How Modern Is Freedom of the Will?

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


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.


Voluntary Action Free Action Free Agency Early Modern Period Coherent Relation 
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    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
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    Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011).Google Scholar
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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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