  Still they are themselves by their slack lives responsible for becoming men of that kind, and men make themselves responsible for being unjust or self-indulgent, in the one case by cheating and in the other by spending their time in drinking bouts and the like; for it is activities exercised on particular objects that make the corresponding character.”


Aristotle discusses “choice,”  in Book III, ch. 2-3.  “Choice .. seems to be voluntary, but not the same thing as the voluntary; the latter extends more widely.  For both children and the lower animals share in voluntary action, but not in choice, and acts done on the spur of the moment we describe as voluntary, but not as chosen.”

Here he is making the distinction between all voluntary action (a wider category) and deliberation.  It is the latter that he calls “choice.” He suggests in what follows that man’s distinctive nature as a reasoning being is what gives rise to choice:

“We deliberate about things that are in our power and can be done …  For nature, necessity, and chance are thought to be causes, and also reason and everything that depends on man.  Now every class of men deliberates about the things that can be done by their own efforts …, e.g. questions of medical treatment or of money-making.”

Aristotle included moral virtue as within man’s power to deliberate: “Virtue … is in our own power, and so too vice.  For where it is in our power to act it is also in our power not to act, and VICE VERSA…”

Aristotle’s view contains one significant error, namely the conclusion that choice is only about the means to achieve an end, but not about the end:  “The end, then, being what we wish for, the means what we deliberate about and choose, actions concerning means must be according to choice and voluntary.”  He is not correct in his view that ethical ends are not within our power to rationally deliberate, and that they are simply what one wishes for.  That conclusion takes the foundation of ethics out of the realm of reason and makes it captive of emotion.  A further discussion of this point, however, would be too far afield for the subject of this post. (see Ayn Rand’s essay on The Objectivist Ethics for a discussion of how to identify an ultimate end in ethics by reason).

That point aside, perhaps the weakest part of Aristotle’s analysis is that too much has been left implicit:   Deliberation, although one kind of choice, is not the primary.  It has been argued throughout these posts (e.g. in the critique of the Harris book) that deliberation or thought requires a pre-existing mindset, a focus, which sets up or enables thought.  Whereas a thought process is higher level and can be “explained” – in terms of one’s interests, knowledge, values – the choice to focus, to establish contact with reality and follow a course of reasoning, is a primary.  If one does not properly identify the primary, the existence of choice can come into question:  Free-will deniers always (legitimately) ask: How can a choice be “free” if there are prior causes that explain them?

Despite the limitations in Aristotle’s analysis, much of what he said was correct, and could serve as a guide to free-will defenders even today.  His thinking represents a very promising beginning for the history of free will thought.  As stated earlier, later philosophies denied the existence of free will, or severely delimited its scope.

Aristotle’s view that man’s character is shaped by the man himself, and therefore he is responsible for it (and its consequences), is the most important part of his discussion.   If men learned nothing from Aristotle’s view of free will but this conclusion, much of the current debate (certainly in ethics, politics and law) would end.  No one who accepted Aristotle’s view would argue that a criminal should be excused because he “felt,” in the moment, that he wanted to slaughter a whole family, or because he was too drunk to know what he was doing when he tee-boned another car.  Maybe all that is true – maybe he didn’t, in the moment, know what he was doing.  But according to reason, and to Aristotle, that is beside the point.  The criminal brought himself to this moment by his own choices, and could have done otherwise.  That is why we do, and should continue to, “punish a man for his very ignorance, if he is … responsible for the ignorance.”

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