Frequestly Asked Questions (and answers) about Stoic philosophy

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Determinism and free will

Were the classical Stoics determinists?

Yes. They asserted that there are no effects (changes or differences in state of a body) that are not determined by causes, and that a “chain” of causes results in all that happens. Because their cosmology was eternal and cyclic, they didn’t even have a need for a initial uncaused cause to get things going.

From Gellius’s Attic Nights:

Chrysippus, the leader of the Stoic philosophy, defined fate, which the Greeks call εἱμαρμένη, in about the following terms: “Fate,” he says, “is an eternal and unalterable series of circumstances, and a chain rolling and entangling itself through an unbroken series of consequences, from which it is fashioned and made up.” But I have copied Chrysippus’ very words, as exactly as I could recall them, in order that, if my interpretation should seem too obscure to anyone, he may turn his attention to the philosopher’s own language. For in the fourth book of his work On Providence, he says that εἱμαρμένη is “an orderly series, established by nature, of all events, following one another and joined together from eternity, and their unalterable interdependence.”

They regarded human beings as part of this chain or web, not something separated from it, but embedded within it.

The Stoics (and their contemporaries) did not have a concept of “free will” that exactly corresponds to ours. However, there were a number of objections to their determinism that are closely related to modern conceptions of free will, and they answered these objections not by denying what a modern person would consider “free will”, but rather by arguing that there is no contradiction between determinism and the objection. They are therefore considered some of the earliest proponents of compatibilism, the belief that determinism and free will do not conflict, and are both true.

These free-will related objections to determinism are addressed in separate questions below.

If Stoics believed in determinism, what is “in our control?”

The term usually translated as “up to us” or “in our power” is ἐφ’ ἡμῖν (eph’ hêmin). Long argues (in his essay Freedom and Determinism in the Stoic Theory of Human Action, in the collection Problems in Stoicism) that the term is really better translated as “attributable to us.”

Epictetus seems to have been unusual in his extensive use of the concept in ethical contexts. (Ethical discussion from other Stoics centered on virtue and vice.) Uses of the term by other Stoics seem to have been in the context of discussions of fate and determinism, for example in the account of the Stoic theory of fate given by Alexander of Aphrodisias in On Fate. Alexander’s discussion makes it clear at least his account of what the Stoics meant by the term is closer to “due to our nature” or “as a consequence of our character.” (It’s worth noting that Alexander was arguing against the Stoic position he was describing,)

If something is eph’ hêmin, it is a property of our mind or character relevant to the the action. We are instrumental to fate. Both Cicero and Gellius report the example of Chryssipus’s cylinder.

From Gellius’s Attic Nights:

But the authors of other views and of other schools of philosophy openly criticize this definition as follows: “If Chrysippus,” they say, “believes that all things are set in motion and directed by fate, and that the course of fate and its coils cannot be turned aside or evaded, then the sins and faults of men too ought not to cause anger or be attributed to themselves and their inclinations, but to a certain unavoidable impulse which arises from fate,” which is the mistress and arbiter of all things, and through which everything that will happen must happen; and that therefore the establishing of penalties for the guilty by law is unjust, if men do not voluntarily commit crimes, but are led into them by fate.

Against these criticisms Chrysippus argues at length, subtlety and cleverly, but the purport of all that he has written on that subject is about this: “Although it is a fact,” he says, “that all things are subject to an inevitable and fundamental law and are closely linked to fate, yet the peculiar properties of our minds are subject to fate only according to their individuality and quality. For if in the beginning they are fashioned by nature for health and usefulness, they will avoid with little opposition and little difficulty all that force with which fate threatens them from without. But if they are rough, ignorant, crude, and without any support from education, through their own perversity and voluntary impulse they plunge into continual faults and sin, even though the assault of some inconvenience due to fate be slight or non-existent. And that this very thing should happen in this way is due to that natural and inevitable connection of events which is called ‘fate.’ For it is in the nature of things, so to speak, fated and inevitable that evil characters should not be free from sins and faults.”

A little later he uses an illustration of this statement of his, which is in truth quite neat and appropriate: “For instance,” he says, “if you roll a cylindrical stone over a sloping, steep piece of ground, you do indeed furnish the beginning and cause of its rapid descent, yet soon its speeds onward, not because you make it do so, but because of its peculiar form and natural tendency to roll; just so the order, the law, and the inevitable quality of fate set in motion the various classes of things and the beginnings of causes, but the carrying out of our designs and thoughts, and even our actions, are regulated by each individual’s own will and the characteristics of his mind.”

Consider the problem of an object on an incline plane as a Newtonian physics problem. To calculate a numeric equation for the position of the object as a function of time, a physics student needs to know the values for several parameters, for example: the impuse of the initial push (if any), the angle of the plane, the gravitational constant, the shape of the object (circular, ellipsoidal, etc.), its moment of intertia. Some of these parameters are attributes of the object itself, some of them are not.

The problem of human action is similar: the actual behaviour of a person will be a function both of the situation the person is in, and the attributes of the person. The Stoics believed that only “bodies” exist, and regarded things like mind, etc. as physical bodies, much like a modern materialist views the brain. The most obvious way to update Stoic science in this regard would be to say that the mind is a body covering those parts of the brain responsible for conscious thought. Eph’ hêmin, things “attributable us,” would then be the physical attributes of our brain (or whatever elements of it correspond to our decisions). Free will corresponds to our actions being functions of these (but not necessarily only these) parameters. Because our action does depend on these parameters, there is no contradiction.

This conception of eph’ hêmin also works well within the context of Epictetus’s writing. Consider the opening paragraph of the Enchiridion

Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

In English, the most natural interpretation of “in our control”, our desires, aversions, etc. seem much less in our control than our own bodies. When the Stoic jargon is translated as “attributable to us”, as indicated above, the examples in the categories are more natural.

This interpretation also makes Epictetus’s Stoicism agree better with previous Stoics, in that what is “eph’ hêmin”, “attributable to us”, matches what may be virtuous of vicious: our character. Rather than being a significant philosophical departure from Zeno, Chrysippus, and others, the emphasis on eph’ hêmin becomes an idiosyncratic, alternate description of the same basic approach.

How did the Stoics reconcile determinism with moral responsibility?

Many critics of determinism, modern and ancient, allege that if I am fated to do something, it is unjust to reward or punish me for it, praise me or criticize me for it; and if everything is fated, all praise or punishment is unjust. This is another criticism the cylinder analogy (described above) was designed to address. The classical Stoics argued that it simply doesn’t follow. Lets consider an analogy with a car. Say I have a car whose transmission breaks regularly, and it is clearly the result of a problem with the design of the car. Is it a mistake for me to take it in to get fixed? If I recommend that a friend not get the same model, am I being unfair? Is it a good idea to use it as a guiding example when making my own design? Of course not. Given its design, the car couldn’t be any other way, but that’s completely irrelevant. Note that this conception of free will is not the same as eph’ hêmin, but it is tightly related. If something is not in someone else’s “free will” in the “eph’ hêmin” sense, praise and punishment are not likely to be effective at altering their behavior, and locking them up will do no more to prevent future similar behavior than locking up someone else entirely. There are, however, many properties of a personality without moral content, and others where praise and punishment aren’t effective, so just because something is “free will” in the eph’ hêmin sense does not mean that necessarily has moral implications.

If everything is determined, what is the point of trying to do anything?

A classical attack on Stoic determinism, the “lazy argument,” went something like this. Lets say I want pizza for dinner. The pizza delivery person is either fated to deliver my pizza, or not. If it is fated, then it will arrive no matter what I do; I don’t need to place an order, because fate will arrange for some other way for me to get it (perhaps the delivery person gets the address wrong on another order). If I am fated not to get it, placing the order is useless, because something will prevent it from showing up, for example the pizza place might burn down. So, whether I place the order makes no difference to whether I get the pizza, and I might as well be lazy and not order it. The classical Stoic response would be that your order and the pizza delivery are co-fated. In other words, if I am fated to get a pizza, I am also fated to place the order. Whole chains of causation are fated, not isolated events, and your own choices are part of that chain.

This example may seem silly, but it is closely related to the misconception that because the Stoics advocated accepting one’s fate, that they also advocated an attitude of passivity (for example on politics and social issues).

How did the Stoics reconcile determinism with the asserted “freedom” of the sage?

The Stoics asserted that the Sage (perfect Stoic) was free, able to “act as they will.” How is this possible if they are determinists? They seem to have regarded as “free” or “at liberty” anyone who gets whatever they want to get, and avoids whatever they want to avoid, and the proposed solution was only to want things that were in your free will in the eph’ hêmin sense.

Three passages from Epictetus’s Discourses clarify what the he meant by the freedom of the sage. The first is from book 1, Discourse 28 (Matheson’s translation):

What is the reason that we assent to a thing? Because it seems to us that it is so. It is impossible that we shall assent to that which seems not to be. Why? Because this is the nature of the mind—to agree to what is true, and disagree with what is false, and withhold judgement on what is doubtful.

What is the proof of this?

“Feel now, if you can, that it is night.”

It is impossible.

“Put away the feeling that it is day.”

It is impossible.

“Assume or put away the feeling that the stars are even in number.”

It is not possible.

When a man assents, then, to what is false, know that he had no wish to assent to the false: “for no soul is robbed of the truth with its own consent,” as Plato says, but the false seemed to him true.

Now, in the sphere of action what have we to correspond to true and false in the sphere of perception? What is fitting and unfitting, profitable and unprofitable, appropriate and inappropriate, and the like.

The second is from book 1, Discourse 12 (Matheson’s translation):

For he is free, for whom all things happen according to his will and whom no one can hinder.

“What then? Is freedom the same as madness?”

Heaven forbid! Frenzy and freedom have nothing in common.

“But”, you say, “I want everything to happen as I think good, whatever that may be.”

Then you are in a state of madness, you are out of your mind. Do you not know that freedom is a noble thing, and worthy of regard? But merely to want one’s chance thoughts to be realized, is not a noble thing; it comes perilously near being the most shameful of all things. How do we act in matters of grammar? Do I want to write Dion’s name as I will? No, I am taught to will the right way of writing. How is it in music? Just the same. So it is universally, in every region of art or science. Otherwise, it would not be worthwhile to know anything, if everything conformed itself to each man’s will.

Are we to say then that in this sphere alone, the greatest and most momentous of all, the sphere of freedom, it is permitted me to indulge chance desires? By no means: education is just this—learning to frame one’s will in accord with events.

The last is from book 4, Discourse 1:

What is it then which makes man his own master and free from hindrance? Wealth does not make him so, nor a consulship, nor a province, nor a kingdom; we must find something else. Now what is it which makes him unhindered and unfettered in writing?

“Knowledge of how to write.”

What makes him so in flute-playing?

“Knowledge of flute-playing.”

So too in living, it is knowledge of how to live.

What resources are there for further exploration of Stoic determinism and free will?

Several older discussions on the Stoicism subreddit function as useful philosophical dialogues, including this one.

Keith Seddon also has a good essay on Stoic compatibilism.

Another good free, online account is on pages 200 and 212-214 of Arnold’s Roman Stoicism.

Another online source in this page, basically an outline based on Brennan’s book on Stoicism.

Much longer and more detailed accounts can be found in:

The most accessible classical source to start with is probably Cicero’s On Fate. Other sources include Alexander of Aphrodisias’s On Fate and the collections of fragments in the Resources section of this FAQ.