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How Modern Is Freedom of the Will?

  • Phillip Mitsis
Chapter
Part of the The New Antiquity book series (NANT)

Abstract

How modern is freedom of the will? For many, such a question might recall Jacques Derrida’s famous corresponding question about the age of psychoanalysis1 and suggest that I am going to attempt to find my way through the theoretical brambles of origins, pre-origins, copies, and their multifarious relations. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on one’s views about these questions, I make no attempt to directly address such large theoretical issues here. For me, when looking at the fitfully paratactic history of Epicureanism, it seems difficult enough to try to point to the process by which some stray bit of Lucretius’s poetry or argument comes to be noticed and then, for sometimes baffling reasons, gets put back into circulation—though, just as frequently as not, decked out in ways that would hardly have provoked divina voluptas in Lucretius himself. To make a corresponding attempt to do so for Lucretius’s text as a whole strikes me as an improbable task, since at no time has the De Rerum Natura (DRN), at least in any meaningful sense, popped back from the dead as a vital whole. At different times and in different guises, various parts of the poem have gone in and out of historical consciousness,2 some making multiple appearances, while others, in good Epicurean fashion, have lived utterly hidden. Accordingly, any holistic view of the text’s historical path may wrongly suggest some lively and coherent relations between parts and wholes in Lucretius’s poem that have never been fully operative, perhaps even from the very outset.

Keywords

Voluntary Action Free Action Free Agency Early Modern Period Coherent Relation 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Jacques Derrida, “My Chances/Mes Chances: A Rendezvous with Some Epicurean Stereophonies,” in Taking Chances: Derrida, Psychoanalysis, and Literature, ed. J. Smith and W. Kerrigan (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press 1984), 1–32.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011).Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Not even Don Fowler, perhaps the greatest of modern scholars of Lucretius, in his monumental commentary on Book 2, Lucretius on Atomic Motion: A Commentary on De Rerum Natura 2.1–332 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). For an exceptionally clear and nuanced account, see Alain Gigandet, Lucrèce: Atomes, mouvement physique et éthique (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2001).Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    A. C. MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1990), 111.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Susan Sauvé Meyer, “Fate, Fatalism, and Agency in Stoicism,” Social Philosophy and Policy 16 (1999): 250–73. Meyer, unlike Bobzien, is careful, however, to point out continuities among various other features of ancient and modern conceptions of the will.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 7.
    Susan Bobzien, Freedom and Determinsim in Stoic Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    On which see T. H. Irwin, “Who Discovered the Will?” Philosophical Perspectives 6 (1992): 453–73. Irwin argues that Aquinas was able to construct his theory of the will from materials that he found in Aristotle. Hence, although Aristotle did not consciously formulate a theory of will, he was in a position to do so. This should not be particularly surprising. On one hand, because Aristotle rejected materialism, he was not, as were the Epicureans, forced to try to account for free agency in a world of blind material motions. Nor, on the other, did he have to contend with the determining powers of Aquinas’s omnipotent Christian God. Aristotle was able to ground his account of human agency in teleological categories that tend to bypass the kinds of tensions that both Epicureans and Thomists immediately face in explaining our free voluntary movements against a background of externally determined movements stretching back to eternity.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 9.
    Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969).Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    For a detailed account, see Fred Michael and Emily Michael, “Gassendi’s Modified Epicureanism and British Moral Philosophy,” History of European Ideas 21:6 (1995): 743–61. One of Gassendi’s most important modifications is to change the Epicurean account of atomic movements to make them compatible with divine providence, but his phenomenal account of free choice strictly follows Lucretius’s account.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 11.
    For one of the very few recent attempts to address this problem, see Hellenistic and Early Modern Philosophy, ed. Jon Miller and Brad Inwood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).Google Scholar
  11. 13.
    For detailed evidence of Locke’s preoccupation with Cicero and ancient philosophers, see John Marshall, John Locke: Resistance, Religion, and Responsibility (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994). I set out some of the evidence for Locke’s reliance on Cicero’s De Officiis in Phillip Mitsis, “Locke’s Offices,” in Miller and Inwood, Hellenistic and Early Modern Philosophy, 45–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 15.
    John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975). Hereafter cited parenthetically as “Of Power” followed by the section number.Google Scholar
  13. 16.
    See the discussions of Peter A. Schouls, Reasoned Freedom: John Locke and the Enlightenment (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992), 117–44, to which I am much indebted throughout this discussion, and more recently, Patricia Sheridan, Locke: A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010). Among those who view Locke as an indeterminist, Vere Chappell takes the changes that Locke made to the fifth edition of “Of Power” to signal a repudiation of this conception of volitional intentionality and argues that Locke’s correspondence with Limborch, in 1701–02, was the catalyst. V. C. Chappell, “Locke on Suspension of Desire,” Locke Studies 29 (1998): 23–38; cf. V. C. Chappell, “Locke on the Freedom of the Will,” in Locke’s Philosophy: Content and Context, ed. G. A. J. Rodgers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 101–121. Schouls argues, however, that the most significant change is Locke’s adoption of the notion of “suspension,” which appears as early as the second edition. I am more inclined to this latter view.Google Scholar
  14. 17.
    John Passmore, “The Malleability of Man in Eighteenth-Century Thought,” in Aspects of the Eighteenth Century, ed. E. R. Wasserman (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965), 21–46.Google Scholar
  15. 18.
    Gideon Yaffe, Liberty Worth the Name: Locke on Free Agency (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 6.Google Scholar
  16. 20.
    Epicuro: Opere, ed. Graziano Arrighetti (Turin: Einaudi, 1960).Google Scholar
  17. 22.
    A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 23.
    David Furley, Two Studies in the Greek Atomists (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967).Google Scholar
  19. 24.
    Although I agree with Pamela Huby that the Epicureans first formulated the free will problem, I disagree with her about how to conceive of their theory, since she thinks that freely willed actions are directly correlated with indeterminate atomic swerves. See Pamela Huby, “The First Discovery of the Freewill Problem,” Philosophy 42 (1967): 353–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 25.
    Suzanne Bobzien, “Did Epicurus Discover the Free-Will Problem?” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 19 (2000): 287–337.Google Scholar
  21. 29.
    See note 9 and the magisterial and wide-ranging discussion in Lisa T. Sarasohn, Gassendi’s Ethics: Freedom in a Mechanistic Universe (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996): 168–207, to which I am greatly indebted in what follows.Google Scholar

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© Phillip Mitsis 2016

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  • Phillip Mitsis

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